Industry Hopes Defense Department Mobile Nuclear-Reactor Push Will Pay Off

The U.S. nuclear industry sees the Pentagon’s interest in the field as key to its domestic revival.

AP Photo/John Bazemore
April 7, 2019, 8 p.m.

The Pentagon is delivering hope to a U.S. nuclear industry embattled by poor economics and public concern.

A set of Defense Department initiatives that aim to foster partnerships with the private sector on construction of small nuclear reactors are now moving ahead. And industry leaders say those projects—one of which intends to provide power to a domestic military installation—may prove to be a critical springboard for developing products that companies could market to utilities.

“The military-base design is going to be a very similar if not identical reactor to one in a power plant. Absolutely,” said Clay Sell, CEO of X-energy and a former deputy secretary at the Energy Department.

The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act mandated that the Defense Department, along with the DOE, issue a report by this summer on recommendations for operating a micro-reactor on a military base before 2028.

DOE officials reached out to the private sector in September to request information on “the anticipated pathway to commercial operation,” among a wide range of other details of potential proposals, and companies that include X-energy and NuScale submitted responses, according to officials with those companies.

The Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office is also asking for input from industry leaders on development of a small mobile nuclear reactor that could be deployed to forward-operating bases in theaters abroad.

The Defense Department requested private-sector input on the project in January, and the department is aiming to finalize details of a potential partnership, such as cost-sharing options, by next month. Demonstrations could take place by 2021.

Utilities operate stationary reactors, and the small mobile nuclear-reactor project presents a larger hurdle to commercial, civilian applicability. But the mobile reactor could give companies a test bed to prove safeguards, as well as advancements in fuels and coolants.

The large-scale U.S. plants now wallowing in financial woes are light water reactors, meaning water is used to absorb excess heat. Some experts say non-light-water reactors, such as those that use sodium, or helium in the case of X-energy’s Xe-100 reactor, have the potential to pare down waste and increase efficiency.

“No doubt, those will all be non-light-water reactors,” said Jeremy Harrell, policy director at the energy-advocacy group ClearPath, in reference to the mobile-reactor project. “That will accelerate the nuclear-industry infrastructure. You have more nuclear engineers, more people familiar with these designs. And that’s going to have benefits across the industry.”

The Defense initiatives come amid a bleak outlook for nuclear-powered electricity in the United States. The Vogtle reactors in Georgia are now limping along with severe cost overruns, and Santee Cooper, the state-owned South Carolina utility, all but killed the V.C. Summer plant in January.

Both projects use a Westinghouse product called the AP1000, which is designed to produce roughly 1,100 net megawatts. The U.S. is still the largest producer of nuclear power globally, and nearly 100 reactors provide electricity in 30 states. The smallest licensed and operational reactor in the U.S., the R.E. Ginna plant in New York, produces 582 megawatts, according to the Energy Department.

But the newest nuclear reactor launched operations in 1996, and many of the existing plants across the country are scheduled to retire in the coming decades. And despite renewal of a nuclear-production tax credit last year, some policy-makers are lamenting the demise of the once-dominant commercial American nuclear industry.

Now, however, a relatively broad acknowledgement is setting in that small reactors, akin to certain degrees to the prospective Defense projects, are pivotal to a domestic revival.

The Energy Department classifies micro-reactors as designs that produce generally no more than 20 megawatts, a stark contrast to the existing fleet. A range of companies are currently developing micro-reactors and wading into the licensing process at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“We’re not going to build these huge plants anymore. We’ve seen the cost overruns at Vogtle,” Harrell said. “We’re going to need things that utilize advanced manufacturing, that are more scalable, that could be mass produced. And that’s where you’re going to see some major cost benefits. That’s why we’re particularly optimistic on the next generation of smaller reactors.”

The advanced nuclear industry, however, also faces regulatory challenges. But through the NRC’s participation in the industry-led Licensing Modernization Project, companies are bullish that the NRC will adapt to the new technology. And NRC commissioners are, at least publicly, prioritizing that effort.

“A lot of companies that are looking at advanced reactor technology are not traditional utilities and, to a great extent, if we are perceived to be slow, untimely, not predictable, it’ll have drastic impacts on the nature of their investment and their business prospects,” Annie Caputo, an NRC commissioner, said last week at a Senate hearing.

Those industry members involved in the projects say a Defense Science Board report in 2016 sparked the Pentagon’s recent push on nuclear energy. That report cited costs up to $400 per gallon of air-dropped fuel for military operations abroad. And delivery of fuel and water account for “significant number of casualties” in U.S. conflicts, according to the report.

“Energy delivery and management is a problem and will continue to be a challenge,” the report said. “Without losing sight of the regulatory, policy, operational, and perhaps cultural changes needed to create such a new paradigm, the emerging nuclear energy technologies that the Task Force reviewed have a profound potential for enabling improvements in military operations.”

Industry experts point to the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, as the seedling for commercial nuclear power today. And U.S. companies are now hoping the Pentagon’s involvement, coupled with increased public interest in low-carbon technologies, will help shepherd the industry to more economical technology.

“Projects like DOD’s help spur innovation and confidence in the deployment path,” Chris Levesque, CEO of Bill Gates-founded TerraPower, said. “Our supply chain needs catalysts like this to prepare to meet demand for nuclear technology worldwide as nations seek to lower carbon emissions and combat climate change.”

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