WASHINGTON — In the waning days of his administration, President Donald Trump has signed an executive order aimed at pushing the defense department towards quickly developing and producing small nuclear reactors for military use — and to see if it could be used by military space vehicles.
The order, signed Jan. 5 and posted publicly on Jan. 12, is not the first time the value of nuclear power for military operations has been studied. There is a long history of the Pentagon considering the issue, which proponents believe could alleviate the department’s massive logistics challenge of keeping fuel moving around the world.
Replacing all local power with a nuclear reactor isn’t necessary for the department’s goals, but one or more small reactors, located on base, would ensure that if the local power grid goes down, critical functions will still be able to operate. According to an Oct. 2018 technical report by the Nuclear Energy Institute, 90 percent of military installations have “an average annual energy use that can be met by an installed capacity of nuclear power” of 40 MWe or less.
In terms of terrestrial efforts, the EO requires the defense secretary to, within 180 days, “establish and implement a plan to demonstrate” a micro-reactor at a domestic military installation” — in other words, setting up an actual test of a nuclear reactor at a U.S. military location.
However, that doesn’t mean the first test will be on a military base. One location to keep an eye on is the Nevada National Security Site, a Department of Energy location roughly 65 miles from Las Vegas.
Should that demonstration be successful, the department is ordered to look for other opportunities to use small nuclear reactors at bases. The order also calls for a deep dive into security features, such as cybersecurity and EMP hardening, that might not be as relevant in commercial designs.
Noted Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, “the signing of this at the very last minute of the Trump administration suggests someone is concerned [president-elect Joe Biden] might not support the program.”
Specific to space, the order calls for the secretary of defense, in consultation with the secretaries of state, commerce, energy and the NASA administrator, to “determine whether advanced nuclear reactors can be made to benefit Department of Defense future space power needs” and to “pilot a transportable micro-reactor prototype.”
In addition, the order directs an analysis of alternatives for “personnel, regulatory, and technical requirements to inform future decisions with respect to nuclear power usage” as well as “an analysis of United States military uses for space nuclear power and propulsion technologies and an analysis of foreign adversaries’ space power and propulsion programs.”
Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, says that language seeks to leverage a previous executive order that called for NASA to look into nuclear propulsion for non-military means. While the idea of nuclear propulsion in space may seem concerning to some, “we can’t do long-duration human missions to the Moon, Mars or robotic missions beyond Mars without it,” he said.
While the order speeds up the timetable for a test of a nuclear reactor at a military installation, the idea of using nuclear power is hardly a new one for the department. In fact, the Pentagon currently has two different development tracts for small nuclear reactors.
The first is “Project Pele,” an effort to create a mobile small nuclear reactor in the 1-5 megawatt (MWe) power range, that is being run out of the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO). In March 2020, the department awarded three companies a combined $39.7 million to start design work for Pele, with plans to select one firm in 2022 to build and demonstrate a prototype.
The second effort is being run through the office of the undersecretary of acquisition and sustainment. That effort, ordered in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, involves a pilot program aiming to demonstrate the efficacy of a small nuclear reactor, in the 2-10 MWe range, with initial testing at a Department of Energy site in roughly the 2023 timeframe. If all goes well, the goal is to have a permanent small nuclear reactor on a military base in the 2027 time frame.
Even if all those timelines are hit, it is unlikely that microreactors could proliferate quickly throughout the military.
According to the NEI study, the reduced size and increased simplicity of microreactors mean a procurement and manufacturing cycle could take “between 3 and 5 years from the order of long lead materials to the delivery of the largest component, with a nominal target of 4 years. Most of the components will need to arrive on-site at least 6 months prior to startup in order to support the achievement of construction milestones.”