US military sees prototype mobile nuclear reactor in Idaho

BOISE, Idaho – The US Department of Defense begins its plan to build an advanced mobile nuclear microreactor prototype at the Idaho National Laboratory in east Idaho.

The department began a 45-day comment period on Friday with the publication of a draft environmental impact study evaluating alternatives for building and operating the microreactor, which could produce 1 to 5 megawatts of power. The department’s energy needs are expected to increase, it said.

“A safe, small, portable nuclear reactor would meet this growing demand with a resilient, carbon-free energy source that would not meet the DoD’s fuel needs while supporting mission-critical operations in remote and barren environments,” the Department of Defense said.

The draft Environmental Impact Statement cites President Joe Biden’s January 27th executive order, which prioritizes climate change considerations in national security as another reason for microreactor development. The draft document states that alternative energy sources such as wind and sun are problematic as they are limited by location, weather and available land area and require redundant power supplies.

The ministry said it uses 30 terawatt hours of electricity per year and more than 10 million gallons (37.9 million liters) of fuel per day. Powering bases with diesel generators puts a strain on operations and planning, the department said, and demand is expected to increase during the transition to an electric, non-tactical vehicle fleet. Thirty terawatt hours is more energy than many small countries consume in a year.

The department in the 314-page draft environmental impact statement said it wanted to reduce reliance on local power grids, which are highly prone to prolonged outages from natural disasters, cyberattacks, domestic terrorism, and outages due to poor maintenance.

The department also said new technologies like drones and radar systems are increasing the demand for energy.

However, critics say that such microreactors could become targets themselves, even during transportation. Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear safety at the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, said he had questioned the use of microreactors at military bases both domestically and abroad.

“In my opinion, these reactors could create more logistical problems and risks to troops and property than they would solve problems,” he said. “And if the army is not prepared to spend everything to make it safe for use, especially in potential combat situations or foreign bases of operations, then I think it is unwise to station nuclear reactors in theaters of war without the protection they offer would offer. “need.”

He said the reactors would likely be vulnerable during transportation.

“There will always be a way an adversary can damage a nuclear reactor and disperse its nuclear contents,” he said.

The Idaho National Laboratory is located on the US Department of Energy’s 2,305 square kilometer compound in a tall sagebrush steppe about 80 kilometers west of Idaho Falls. All tests of the prototype reactor would take place on the premises of the Department of Energy.

The laboratory is considered to be the leading nuclear research laboratory in the country and has several facilities to help build and test the microreactor.

The Department of Defense said it expects a final environmental impact statement and a decision on how or whether to proceed in early 2022.

If approved, it would take about three years to prepare the test sites at the Idaho National Lab and then build and test the microreactor.

Two mobile microreactor designs are under consideration, but the department said detailed descriptions are not available as both are in the early stages of development. The department said both designs are high-temperature, gas-cooled reactors that use enriched uranium as fuel.

The type of enriched uranium to be used can withstand high temperatures, “which enables a reactor design that relies primarily on simple passive properties and inherent physics to ensure safety,” says the draft environmental impact statement.

Construction of the mobile reactor and fuel production would take place outside of Idaho and then transported to the Idaho National Laboratory for final assembly, fuel loading, and a demonstration of the reactor’s operability.

This demonstration would include launch tests, moving the reactor to a new location, and testing at the second location. The second location would mimic a real-world situation by testing the reactor’s ability to respond to energy demands.

The department said the microreactor can produce electricity within three days of delivery and can be safely removed in just seven days.

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