Tucked away in a corner of a nondescript building on the sprawling Idaho National Laboratory’s complex in southeastern Idaho, next generation microreactor technology is unfolding and happening at breakneck speed.

Microreactor is a mysterious, uncommon term for the lay person. Most people have heard of a nuclear reactor, but what exactly will a microreactor do and why would Idaho National Laboratory be so intent on making this work and in doing so, bring its first reactor online in five decades?

Think of this:

  • 2.5 billion of the seven billion people on this planet do not have access to electricity.
  • About 2 billion people do not have access to clean water.
  • To achieve a net zero scenario, nuclear investment needs to scale up to well over $100 billion per year in the late 2020s, more than triple of recent investments, according to the International Energy Agency.
  • Space.com reports the United Kingdom Space Agency recently received funding for a Rolls-Royce project to deploy a small nuclear microreactor for delivery to the moon by 2029. That’s six years from now.

The Microreactor Applications Research Validation and Evaluation project, or MARVEL at INL, is designed to help industry bring the sedan-sized microreactor to commercial deployment.

Earth’s only natural satellite, the moon, is 4.5 billion years old and roughly 240,000 miles away. The practical application for a microreactor on the moon may seem distant and the need hard to grasp, but Alaska presents an easier vision of pragmatic deployment of this technology.

“When we turn on the light switch in our homes, it turns on right away, right? So it is not the same for the remainder of the world,” said Yasir Arafat, a nuclear scientist who is project lead over MARVEL. “The demand for electricity and water is growing and it is very large compared to what we see in the United States. So how do we solve this? And everybody has different answers, but the answer I would like to provide is that it can be 24/7 reliable carbon-free electricity on demand, regardless of geographic location.”

That includes the United States’ own Alaska, where tiny hamlets have their own challenges.

In Alaska, the strength of solar energy generation is easily questionable, as is wind power with the state’s freezing temperatures that lock up necessary components to deliver renewable energy. The go-to energy source? Diesel generators, which are an anathema in this new quest for a carbon-free society.

MARVEL, weighing just over 7 tons, will rope in that technology where feasible, fit in an underground nonvisible containment structure, and with its passive attributes that don’t require hundreds of humans at the switch, deliver the necessary carbon-free energy to electrify and heat the town. This is by no means a megawatt- or gigawatt-sized microreactor, but a Ford-sized component that will easily be manufactured and shipped much like a vehicle where it is needed based on industry demand and community needs.

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It’s a marvel, if you will, with its passive design using a Stirling engine patented in 1817 by Robert Stirling, who came up with the concept of mechanically manipulating the ideal gas laws to convert heat into motion or vice-versa via a piston design.

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“I want to tell you my vision of the future. I am kind of an optimist,” Arafat said. “The way I see the future, we are going to be making these microreactors so safe, so benign but also economically feasible.”

Arafat, as detailed by INL in a profile, scratched out his concept for MARVEL with a piece of paper and a box of crayons two days before Christmas one year, envisioning a goal to demonstrate the workability of a novel, state-of-the-art design in a very, very short time frame.

“We have not had a reactor like this before. We entirely designed the system from scratch and the thing that makes this unique is that it does not have any pumps to drive the coolant around the reactor. It is driven naturally.”

Arafat grew up in Bangladesh as a refugee under dire circumstances and found his way to Pennsylvania, where his past living in financial straits helped ignite his future of not just being a dreamer, but a doer who wants to make transformative change.

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“The way I think about the globe is that 50% of the world’s population lives on 1% of the footprint on this earth. With microreactors, you can make uninhabitable places livable and again, you can refine water, you get energy. ... It can make opportunities for people to live. We are looking at Mars and other planets for colonization, but on Earth we have a lot of uninhabitable places we can open up.”

So just as the lab’s EBR-I used nuclear energy to turn on four light bulbs in 1951 — a first in the world — along comes MARVEL and the somewhat audacious, ambitious plans for its future.

“So when we started this project, we’d say ‘Hey, we have this opportunity.’ We have not built a new nuclear reactor in a half a century in this country. Let’s try to get the most out of it,” Arafat said. “Let’s not try to do this in 10 to 20 years, let’s try to do this in a shorter time frame, say two to three years. Right? Let’s try to show the world we can be innovative, we can be fast enough that we start something from scratch and be able to completely finish the design.”

It’s been a challenge, but the goal is to get it ready for demonstration just a year from now.

“Building a nuclear reactor is not easy and I can attest to you first hand,” Arafat said. “It is very, very hard.”

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The regulatory agency probing the efficacy of MARVEL is asking the right kind of questions but also the tough kind of questions, Arafat said. After a necessary environmental assessment, Arafat and his staff are readying upwards of 20,000 pages of engineering documentation to make sure MARVEL succeeds.

Arafat, demonstrating MARVEL through a series of slide and computer animations, has light in his eyes, a bright smile and passion that is clearly evident as he talks media through the intricacy of this fast-developing project.

“You have to have all the stars aligned, but we can get there,” he said. “That is my hope.”

Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated 208 billion people do not have access to clean water. The correct number is 2 billion.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the location of the laboratory was misidentified in the photo caption.