In This Issue
Summer Bridge on Noise Control Engineering
June 15, 2021 Volume 51 Issue 2
What is the role of engineering practice, education, and standards in mitigating human-generated noise? The articles in this issue survey these aspects of the US noise landscape, and offer updates and useful resources.

A Strategy to Unlock the Potential of Nuclear Energy for a New and Resilient Global Energy-Industrial Paradigm

Monday, June 14, 2021

Author: Jacopo Buongiorno, Robert Freda, Steven Aumeier, and Kevin Chilton

Advantages of nuclear batteries include low-enriched fuel, simple design, mass manufacturing, minimal site preparation, and semiautonomous fleet operation.


“Experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities. A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.… Thus the contributing Powers would be dedicating some of their strength to serve the needs rather than the fears of mankind.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower, Atoms for Peace speech, United Nations, December 8, 1953

The United States’ energy production and delivery architecture, developed throughout the 20th century, provided the foundation for dramatic ­economic and standard of living advances. But the centralized architecture lacks the resilience to withstand known, predictable, and unpredictable 21st century external threats, whether man-made or natural.

In the interest of market growth, the architecture has become significantly more complex and vulnerable since 1995, producing risks, threats, and unintended consequences across multiple systems: information, energy, basic resources, and the atmosphere. The current design of energy production and distribution systems will continue to increase stress in developed nations and will not meet the needs of developing nations. In addition, adaptation to a warming climate is already a clear and present need.[1] Strategically, it is imperative to prepare for worse yet to come, sooner rather than later. Thus a new type of distributed energy resource is needed that is low-carbon, compact, stable, flexible, and geographically unconstrained.

The United States must derisk its infrastructure and adapt to climate change simultaneously. Strategies and policies formulated before the turn of the century are insufficient to this need. New rapid development paths are needed to enable flexible energy-industrial systems that produce energy that is both dense enough and cheap enough to compete with fossil fuels and adaptable enough to deal with change. Greater resilience to new and already evident levels of risk must go hand in hand with increased efficiency in the generation and delivery of electric power, heat, goods, and services for all sectors of the economy, from industry to businesses, transportation, buildings, and agriculture.

What resource can address these challenges and power the world’s ever growing needs for adaptation and resilience? The solution presented in this paper is distributed portable nuclear energy colocated with end users. This solution bypasses the need for massive, low-use centralized infrastructure such as the national grid, energy storage, and fuel distribution networks. And it likely has the flexibility to deal with further unknowns, which have become endemic over the last 20 years and are a certainty over the next 20. 

Buongiomo figure 1Nuclear Batteries: A New Way in Energy

Advances in embedded intelligence and adaptive manu­facturing and materials are enabling the development of new small, flexible, plug-and-play nuclear energy systems that we call nuclear batteries.[2] The nuclear battery (NB), also called a microreactor, is a small but powerful stand-alone energy platform  (figure 1) that can be integrated into industrial, manufacturing, and other functions. NB systems—the industrial equivalent of a AAA battery—can operate for up to 10 years, after which they are “recharged” with new nuclear fuel. Among their numerous advantages,

  • NBs can power almost anything with no need for continuous fuel supply.
  • They can provide any desired amount of electricity and heat on site, eliminating the need for long-distance transmission and large centralized infrastructure.
  • A single 10 MW NB can power some 7000–8000 homes, a large shopping mall, or a midsize data center, or produce enough desalinated fresh water for over 150,000 people.
  • They use a fully standardized, mass-produced, factory-fueled, simple design with few moving parts.
  • They combine a small nuclear reactor and a turbine to supply significant amounts of heat and/or power (on the order of 15–30 MWt or 5–10 MWe) from a very small footprint.
  • They are compact enough to fit in standard shipping containers for transport to the site of interest, where a unit can be installed and made operational in a matter of days or weeks.
  • Embedded intelligence and established advanced monitoring paradigms enable semiautonomous and remotely monitored operation, inherent digital security, and the potential for highly efficient global fleet operational models.
  • They use low-enriched uranium fuel.
  • “Exhausted” and properly cooled NBs can be safely shipped back to a centralized facility for refueling and refurbishment.
  • There is no need for high-level radioactive waste handling or storage at the user site.[3]
  • NBs may provide an alternative and a complement to overbuilt variable energy approaches, coupled with energy storage.

Buongiomo figure 2The combination of low-enriched fuel, simple design, mass manufacturing, minimal site preparation, and semiautonomous operation can yield an economically competitive system in short order, for installation in various scenarios (figure 2).

