The author of an academic report on Pentagon plans to build mobile nuclear reactors to power future combat bases called the effort “extremely disturbing” and “based on a lie.”
The report released Thursday slams the Pentagon and Army G-4, logistics — specifically the Army office’s 2018 report that lays out the potential uses and needs for such mobile nuclear reactors in future operations.
Alan J. Kuperman wrote the 21-page report titled, “Proposed U.S. Army Mobile Nuclear Reactors: Costs and Risks Outweigh Benefits,” in his role as coordinator of the University of Texas at Austin’s Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project.
“They don’t reduce casualties, they increase costs and they increase threats to the lives of U.S. service members,” Kuperman said.
The program, known as “Project Pele,” is prototyping the mobile advanced microreactor concept under the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office.
The purpose is “to provide deployable, reliable, resilient and safe operational power for a variety of DoD missions,” said Navy Cmdr. Josh Frey, a Defense Department spokesman.
“Project Pele offers a transformative capability to deliver resilient electrical power for years without refueling and in a size small enough to be transported by existing defense infrastructure,” Frey said.
While still in the design phase, the mobile reactors are being designed and developed to “be self-managing and inherently safe by design —even in the event of total catastrophic disaster.”
The DoD spokesman pointed out that the project is part of a collaboration involving the Department of Energy, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and private industry. Project Pele is not being designed for a specific military service branch but does include experts across defense for a variety of requirements.
Army officials for G-4 deferred comment on the program to DoD.
In a 148-page 2018 report commissioned by the Army Deputy Chief of Staff G-4, the authors claimed the benefits of such reactors would help reduce fuel logistics and storage problems, reduce infrastructure challenges for large-scale power, aid in power generation for areas lacking electrical grids and provide power to energy-intensive systems.
Congress approved funding for prototype reactors and the Army awarded $40 million in contracts to three nuclear reactor companies in March 2020 for Project Pele, according to the NPPP report.
Kuperman struck at the Army’s rationale, calling the project unnecessary and dangerous. He counters some of the main justifications that have been provided by DoD and Army reports:
- High cost – Kuperman said the Army’s claims that nuclear power can provide cheaper electricity for powering future forward bases is “based on unrealistic assumptions.” Those include that such a reactor would have low construction costs and operate for 18 hours a day over 40 years. The more likely scenario is a mobile reactor would run for half that time over about 10 years, meaning nuclear electricity could cost 16 times more than estimates and still seven times more than diesel-generated power.
- Vulnerability to missile attacks – The report points to the 2020 missile attack on forces at al-Asad air base in Iraq. Even with warnings hours ahead of time, more than 100 U.S. personnel suffered traumatic brain injury from the 11 strikes that hit the facility. And the missiles were 10 times more accurate than the Army has predicted in its report on the vulnerability of reactors to precision strikes. The service admits that a direct hit on a reactor would destroy the device. Kuperman notes that even the Army’s plans to protect the reactors, by burying them underground, could inadvertently cause meltdowns by impeding air cooling and causing overheating. A similar strike on an similar such future base with a reactor could cause far more devastating consequences.
- Captured reactors – Should a U.S. base housing a mobile reactor be overrun or abandoned, the radioactive waste from the reactor could be used in “dirty bomb” terror attacks.
- No mission for reactors – One of the chief purposes of pursing such reactor programs was to reduce casualties from diesel transport to remote bases. But Defense Department data shows a dramatic drop in casualties of five per 1 million gallons of fuel delivered in 2005 to nearly zero by 2013.
- High-energy weapons don’t need reactors – Kuperman states that the justification that future high-energy or laser weapons that the Army hopes to have protecting bases don’t require a reactor to power. “A high energy weapon would have to be fired millions of times to justify a reactor,” Kuperman said. “In reality such a weapon would be fired perhaps hundreds of times in its lifetime.”
- Transport problems – The Army wants to air deliver these reactors to combat posts. Kuperman questions the “regulatory nightmare” that would create. The program calls for initial tests flying the reactors domestically to run then returning them, and their radioactive waste, to another domestic location. Foreign transport would require approval of countries airspace traversed and the approval of a host nation where the reactor would be placed, he said. Other Army recommendations include truck or rail transport domestically and either ship or over-the-ocean flights to friendly ports to then move the reactors again via truck or rail.
Army Times reported on the proposed program in 2019, which had drawn backlash from the Union of Concerned Scientists and its then-director of the Nuclear Safety Project, Edwin Lyman, who called the proposal, “naïve.”
The original proposal, approved by the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office asked for industry solutions in January 2019 on providing a less than 40-ton small, mobile nuclear reactor design that could operate for three years or more and provide 1 to 10 megawatts of power.
Planners want the reactor to fit inside a C-17 cargo plane for air transport to theater. More recent moves have reduced the power output to 5 megawatts.
Other requirements include: the reactor must shut down safely without intervention in the event of an attack, rely on passive cooling and avoid significant release of radioactivity or health consequences to people nearby.
Prototype designs are scheduled through 2022, with a down-select of one or more designs, then testing in 2023 and construction and demonstration by 2024 with operations possible by 2027.
In March, the DoD extended contracts for two of three companies competing for the potential reactor design contract, BWXT and X-Energy.
In its first two years, the program overall has had appropriations totaling $133 million, according to the NPPP report.
The military did have a small reactor program during the Cold War. The Army Nuclear Power Program, which ran from 1954 to 1977, developed eight small nuclear reactors. Those reactors ranged in power production from 1 to 10 megawatts.
How five of the eight reactors were used:
- The PM-1 reactor was used in Sundance, Wyoming, from 1962 to 1968.
- The PM-2A was used at Camp Century, Greenland, from 1961 to 1964.
- The PM-3A was used at McMurdo Base, Antarctica, from 1962 to 1972.
- The ML-1 was used in developmental testing from 1962 to 1966.
- The MH-1A was used in the Panama Canal Zone from 1965 to 1977.
Lyman notes a major failure with one of the original eight designs in 1961 when a core meltdown and explosion of the SL-1 reactor in Idaho killed three operators.
The three deployed to Antarctica, Greenland and Alaska proved “unreliable and expensive to operate,” Lyman wrote in his response to the Army’s 2018 report on the mobile reactor program.
Lyman told Army Times on Thursday that a number of those old reactors required decades of decommissioning and one used at Fort Belvoir, Va., near Washington D.C. is finally scheduled for decommissioning in late 2021.
The 2018 G-4 report recommended the following locations where it saw potential use for the mobile reactors:
- Thule, Greenland
- Kwajalein Atoll
- Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
- Diego Garcia
- Guam (for both a naval and Air Force facilities on the island)
- Ascension Island
- Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico
- Camp Buehring, Kuwait
- Fort Greely, Alaska
- Lajes Field, Azores
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.