US DOD awards contracts for development of advanced microreactor

25 March 2021

The US Department of Defense (DOD) said on 22 March that it had exercised contract options for two teams - led by BWXT Advanced Technologies and X-energy - to proceed with development of a final design for a transportable advanced nuclear microreactor prototype. The two teams were selected from a preliminary design competition, and will each continue development independently under a Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) initiative called Project Pele.

After a final design review in early 2022 and completion of environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act, one of the two companies may be selected to build and demonstrate a prototype, DOD said. This selection follows an April 2019 request for solutions through which three companies were awarded competitively other transaction agreements for prototyping to develop preliminary designs.

“We are thrilled with the progress our industrial partners have made on their designs,” said Dr Jeff Waksman, Project Pele programme 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.”

The DOD uses approximately 30 TWh of electricity a year and more than 10 million gallons of fuel a day – “levels that are only expected to increase due to anticipated electrification of the vehicle fleet and maturation of future energy-intensive capabilities”. DOD noted that a safe, small, transportable nuclear reactor would address this growing demand “with a resilient, carbon-free energy source that does not add to the DOD’s fuel needs, while supporting mission-critical operations in remote and austere environments”. Project Pele is a fourth-generation nuclear reactor, which, once prototyped, could serve as a pathfinder for commercial adoption of such technologies, thereby reducing US carbon emissions and providing new tools for disaster relief and critical infrastructure support.

The prototype reactor will be designed to deliver 1-5MWe for at least three years of operation at full power. To enable rapid transport and use, it will be designed to operate within three days of delivery and to be safely removed in as few as seven days, DOD said. Project Pele is a whole-of-government effort, with critical expertise provided by the US Army, the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the National Nuclear Security Administration.

“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.”

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