Importantly, NBs are designed with features that achieve the three fundamental nuclear safety functions without operator intervention: (1) rapid shutdown of the fission chain reaction in the event of an anomalous condition, (2) adequate cooling of the nuclear fuel during shutdown, and (3) no uncontrolled release of materials into the biosphere (Reyes et al. 2020). These features significantly reduce the possibility of accidents like those at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.

Physical security for NBs during operation will be achieved with a combination of design features (e.g., a robust fuel and containment shell), layout (e.g., below-grade embedment), and remote monitoring and defense.

Because cybersecurity is a potential concern for any autonomous system, the NB’s inherent safety features are such that even a knowledgeable operator would not be able to damage the nuclear fuel or cause a radioactivity release. Most NB designs under consideration make it physically impossible to cause a runaway reaction (e.g., by manipulating control mechanisms) or use instrumentation and controls to interrupt residual heat removal from the core. Cyberdefense layers are thus aimed primarily at ensuring continuity of service.

A More Resilient Energy-Industrial Infrastructure

Complexities and Risks of Current Systems

Today’s electrical grid is the product of a century-long coevolution of markets, fossil fuels, and centralized power production. Combined with urbanization, the result is a highly specialized symbiotic interconnected system, requiring tight controls over electricity production fuels (coal, oil, natural gas, uranium) and their transport (pipeline, truck, rail) to large centralized power plants, lengthy power lines for distribution, and supply and voltage synchronization (provided by precise timing from GPS satellites) to deliver energy to demand.

The recent addition of variable renewables has introduced further complications. While renewables play a role in decarbonizing the grid, they contribute to vulnerabilities in systems that are already fragile and susceptible to external perturbations, whether natural (e.g., tropical storms, tornadoes, earthquakes) or man-made (e.g., malicious cyber-, antisatellite, or kinetic attacks). The prolonged blackouts in California and Texas in 2020 and 2021 are a prelude of what’s to come.

Large-scale electrical energy storage, proposed as a means to manage the variable generation, would increase costs, complexity, security concerns, and failure modes.

Advantages of NB Energy Architecture

NBs afford a fundamentally different energy architecture:

  • They can safely deliver clean electricity and heat to nano- and microenergy grids and supply networks on-site anywhere on the planet and at various scales, without being connected to a national grid or fuel ­pipeline.
  • As standalone supply and distribution systems, they are not subject to the cascading failures that affect the current centralized supply and interconnected electrical grid system.
  • They can more securely and reliably provide virtually unlimited energy for local heat, food, and water production, decentralized manufacturing, synthetic fuel production, and much more.
  • Unlike other distributed energy resources (e.g., rooftop solar panels, small gas turbines), NBs’ combination of low-carbon and energy intensity, compactness, stability, and flexibility can enable deployment and decarbonization in every sector of the economy on a global scale.

In addition to adding energy and supply resilience to homes, cities, and the industrial base, NBs can help decrease vulnerabilities of stateside and international military bases, which largely depend on the commercial grid to power their daily operations. A reliable and independent source of electricity, heat, and fuels would enable them to effectively project military power in ­crisis, enhancing their deterrent value vis-à-vis adversaries who might seek to neutralize them or degrade their ability to respond through attacks on the nation’s power grid. Indeed, military bases would be the ideal place for the initial deployment of NB capabilities, to both enhance national security by providing a reliable and secure alternative to dependence on the vulnerable commercial grid and demonstrate to the American ­public the safety and effectiveness of the NB­­/­independent grid combination.

US military bases would be ideal for initial NB deployment, to enhance national security and demonstrate to the American public NB safety and effectiveness.

To meet these and other national security needs, commercial NB systems should be developed as a flexible primary energy supply platform, pairing NB-powered nano- or microenergy grids with on-site containerized agriculture and manufacturing, district heating, data centers, air- and seaports, oceanic transport, and disaster/pandemic relief efforts, to mention just a few applications (figure 3). These sectors account for a large share of the world’s grid-delivered fossil electricity, heat, and transport fuel. They will be NB market opportunities over the coming decades.

A More Efficient Economy

In addition to its lack of resilience, the 20th century energy production/delivery architecture is inefficient, in the sense of low average use of capital assets. The current electrical grid, with a load-following, supply-to-demand paradigm, uses electric generation and trans­mission assets at less than a 50 percent rate on average.

