Small Nuclear Reactors for Military Installations: Capabilities, Costs, and Technological Implications

Article excerpt

In recent years, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has become increasingly interested in the potential of small (less than 300 megawatts electric [MWe]) nuclear reactors for military use. (1) DOD's attention to small reactors stems mainly from two critical vulnerabilities it has identified in its infrastructure and operations: the dependence of U.S. military bases on the fragile civilian electrical grid, and the challenge of safely and reliably supplying energy to troops in forward operating locations. DOD has responded to these challenges with an array of initiatives on energy efficiency and renewable and alternative fuels. Unfortunately, even with massive investment and ingenuity, these initiatives will be insufficient to solve DOD's reliance on the civilian grid or its need for convoys in forward areas. The purpose of this paper is to explore the prospects for addressing these critical vulnerabilities through small-scale nuclear plants.

Several Congressional and DOD actors have already indicated an interest in military applications of small reactors. In early 2008, the Air Force, at the behest of former Senators Pete Domenici and Larry Craig, considered a pilot program to deploy small reactors on at least one of its bases. (2) In late 2009, the National Defense Authorization Act authorized a study on the feasibility of developing nuclear power plants on military installations. Additionally, a handful of defense analysts have publicly advocated using nuclear power plants for military electricity and mobility, and a joint DOD-Department of Energy (DOE) working group, in cooperation with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), is now studying options for small nuclear reactors on DOD installations.

All current proposals and discussions center on microreactors (small, modular, and potentially transportable) rather than on the megareactors that have been the focus of commercial nuclear energy development. (3) These kinds of innovative small reactors have been rapidly generating interest outside the military as well. The NRC held stakeholder workshops in October 2009 and February 2010 to begin discussing novel licensing issues, and it released a paper on potential policy, licensing, and technical issues in March 2010. (4) DOE conducted a June 2010 workshop on small reactors, including technical panels on assessment, instrumentation, materials, modeling, and policy. (5) Three bills related to small reactors have been making their way through the Senate: the Nuclear Energy Research Initiative Improvement Act and the Nuclear Power 2021 Act were placed on the Senate legislative calendar in September 2010, while the Clean Energy Act of 2009 remains in the Energy and National Resources Committee. Moreover, President Barack Obama's 2011 budget request included $39 million for the development of small modular reactors.

It should be emphasized that none of the small reactor designs currently under consideration for commercial development have been licensed by the NRC, let alone constructed, demonstrated, or tested. Given the early stage of the technology, DOD's "first mover" pursuit of small reactors could therefore have a profound influence on the development of the industry. DOD does have substantial experience with nuclear energy--historically, both the U.S. Army and Navy have incorporated nuclear reactors into their operations (6)--that could make it particularly well suited to taking a leading role in testing small reactors.

The initial analysis offered in this paper suggests that small reactors could be instrumental in addressing DOD's challenges of grid insecurity at domestic installations and fuel supply at forward operating bases. The next step is to conduct more fine-grained analysis to answer questions about costs, personnel needs, technological options, and security and transportability issues. The Secretary of Defense's feasibility study and the research undertaken by the DOD/ DOE/NRC working group are crucial steps forward. …