US DOD awards contracts for micro-reactor design work

11 March 2020

The US Department of Defense (DOD) has awarded three teams, BWX Technologies, Westinghouse Government Services, and X-energy contracts to begin design work on a mobile nuclear reactor prototype.

The contracts come under a Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) initiative called Project Pele.

After a two-year design period, one of the three companies may be selected to build and demonstrate a prototype.

BWX Technologies, has been awarded $13.5 million, X-energy $14.3 million and Westinghouse Government Services $11.9 million.

DOD said Project Pele involves the development of a safe, mobile and advanced nuclear micro-reactor to support a variety of missions, such as generating power for remote operating bases.

“The Pele Programme’s uniqueness lies in the reactor’s mobility and safety,” said Jeff Waksman, the project's programme 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 set up and shut down, with a design which is inherently safe," he added.

The engineering design phase of the project is expected to continue for up to two years. After this, the DOD will make an assessment on whether a micro-reactor capable of meeting necessary safety requirements is feasible.

In January 2019, the SCO issued a request for information to industry for the development of Project Pele technology. Three companies were chosen to develop engineering designs.

DOD said coordination with the US Department of Energy (DOE), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and industry partners is critical to the programme.

"That allows the rapid development of workable prototype designs that support evaluation, safety analysis, and, ultimately, construction and testing," a statement said.

DOD added that a high-fidelity engineering design is necessary to technically assess the feasiblity of a mobile reactor, to confirm its safety, resiliency, and reliability, and to reduce technical, regulatory and manufacturing risks.

Why is DOD looking at microreactors?

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

DOD uses approximately 30TWh of electricity a year and more than 10 million gallons of fuel a day. These levels are expected to increase.

DOD said “a safe, small, mobile nuclear reactor would enable units to carry a nearly endless clean power supply, enabling expansion and sustainment of operations for extended periods of time anywhere on the planet.”

DOD also published a Notice of Intent to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) associated with Project Pele in the Federal Register.

As part of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969, members of the public will be able to review and comment on proposed actions, alternatives and the environmental analysis.

DOD said it will host a meeting as part of the public scoping process to "identify and determine potential environmental impacts" and "to document issues of concern" to be analysed in the EIS.  

Westinghouse looks to DeVinci

Westinghouse Electric Company said the funding will be used to finalise the design for a prototype of its defense-eVinci (DeVinci) mobile nuclear power plant (MNPP).

The eVinci micro reactor is a next-generation, very small modular reactor for decentralised generation markets. It is designed to operate for many years, eliminating the need for frequent refuelling.

Westinghouse said eVinci's passive safety features allow the reactor to operate and achieve safe shutdown without the need for additional controls, external power source or operator intervention.

Westinghouse said the DOD mobile nuclear reactor prototype project “expands upon the transportable capabilities of the eVinci micro reactor by allowing for operations via a mobile platform utilising standard military transportation”.  

Reaction to the DOD award for micro-reactors

The US Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) said DOD's programme was an example of public-private partnerships that allows developers to demonstrate technology prior to commercial deployment.

"We are entering a decade of nuclear innovation where we will see advanced nuclear technologies developed and deployed to address the energy needs in a wide variety of markets," said Mark Nichols, Senior Director of New Reactors at the NEI.

However, DOD’s plans have sparked concern in some quarters. Edwin Lyman, the head of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists has expressed concern about the potential radiological consequences of opearting microreactors in battlefield environment.

“Fielding these reactors without commanders fully understanding the radiological consequences and developing robust response plans to cope with the aftermath could prove to be a disastrous miscalculation," Lyman,  told Defense News.

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