For Alexander the Great, it was provisions. For World War II strategists, it was fuel. For the next generation of commanders, the vital piece of the logistics puzzle might just be electricity.
With increasing numbers of electricity-hungry systems already in military use, and more being developed, a secure supply of mobile power could be the difference between defeat and victory on the battlefield.
That’s where a prototype program to develop miniature nuclear reactors, small enough to fit in a truck, might come in handy.
“The Defense Department currently relies largely on diesel-power generators to fuel forward and remote operating bases, which require usually complex logistical supply tails,” Patty-Jane Geller, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told The Epoch Times. “This was a problem during the conflict in the Middle East: our fuel lines and logistical tails became easy targets.”
Military installations in the United States and abroad are also connected to the national grid, which could be vulnerable to interruptions such as cyberattacks, says Geller, who co-authored research into microreactors earlier this year.
“Energy—the way that the military powers its fight—is something that’s often overlooked and usually taken for granted,” she said. “But as we move on to great power competition, this is something that Congress will need to look at down the road, as technology advances.”
Keeping Pace With Russia, China
Great power competition refers to a return to an era of whole-of-nation competition with Russia, and even more significantly, China, recognized as the key priority in the 2018 National Defense strategy.
In March, the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) announced it had awarded three contracts for a competition to make a nuclear microreactor prototype called Project Pele; the SCO referred The Epoch Times to a statement made when the project was announced.
“The United States risks ceding nuclear energy technology leadership to Russia and China,” said Jay Dryer, SCO director, in the statement. “By retaking technological leadership, the United States will be able to supply the most innovative advanced nuclear energy technologies.”
Pele reactors will have to generate 1 to 10 megawatts of power (enough to power 650 to 6,500 houses) but be small enough to fit on a truck, ship, or aircraft. Department of Defense (DOD) requirements also state that they should be able to be installed within three days, shut down within seven days, and pose no net increase in risk.
According to the SCO, the microreactors would “support a variety of Department of Defense missions, such as generating power for remote operating bases.”
SCO also stated the reactors could be used for disaster relief and reduce the cost of investing in power infrastructure.
After two years, one of the three companies competing with their research and development prototypes may be selected to build and demonstrate a further prototype, according to the SCO.
According to the Heritage Foundation, the R&D program will cost $40 million.
But the idea has drawn criticism from those concerned with nuclear safety and proliferation, and it may have difficulty advancing through Congress.
Hungry Gators and Lasers
The military microreactor project was spawned by the challenges over the past two decades in the Middle East, according to Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
With the military more focused on pivoting to face China and Russia in recent years, Clark thinks the project has been put on the back burner, although he thinks it will still be a useful strategic option for commanders.
He agrees that the major advantages lie in being able to confidently field power-hungry new pieces of kit, and in powering operations in remote locations.
“Right now, forward operating bases—like you’d see in Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan, or in even Djibouti—are generally off the power grid. Or rather, there is no power grid,” Clark told The Epoch Times. “So they have to use diesel generators to generate all their power, which means you’ve got a fuel supply that has to be provided to them from somewhere else.”
According to Clark, the military is also increasingly turning to electric technologies that draw a lot of power, such as directed energy self-defense systems, lasers, high-powered microwaves, electronic warfare, and even radar systems.
“G/ATOR, the Marines new radar, and some of the 3[D] and 4D radars that are being advanced to replace the existing patriot radars, these are all very power-hungry radars,” he said.
Clark, a former nuclear submarine chief engineer, says the basic technology behind the reactors is similar to that in a submarine reactor and “pretty straightforward” in theory.
The hard part, he says, is idiot-proofing the design.
“Those submarine-type reactors have people that can maintain them and fix them or address support system malfunctions,” he said. With microreactors, however, there might not be that kind of technical expertise on tap in remote locations, he says, so the current technology needs to be adapted so it doesn’t require as much operator intervention.
