NEW STRATEGIC FORUM: Small Nuclear Reactors for Military Installations
"Small Nuclear Reactors for Military Installations: Capabilities, Costs, and Technical Implications"
Strategic Forum #262 February, 2011
By Richard B. Andres and Hanna L. Breetz (Doctoral Candidate, MIT)
Chair of the Energy & Environmental Security Policy Program , Center for Strategic Research
"...if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are indicative of future operaitons, using small reactors at forward locations has the potential to save U.S. lives."
In recent years, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has become increasingly interested in the potential of small (less than 300 megawatts electric [MWe]) nuclear reactors for military use.1 DOD’s attention to small reactors stems mainly from two critical vulnerabilities it has identified in its infrastructure and operations: the dependence of U.S. military bases on the fragile civilian electrical grid, and the challenge of safely and reliably supplying energy to troops in forward operating locations. DOD has responded to these challenges with an array of initiatives on energy efficiency and renewable and alternative fuels. Unfortunately, even with massive investment and ingenuity, these initiatives will be insufficient to solve DOD’s reliance on the civilian grid or its need for convoys in forward areas. The purpose of this paper is to explore the prospects for addressing these critical vulnerabilities through small-scale nuclear plants.
The technology being proposed for small reactors (much of which was originally developed in U.S. Government labs) is promising. A number of the planned designs are self-contained and highly mobile, and could meet the needs of either domestic or forward bases. Some promise to be virtually impervious to accidents, with design characteristics that might allow them to be if DOD does not support the U.S. small reactor industry, the industry could be dominated by foreign companiesused even in active operational environments. These reactors are potentially safer than conventional light water reactors. The argument that this technology could be useful at domestic bases is virtually unassailable. The argument for using this technology in operational units
abroad is less conclusive; however, because of its potential to save lives, it warrants serious investigation.
Unfortunately, the technology for these reactors is, for the most part, caught between the drawing board and production. Claims regarding the field utility and safety of various reactors are plausible, but authoritative evaluation will require substantial investment and technology demonstration. In the U.S. market, DOD could play an important role in this area. In the event that the U.S. small reactor industry succeeds without DOD support, the types of designs that emerge might not be useful for the department since some of the larger, more efficient designs that have greater appeal to private industry would not fit the department’s needs. Thus, there is significant incentive for DOD to intervene to provide a market, both to help the industry survive and to shape its direction.
Since the 1970s, in the United States, only the military has overcome the considerable barriers to building nuclear reactors. This will probably be the case with small reactors as well. If DOD leads as a first mover in this market—initially by providing analysis of costs, staffing, reactor lines, and security, and, when possible, by moving forward with a pilot installation—the new technology will likely survive and be applicable to DOD needs. If DOD does not, it is possible the technology will be unavailable in the future for either U.S. military or commercial use.
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