Advanced nuclear fits South Pole energy needs
- April 1, 2023: Vol. 10, Number 4

Advanced nuclear fits South Pole energy needs

by Emma Derr

Getting fuel to the southernmost point on Earth takes a lot of energy, and advanced nuclear could be the answer the South Pole has been searching for.

The South Pole is located on Antarctica, and hundreds of scientists and staff live and work at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station to support a variety of research, including geology, meteorology, climatology, astronomy and more. All of these activities use energy, and according to the Antarctic Sun, “fuel may be the most important resource at the bottom of the world.”

Fuel is needed to operate the station’s main 750-kilowatt power plant, run heavy equipment, heat buildings, and fuel small aircraft and vehicles. The power plant is set up with diesel generators that burn ANA jet fuel, and over the course of a year, it consumes over half a million gallons. When this fuel is transported by aircraft, it takes two gallons of fuel to deliver every one gallon, and when it is trekked over land, it is transported by a tractor that goes approximately 5 mph and takes 30 days to reach its destination. Not ideal.

Kelly Thomas, a former Oklo Engineering Fellow, knows this energy situation intimately, as she spent over a year in the South Pole as a research associate at the United States Antarctic Program.

“It is mind boggling how much fossil fuel needs to be transported just for power,” she said on an episode of Oklo’s podcast Explained. “With the density of uranium fuel, it would be the equivalent of one kilogram for an entire year. I could hold it in my hand — I could hold 10 years’ worth of fuel in my hand.”

Uranium is 2 million times more energy dense than fossil fuels, which means that nuclear plants can run for years without needing to refuel. This is important since Antarctica is known as the harshest continent, partially due to some of the coldest temperatures on Earth, as well as the fact that it only experiences one sunrise and one sunset every year. For six months the South Pole is plunged into darkness, and the weather conditions prevent most supplies from being delivered. The station has to be completely self-sufficient during the long, cold winters.

Advanced nuclear is designed to support this self-sufficiency, and small modular reactors vary in size and scale, so that they can fit perfectly into the communities they serve. They can produce not only energy, but also heat, which is very useful in off-the-grid colder climates. These reactors can be delivered by truck or air, making them prime candidates for remote areas.

Efficiency aside, it is important to be environmental stewards and protect such a pristine setting. The entire island is protected by the Antarctic Conservation Act, which is designed to safeguard its unique ecosystem. Clean energy would fit right in, but there are certain challenges with the terrain.

The darkness makes it difficult for solar panels to operate effectively, and it is hard to keep them clean due to the snow that often covers them. Cold temperatures hinder the capabilities of battery storage. Nuclear energy, on the other hand, runs during any weather condition, and climate resilience is a bedrock value of the industry.

Advanced nuclear energy is sustainable, easily portable, and carbon-free, a perfect fit for the South Pole.


Emma Derr is digital communications manager for the Nuclear Energy Institute. Read the original version of this article here.


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