In 1960 — about 800 miles south of the North Pole — the Army assembled a small, nuclear reactor from modules built in Buffalo, N.Y., to provide power to one of its most remote and inhospitable bases, Camp Century in Greenland.
The Portable Medium Power-2 reactor was part of the Army nuclear energy program, which lasted from 1954 to 1977, and was intended to supply power to bases where shipping carbon-based fuel was difficult or connecting to a local electrical grid impossible.
The program ultimately fielded six small nuclear reactors before its demise more than three decades ago.
The Department of Energy is now pushing the once dormant small modular nuclear reactor concept for civilian applications. The Tennessee Valley Authority and an energy company recently inked a deal to take advantage of some of the $452 million in federal money available to build scaled-down reactors.
The idea to revive nuclear power on military installations — and even in forward-operating bases in battle zones — is being promoted in some quarters.
Advocates say the military could reduce its dependence on domestic local power grids, which are seen as vulnerable, and it could take fuel convoys off the roads overseas, said a 2011 National Defense University paper, “Small Nuclear Reactors for Military Installations: Capabilities, Costs and Technological Implications,” written by NDU professor Richard B. Andres and Massachusetts Institute of Technology doctoral candidate Hanna L. Breetz.
“There are numerous companies with designs that they can build right now,” Andres said in a recent interview. “We just have to give them the specifications for what the military is looking for and to tell them to build it. And they can do it,” he said.
The Navy has been fielding small nuclear reactors on its submarines and ships for decades, and has a perfect safety record, he said. He believed the Army or Air Force could match it.
Small modular nuclear reactors operate in the 25 to 300 megawatt range. Larger reactors in typical full-scale nuclear power plants can go up to 1,350 megawatts per unit. A Los Angeles-class submarine by comparison has a 165-megawatt reactor.
The problem is that there are a lot of emotional reactions when it comes to nuclear energy, Andres said.
Accidents at Three Mile Island, Pa., Chernobyl in the Soviet Union, and more recently, Fukushima, Japan, have given the industry a bad name in the eyes of the public.
The Union of Concerned Scientists said in a statement “the industry must resolve major economic, safety, security and waste disposal challenges before new nuclear reactors could make a significant contribution to reducing carbon emissions.”
It has also decried government subsidies to build new nuclear reactors, which it says creates an uneven playing field for other low-carbon energy sources.
There have been few new nuclear power plant start-ups over the past few decades. That sometimes has more to do with the business side of the industry than fears of accidents, said Marc Chupka, principal at the energy consulting firm, The Brattle Group, and former acting assistant secretary for policy and international affairs at the Energy Department.
It is difficult to obtain financing and licenses for large-scale nuclear power plants. The entire process can take up to 15 years, which makes it hard to predict the state of the technology or energy needs that far down the road. There is a risk that if construction begins and is not completed — as has happened in the past — the money invested goes down the drain.
“A 90 percent built nuclear plant is worth exactly zero in the market place,” he said.
One of the main reasons the Obama administration is pushing the small nuclear reactor program is that it is seen as a clean energy source that could reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The smaller scale plants can be quicker and easier to build. Once one is in place, other reactors can be added to increase the power output of the plant.
There are many companies with different designs. Most can be assembled off site. The fueling can be done, sealed and protected before it leaves the factory.
It would shorten the process of building a new reactor “by several years,” Chupka believed, and the risk that the project would be started, then abandoned, would be mitigated.
The question in the commercial electric marketplace is whether it can compete with natural gas or other energy sources.
That isn’t the case in the military.
“The nuclear Navy has provided a tremendous test ground for this concept. But that is not necessarily the same as the commercial environment,” he said. The mission is of paramount importance for the military. In the Navy’s case, it is propulsion and extending the duration of deployments.
For installations and forward-deployed forces, there are two compelling arguments to be made, Andres said. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan showed that there is a high price to be paid for transporting fuel for generators and water. Thousands have been killed and injured in convoys.
Carrying a small nuclear reactor into a war zone where bombs are falling may give some pause, Andres said. They can be designed in such as way that even if one were destroyed, the environmental side effects would be negligible, he said.
“The [environmental] damage would be vastly worse if a fuel dump were hit by a bomb,” he said. If one were to fall into enemy hands, they could be designed in such as way that there would be no benefit to capturing it, he said.
Col. Paul E. Roege, chief of the Army operational energy office, said at the Thorium Energy Alliance Conference in 2011 that carrying sensitive technologies into the field is normal for the military. An Abrams tank, for example, has sensitive technology aboard.
“From a non-technical standpoint, being able to take a nuclear reactor wherever I want to is a big question,” he said.
But the Army should at least explore whether this is a viable option to solve its energy needs. If it isn’t the case, then the concept can be taken off the table.
“We are behind the curve in bringing that to the portfolio so we have a better energy capability for the force,” he said.
As for forward operating bases and renewable energies that reduce fuel consumption and take convoys off the road, there are no perfect fits, he said. Solar farms take up a lot of space that need to be guarded. Biomass requires a local population able and willing to provide feedstock.
As for domestic bases, the military is almost completely dependent on local electric grids, Andres said.
“There are a number of countries that have a huge incentive to attack our commercial electric grid if we get into some conflict or crisis with them. They know it is a big vulnerability. It is just sitting there,” he said.
Chupka said the military has a good reputation of being first adopters of technologies that make a transition into the civilian world.
“It certainly doesn’t sound far fetched that the next phase of commercialization could involve military installations, or defense related installations,” he said.
And, as history shows, it has been done before.
The Cold War-era Army nuclear energy program marked several notable achievements. One reactor became the first to be transportable on the back of a flatbed truck. The first use of nuclear-generated power to desalinate water took place at McMurdo Sound, Antarctica.
The Camp Century plant was the first prepackaged nuclear power plant to be installed, operated and subsequently removed, according to a declassified Energy Department report on the history of highly enriched uranium.
The program did not match the Navy’s sterling record. A test plant at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho was destroyed in an accident that caused the deaths of the three-man operating crew.
Today, gaining a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is a long and arduous process, Chupka said.
The agreement signed in April between the energy firm of Babcock & Wilcox, its subsidiary Generation mPower and the Tennessee Valley Authority may allow the partnership to garner up to $226 million in federal funds, according to the World Nuclear News website. The 180-megawatt reactor will be pre-assembled offsite and located eventually to Clinch River, Tenn. There will be options to add three more reactors to increase the plant’s output.
The goal of the program is to kickstart the small modular nuclear reactor industry in the United States, create jobs and reduce Co2 emissions, an Energy Department official said in the story. The consortium will submit its license application to the NRC in 2015, but isn’t expected to have the reactor up and running until 2022.
Andres said it is difficult for anything having to do with nuclear energy to be built, developed or applied in the United States because of political opposition from some relatively small, but influential, groups.
“If the military champions them, they might be able to bypass that political resistance,” he said. “It is for national security, not for economic gain, and that argument has a lot more traction to get past the bureaucratic hurdles out there.”
Chupka added: “My guess is that a nuclear reactor on a military base would probably find more acceptance from the local community.”
However, as Andres noted, “When nuclear energy is mentioned, all logic instantly flies out the window.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the location of the accident that killed a test plant’s three-man operating crew as Fort Belvoir, Va. It also misidentified the location of the Chernobyl disaster as Russia. Photo Credit: Thinkstock