Air Force pilot program to enlist microreactor for 20-year Alaskan deployment

October 5, 2022, 12:01PMNuclear News
Aircraft line the runway at Eielson AFB in December 2020. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Keith Holcomb)

The Department of the Air Force and the Defense Logistics Agency–Energy have released a request for proposals (RFP) for the construction and operation of a microreactor in central Alaska. The Department of Defense wants a 20-year supply of electricity and steam from a 1–5-MW microreactor, but the Eielson Air Force Base (AFB) Microreactor Pilot Program will go beyond a simple power purchase agreement and put the reactor through its paces with tests, at least annually, of the reactor’s walk-away safety and black-start capabilities. The final RFP is available at sam.gov.

“The release of the RFP for the Eielson AFB microreactor is a critical next step in furthering the development and deployment of reliable and clean energy technology at Department of the Air Force installations,” said Nancy Balkus, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for environment, safety and infrastructure. “This program is extremely important to mission assurance and sustainment in the face of climate change and continued national defense threats, and demonstrates the department’s commitment to ensuring our installations have a safe, reliable supply of energy, no matter their location.”

Cradle to grave: The Defense Logistics Agency wants to issue a firm, fixed-price contract for “the construction, provision, testing, operation, management, maintenance, and eventual removal of a nuclear microreactor EPF [energy production facility], and for the delivery of electricity and steam to the respective interconnection points, ancillary services, and all associated environmental attributes produced by the EPF to be located on Eielson AFB.”

The full contract term, not to exceed 30 years, would include a construction period of up to seven years and a “removal and restoration period” of up to three years. The reactor would be commercially owned and operated and licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

According to a set of FAQs released by the Air Force, “It would be the responsibility of the owner-operator to develop a waste handling and disposal plan as part of NRC’s licensing requirements. At this time, we anticipate a fueled microreactor delivered to the site and subsequently returned to the vendor for refueling or disposal. We do not anticipate refueling processes or storage of nuclear waste at the installation. The vendor will be responsible for nuclear waste and subject to the same rigorous storage and control requirements of the commercial nuclear industry under license by the NRC.”

Performance expectations: The Air Force is expecting capacity factors on par with top-performing light water reactors in the U.S. commercial nuclear power fleet.

Operational availability, including downtime for unscheduled and scheduled maintenance, “should meet an annual capacity factor of 90 percent or greater, with nominal (30 days or less) refueling/maintenance outages scheduled no less than every 18 months during minimal demand periods,” according to the RFP.

The contracted reactor supplier “shall perform, at least annually or otherwise requested by the government, walk-away safe and black-start testing to ensure the EPF can electrically transition from full operation to shutdown mode and reverse. Walk-away safe and black-start testing shall include the EPF at full operational loads while completely separated from the utility grid using a load bank the contractor will install. Walk-away safe testing shall include safe shutdown conditions without active intervention from any onsite operator in, at most, 24 hours.”

How we got here: The Air Force Office of Energy Assurance recommended that Eielson AFB host a microreactor pilot in August 2018 “due to the existing infrastructure, suitable climate, and critical mission resilience requirement,” noting that the reactor “could also meet the base’s year-round energy needs for station heating.”

The pilot program was initiated after the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 required the DOD and the Department of Energy to identify potential locations to site, construct, and operate a microreactor by the end of 2027. In October 2021, the DAF made it official by announcing Eielson AFB as the chosen installation to host its first microreactor.

It’s not Project Pele: The DOD is interested in both fixed-site and mobile microreactor concepts. Eielson would host a fixed-site microreactor, while a microreactor developed to Project Pele’s mobility specifications will be deployed and tested at Idaho National Laboratory. BWXT Advanced Technologies won the Project Pele competitive contract to provide a 1–5-MWe high-temperature gas-cooled reactor in June.

Next steps: Proposals are due November 29, and the Air Force plans to select a vendor in 2023. Permitting and licensing would begin in the same year, with commercial operation currently scheduled for 2027.


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