The US Army will have a portable nuclear reactor ready by 2024. Here is how it works

The U.S. Department of Defense has awarded a $300 million contract for the project.
Ameya Paleja

The U.S. Department of Defense's Strategic Capabilities Office has awarded a $300 million contract to BWXT Technologies Inc. to build a portable nuclear reactor at Idaho National Laboratory.

As the consumer of 30 terawatts of energy every year and 10 million gallons of fuel every day, the DoD is one of the major contributors to carbon emissions in the U.S. Earlier this year, the U.S. Army publicized its plans to adopt an electric fleet and achieve a net-zero status of its operations by 2050.

However, ensuring carbon-free energy operations at austere locations can be difficult; that's where nuclear power comes in. The DoD launched Project Pele to prototype a fourth-generation nuclear reactor in remote locations and ensure that the reactor was portable. Last year, the SCO shortlisted two companies for this project and selected BWXT to build the prototype after further reviewing their designs. 

How will BWXT's portable nuclear reactor work?

BWXT's design consists of a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) with a power output between 1-5 MWe. The reactor will use TRISO fuel, high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel that can withstand extreme heat and has low environmental risks. The fuel has already been tested for temperatures far higher than the operating conditions of the reactor. 

To make the reactor portable, BWXT is designing all the components, including the reactor core and its control system components in ISO-compliant 20 feet (6 m) long shipping containers to make it easy to transport via air and road, rail, or sea. Once on-site, the system will be assembled in as little as 72 hours. The shutdown, cool down and disassembly for transport will occur in less than seven days. 

Manufacture, delivery, and testing

While BWXT will build the reactor module, it is also working with companies such as Northrop Grumman, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Rolls-Royce LibertyWorks, and Torch Technologies, Inc. to put the prototype together. BWXT will use its existing facilities to build the portable modules over the next two years and deliver the reactor to the Idaho National Laboratory by 2024. 

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The reactor and fuel will be shipped separately to the site. After assembly and fueling, the setup will be extensively tested to determine if it can reliably produce power for off-grid operations. The system is expected to be operational for a period of three years, where the power it generates will be tested against load banks to mimic operational loads that it would be working within real-world scenarios. Post this, the reactor will be disassembled and reassembled to demonstrate portability.

"The entire nuclear industry recognizes that advanced reactors are an important step forward to support growing power needs and significant carbon reduction imperatives," said Joe Miller, President of BWXT. "We are thrilled with this competitively bid award after years of hard work by our design and engineering team."

Beyond DoD's requirements, the technology can also be deployed in disaster responses, supply power to remote locations as well as an attempt to decarbonize power generation, the press release added. 

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