By Dan Goure - Vice President at The Lexington Institute
Micro Nuclear Reactors Could Play Big Role In Future U.S. Military Operations
To date, the U.S. military has not had a major problem getting to a military contingency. The problems emerge once U.S. forces arrive. The need to deploy units across the theater of operations to defeat insurgents, establish control, secure critical infrastructure and protect the civilian population results in the creation of numerous targets that hostile forces can engage. A particular vulnerability is created by the need to resupply far flung bases and outposts. Each convoy loaded with fuel food, ammunition and supplies constitutes a potential vulnerability. A high percent of Coalition casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, both uniform and civilian contractors, were incurred during ground transport operations.= The threat to U.S. lines of communications and logistics support will be even more severe in a high-end conflict.
At the same time, the demand for support, particularly electric power generation is only going to increase. The U.S. military is on the verge of deploying directed energy weapons, electric vehicles and additive manufacturing capabilities to mobile formations, as well as fixed installations.
The Department of Defense is exploring ways of improving the security of supply convoys and simultaneously reducing the resupply demands of forward deployed and fast-moving formations. A key to the transformation of U.S. military logistics and to reducing the casualties resulting from convoy operations is lessening the demand for petroleum products. This means making vehicle and aircraft engines more efficient. It also means finding alternatives to diesel and gasoline-powered generators used by many military systems and on virtually all bases.
Among the alternatives to petroleum-powered power sources being explored is micro nuclear reactors. Last year’s Defense Science Board’s study on survivable logistics proposed prototyping very small nuclear reactors for expeditionary power generation. Recently, DoD’s Strategic Capabilities Office published a Request for Information (RFI) from industry on ideas leading to the creation of an under 40-ton small mobile nuclear power plant that could operate for three years or more, be transportable by truck or C-17, put out 1 to 10 megawatts of power and be inherently safe from the risk of a meltdown. The Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army for Logistics, G-4, declared that it was possible to develop, construct and deploy such a mobile nuclear power plant with existing technology.
A mobile nuclear power plant can serve multiple functions. In addition to powering electronic systems such as computers, communications devices, additive manufacturing machines and directed energy weapons, it can run heating and cooling systems, power water desalination and even generate hydrogen fuel for advanced vehicle power plants. This would further reduce the demand for resupply, leading to a decline in the size and frequency of logistic convoys.
A report by the Nuclear Energy Institute asserts that micro reactors could offer a safe and secure source of power for domestic military installations:
Micro-reactors are a source of resilient energy that can enable a wide range of installations to enhance their range, endurance, agility and mission assurance. Micro-reactors are being designed with island-mode operations, black-start capabilities, an ability to protect against severe natural phenomena as well as man-made physical and cybersecurity threats, and to operate for several years without the need to shut down for refueling.
In some respects, small reactors are not entirely new. The Navy operates dozens of them to power its aircraft carriers and submarines. Both Russia and China have several micro reactors in operations. The U.K. and Canada are working to approve the design for a small reactor that would be available for commercial sale.
The technologies to support the development and operation of land-based micro-nuclear reactors has advanced significantly over the last few decades. The U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) has sponsored work to design and develop so-called Gen IV reactors. These are gas, not water cooled, and have inherently safe, “walk away controls.” Some of these reactors use high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU), in the form of accident-proof and proliferation resistant Tristructural-Isotropic (TRISO) fuel, which is less than 20% enriched. TRISO fuel uses slightly enriched uranium inside a triple-coated sphere of carbon, consisting of a layer of carbon, then silicon carbide and, finally, more carbon. The coatings serve as the fuel particle’s primary containment system.
Mobile micro reactors will have much wider applications than just for the military. The Strategic Capability Office’s RFI noted that these reactors could also be shipped into disaster zones, such as areas leveled by earthquakes, hurricanes, or floods, providing power for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. These reactors could also be employed as part of micro-grids that would also use other forms of eco-friendly renewable energy sources.
The U.S. government faces a number of challenges in the pursuit of micro reactors. DoD and DoE need to commission industry to develop prototype designs for a mobile nuclear power plant. In addition, DOE need to serious invest in the supporting infrastructure to test micro reactor components and produce the necessary HALEU fuels. DoD will be required to conduct a robust test and evaluation program on all approved designs, not only for their operational stability and safety, but for their susceptibility to attack.
How serious is the DoD about the idea of micro nuclear reactors? The U.S. nuclear industry is prepared to move forward with the design and development of mobile nuclear power plants as well as the supporting infrastructure. What it needs is continuing political and financial support from the U.S. Government.
Dan Gouré*, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio* here.
By Dan Goure - Vice President at The Lexington Institute
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