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Tiny mobile nuclear reactors for U.S. military – a plan fraught with dangers

The U.S. Military Wants Tiny Road Mobile Nuclear Reactors That Can Fit In A C-17

The power demands to sustain American military operations are only increasing, but small nuclear power plants could present new problems.The Drive, BY JOSEPH TREVITHICK, JANUARY 24, 2019   The U.S. military’s secretive Strategic Capabilities Office, or SCO, is asking for potential vendors to submit proposals for small mobile nuclear reactors to help meet ever-growing demands for power during operations in remote and austere locations. This request for information comes as the U.S. Army, in particular, is looking to extend the amount of time its units can operate independent of established supply chains, but portable nuclear power could introduce new risks to the battlefield.

SCO first announced that they were looking for “information on innovative technologies and approaches” relating to a possible future “small mobile nuclear reactor prototype design” on FedBizOpps, the U.S. government’s main contracting website, on Jan. 18, 2019. The organization posted an amended version of the notice, which outlines a “multi-phase prototype project” as part of what it is calling Project Dithulium, four days later. …..
SCO basic requirements envision a reactor that can generate between one and 10 megawatts of energy, less than the average output for even a small research reactor, and weigh less than 40 tons. The final design would need to be portable by semi-trailer truck, ship, or a U.S. Air Force C-17A Globemaster III cargo plane.

The goal is to develop a system that personnel can set up in three days or less and shut down and pack up in less than a week. The reactor itself would remain functional for at least three years without needing new fuel.

SCO is hoping to consider up to three designs under the first phase of the project, which would be an in-depth design study that would last between nine and 12 months. The plan is to then down select to a single design for Phase II, in which the winning contractor would build and demonstrate their prototype reactor.

There are a number of potential concepts already in various stages of development that could meet SCO’s requirements. The U.S. Department of Energy’s own Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), in cooperation with the Westinghouse power company, has been working on one design called MegaPower for some time now. Westinghouse is separately working on its own eVinci micro reactor design……….

There is no fixed timeline yet for when Phase I might begin, but as the request for information notes, there is already significant demand for this kind of miniaturized portable power plant. …….

The Army is certainly watching the SCO’s Project Dithulium, if it isn’t involved in it directly. In October 2018, the service put out its own report on the potential uses of nuclear power on the battlefield………

The other branches of the U.S. military have their own requirements for this kind of portable power, as well. The Air Force and the Marine Corps are both actively exploring new concepts for rapidly establishing bases that could benefit from the addition of power from small nuclear reactors.

But this is hardly the first time the U.S. military has explored using mobile nuclear reactors to meet its power needs. The Army experimented with a host of land-based designs between the 1950s and 1970s, before shelving the concept………

However, one of the biggest potential problems with battlefield nuclear power continues to be safety. There are obvious concerns about what happens when you begin deploying dozens, if not hundreds of small nuclear reactors into areas that are, by definition, full of hostile threats……

even if the reactor itself cannot catastrophically fail, something that may be a tall order to ensure in austere conditions regardless of the design, powering remote and austere bases with nuclear power could run other risks. If hostile forces end up destroying the reactor, it could potentially lead to the hazardous dispersal of radioactive material.

This, in turn, could produce short- and long-term health and safety concerns for U.S. forces and innocent civilians in the surrounding area. Even if the risk is minor, the perception of those dangers could impact public opinion about American military activities ….

There’s also a proliferation issue in building a large number of mobile reactors and placing them in war zones. There is also a matter of disposing of the nuclear waste material they’ll produce. …..

A reactor that is by design mobile would almost certainly be an attractive target for terrorists or militants looking to build a so-called “dirty bomb” that mixes radiological material and conventional explosives.  ….

On top of that, unlike existing portable generators, any mobile nuclear reactor would require much more robust control systems to ensure its safe and reliable operation. Depending on the reactor’s exact configuration, there is the possibility that a cyber attack might be able to shut it down or otherwise hamper its operation at a critical point.

In October 2018, the Government Accountability Office released a report that slammed the Department of Defense’s existing protections against cyber attacks and said that the U.S. military did not have a good grasp of the extent of the potential threat. Nuclear reactors spread across an area of operations would only increase the potential vectors for such an attack. ……

January 26, 2019 - Posted by | USA, weapons and war

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