Nuclear Energy

Pentagon awards contracts to design mobile nuclear reactor

The Pentagon on Monday issued three contracts to start design work on mobile, small nuclear reactors, as part of a two-step plan towards achieving nuclear power for American forces at home and abroad. The department awarded contracts to BWX Technologies, Inc. of Virginia, for $13.5 million; Westinghouse Government Services of Washington, D.C. for $11.9 million; and X-energy, LLC of Maryland, for $14.3 million, to begin a two-year engineering design competition for a small nuclear microreactor designed to potentially be forward deployed with forces outside the continental United States. The combined $39.7 million in contracts are from “Project Pele,” a project run through the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), located within the department’s research and engineering side. The prototype is looking at a 1-5 megawatt (MWe) power range. The Department of Energy has been supporting the project at its Idaho National Laboratory. Pele “involves the development of a safe, mobile and advanced nuclear microreactor to support a variety of Department of Defense missions such as generating power for remote operating bases,” said Lt. Col. Robert Carver, a department spokesman. “After a two-year design-maturation period, one of the companies funded to begin design work may be selected to build and demonstrate a prototype.” “The Pele Program’s uniqueness lies in the reactor’s mobility and safety,” said Jeff Waksman, Project Pele program manager, in a department statement. “We will leverage our industry partners to develop a system that can be safely and rapidly moved by road, rail, sea or air and for quick set up and shut down, with a design which is inherently safe.” However, Pele is not the only attempt at introducing small nuclear reactors to the Pentagon’s inventory. A second effort is being run through the office of the undersecretary of acquisition and sustainment. That effort, ordered in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, involves a pilot program aiming to demonstrate the efficacy of a small nuclear reactor, in the 2-10 MWe range, with initial testing at a Department of Energy site in roughly the 2023 time-frame. If the testing goes well, a commercially developed, Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensed reactor will be demonstrated on a “permanent domestic military installation by 2027,” according to DoD spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Andrews. “If the full demonstration proves to be a cost effective energy resilience alternative, NRC-licensed [reactors] will provide an additional option for generating power provided to DoD through power purchase agreements.” The best way to differentiate between the programs may be to think of the A&S effort as the domestic program, built off commercial technology, as part of an effort to get off of local power grids that are seen as weak targets, either via physical or cyber espionage. Pele is focused on the prototyping a new design, with forward operations in mind — and may never actually produce a reactor, if the prototype work proves too difficult. According to an Oct. 2018 technical report by the Nuclear Energy Institute, 90 percent of military installations have “an average annual energy use that can be met by an installed capacity of nuclear power of 40 MWe or less.” Replacing all local power with a nuclear reactor isn’t necessary for the department’s goals, but one or more reactors in the 2 to 10 MWe range, located on base, would ensure that if the local power grid goes down, critical functions will still be able to operate. “The concern here is that, obviously, installations need energy, they need power,” Ellen Lord, the department’s acquisition head, explained last week at the annual McAleese conference. “Typically they are tied to the grid; what if the grid goes down, what if your generators don’t have fuel to work on for awhile? So, what we’re doing is looking at small nuclear modular reactors.” This isn’t the first time the DoD has looked into small nuclear reactors. The 2010 NDAA directed the department to study the feasibility of nuclear power for military installations, but a study concluded that the reactors available at the time were simply too big. However, new developments in the commercial sector are opening up more options. According to Dr. Jonathan Cobb, a spokesman for the World Nuclear Association, small nuclear reactors come in three flavors. The first, small modular reactors, sit in the 20-300 MWe range and are approaching the point they will appear on market. The second category sits from 10-100 megawatts, and have been used in transports such as icebreakers. According to Cobb, a pair of 32 MWe reactors, based on icebreaker technology, are being used aboard the Akademik Lomonosov, a Russian “floating power plant.” The third category, covering what the Pentagon appears most interested in, is a category known as microreactors. The challenge, Cobb said, is that this group is the furthest behind technologically, with demonstrations of commercial systems targeted for “the second half of the 2020s,” putting them in the “ballpark” of what DoD is looking for with its A&S effort. According to the NEI study, the reduced size and increased simplicity of microreactors mean a procurement and manufacturing cycle could take “between 3 and 5 years from the order of long lead materials to the delivery of the largest component, with a nominal target of 4 years. Most of the components will need to arrive on-site at least 6 months prior to startup in order to support the achievement of construction milestones.”

