Microsoft thinks next-generation nuclear reactors can power its data centers and AI ambitions, according to a job listing for a principal program manager who’ll lead the company’s nuclear energy strategy.
Data centers already use a hell of a lot of electricity, which could thwart the company’s climate goals unless it can find clean sources of energy. Energy-hungry AI makes that an even bigger challenge for the company to overcome. AI dominated Microsoft’s Surface event last week.
Nuclear energy doesn’t create greenhouse gas emissions. Even so, it could also open up a whole new can of worms when it comes to handling radioactive waste and building up a uranium supply chain. The role nuclear energy ought to play in combatting climate change is still hotly debated, but Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates, has long been a big fan of the technology.
The role nuclear energy ought to play in combatting climate change is still hotly debated
Based on the new job listing, it looks like Microsoft is betting on advanced nuclear reactors to be the answer. The job posting says it’s hiring someone to “lead project initiatives for all aspects of nuclear energy infrastructure for global growth.”
Microsoft is specifically looking for someone who can roll out a plan for small modular reactors (SMR). All the hype around nuclear these days is around these next-generation reactors. Unlike their older, much larger predecessors, these modular reactors are supposed to be easier and cheaper to build. For comparison, the last large nuclear reactor to be built in the US finally came on line this summer roughly $17 billion over budget after seven years of delays.
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission just certified an SMR design for the first time in January, which allows utilities to choose the design when applying for a license for a new power plant. And it could usher in a whole new chapter for nuclear energy.
Even so, there are still kinks to work out if Microsoft wants to rely on SMRs to power the data centers where its cloud and AI live. An SMR requires more highly enriched uranium fuel, called HALEU, than today’s traditional reactors. So far, Russia has been the world’s major supplier of HALEU. There’s a push in the US to build up a domestic supply chain of uranium, which communities near uranium mines and mills are already fighting. Then there’s the question of what to do with nuclear waste, which even a fleet of SMRs can generate significant amounts of and the US is still figuring out how to store long term.
Microsoft didn’t answer questions from The Verge about its plans for next-generation nuclear or how it might tackle those challenges that could come along with it. Gates happens to also be the founder and chair of TerraPower, an incubator developing SMR designs. The company “does not currently have any agreements to sell reactors to Microsoft,” it told CNBC. Microsoft already has a deal to buy clean energy credits from Canadian utility Ontario Power Generation, which is on track to be the first utility to deploy an SMR in North America, Axios reports.
Microsoft has also made an audacious deal to purchase electricity from a company called Helion that’s developing an even more futuristic fusion power plant. Both old-school nuclear reactors and SMR designs generate electricity through nuclear fission, which is the splitting apart of atoms. Nuclear fusion, involves forcing atoms together the way stars do to create their own energy. A fusion reactor is a holy grail of sorts — it would be a source of abundant clean energy that doesn’t create the same radioactive waste as nuclear fission. But despite decades of research and recent breakthroughs, most experts say a fusion power plant is at least decades away — and the world can’t wait that long to tackle climate change.
Helion’s backers also include OpenAI CEO and ChatGPT developer Sam Altman. Microsoft extended its “multiyear, multibillion dollar investment” with OpenAI this year. Last week, it announced its plan to add OpenAI’s DALL-E 3 image generator to Bing Chat. “We are committed to helping our customers use our platforms and tools to do more with less today and innovate for the future in the new era of AI,” Microsoft chair and CEO Satya Nadella says in the job listing for a nuclear technology principal program manager.