Ideally, the reactor would be a sealed and self-contained unit that needed only a periodic supply of water for the cooling system, and simple maintenance or adjustment if something goes wrong, according to Clark.
“It’s really an engineering challenge at this point,” he said. “So they’re looking at 5 to 10 years, probably on the 10-year side, to get this system fully fielded in a form that could be actually deployed overseas.”
Keeping Options Open
Clark says that outside of a period of open conflict, microreactors would be useful in only a limited number of locations. That’s because many key operating bases are currently well-served for power, and Navy ships come with their own portable power supplies.
But in a conflict, microreactors could be a useful tool to have in the military’s back pocket, keeping options open and adversaries on their toes, Clark says.
“If you start losing the power supply or the fuel supply more broadly, these microreactors could be really valuable. So it’s the kind of capability you may want to have and that you could deploy—but it’s not necessarily the thing you’d want to deploy regularly.”
For example, in a Pacific conflict, if oil shipments to the Philippines were shut down or the refineries in the Philippines were damaged, then microreactors “could be a really useful capability,” he said.
Right now, the Pele program only has a toe in the water.
If the Pentagon wants to move the program forward after the current R&D, lawmakers may take some convincing, Geller says.
“I think there, we will face stumbling blocks down the road,” she said. “Nuclear energy is definitely something that gets pushback on both sides. People are always going to be opposed to anything that involves nuclear material or nuclear energy.
“But I think that we must be careful to look at this project for what it is. We’re not building giant nuclear reactors in the middle of an overseas conflict that will cause lots of trouble. This has been an R&D program to try to develop a safe, compact micro nuclear reactor for use by the DOD in great power competition.
“And I think it’s important that this project get underway and not get stopped in its tracks purely because it’s nuclear.”
Geller says there are strict safety requirements, with passive safety features.
The nuclear fuel in microreactors, called tri-structural isotropic particle fuel (TRISO), is made of poppy-seed sized uranium kernels that are each coated in a triple-layered containment system that prevents radiation leaking out in a meltdown.
According to the Office of Nuclear Energy, “Simply put, TRISO particles cannot melt in a reactor and can withstand extreme temperatures that are well beyond the threshold of current nuclear fuels.”
If a rogue state or organization were to get hold of a reactor, that would have a “high impact,” Geller said. However, there are “a lot of things that have to fall into place for that to happen.”
The micronuclear reactors might be underground, and they would likely be hardened against attack, she says. The Pentagon would also give consideration to where it placed them.
Critics, however, say that it is impossible to guarantee containment in the event of a kinetic attack such as a missile strike.
“It is hard to imagine that a direct explosive breach of the reactor core would not result in dispersal of some radioactive contamination,” wrote Edwin Lyman, acting director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in an article in The Atomic Bulletin on a similar proposal.
“An operating nuclear reactor is essentially a can filled with concentrated radioactive material, including some highly volatile radionuclides, under conditions of high pressure and/or temperature.
“Even a reactor as small as 1 megawatt-electric would contain a large quantity of highly radioactive, long-lived isotopes such as cesium-137—a potential dirty bomb far bigger than the medical radiation sources that have caused much concern among security experts,” Lyman wrote.
Regardless of how far the Pentagon eventually goes with the Pele program, the broader concept of smaller-scale traditional nuclear power plants that borrow from submarine tech is currently gaining momentum around the world, such as the 440 megawatt Rolls Royce unit ordered by the UK, a floating nuclear power plant built by Russia, and a Chinese floating power plant that is currently in development.
In 2019, Russia began operating its first floating nuclear power station in the Arctic. Capable of putting out 70 megawatts, the Akademik Lomonosov is made from two of the reactors that Russia uses to power its fleet of ice-breakers.
China announced in 2016 that it was building a demonstration floating nuclear power plant, which is expected to be completed this year. Its list of uses includes powering oilfield exploration and remote islands in the South China Sea.