The US Military Plans to Build Mobile Nuclear Reactor in Idaho

Two companies are already in the fray to build the first prototype.
Ameya Paleja
Transient Test Reactor at Idaho National LabarotaryENERGY.GOV

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is moving ahead with its plans to build a mobile nuclear reactor and has released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for building and demonstrating one at the Idaho National Laboratory. The nuclear reactor will be designed to deliver one to five megawatts of power, for at least three years of operation, a DoD press release said. 

Currently, the DoD consumes 30 terawatts of power every year and 10 million gallons of fuel per day. In an executive order signed earlier this year, President Biden had called for climate change consideration in matters of national security as well. With plans to move to an electric fleet for all non-tactical vehicles and the maturation of energy-intensive capabilities, the DoD's demand for energy is expected to rise further. It is pursuing nuclear reactors as a carbon-free energy source. 

To this effect, the DoD launched Project Pele to prototype the fourth-generation nuclear reactor that is capable of working in even remote and austere environments. After a preliminary design competition, the DoD has shortlisted two firms: Virginia-based BWXT Advanced Technologies LLC and Maryland-based X Energy LLC. Both companies are currently working with the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) to independently develop their concepts. Also, to facilitate rapid transport and use, the reactor design is required to be operable within three days of delivery and safely removed in not more than seven days. A final design review is scheduled for early 2022, and one of the companies will be selected to build the prototype afterward.

The DoD also needs to complete an environmental analysis before embarking on the prototype construction. In accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the recently released draft EIS is now open to public comment for a period of 45 days, which will be used in the final EIS and decision regarding construction and testing in 2022.   

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The EIS also lists the vulnerability of local electrical grids as another reason for switching to portable nuclear reactors. However, critics cite that these reactors could themselves become risky for troops. "There is always going to be a way that an adversary can damage a nuclear reactor and cause dispersal of its nuclear content," Edwin Lyman, director of Nuclear Power Safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit organization told AP.

According to the EIS, the prototype will be built at one location, tested, then moved to another location, and tested again. The second location is expected to mimic real-world scenarios. "Unless the Army is willing to spend what it would take to make them safe for use, especially in potential combat situations or foreign operating bases, I think it’s probably unwise to deploy nuclear reactors in theaters of war," Lyman added.

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