The Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office selected two teams in March to continue their work developing transportable nuclear microreactor prototypes as part of “Project Pele.” Credit: AFP photo.

Every once in a while, the Pentagon comes up with an idea that just doesn’t fly.

Of course, this is often after spending millions and millions of US taxpayer dollars.

The latest mis-hit, is the US Navy’s much-hyped electromagnetic railgun.

The program, which began in 2005, was supposed to use magnetic fields instead of gunpowder to fire rounds at speeds of up to Mach 7.

However, despite the more than 15 years that program has spent in development, it never was fielded. Navy officials continued to insist that it saw a future for the US$500 million experiment as late as 2018.

The railgun will now join the ranks of other costly, yet never implemented weapons programs like the Future Combat Systems, Comanche helicopter, and Next Generation Cruiser projects.

Enter yet, another idea, that is already sparking controversy.

According to a report in National Defense Magazine, the Defense Department is working to quickly procure a small, transportable nuclear reactor that they say could help bring energy to remote and austere environments.

The Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) selected two teams in March to continue their work developing transportable nuclear microreactor prototypes as part of “Project Pele.”

The effort was originally formulated in the fall of 2018 over the need to find a solution to a perennial problem: providing power to US troops, said Jeff Waksman, program manager for the effort.

The office awarded BWXT Advanced Technologies, a Virginia-based nuclear components company, and X-energy, a Maryland-based nuclear reactor and fuel engineering company, US$27.9 million and US$28.7 million for the project, respectively, the report said.

Nuclear power is “orders of magnitude more energy dense than any other known technology,” Waksman told National Defense. “That allows the possibility to provide resilient power for years and years, without needing to refuel … refueling can be a real burden in remote areas.”

The Portable reactor is being designed to deliver 1 to 5 megawatts of electrical power for at least three years of operation, and for now, will be tranported by truck only, according to the SCO. Credit: Handout.

However, the program has drawn criticism from nuclear nonproliferation experts.

While efforts are being made to ensure the reactors are as durable as possible, some critics are still concerned about the possibility of an enemy missile attack.

These points are made in the report, “Proposed US Army Mobile Nuclear Reactors: Costs and Risks Outweigh Benefits,” authored by Alan Kuperman, co-ordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

The office’s microreactor effort could help facilitate a “radioactive Pearl Harbor or 9/11 attack on US troops,” said Kuperman.

“The Army’s mobile reactor program, which was never requested by the Pentagon but rather by nuclear industry cheerleaders in Congress, is precisely how disasters happen,” he said in the report, which was released in April, the report said.

“Such enormous risks cannot be justified since we already have safer energy alternatives that are also cheaper by an order of magnitude than nuclear.”

Another issue highlighted in the report is the possibility of reactors being captured during an enemy attack.

Kuperman warns that if soldiers were forced to abandon a reactor under attack, an adversary could potentially come into possession of highly radioactive waste.

There is another problem — the military can’t keep track of things!

According to an investigative report by Associated Press, more than 2,000 weapons have gone missing from military arsenals between 2010 and 2019.

These weapons went missing or were deliberately taken from a wide variety of locations, including armories, warehouses, firing ranges, Navy vessels or even while in transit.

What if a service man decided to make some extra money by selling one of the portable reactors to a hostile nation?

The US military has also infamously lost six of its nuclear weapons due to aircraft crashes or other mishaps.

One of those incidents remains classified to this day, but is thought to be related to the loss of the USS Scorpion, which sank mysteriously in the North Atlantic Ocean in May 1968.

In defense of the portable reactors, Waksman insists the SCO is thinking through any potential disaster, the report said.

“We have to study what happens if there’s sabotage, if someone tries a terror attack on the reactor,” he said, addressing the elephant in the room.

“We have to study if there’s an earthquake, a volcano, a partial flood, a full flood. What happens if the truck is driving on the road and slides down an embankment and becomes partially lodged in a muddy river?”

Waksman says the SCO sees three main applications:

  • Remote locations, such as the high Arctic;
  • Strategic support areas — providing power for equipment that is mission essential, such as radar systems;
  • And, the ability to aid in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Over the past few years there have been a number of incidents throughout the US including hurricanes and cold snaps that have caused massive power outages.

“One of these reactors is not going to power Texas or California or Puerto Rico, but what it can power is a crucial single location when the whole grid is down,” Waksman said.

The reactor is being designed to deliver 1 to 5 megawatts of electrical power for at least three years of operation, according to the SCO.

The concept for the reactors began with the requirement that they would run off of tristructural isotropic particle fuel, or TRISO, Waksman said.

Each TRISO particle is made up of a uranium, carbon and oxygen fuel kernel which is encapsulated by three layers of carbon- and ceramic-based materials that prevent the release of radioactive products, according to the Department of Energy.

“TRISO fuel was originally developed by the Department of Energy to be a meltdown-proof fuel,” Waksman noted. “They wanted a fuel that could withstand very high temperatures without melting, and it has been tested to 1,800 Celsius, which is hotter than the melting point of steel.”

Another benefit stems from its encapsulated deficient product gases, he said.

That’s “the stuff that actually harms people in, say, Fukushima or Chernobyl,” he said, referring to previous nuclear disasters in Japan and the former Soviet Union.

“Rather than flowing through the core, it’s wrapped up in millions of these little tiny, tiny pellets, which means that even if somehow someone was able to crack open this reactor … you’re not going to release all of the gases that are inside,” he said.

The follow-on effort for Project Pele — informally dubbed “Son of Pele” — will be a more advanced reactor. But for the first iteration, “we simply need a mobile reactor producing 1 to 5 megawatts of power” that can be ready to go in 2024, he said.

Another design issue project managers and vendors will have to consider is portability.

Although the microreactor will be transportable onboard a C-17, the first iteration of Project Pele will not be flown due to the “political implications” of flying radioactive material.

For now, the reactor will be transported via truck.

Sources: National Defense, Military.com, The War Zone, Associated Press