Defense Department invests in three microreactor designs

March 16, 2020, 11:16AMNuclear News

Three reactor developers got a boost on March 9 when they were each awarded a contract from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to design a reactor that can fit inside a standard shipping container for military deployment. The DOD’s Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), in partnership with the Department of Energy, proposes to build and demonstrate a 1–10 MWe reactor within four years that, if successful, could be widely deployed to support the DOD’s domestic and operational energy demands.

DOD grants to BWX Technologies ($13,500,000), Westinghouse Government Services ($11,953,036), and X-­energy ($14,309,000) will fund the engineering design work necessary to evaluate the designs and reduce technical, regulatory, and manufacturing risks. After nine months, the DOD can exercise an option to award each company up to $30 million in additional funds for 12 months. After the 24-­month engineering design and review phase is complete, one of the three companies may be selected to build and demonstrate a prototype—if engineering requirements have been met—and a 24-­month construction and demonstration phase would begin.

The DOD’s mobile microreactor development program, named Project Pele, is led by the SCO in collaboration with the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and industry partners. In May 2019, a memorandum of understanding on microreactor research, development, and demonstration was signed by the NRC, DOE, and SCO, outlining cooperation and coordination between the three agencies. The MOU specifically states that the DOE and its national laboratories will provide technical, environmental, siting, and safety-­basis documentation support. Coordination is seen as key to the rapid development of workable prototype designs that can support evaluation, safety analysis, and ultimately, construction and testing.

“The United States risks ceding nuclear energy technology leadership to Russia and China,” said Jay Dryer, SCO director. “By retaking technological leadership, the United States will be able to supply the most innovative advanced nuclear energy technologies.”

In February, Oklo’s 1.5-­MWe fast spectrum microreactor, designed to power a remote civilian community for up to 20 years without refueling, was selected by Idaho National Laboratory for a demonstration (NN, Mar. 2020, p. 9). The DOD is looking for something a little different with Project Pele: 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.

“The Pele program’s uniqueness lies in the reactor’s mobility and safety,” said Jeff Waksman, Project Pele program manager. “We will leverage our industry partners to develop a system that can be safely and rapidly moved by road, rail, sea, or air and for quick setup and shutdown, with a design which is inherently safe.”

The DOD currently uses more than 10 million gallons of fuel per day and generates about 30 TWh of electricity per year. Reliance on nuclear power at the military’s forward operating bases could reduce dependence on hazardous transportation networks for the delivery of liquid fuels. Mobile microreactors could also be deployed by the military to support civilian communities in war-­torn or disaster-­ravaged regions or for critical resources like hospitals.

In January 2019, the SCO issued a request for information to industry for the development of Project Pele technology, which was followed by a request for solutions (RFS) in April (NN, Mar. 2019, p. 21). A microreactor design that meets the DOD’s five technical objectives would:

  • Generate threshold power of 1–10 MWe for more than three years without refueling.
  • Take less than seven days for a planned shutdown, cooldown, disconnect, prepared transport, and safe transport.
  • Take less than 72 hours from arrival of a unit at its destination to full electric power operations.
  • Fit in an ISO 688–certified 20-­foot or 40-­foot CONEX box (20-­foot preferred).

Be semiautonomous and not require manned control by operators to ensure safe operation, with minimal manning needed to monitor the overall reactor and power system and minimal routine preventative maintenance and repair.

Westinghouse Electric Company confirmed in a March 9 press release that its eVinci microreactor would be developed using the DOD funding into a design prototype “defense-­eVinci” (DeVinci) mobile nuclear power plant.

“We are honored to participate in this strategically important program,” said Patrick Fragman, president and chief executive officer of Westinghouse. “Mobile nuclear reactors offer clean, flexible, and reliable power for our customers. We are now developing technology to provide energy security for the Department of Defense, bringing our exciting concept to realization.”

BWX Technologies issued a press release on March 17 that included a statement from Ken Camplin, president of BWXT’s Nuclear Services Group. “BWXT has shipped 400 nuclear reactor cores to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program and has led and/or supported the design of more than 40 nuclear reactor systems,” he said. “We believe this experience will provide us a solid platform from which to complete a robust and innovative approach that will support the Defense Department’s front-­line power needs for its service members.”

All three vendors have not been forthcoming with design details, but their selection for Project Pele indicates they have met the minimum technical requirements in the RFS. These include a weight of less than 40 tons, a core designed to use high-­assay low-­enriched uranium (HALEU) advanced gas reactor (AGR) tristructural isotropic (TRISO) fuel, and passive cooling capabilities.

The DOD announced its intention to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) for the construction and demonstration of a prototype advanced mobile nuclear microreactor in the March 2 Federal Register, with a 30-­day comment period ending April 1. A draft EIS would be available for a 45-­day public review and comment period in 2021, the notice said. An online public scoping meeting was scheduled for March 18 to provide information about the proposed project and the National Environmental Policy Act process and to invite public comments on the scope of the EIS. Both INL and Oak Ridge National Laboratory were named as potential hosts for a Project Pele demonstration.

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