Alaska's Quest for Clean Energy through Nuclear Microreactors

In an endeavor to streamline the regulatory process for communities seeking low-cost and clean energy solutions, the State of Alaska has recently implemented new regulations concerning nuclear microreactor power generation.

These regulations were set in motion by the signing of Senate Bill (SB) 177 into law by Governor Dunleavy in 2022, which brought about updates to Alaska Statute (AS) 18.45.

The construction of any nuclear facility in Alaska demands both federal and state permits. While the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) oversees civilian nuclear safety, the state's jurisdiction is primarily limited to the siting of these facilities.

Previously, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) could not issue a permit for siting a nuclear facility unless the Legislature designated the land and the local municipal government approved the permit. The 2022 updates to AS 18.45 have eliminated the requirement for legislative designation of land for a nuclear microreactor. In unorganized boroughs without municipal governments, the Legislature must approve the siting permit.

The new regulations also necessitate early public engagement in the permitting process by the applicants.

These changes aim to empower communities, granting them greater control over meeting local energy demands, and they create the groundwork for developers to employ reliable and carbon-free nuclear energy for powering operations in remote locations.

Governor Mike Dunleavy commented, "For rural Alaska villages that currently rely on diesel power generation, nuclear microreactors have the potential to be a gamechanger, reducing both electricity costs and carbon emissions. I envision all Alaskans having access to 10 cent power by 2030, and these regulations lay the foundation for achieving that goal."

DEC Commissioner Jason Brune emphasized the importance of early and frequent stakeholder engagement, asserting that local governments' participation in siting these facilities will be vital to the success of microreactors in Alaska. Additionally, microreactors could foster rural resource development projects, bringing economic opportunities to rural Alaska while safeguarding human health and the environment.

Eielson AFBThe U.S. Department of the Air Force has identified the Eielson Airforce Base (AFB) near Fairbanks as its preferred location for piloting the first microreactor. This project marks Alaska's debut in the realm of microreactors, and the target for the Eielson AFB microreactor to be operational is 2027. It is anticipated that commercial microreactors will be made available to communities within the next decade.

Before the updates brought about by SB 177, Alaska's statutes on atomic energy were crafted during a time when nuclear energy was mainly generated in large-scale power plants or onboard aircraft carriers and submarines. These large nuclear power plants in the Lower 48 grids typically averaged 1 gigawatt of power per plant. In contrast, nuclear microreactors are significantly smaller, with SB 177 defining them as advanced nuclear reactors capable of producing no more than 50 megawatts. The largest micronuclear reactor is approximately 95% smaller than the average full-scale nuclear reactor.

Microreactors possess the unique advantage of being able to operate independently from the existing power grid. Most commercially available microreactors come factory-assembled, with the reactor core transported to the site as a pre-fueled and sealed module, effectively acting as a nuclear "battery" that provides energy without the need for refueling for up to a decade. The small size of microreactor units makes them easily transportable. Moreover, the long-lasting energy from the reactor core eliminates the necessity of continually shipping diesel, which is the current fuel used for electricity generation in most of rural Alaska.

Steve Aumeier, Ph.D., Senior Advisor of Strategic Programs at Idaho National Laboratory, expressed his perspective on accelerating the deployment of advanced nuclear energy technologies, affirming that it is key to improving the quality of life and enhancing competitive economic advantages for Alaskans. He emphasized that this translates to greater security for the nation in the face of global competition.

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