Military microreactor helps forge path for advanced nuclear

Work on a mobile microreactor for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) will help lay a path for the development and deployment of commercially available advanced nuclear technology.

Project Pele will be deployed on hard-to-reach U.S. military bases. (Source: Reuters/George Frey)

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The DoD’s mobile microreactor is part of a push to decarbonize military operations and reduce dependency on fossil fuel supply lines, especially in remote locations where electricity can be unreliable and expensive.

The timeline will make the BWXT reactor, capable of generating between 1-5 MW of electricity for three years at full power before refueling, one of the first fully operating advanced nuclear reactors to be built in the United States.

“We have components that are already being delivered in Lynchburg, we have a mockup of the reactor, we have a fueling machine that's been designed, we have Triso fuel that's been manufactured. No other project has all that,” says President of BWXT Advanced Technologies Joseph Miller.

“You couldn’t be in a better place in nuclear.”

The containment vessel, fuel, and moderator for the high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) are already under construction, and the Department of Energy (DOE) is working closely with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on the reactor’s licensing.

The timeline illustrates the speed at which the project has gone from paper to reality.

The DOD’s Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) released a record of decision to proceed with Project Pele in April 2022 and awarded a $300 million contract to BWXT by June of that year to build a prototype microreactor.

X-energy, the runner up in the original design competition, was offered an additional contract option in September 2023.  

The BWXT reactor will be assembled in late spring to early summer of 2024 and, by 2025, be shipped to Idaho National Laboratory (INL) to be fueled before initial testing.

Once fueled, the system will undergo up to three years of testing at INL to show it can provide reliable off-grid electric power and that it can be disassembled and reassembled to prove transportability.

X-energy, meanwhile, will act as a complimentary design to the BWXT concept, giving the DoD a potential alternative option if it decides to acquire various reactors.

Forging paths

The U.S. military has a history of helping forge the pathway for the commercial construction of nuclear power generators. The first U.S. nuclear reactor to be connected to an electrical grid was the SM-1 Army reactor, a 2MW pressurized-water reactor (PWR), in 1957.

Project Pele will help advance the development of BWXT’s Advanced Nuclear Reactor (BANR) which can deliver 50 MW of thermal nuclear reactor power, be small and light enough to be transported via ship, rail, or truck, and could be part of a commercial grid by 2030.

Such a system will be useful for remote communities, such as mining sites, but also for applications which need constant and reliable energy, such as data centers, Miller says.

Project Pele’s journey through the licensing process will also help lay the groundwork for future regulations for new nuclear technologies.

“In a lot of industries, there's a first mover advantage but in nuclear power, it's a first mover disadvantage,” says Jeff Waksman Program Manager at the SCO on Project Pele.

“Whichever company goes first through the new regulatory process it is going to be like someone in the hold of a ship with no windows going through the dark, banging their knees on everything.”

The learning process for Project Pele has already helped to smooth and simplify regulation at the NRC for future reactors, he said.

“We've been working with the NRC on the BANR reactor simultaneously, using our own lessons learned on the commercial side and using that to help propel us into the commercial market,” says BWXT’s Miller.

Illustrative Transport of a Mobile Microreactor

Source: Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) 

Reliably flexible

Electricity from the Project Pele reactor will be more expensive than from the grid, but it’s flexibility and transportability is key for the U.S. military.

“All else equal, a microreactor will be more expensive per kilowatt hour than a gigawatt reactor but it will be for applications in our remote and austere locations where they're already used to paying very high prices for electricity,” says Waksman.

Remote locations in Alaska, for example, can pay up to $1 per kilowatt hour and will receive one shipment of coal a year.

“For applications like that, we expect that nuclear route will be a significant cost saver,” Waksman says.

Power from coal, oil, or diesel is also the most polluting. Fairbanks, Alaska, has one of the worst air qualities in the country due to short-term particle pollution, mostly from wood-burning stoves.

For other applications, it is nuclear’s reliability that makes it worth paying the premium.

“You have to weigh reliability versus cost because those often are at odds with each other. The cheapest form of energy may not be the one that's most reliable,” says Waksman. 

The Pele reactor will be not taken into combat zones for security reasons, but also because forward operating bases (FOBs) do not need megawatts of power.

However, it will be expected to be highly transportable and flexible to be moved from place to place as the military shifts operation sites.

The reactor will consist of multiple modules that can be shipped in four 20-foot long, ISO-compliant CONEX shipping containers and will be designed to be assembled on-site and operational within 72 hours.

It can be shut down, cooled down, disconnected, and ready for transportation in less than a week, BWXT says.

Close work between BWXT and its partners, the SCO, and the Army Corp of Engineers, has made such a design possible, Miller says.

“It's what makes this program so unique. It's not just the fact that we're developing a new nuclear microreactor system, but all the logistics that go into this, it's very new to nuclear,” says Miller.

By Paul Day