Portable Nuclear Reactor Program Sparks Controversy
Government Accountability Office illustration
The Defense Department is working to quickly procure a small, transportable nuclear reactor that could help bring energy to remote and austere environments.
However, the program has drawn criticism from nuclear nonproliferation experts for potentially causing disasters on battlefields.
The Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office selected two teams in March to continue their work developing transportable nuclear microreactor prototypes as part of “Project Pele.” The effort was originally formulated in the fall of 2018 in response to language in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act about the need to find a solution to a perennial problem: providing power to U.S. troops, said Jeff Waksman, program manager for the effort.
The office awarded BWXT Advanced Technologies, a Virginia-based nuclear components company, and X-energy, a Maryland-based nuclear reactor and fuel engineering company, $27.9 million and $28.7 million for the project, respectively.
Prior to the award, both companies received contracts ranging from approximately $13 million to $15 million in 2020 for work on preliminary engineering designs of the microreactors.
Nuclear power is “orders of magnitude more energy dense than any other known technology,” Waksman told National Defense. “That allows the possibility to provide resilient power for years and years, without needing to refuel. … Refueling can be a real burden in remote areas.”
The Strategic Capabilities Office sees three main applications for the initial capability, Waksman noted.
“When we talk about the low hanging fruit for early applications for this, [the first] is remote locations — think the Arctic where there is a need for large amounts of power — but it’s hard to get power there now,” he said.
Another is what is referred to as the “strategic support area,’” which provides power for equipment that is mission essential, such as radar systems, he said.
The third key application for a portable reactor is its ability to aid in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, Waksman said.
Over the past few years there have been a number of incidents throughout the United States including hurricanes and cold snaps that have caused massive power outages over large areas.
“One of these reactors is not going to power Texas or California or Puerto Rico, but what it can power is a crucial single location when the whole grid is down,” Waksman said. “This can power a hospital or it can power a refugee center.”
The reactor is being designed to deliver 1 to 5 megawatts of electrical power for at least three years of operation, according to the SCO.
The concept for the reactors began with the requirement that they would run off of tristructural isotropic particle fuel, or TRISO, Waksman said.
Each TRISO particle is made up of a uranium, carbon and oxygen fuel kernel which is encapsulated by three layers of carbon- and ceramic-based materials that prevent the release of radioactive products, according to the Department of Energy.
“TRISO fuel was originally developed by the Department of Energy to be a meltdown-proof fuel,” Waksman noted. “They wanted a fuel that could withstand very high temperatures without melting, and it has been tested to 1,800 Celsius, which is hotter than the melting point of steel.”
The fuel has two secondary benefits for the Pentagon, the first being its resiliency to proliferation which can help deter the reactors from being targets for bombings or attacks. “We believe that the encapsulation of the fuel makes it very unattractive for those purposes,” Waksman said.
The other benefit stems from its encapsulated deficient product gases, he said.
That’s “the stuff that actually harms people in, say, Fukushima or Chernobyl,” he said, referring to previous nuclear disasters in Japan and the former Soviet Union. “Rather than flowing through the core, it’s wrapped up in millions of these little tiny, tiny pellets, which means that even if somehow someone was able to crack open this reactor ... you’re not going to release all of the gases that are inside,” he said.
These benefits are important as there could be hesitancy to deploy the reactors overseas if there are significant radiological risks to troops at an installation point, Waksman noted. “So, we have made safety our absolute No. 1 priority on this program,” he added.
While the office is making efforts to ensure the reactors are as durable as possible, some critics are still concerned about the possibility of an enemy missile attack.
These points are made in the report, “Proposed U.S. Army Mobile Nuclear Reactors: Costs and Risks Outweigh Benefits,” authored by Alan Kuperman, coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.
The office’s microreactor effort could help facilitate a “radioactive Pearl Harbor or 9/11 attack on U.S. troops,” said Kuperman.
“The Army’s mobile reactor program, which was never requested by the Pentagon but rather by nuclear industry cheerleaders in Congress, is precisely how disasters happen,” he said in the report, which was released in April. “Such enormous risks cannot be justified since we already have safer energy alternatives that are also cheaper by an order of magnitude than nuclear.”
