Pentagon officials recently announced that the Defense Department will build a nuclear microreactor that can be flown to an austere site by a C-17 cargo plane and set up to power a military base.
A statement released Wednesday by the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office announced the construction and testing decision that followed the office’s Environmental Impact Statement work for “Project Pele.”
The project’s Program Manager, Dr. Jeff Waksman, told Military Times that the office expects to choose one of two designs submitted by BWXT Advanced Technologies, LLC, out of Lynchburg, Virginia, and X-energy, LLC, out of Greenbelt, Maryland, in the coming weeks.
But a number of nuclear scientists and watchdogs have questioned the need for such a device. In recent years, they have publishing scathing reports, commentary and analyses about the potential contamination should the reactor or its fuel be damaged during an attack, stolen or experience a catastrophic failure.
“Not only have my concerns not been alleviated, they’ve actually grown,” Professor Alan J. Kuperman told Military Times.
Though the drawing board phases of the concepts have gone on in fits and starts since at least 2010, the actual final design and “bending metal” phase have not yet begun.
The Army originally awarded $40 million in contracts to three companies in March 2020, according to government documents.
In the fiscal year 2020, the Pentagon budgeted $63 million for the project, followed by another $70 million in fiscal 2021. Project Pele reports have hailed the fourth-generation nuclear reactor as a “pathfinder” for commercial adoption of the technology.
The moniker “Pele” refers not to the famous Brazilian soccer player but instead is a nod to the Hawaiian deity Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanos and mythological creator of the Hawaiian islands. But of course, there has to be an acronym and for this project it is Portable Energy for Lasting Effects.
The plans call for a 40-ton reactor that can fit in three-to-four 20-foot shipping containers and, once set up, provide 1 to 5 Mega Watts of power on full power operation for up to three years before refueling.
The microreactor will ultimately join a newer type of nuclear fuel being used in the program at the Idaho National Laboratory. Testing and experimentation will occur in 2024, with demonstrations anticipated by 2025, Waksman said.
“Advanced nuclear power has the potential to be a strategic game-changer for the United States, both for the DoD and for the commercial sector,” Waksman said. “For it to be adopted, it must first be successfully demonstrated under real-world operating conditions.”
Kuperman has concerns, though. He is the coordinator of the University of Texas at Austin’s Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project and authored a 21-page report on the Pentagon’s program in 2021 titled, “Proposed U.S. Army Mobile Nuclear Reactors: Costs and Risks Outweigh Benefits.”
Members of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists also told Army Times in 2019 that they had major concerns that the Army’s own reporting on the design concept showed such a microreactor would “not be expected to survive a direct kinetic attack.”
Waksman responded to that concern with a twofold answer to Army Times this week, saying that the microreactor will be used for austere locations, some of which were identified in the original 2018 Army G-4 report, “Study on the Use of Mobile Nuclear Power Plants for Ground Operations.”
Those include places such as Fort Greely, Alaska, and Lajes Field, Azores.
Second, Waksman said that both the newer designed reactor, a “high-temperature gas reactor,” and its fuel source, known as high-assay low enriched uranium tristructural isotropic fuel, provide more safety measures than older generation reactors and fuel.
The design also has protection features built in that are currently classified, Waksman said. Additionally, commanders can enhance protection with barriers or by burying the reactor underground, he said.
“This thing is very resilient,” Waksman said.
The fuel type offers another layer of protection.
“The uranium is in millions of tiny pebbles, less than 1 mm in diameter, each individually encapsulated,” Waksman said. “Each fuel pellet is its own barrier.”
But critics such as Kuperman and Jake Hecla, a nuclear engineering doctoral candidate at the University of California Berkeley, said relying on encapsulation is dangerous.
The fuel pellets could be scattered over great distances, Kuperman said. “The pellet is flying around the base and the radioactivity permeates outside the cladding.”
Hecla said relying on encapsulation or cladding as a “last line of defense” to contain nuclear materials neglected “the realities of the consequences from potential accidents.”
