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Pentagon is developing tiny nuclear reactors for deployed troops

Model of a BN-600 nuclear reactor, displayed in the Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Station, Russia. (Nucl0id/Wikimedia Commons)
March 15, 2020

The Pentagon announced on Monday it has issued contracts to three companies for the development of a small, portable nuclear reactor.

The $39.7 million in contracts were awarded to Washington, DC metro area companies BWX Technologies, Inc., which received $13.5 million; Westinghouse Government Services, which received $11.9 million, and X-energy, LLC, which received $14.3 million.

A part of the Pentagon’s “Project Pele” with the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), the microreactors would be easily transportable, and could be quickly assembled and disassembled, according to a Defense Department statement. The prototype aims to generate 1-5 megawatts (MWe) at a number of Department of Defense missions such as powering remote bases. One of the companies would begin design work on the microreactor to build and demonstrate a prototype after a two-year maturation period.

“The Pele Program’s uniqueness lies in the reactor’s mobility and safety,” Jeff Waksman, Project Pele program manager, said in the Pentagon statement. “We will leverage our industry partners to develop a system that can be safely and rapidly moved by road, rail, sea or air and for quick set up and shut down, with a design which is inherently safe.”

The Defense Department uses about 30 terawatt-hours of electricity per year and more than 10 million gallons of fuel per day, according to the Pentagon. The creation of a safe, small and portable version of the world’s most efficient power source would give U.S. forces the most innovative and advanced nuclear energy available, according to Jay Dryer, SCO director.

“The United States risks ceding nuclear energy technology leadership to Russia and China,” he said. “By retaking technological leadership, the United States will be able to supply the most innovative advanced nuclear energy technologies.”

Microreactors would significantly reduce the need to invest in costly power infrastructure, could be used to support disaster response work, or provide temporary or long-term support to critical infrastructure like hospitals.

One concept designed by Los Alamos Lab shows it could be fitted inside a semi-truck.

The latest development is not the first time the Pentagon has explored small nuclear reactors. There is currently a second project through the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that involves a pilot program to develop and demonstrate the efficacy of a small nuclear reactor capable of generation 2-10 MWe, Defense News reported.

Plans are to conduct testing for that reactor by 2023 at a Department of Energy site. A commercially developed, Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensed reactor will be demonstrated on a “permanent domestic military installation by 2027” if testing goes well, according to DoD spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Andrews.

“If the full demonstration proves to be a cost effective energy resilience alternative, NRC-licensed [reactors] will provide an additional option for generating power provided to DoD through power purchase agreements,” he added.

Additionally, the 2010 NDAA directed the Defense Department to look into the feasibility of nuclear power for military installations. However, nuclear reactors at the time were too big, a study found.