Blogathon 17/24: SMRs everywhere!

This morning I read an interesting article on the electrical power demands of datacentres, and how those demands have massively increased (and is continuing to increase) with the advent of AI. We all know that AI is in its infancy. We also know that AI requires a HUGE amount of processing power when compared to standard database- or web-servers in a non-AI datacentre. The trouble is the power grid has issues keeping up with non-AI demand. Adding AI datacentres to the power requirements will outstrip the amount of electricity being generated. This is more keenly felt in the US where the power infrastructure has been left to wither on the vine of privatisation and neglect. Just look at the electrical disasters of Texas and California in the last 12-months for detailed examples. And that’s just the US. There are countries that generate far less electricity because there’s never been a requirement for huge electrical generation before.

Now, obviously, there are ways around this. One cunning method would be for a country to decide it won’t allow any AI datacentres on its soil. Brilliant! Electrical problem solved, Except the problem hasn’t been solved, it’s just been shunted around the world to another country where AI datacentres are allowed. And this, obviously, shifts the demand for electrical power generation, as well as the demand for AI services.

To get around the forthcoming shortfall, the tech people who are working on this problem have come up with a cunning idea. Every AI datacentre should have its own SMR. A Small Modular (nuclear) Reactor (SMR) in every AI datacentre? That sounds fabulous.

The people who are advocating SMRs in AI datacentres point to nuclear reactors in submarines as examples of how safe the technology is. And they’re right, of course. Except for the times they’re wrong. The people at the forefront of SMR-thinking also seem to forget how secure nuclear reactors in submarines are. When they’re not behind armed guard at very secure naval dockyards, they’re under hundreds of fathoms of water in deeply inhospitable seas. And that makes submarine SMRs significantly more secure than sitting behind a bit of barbed wire on thirty-three acres of land outside Waltham Cross, or on thirty-eight acres of land outside Luton. To highlight the point I’m making: nuclear reactors have 24/7 armed police as standard.

SMRs are a reality as a concept in practice. I’m all for conceptualising, prototyping, and trialling; these are processes by which we learn, this is how we discard what’s bad and arrive at standards. But in the world of SMRs there are currently no standards of build, no standards of operation, no off-the-shelf safety standards, no physical security standards and (in the event of something truly unfortunate happening), there are no recovery standards.

Yes, AI is going to happen. But the demands for AI and therefore the demands for power generation are in its infancy. We will soon see feature films constructed by AI (imagine the power requirements for that!), AI television series and, I should imagine, AI porn. It will be a consumer-led explosion. Let’s hope it doesn’t become a series of actual explosions.

4 thoughts on “Blogathon 17/24: SMRs everywhere!

    1. The cutting edge of SMR thinking seems to be coming out of the US, with the rest of the world taking a more ‘wait and see how much of a mess the Americans make of it before we do anything’ approach (according to the El Reg article I read). This seems like a sound strategy to me.

  1. It’s not practical everywhere on the planet, but in New Zealand we already produce over 80% of our electricity from renewable sources. Recently one statistical period broke through 90%. That’s an entire small country. Why can’t AI data centres be the catalyst to massively boost renewable energy?

    1. It’s a problem of the Americans own making. They don’t like alternative forms of energy. Windfarms in the sea and wave generators are killing whales and dolphins (or so some Americans say) and windfarms on the land are killing millions of birds (or so some Americans say). In the UK we’re surrounded by waves and we live on a big windy island, but our Government doesn’t subsidise alternate energy production. I think AI production will become a cost-centre.

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