Military portable nuclear power module

Conceptual image of a Department of Defense portable nuclear power reactor

The U.S. Department of Defense has given the go-ahead to build a new prototype nuclear micro-reactor at the 890-square-mile Idaho National Laboratory, west of Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Project Pele is intended to provide reliable, abundant and continuous energy through the deployment of nuclear energy power systems within the military with what the Defense Science Board says is a “critical enabler of future military operations.”

The Department of Defense uses more than 10 million gallons of fuel per day and 30 terawatt-hours of electricity annually.

“A safe, small, transportable nuclear reactor would address this growing demand with a resilient, carbon-free energy source that would not add to the DoD’s fuel needs, while supporting mission-critical operations in remote and austere environments.”

The Defense Science Board concluded that with the potential electrification of military assets, battlefield energy usage “will likely increase significantly” over the next few decades.

Consequently, Project Pele was launched to design, build and demonstrate a prototype mobile micro-reactor power plant within five years.

One important aspect of the project is the use of tristructural isotopic nuclear fuel rods.

TRISO is a uranium fabrication that is extremely heat-resistant and will not melt at the temperatures experienced inside a nuclear reactor core even during a runaway reaction.

The reactor will be gas-cooled and will vent excess heat to the air. The designs under consideration make it highly unlikely that a core meltdown can occur.

The Pele project is developing a reactor/generator system that is transportable but provides “reliable electric power for an electrical grid that is separate from the public utility grid.”

The military’s requirement is that the reactor will fit inside a standard 20- or 40-foot shipping container and can be easily transported by truck, rail, ship or aircraft.

The reactor is intended to produce 1 to 5 megawatts of power, which according to UtiliPoint International, a research and advisory firm specializing in energy, is enough to power 400 to 800 homes.

While the final design has not yet been selected, two companies — BWXT Advanced Technologies and X-energy — are competing for the final design award.

The Department of Defense published its final environmental impact study decision April 15 in the Federal Register, meaning the project can move ahead to the design-build stage.

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