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CHAMPAIGN — University of Illinois researchers are hoping to bring a micronuclear reactor to campus, which could be used to help heat buildings and reduce the campus’ dependence on fossil fuels.

To prepare the campus and the community for the possibility, the UI’s Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment is hosting a virtual conversation at 4:30 p.m. Sept. 10 with sustainability leaders, the executive director of Facilities & Services and nuclear engineering faculty.

“Technology has come a long way since 1960, and so have nuclear reactors,” nuclear researcher Caleb Brooks said. “We’d like to have the opportunity to share with folks about these new systems, about how we could see them helping to meet our carbon production goals on campus, which we’re committed to carbon neutrality by 2050. This would go a long way to helping achieve that.”

The UI has joined a reactor company on a bid for a microreactor from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy, Brooks said.

“If successful, we would have a large investment from the federal government to see that purchased system built,” he said.

Microreactors are the smallest of three classifications of nuclear reactors, Brooks said: traditional, large-scale reactors that produce around 3,000 megawatts of energy; small, modular reactors in the 60 to 300 megawatt range and microreactors, which typically produce less than 20 megawatts.

Microreactors “are designed to be very small, so they can be built in a factory and tested, and then shipped complete on a truck,” Brooks said. “They can be put down at site where needed, without any major construction, and they can be pretty easily connected to the electric grid or whatever need the reactor is used for.”

While the exact location would need approval from federal and state regulators, Brooks said it would make sense to be located near the Abbott power plant and be used to produce steam that would heat campus buildings.

“These nuclear rectors are nicely suited for the need that we have on campus. There’s not just an electricity need, but a substantial steam need, and there aren’t a lot of options for decarbonizing that steam production,” Brooks said. “Several hundred buildings on campus are heated by steam.

The Urbana campus needs about 55 megawatts of electric power and 50 megawatts of steam power, Brooks said, and the microreactor the UI is considering would be in the 15 to 20 megawatt range.

He also said it could be used by researchers to study topics such as hydrogen production, grid resiliency, clean energy and advanced materials.

Besides explaining the technology and the campus’s clean-energy goals, next week’s meeting will also be to hear concerns from the public.

Guests need to sign up at go.illinois.edu/nuclearconversation by noon on Sept. 9 to get a Zoom invitation. The event will also be livestreamed on Facebook.

“We want to know what concerns people have,” Brooks said. “And we want to address those concerns.”

Emeritus Professor and environmentalist Bruce Hannon already has concerns about the project, from cost and safety to location and fuel rod disposal.

“In Rantoul on the old Air Force base maybe. The Clinton nuclear power plant might be a good place to put it. But in the middle of a community of almost 200,000 is a bad place to put it,” Hannon said.

Brooks said the university wouldn’t have to take care of spent nuclear fuel — the federal government would.

“That is provided for by the Department of Energy,” he said.

And he said the microreactors are safer than large reactors because their smaller size produces less residual heat.

“By reducing the power of the system by three orders of magnitude, it also reduced the residual heat by three orders of magnitude,” Brooks said. “That can be very easily managed.”

He said the uranium fuel would be about the size of a grain of sand and coated in different carbides.

“One of which is silicon carbide, which is like a diamond — a very strong material. That silicon carbide traps everything inside, even in very extreme temperatures,” Brooks said. “Nothing can get out.”

And he didn’t say how much the microreactor would cost, but said, “these reactor systems can compete quite well with diesel.”

And since they’re made in a factory, “maybe the first or second will require some investment,” Brooks said, but overtime, “they can become competitive.”

“What we hope to see is that … the U.S. will begin to value carbon-free technology, and that would help with the cost competitiveness,” he said.

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