The grid carries the equipment to supply the maximum demand, plus large margins, to maintain service, accommodate urban growth, and (ideally) prevent localized distribution brownouts and systemwide rolling transmission blackouts. But centralized transmission systems lose 6–8 percent of the electricity generated, and energy storage loses 15–20 percent of the originally generated energy in the round trip. These losses, given the marginal economics in the first place, affect competitive profiles.

Onsite integration of energy and goods production allows for far greater use of energy and equipment for different purposes. It is the basic advantage behind systems such as “combined heat and power.” Even with inexpensive storage and cheap renewable energies, centralized systems are more resource intensive, more polluting, and less economically efficient and productive than the clean direct-use on-site systems (such as KUBio or Freight Farms) that NBs enable.

We estimate that the NB designs under consideration could realize a 90 percent reduction in the amount of materials required for natural gas power and a 99 percent reduction with respect to variable renewables, on a per-unit energy-generated basis. In a high-­productivity colocated supply and demand system, the apparent competitive strengths of natural gas and the grid become their weaknesses. Colocating supply (the NB) and demand (the end use) avoids the grid’s losses and inefficiencies because it matches generation to demand at the local level and eliminates the need for energy transmission. For industrial production and processing, especially when a continuous energy supply is required, we estimate that colocation of NBs and users could optimize the use factor of the energy and the production equipment to 80–90 percent, using significantly fewer resources.

In a separate study (Buongiorno et al., forthcoming) we estimate that a well-designed NB could produce electricity and heat at ~70 $/MWh and ~7 $/MMBTU, respectively. These figures would make the NB competitive against retail electricity prices for industry and natural gas heat (with either a carbon tax or carbon capture and sequestration) almost everywhere in the world. In the direct supply production paradigm, the margins of wholesale goods produced at an NB-supplied ­facility could be substantially higher than those produced in factories supplied by centralized grid and industrial heating. Combined with direct-to-consumer digital channels, the NB’s competitive advantages become even stronger, while simultaneously displacing carbon-emitting fossil fuels.

NBs can increase the efficiency of energy production and delivery through close coupling of clean energy platforms with demand, using inventories of modular, small energy systems. The associated energy-industrial architecture could support affordable, scalable growth in emerging economies, and offer greater resilience in developed economies.

Buongiomo figure 3Global Economic Development

Communities in both the developed and developing world can benefit from smart, resilient, clean energy networks. NBs can be integrated into nano- and microenergy grids that serve industrial and community systems, deployed in locations governed by varied local and national social and governance structures, and leverage economies of scale and simplicity. They thus can benefit from efficient means of affordable technology deployment and expansion.

Approximately 10 percent of the global population (now approaching 8 billion and growing rapidly) has no access to electricity; a large percentage rely on burning fuels that exacerbate public health crises and climate volatility.[4] In developing and energy-poor nations NBs could be deployed to isolated communities or remote areas for niche applications as well as urban, suburban, coastal, and marine nano- and microenergy grids in synergy with local energy sources. Additionally, the ­micro-nano energy grid approach, based on NB technology, allows incremental provisioning of capacity, enabling emerging economies to invest at an affordable pace.[5]

NB-powered sea-level protection systems (e.g., dikes and pumps) may be well suited for the most at-risk areas.

Climate Adaptation

Nations and businesses must develop plans to address climate volatility challenges. Many problems will require increased energy resources to address. Adaptation to ­climate volatility is likely to become a ­multitrillion-dollar sector, which as yet has no uniformly accepted policies or plans.[6] NB-powered mobile modular infrastructure, desali­nization, and sea-level protection systems (e.g., dikes and pumps) may be well suited for the most at-risk areas.

Opportunity and Need for US Leadership

New challenges require new solutions and new ways of thinking. The United States can ill afford for indecisive­ness or outmoded taboos to hinder its progress in developing this next generation of powerful, safe ­nuclear energy systems, and miss the opportunity to establish resilient and clean energy infrastructures based on a new systems paradigm.

NBs are substantially different from traditional energy plants, necessitating policy, market, and regulatory innovation to match technology innovation. US policy on NBs is currently dominated by programs of the Departments of Defense and Energy that envision using the batteries to power remote outposts, military bases, and mining operations, all applications in which NBs would replace extremely expensive diesel generators, which produce electricity at well over 200 $/MWh. While targeting such niche applications is a wise first step toward commercialization of the NB technology, the vision needs to be expanded.

The United States has previously made its mark with grand vision to meet challenges. Seventy-five years ago, economies and societies began to grapple with postwar rebuilding and a global surge in population. The United States led the way by steering science toward constructive and peaceful pursuits. The fields of energy, transportation, communications, and the new domain of space exploration grew at an unprecedented pace.

