Safety Concerns Could Stymie Nuclear Reactor Plans
HONOLULU, Hawaii — The Defense Department sees great potential in using small nuclear reactors to power facilities, but society’s long-held safety fears must be overcome to fully leverage the technology, said a top logistics official.
The Pentagon recently awarded contracts to BWX Technologies, Westinghouse Government Services and X-energy to begin design work on mobile nuclear reactor prototypes under a Strategic Capabilities Office initiative called Project Pele. After a two-year design-maturation period, one of the three companies may be selected to build and demonstrate a prototype.
“Project Pele involves the development of a safe, mobile and advanced nuclear microreactor to support a variety of Department of Defense missions” such as generating power for remote operating bases and supporting humanitarian and disaster relief efforts, the department said in a March press release.
Logistics is a major concern for the military, especially in Indo-Pacific Command’s vast area of operations. That includes satisfying growing demand for power and fuel.
Army Maj. Gen. Sue Davidson, director for logistics, engineering and security cooperation at INDOPACOM, J4, said small nuclear reactors are a viable technology that could potentially help with the problem.
“If I can get a small nuclear reactor that’s safe in the size of a 40-foot container — which is what we’re looking at right now — and deliver it somewhere, it will fuel a city. I’m golden. Now I’m not bringing in all the other stuff” that would otherwise be needed, she said during remarks at the Pacific Operational Science and Technology Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii, organized by the National Defense Industrial Association.
The Defense Department currently uses approximately 30 terawatt-hours of electricity per year and more than 10 million gallons of fuel each day.
A small, mobile nuclear reactor would “enable units to carry a nearly endless clean power supply, enabling expansion and sustainment of operations for extended periods of time anywhere on the planet,” the release said. The technology could also provide temporary or long-term support to critical infrastructure like hospitals during a crisis, it noted.
Officials indicated that safety will be a top priority for Project Pele.
“The Pele program’s uniqueness lies in the reactor’s mobility and safety,” program manager Jeff Waksman said in the release. “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 Pentagon is looking at the technology through the prism of great power competition with advanced adversaries.
“The United States risks ceding nuclear energy technology leadership to Russia and China,” Strategic Capabilities Office Director Jay Dryer said. “By retaking technological leadership, the United States will be able to supply the most innovative advanced nuclear energy technologies.”
However, attracting sufficient investment in the capability could be a challenge.
“The problem with nuclear reactors … is the word ‘nuclear,’” Davidson said. “People are afraid of it. We should not be afraid of it, but all people think of when they hear ‘nuclear’ is either Chernobyl — which was tragic — Three Mile Island or [the Fukushima disaster in] Japan.
“When you hear ‘nuclear,’ you panic. You can’t panic,” she added. “You’ve got to embrace that energy and make it useful for us.”