DOD narrows field of Project Pele microreactor contenders

March 25, 2021, 9:29AMNuclear News

After funding one year of microreactor engineering design work by three teams, the Department of Defense (DOD) announced on March 22 that it has exercised contract options for two of those teams—led by BWXT Advanced Technologies and X-energy—to proceed with development of a final design for a transportable microreactor. Following a final design review in early 2022 and the completion of environmental analysis, one of the two companies may be selected to build a prototype reactor during a 24-­month construction and demonstration phase.

“We are thrilled with the progress our industrial partners have made on their designs,” said Jeff Waksman, Project Pele program manager. “We are confident that by early 2022 we will have two engineering designs matured to a sufficient state that we will be able to determine suitability for possible construction and testing.”

Project Pele: This effort to design, build, and demonstrate a prototype mobile nuclear reactor is led by the DOD’s Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) in collaboration with the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the National Nuclear Security Administration, the U.S. Army, NASA, and industry partners. A notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement for the construction of a prototype was published by the SCO in March 2020, naming Idaho National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory as potential hosts for a Project Pele demonstration.

While specific contract extension awards have not been announced, the request for solutions initially released by the DOD in 2019 indicated that companies could receive up to $30 million in additional funds for the upcoming 12 months of engineering design work, which is termed Phase 1B. For nine months of Phase 1A work, BWXT previously received $13.5 million and X-energy received $14.309 million. Westinghouse Government Services was also awarded a Phase 1A contract.

The impetus: The DOD is looking for a fueled power plant that can fit inside a standard shipping container and be ready to generate power within a few days of arriving at a destination. Reliance on nuclear power at the military’s forward operating bases could reduce dependence on hazardous transportation networks for the delivery of liquid fuels. The DOD currently uses about 30 TWh of electricity per year and more than 10 million gallons of fuel per day.

Mobile microreactors could also be deployed by the military to support civilian communities or hospitals in war-­torn regions. According to the DOD, a microreactor selected for prototyping for Project Pele could pave the way for commercial domestic deployment, especially to support disaster relief efforts and critical infrastructure.

“Production of a full-scale fourth-generation nuclear reactor will have significant geopolitical implications for the United States,” said Jay Dryer, SCO director. “The DOD has led American innovation many times in the past, and with Project Pele, has the opportunity to help us advance on both energy resiliency and carbon emission reductions.”

The specs: According to the DOD’s recent announcement, the prototype reactor will be designed to deliver 1–5 MWe for at least three years of operation at full power, a change from initial documents, which called for a reactor producing 1–10 MWe. To enable rapid transport and use, the reactor will be designed to be operational within three days of delivery and to be capable of safe shutdown, disconnection, and removal in as few as seven days.

Initial Project Pele documentation also indicated that a successful design would have passive cooling capabilities and a core designed to use high-­assay low-­enriched uranium TRISO fuel, that no operator control would be required to ensure safe operation, and that reactor and power system monitoring and routine preventative maintenance and repair would require minimal staffing.

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