Under the visionary leadership of presidents ­Eisenhower and Kennedy, new global industries were born that would define the latter half of the 20th century. Nuclear energy, fossil fuels, and a new generation of turbomachinery powered advances and achievements in everything from aerospace to computing to pharmaceuticals and restored and raised global standards of living. The United States worked with both old and new allies to foster the technologies, institutions, standards, and market norms that would yield decades-long partner­ships and pay broad dividends for millions at home and around the world.

Recent Western experience with nuclear energy is one of massive, decade-long construction projects, regulatory challenges, and costly delays. The prospects for near-term wide deployment of traditional nuclear ­power plants in the United States and Western Europe are grim. However, NBs present an immediate opportunity to take first mover advantage and share in the many new and emerging markets described above.

Advanced technologies from sectors beyond energy will allow for innovation in the business models used for deployment, including fleet leasing, remote monitoring and control, and semiautonomous operation. Advanced manufacturing methods can dramatically reduce the cost of NB fabrication. These attributes will need to be accommodated by modified export, regulatory, and operational norms, standards for deployment, and modernized nonproliferation policies.

Possibly most important is the need to develop broad social engagement among stakeholders, building on the 20th century Atoms for Peace approach with a 21st century paradigm of collaboration in development, demonstration, and deployment.

The United States is exceptionally well positioned to lead this endeavor for the following reasons:

  • Nuclear energy enjoys broad bipartisan support in the US Congress,[7] which could yield a deliberate and cohesive policy of development, demonstration, and deployment of new nuclear technologies and systems, as well as support for export of such systems (box 1).
  • The technical capabilities and collaborative action of industry, academia, national laboratories, and federal agencies have begun to lay the foundation for pioneering new nuclear systems. Nuclear energy is an opportunity for new private-public partnerships, similar to the recent evolution of the space sector, which has enabled the successful development of US commercial orbital launch services.
  • Existing national lab, DOE, and NRC regulatory frameworks are adequate to permit early deployment of such systems.

Buongiomo Box 1.gif


Developing and deploying NBs and their new platform architectures, in an innovative global business and ­policy environment and with unprecedented stakeholder engagement, paints an exciting picture of the new state of US-sourced clean energy innovation. This is not a 15-year exercise in research. NB systems development should start now, to yield a more advanced, productive, democratized form of US-led capitalism and global responsibility for clean energy.

In the words of President John F. Kennedy, “Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash.…”


Buongiorno J, Carmichael B, Dunkin B, Parsons J, Smit D. 2021. Can nuclear batteries be economically competitive in large markets? Energies (in review).

Reyes JN Jr, Southworth F, Woods BG. 2020. Why the unique safety features of advanced reactors matter. The Bridge 50(3):45–51.

Smith AB. 2021. 2020 US billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in historical context. NOAA, Jan 8.

WNA [World Nuclear Association]. 2017. Transport of radioactive materials. London.


[1]  NOAA estimates that the cost of US weather and climate disasters has been accelerating dramatically, from a total of $400 billion over 19 years (1980–99) to $600 billion in 2016–20 (Smith 2021).

[2]  Interestingly, the Idaho National Laboratory uses a similar term, fission battery, for a microreactor with the following five features: cost competitive, fabricated, installed, unattended, and reliable (Federal Laboratory Consortium workshop series on technology innovations for fission batteries).

[3]  A national waste repository is still required, but NB shipment would be a routine activity akin to today’s transportation of used nuclear fuel. Since 1971 there have been at least 25,000 cargoes of used fuel transported, covering many millions of kilometers on both land and sea, including sea voyages transporting more than 4000 casks, each about 100 tons. In the United States there have been over 3000 shipments of commercially generated spent nuclear fuel without any radiological releases to the environment or harm to the public. Most shipments are between power plants owned by the same electric utility, to share storage space for used fuel (WNA 2017).

[4]  UN Sustainable Development Goal 7,

[5]  We recognize that such deployments will depend on resolution of challenges in financing, licensing, and security. That discussion is beyond the scope of this paper.

[6]  As of the 25th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, December 2019.

[7]  For example, “Sen. Manchin urges Biden to preserve US nuclear fleet,” Nuclear Newswire, Apr 20, 2021.

About the Author:Jacopo Buongiorno is the TEPCO Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Robert Freda is a founder of GenH. Steven Aumeier is a senior advisor for nuclear energy programs and strategy at Idaho National Laboratory. Kevin Chilton retired from the Air Force as commander of US Strategic Command.