Another issue highlighted in the report is the possibility of reactors being captured during an enemy attack.
Kuperman warns that if soldiers were forced to abandon a reactor under attack, an adversary could potentially come into possession of several hundred pounds of highly radioactive waste.
Waksman said the SCO is thinking through any potential disaster the reactor could face.
“We have to study what happens if there’s sabotage, if someone tries a terror attack on the reactor,” he said. “We have to study if there’s an earthquake, a volcano, a partial flood, a full flood. What happens if the truck is driving on the road and slides down an embankment and becomes partially lodged in a muddy river?”
As for radioactive waste, Waksman said: “We want to emphasize that the amount of nuclear waste that this will produce is very tiny,”
Waksman said. “The amount of waste that we’re going to be producing here … is what we would call basically negligible.”
The plan currently is to keep the waste safely at Idaho National Laboratory, alongside a number of other reactors already stored there, he said.
Due to the rapid timeline for the program — with a final design review slated for 2022 and then a downselect to one company’s prototype — the teams are working with a number of materials and concepts already in use today.
“We are not trying to create the most advanced nuclear reactor possible because that’s just not what SCO does,” Waksman said. “SCO is a rapid prototyping organization.”
The follow-on effort for Project Pele — informally dubbed “Son of Pele” — will be a more advanced reactor. But for the first iteration, “we simply need a mobile reactor producing 1 to 5 megawatts of power” that can be ready to go in 2024, he said.
Due to security requirements, BWXT declined to answer questions about the design of its prototype offering, but a spokesperson said the company is currently pursuing a number of opportunities within the Defense Department that leverage its work with nuclear engineering.
“We’ve restarted our TRISO nuclear fuel production line and nabbed two contracts, we’ve been developing new additive manufacturing technologies for high-temperature alloys and refractory metals, and we’re leading a different $106 million microreactor development project for the Department of Energy,” said Jud Simmons, director of media and public relations for BWXT. “Although these technologies are focused on the commercial advanced reactor market, there could be some military tie-ins down the road.”
X-energy did not respond to a request for an interview.
One major hurdle the SCO and vendors will have to overcome is an environmental analysis, which the program is subject to under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. The office will have to formulate a report detailing Project Pele’s uranium management “from cradle to grave and explain everywhere it’s going, everywhere it might be and what any potential risks are,” Waksman said.
Another design issue project managers and vendors will have to consider is the portability of the reactor.
Although the microreactor will be transportable onboard a C-17, the first iteration of Project Pele will not be flown due to the “political implications” of flying radioactive material, Waksman said.
“We just want to make sure that from a size and weight and weight distribution [perspective], that it could be flown if we chose to. But that’s a policy question,” Waksman said.
For now, the reactor will be transported via truck. The SCO has been heavily engaged with both the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Transportation as well as the National Nuclear Security Administration to obtain regulatory approval to drive the reactor on U.S. roads, he said.
“Those are very, very strict requirements because there cannot be a risk to a member of the public who walks up to something on a highway,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory is examining how nuclear microreactors efforts such as Project Pele can be transported.
The lab is currently exploring the types of infrastructure needed to deploy nuclear microreactors, said Andrew Breshears, principal nuclear chemist at the lab.
“Where would nuclear reactors, and especially microreactors in this case, need to be deployed in order to best serve the community and the nation?” he asked in an interview.
Argonne is also developing advanced materials that can better withstand the stress and strain that high temperature, high efficiency reactors experience.
The lab established an advanced materials division which uses computational and experimental methods to investigate and test new materials. The division is also exploring how to produce such materials on a larger scale, he noted.
That includes special coatings, Breshears added.
“We have what’s known as the metal facility, which does testing of parts that we would expect to be in a metal-cooled, fast reactor loop, and … [are examining] how those materials withstand the stress and strain under ... those conditions,” he said.
The main thrust of the lab’s efforts is to help the United States reach its goal of generating carbon-free electricity by 2035 and net zero carbon emissions by 2050, Breshears said.