One of the early foundations that drove Army G-4 research, according to its own 2018 report, was to use such microreactors at Forward Operating Bases. The idea was that they could reduce fuel consumption and the frequent attacks on supply lines that troops witnessed during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Current estimates show that a single Pele microreactor could save up to 1 million gallons of diesel fuel annually, Waksman said.
But Waksman added that plans for the microreactors under development do not consider them for use in a tactical environment.
When pressed on the inconsistency in past reports and current plans, Strategic Capabilities Office spokesman Navy Lt. Cmdr. Timothy Gorman said “any new system has to target is ‘low hanging fruit.’”
“For the Navy, its lowest hanging fruit for nuclear power is submarines. For a land-based reactor, moving around in the tactical zone is not low hanging fruit, and thus is not seen as an early application for these reactors,” Gorman wrote in an email.
Kuperman and Hecla point out that doesn’t mean future versions of microreactors would not be deployed near the front lines, making them targets for a direct strike by adversaries.
“This type of reactor is a sitting duck for that type of attack,” Kuperman said.
But Kuperman sees another problem with the change in application from Forward Operating Bases to non-tactical, austere zones.
“The whole point of a mobile reactor is for rapid deployment to a war zone,” Kuperman said. “Remote bases are enduring, they’re there for a long time. [They’re] building this expensive, supposedly rugged reactor for mobile deployment to remote bases, which don’t need a reactor.”
Gorman clarified that the program seeks nuclear power for island locations, and technically, in Army parlance, the microreactor is “transportable” rather than “mobile.” The quick setup options for the Pele prototype would beat current large-scale diesel generators that can take as long as two weeks to set up.
“The benefits of transportable power is the ability to rapidly move it where it’s needed and to be able to set it up in austere locations without reliability [sic] infrastructure,” Gorman wrote in an email response.
Hecla also found the shifting use confusing.
“I’m really at a loss for words here. I’ve heard so many justifications for these (microreactors) over the years I’ve been following it,” Hecla said.
Small-scale reactors have a history in the Army that goes back half a century, with mixed results. Those reactors were of much older design types.
More recently, a microreactor concept and design has been floating around the halls of the Pentagon for more than a decade.
The Cold War-era Army Nuclear Power Program ran from 1954 to 1977, and built eight small nuclear reactors. Those reactors ranged in power production from 1 to 10 megawatts.
Five of those eight reactors were used as follows:
- 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.
A major failure happened with one of the original eight designs in 1961 when a core meltdown and explosion of the SL-1 reactor at the Idaho National Reactor Testing Station killed three operators. That testing station is now known as the Idaho National Laboratory and is the planned site for testing of the new Project Pele microreactor.
Three reactors deployed to Antarctica, Greenland and Alaska but proved “unreliable and expensive to operate,” according to reports.
Waksman admits that the older designs had problems.
“Certainly, they were very unsafe,” he said.
But the gains of eliminating long, vulnerable supply lines, especially through contested space, add to the project’s importance, he said.
The 2018 Army G-4 report listed the following locations as potential candidates or templates for where the microreactor could be installed:
- Thule, Greenland
- Kwajalein Atoll
- Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
- Diego Garcia
- Ascension Island
- Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico
- Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan
- Camp Buehring, Kuwait
- Fort Greely, Alaska
- Lajes Field, Azores
More recently, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency issued a request for information from industry for microreactors in 2010. The agency budgeted $10 million in fiscal year 2012 to develop the program concept and proposed spending $150 million over a six-year period to build them.
Lack of funding at the time killed the program.
But, in 2014, Congress included language in their annual budget package for a report on a “small modular reactor” that would power forward or remote operating bases, according to congressional documents.
A 2016 report authored by the Defense Science Board laid out power requirements that the reactor could provide. And the 148-page Army G-4 report in 2018 adopted the science board’s recommendations to pursue the technology.
Critics remarked that the current timeline that requires choosing a design in the coming months and having a test-ready microreactor and fuel in place in under two years is too fast.
That schedule is shorter than the development timeline for some components that go into new reactor designs, Hecla said.
But Waksman said the first land-based nuclear reactor built in the United States since the 1970s has sufficient technology, support and research behind it to succeed. The prototype, he added, will also help trim the development and fielding time and costs of a future round of small nuclear reactors.
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.