Assessing the Prospect for Nuclear Energy in Alaska

Aron Tesfai
September 28, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Schematic diagram of a Toshiba 4S nuclear reactor such as that being considered for a plant in Galena, Alaska. [2,3] (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

With the push in advanced countries to explore many renewable, alternative energies, the discussion surrounding already established forms of energy is often left out of the conversation. However, this conversation has arisen in the state of Alaska, where small-scale operations have demonstrated the energy and economic potential that nuclear could have for the region. While the current scope of energy production in Alaska relies on coal and crude oil, nuclear could prove to defeat both sectors in the coming decades should it be invested in. Nonetheless, the environmental implications, along with the various factors surrounding cost and efficiency, could halt its scaling in the near future. [1]

Small-Scale Nuclear Energy

Small-scale nuclear energy is considered to be much simpler and economically efficient than typical nuclear reactors. Consisting of a self-contained, sealed design, these reactors are intended for a high-level of safety in the event of malfunction, and can be constructed independently or as large modules to maximize utility and production. [2] This atypical, small-scale design reduces sitting costs, allowing the reactors to operate almost as a "battery" that supplies energy in the form of electricity and heat. However, there is tradeoff with this reactor form; production output is estimated to only reach 300 megawatts, while the more typical reactor can output over 1300 megawatts of energy.

Small-Scale Technology in Alaska

Small nuclear reactors are an enticing option for areas that have little nuclear development, like Alaska, due to their design and ease of implementation. Unlike typical large-scale reactors, these batteries are constructed and delivered on site, where they are installed with a generator and operate for their prescribed life of 30 years. After this time, the reactors are either disposed or refueled. [1]

There has been a high-demand for alternative energies to power remote mines in Alaska, where the more traditional oil and diesel powers have been running at high costs of import, maintenance, and production. More recently, the development of six small-scale reactors has been proposed in the oil sands region of Alberta, Alaska, where the technology would provide heat power to facilitate the extraction of oil from the sands. The region of Galena has also put forth a plan, in conjunction with Toshiba (pictured in Fig. 1), to develop a 10 megawatt reactor system to power and heat facilities across the community. [2]

Although overwhelming support has come from the local and state governments, the challenge for actually implementing this technology has been the development of long-term repositories for nuclear waste. Both the communities of Alberta and Galena have failed to put forth sound and affordable initiatives that include waste solutions for the reactors, stalling the final approval for their development. [2] Although the safety measures of each plan has been appraised and permitted, the concern over waste and renewability has almost halted talks over the past year and shifted the conversation to cleaner alternatives, such as hydroelectricity and natural gas. Nonetheless, given the affordability, scalability, and almost seamless fit for the emergence of small-scale reactors in the region, the state of Alaska will continue to pursue this energy solution and maintain their eligibility under the NRC.

© Aron Tesfai. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] M. Rettig, "Why Nuclear Energy Is on Hold for Alaska," Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, 22 Jan 11.

[2] G. Holdmann, "Small Scale Modular Nuclear Power: An Option for Alaska?," Alaska Center for Energy, March 2011.

[3] A. Minato et al., "Small Liquid Metal Cooled Reactor Safety Study," Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, UCRL-TR-217093, November 2005.