Dispatches from Juneau: The State Office Building and micro nuclear reactors

When I’m walking to the Capitol, I take a shortcut through the State Office Building, a large stained concrete monstrosity that’s dug into the side of the hill containing a large chunk of Juneau’s downtown. You take the elevator eight floors up, walk down a hallway, and eventually, you’re at the street. From there, it’s a short jaunt to the Capitol, wherein lies my business – committee meetings, candidate profiles, free coffee.

A week ago, when I first started cutting through the office building (known colloquially as the SOB), I never looked up. There was never a reason to, really. In politics, everything important or noteworthy happens in front of you, or to the sides, and sometimes, behind you. In the Capitol, I haven’t yet been confronted with a reason to look up.

One day, however, I take the elevator on the eighth floor, listening to Philip Glass’s weird, mercurial Koyaanisqatsi score, stepped out as the doors opened – and look up. Beyond the brick and concrete and glass of the SOB’s eighth floor, there’s this huge open atrium, with a pipe organ, plants, open bridges connecting offices, and an enormous skylight, letting in Juneau’s gray, cloudy, glow.

No one describes office buildings as beautiful, and at first glance, I thought the SOB exemplified the worst of twentieth century brutalism. The abundance of weather stained concrete, the complete disregard for any sort of history or natural architecture – from the outside, if you’re walking by, it looks pretty rough.

But the atrium made me rethink everything. In some way, when I looked up into the SOB’s interior, the space tapped into and rewired the part of my brain that processes design and aesthetic, where I subconsciously scrounge away the things I think are cool and noteworthy for later.

The atrium, crisscrossed with office workers and dotted with small tables and plastic chairs, echoes the cover of an old Robert Heinlein novel, when people thought the stars were still within our grasp. The plants remind me of experimental eco-brutalist office buildings, where the designers fuse the natural world and the manmade. It reminds me of this particularly square dorm from my undergraduate campus, one I always compared to a Russian prison.

It’s sort of pointless to harp on why I think the State Office Building is weirdly beautiful, in a form meets function sense, because I don’t have the vocabulary to describe it. All I can say, to try and drive the point home, is that it reminds me of Alaska. It’s a blocky, modular design, nestled into the quintessential ideal of natural wilderness beauty. It’s interesting to look at in the same way the Independence gold mine is interesting – or an oil well, or a radar tower out along the Aleutian chain.

It evokes, to me, the same feelings as looking at a nuclear reactor in the middle of a wheat field – in that regard, Wednesday’s Senate Resources Committee meeting about micro nuclear reactors was timed almost perfectly to conjoin with my pseudo-epiphany about industrial aesthetics.

The Idaho National Lab’s presentation (which you can view, in full, at the Alaska Legislative website) concerned the history – and the future – of nuclear reactors, which are gradually shrinking to the size of a few trailers worth of gear. One of the many points that Dr. Steven Aumeier made, in a soft drawl, was that the potential uses for these “micro-reactors” were almost limitless. Industrial, municipal, military – the future of micro-reactors is expanding, and Alaska might do well to consider how they play into the state’s future.

The smallest reactors, which Aumeier claimed had less than an acre of potential footprint and could produce as much as 50 megawatts of electricity, were floated during the committee meeting as power sources for rural villages, mining operations, and military bases. Cost was hotly debated, as was safety – nuclear is a hot-button issue, and rightfully so, given the history of catastrophic meltdowns like Chernobyl and Fukushima.

However, the Idaho team claimed that the physics of these smaller reactors prevent meltdowns on a massive scale, because of the size of the reactor and the type of fuel provided. “Passive security” was the term Aumeier used, claiming that “you can’t beat physics.”

These micro-reactors, while still in the development phase, are scheduled to roll out for testing later this decade. Multiple companies and government agencies are involved in testing and funding, including our own Eielson Air Force Base. The Department of Defense has its own desire for portable nuclear reactors, and is funding different versions for different stated purposes.

The Senate committee questioned Aumeier and his associates over factors like cost, autonomy, safety, and use in Arctic environments, each of which came with its own set of issues. It’s difficult to unilaterally advocate for an energy platform, especially in a climate as diverse and harsh as Alaska’s. However, many of the proposed benefits associated with micro-reactors would address (if not totally solve) a lot of the issues with rural energy production – “plug and play” reactor modularity, ease of use, small size, and zero actual on-site fuel storage.

Some things are too good to be true – nuclear, in many ways, is one of them. It took us several meltdowns to realize that, and we’ve still got work to do to make this technology safer and more palatable to the public. However, with the shrinking of reactors, the advancement in fuel technology, and an expanding market to make use of smaller nuclear platforms, there might be a way to redeem nuclear power and provide comparatively cheap, cleaner energy to rural communities and industrial sites.

This shouldn’t be taken as a whole-hearted endorsement of nuclear energy. I sat through one committee meeting and liked what I saw. It’s testament to my small-town Alaska background that seeing one state building’s atrium prompted me to write 1000 words, but at the very least, consider it laudable I can see the world in a handful of dust, or however the saying goes.

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Lynn Willis
10 months ago

The State of Alaska has yet to identify the primary source of energy by region, the state sees as the primary source of energy for electrical power generation, energy for space hearting, energy for mobility, energy for manufacturing and energy resources that can be exported for sale. Without that basic prioritization, this “nuclear reactor” approach might just turn out to be worse that another expensive boondoggle. I understand that nuclear power can play an important role in Alaska’s future; however, playing with nuclear is playing “hardball” given the dangers associate with that technology. Remember the guy who shot a hole… Read more »

10 months ago

Gavel Alaska also has an archive of every legislative meeting we cover that I find to be a little more user friendly than Basis.

Here’s the S RES meeting you mentioned from the 25th: https://www.ktoo.org/video/gavel/senate-resources-committee-2023011080/?eventID=2023011080

10 months ago

Next time walking through the SOB take a little time and check out the totem poles.

10 months ago

So the people selling the product said it’s safe, just trust them…where have I heard that before?

Every year in Alaska a village manages to freeze up their water source. Every year in Alaska a village manages to burn up their only source of power, one is recently reported to have burned up their generator when they ran out of fuel…how’s that work exactly?

9 months ago

The Idaho National Laboratory (INL) is a federal lab. Their job is to test technology and inform. They weren’t selling the technology as they don’t manufacture it but instead were beginning a conversation about what might be possible for Alaska. In the US, approximately 19 percent of our power is nuclear. I appreciate their willingness to send a team to Alaska and help inform us. Our rural communities are in desperate need of consistently available affordable power. Power sources in our largest hubs are uncertain. Having consistently priced energy not only addresses heat and power but opens the door for… Read more »