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Opinion/Analysis: Clean-energy supporters should support nuclear power

No matter your view on climate change, corporations and markets are planning for a lower-carbon future. In fact, some of the largest utility companies in the U.S. are making big bets that they can reach net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. But without nuclear power in the mix to produce needed energy, these bets are much less likely and will certainly be more expensive. The question is not whether the world’s economy will shift to a low-carbon one. The question is how and when. Here’s where things get very tricky and incredibly complicated, and a dose of humility is called for. When you hear Democrats in Congress and the party’s 2020 presidential candidates talk about their solutions to climate change, they generally focus on electricity and a “renewable” grid comprised of wind and solar power. Much of the case for 100 percent renewable energy comes from one professor at Stanford University – Mark Jacobsen. His theory includes the assumption that we can increase the amount of power from hydroelectric dams tenfold. But according to the U.S. Department of Energy and all major studies, the real potential increase is just a tiny fraction of that. Even if this were possible, it’s not smart or humble to put all of our eggs in one basket. I’m for renewables as part of the energy mix, but I’m not sure why the word “renewables” even matters. Aren’t we going for “clean” – meaning reducing greenhouse gas emissions? If so, why would Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and other Democrats want to take down 55 percent of our clean energy by decommissioning all nuclear power plants by 2030? That means replacing $60 billion of always-on power with intermittent renewables that have to be backed up by a power source when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. And to replace a 2-gigawatt nuclear plant with solar you would need the equivalent solar panel coverage of a two-lane highway from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles and back. Democrats say that wind and solar power are cheaper than other forms of energy, but they aren’t counting the cost of backup power. This is like saying that I saved a ton of money by selling my car and riding my new bike to work – but not counting the cost of Uber when I didn’t want to get wet on rainy days or sweaty on hot ones, or when I had to make a long trip. It’s easy to say nuclear power is too expensive or unsafe. It’s simple, and the Democratic base likes this claim. However, this point generally confuses the distinction between keeping existing plants open and building new ones. Virtually no one is advocating building more “Gen 3” nuclear reactors, which were first designed in the 1950s. But utility executives and pragmatic clean energy thinkers are advocating to keep existing nuclear power plants operating. As far as safety goes, there has never been a fatality or even a major injury at a nuclear plant in the U.S. due to radiation. Importantly, there are exciting prospects ahead thanks to nuclear innovation. New companies have figured out how to make nuclear power plants “walk-away safe.” This means that no human intervention is needed to shut down the plant if something goes wrong. The nuclear fission reaction stops when, under a rare occurrence, things get overheated. Many of these new reactor concepts work on used fuel. Not only do these engineering breakthroughs eliminate safety concerns – they drastically reduce costs. These new technologies aren’t pipedreams. NuScale’s small modular reactor is almost through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing process and has a power agreement with a Utah utility. Additional cutting-edge designs are expected to undergo formal reviews beginning in the next 18 months. Even our Defense Department is working on prototyping a new micro nuclear reactor by 2022. These reactors will not only provide always-on affordable power, but they can “load follow” renewables to provide 100 percent clean energy when needed. They should be viewed as an exciting complement rather than a competitor to renewables. For decades, Democrats in Congress and previous administrations have built roadblocks for nuclear power, making it the most heavily regulated industry in the country. We’ve seen modest improvements, but we need a bolder, more rapid modernization of federal nuclear policy. The Nuclear Energy Leadership Act is one example of legislation that could make a big difference. It has dozens of bipartisan co-sponsors in the House and Senate and broad industry and environmental stakeholder support. Among other things, the legislation would establish specific goals for public-private partnerships; require the development of a 10-year strategic plan that supports advanced nuclear research and development goals, and provide for initial domestic supplies of advanced nuclear fuel (currently available only in Russia) needed by new nuclear reactors. Nuclear power is critical to meeting environmental goals, but it is also a massive economic opportunity. The world’s middle-class is projected to grow by almost 50 percent by 2030, which means a lot of new air conditioners and appliances that need reliable and affordable power. It’s time to acknowledge nuclear power’s important place in the clean energy family.

Indeed…and well said, Jay. Jay Faison is the founder of ClearPath, whose mission is to accelerate conservative clean energy solutions. Learn more at Follow Jay on Twitter: @JayFaison1  France runs almost 80% of its national energy grid on nuclear.  There is no excuse for being so far behind in our use and development of nuclear energy.  It’s a national security issue.