"Data centres are power hungry things, but with AI we're moving into a new level of power requirements."

Nuclear Option

It's no secret that keeping an AI data center running requires an immense amount of power.

To meet those skyrocketing energy demands, experts are now looking for alternative sources, the BBC reports — including small nuclear reactors that could power individual data centers.

"Our industry has to find another source of power," Digital Realty CTO Chris Sharp told the broadcaster.

Small and Modular

For years, scientists have been developing small modular reactors (SMR), which are scaled-down power plants that can provide power in situ and thereby dramatically reduce companies' dependence on the grid.

Despite an entire burgeoning industry dedicated to their realization, there still aren't any commercial ones in operation anywhere in the world, as the BBC notes.

It's an intriguing idea that has inspired some of the biggest players in the AI field to invest in the idea. Job listings last year suggested Microsoft was looking to roll out its own plan for SMRs, with the goal of eventually using them to power its AI data centers.

Even OpenAI CEO Sam Altman has invested in a nuclear startup called Oklo, which is working on self-regulating SMRs. (Altman has also suggested that AI is so power hungry that it'll require a breakthrough energy source.)

"Data centres are power hungry things, but with AI we're moving into a new level of power requirements," director at the Centre for Nuclear Engineering at Imperial College London Michael Bluck told the BBC.

But it'll likely be a while before companies start producing SMRs at scale to meet those requirements.

"There are about 50 SMR designs out there," Bluck added. "The challenge is to build them in repeatable units, factory style, standardizing production lines."

One big hurdle to still overcome is regulation. After all, nuclear energy comes with some obvious risks. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been "engaged in varying degrees of pre-application activities with several SMR designers over the past several years," per its official website.

In 2020, the commission approved the first SMR design, developed by an Oregon-based startup called NuScale Power.

However, despite clear momentum behind the idea, it's unclear if SMRs will end up being the answer to our rapidly rising energy needs. Companies are desperately looking for ways to scale up operations now — and not years from now.

More on SMRs: Microsoft Needs So Much Power to Train AI That It's Considering Small Nuclear Reactors

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