US Air Force confirms site for first microreactor

26 October 2021

The US Air Force has confirmed the Eielson base in Alaska as the facility planned to host its first small nuclear power plant. A microreactor of up to 5 MWe could be operational there as soon as 2027, according to Eielson.

Taking off: Will Eielson's microreactor be the first of many? (Image: Jose Miguel T Tamondong/US Air Force)

"Energy is a critical asset to ensure mission continuity at our installations," said Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Environment, Safety, and Infrastructure Mark Correll in Eielson's 15 October announcement. "Microreactors are a promising technology for ensuring energy resilience and reliability, and are particularly well-suited for powering and heating remote domestic military bases like Eielson Air Force Base."

Eielson is currently sustained by its own coal power plant, which can produce up to 25 MWe but typically runs at 13-15 MWe, using up to 800 tonnes of coal every day. It also keeps 90 days' supply on site and needs a facility to thaw the coal. The base is independent but does have a connection to the grid, which is useful for frequency control.

The planned microreactor would supplement this with 1-5 MWe of nuclear power. Eielson said the microreactor would be owned commercially, operated by the owner's trained staff and licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

'Most installations'

Eielson served as the reference case for a 2018 roadmap for microreactor deployment by the Nuclear Energy Institute which was supported by the US Air Force, which gave the same timeline to operation in 2027. It stated that "Most Department of Defense (DoD) installations will seek one or more microreactors in the 2-10 MWe range."

Microreactors offer a range of benefits attractive to military bases. Chiefly, they remove reliance on the grid, which is "vulnerable to prolonged outage due to a variety of threats" and can provide both the electricity and heat that bases need. Moreover, the US DoD sees its needs for electricity growing as it requires power to desalinate water, produce hydrogen and support increasing data processing as well as to power robots and directed-energy weapons such as lasers.

There is currently one microreactor vendor in the NRC's licensing process, Oklo, which submitted an application for its 1.5 MWe Aurora design in March 2020. Many other designs are in development by various vendors, some of which are in pre-licensing relationships with the NRC.

A separate DoD project called Project Pele is looking to create a small nuclear power option for forward bases of the US military, which have similar needs to other facilities but especially want to reduce reliance on long and risky supply lines of water and liquid fuels.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News