US Defense Department awards microreactor contracts

10 March 2020

The US Department of Defense (DOD) has awarded contracts to BWX Technologies Inc, Westinghouse Government Services and X-energy LLC to each begin design work on a mobile nuclear reactor prototype. The engineering design phase of the project will last up to two years, after which one of the three teams may be selected to build and demonstrate a prototype reactor.

Westinghouse will develop the design of a defence version of its eVinci plant (Image: Westinghouse)

The awards are under Project Pele, an initiative under the DOD's Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) to develop a safe, mobile and advanced nuclear microreactor to support a variety of DOD missions such as generating power for remote operating bases.

"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," Jeff Waksman, Project Pele programme manager, said.

The DOD currently uses around 30 terrawatt hours of electricity per year and more than 10 million gallons of fuel per day, and expects those levels to increase. A safe, small, mobile nuclear reactor could provide a "nearly endless" clean power supply to support operations anywhere on the planet. In civilian applications, microreactors could be easily relocated to support disaster response work and provide temporary or long-term support to critical infrastructure such as hospitals as well as remote civilian locations where delivery of electric power is difficult, the department said.

The three companies were selected in a competition to develop engineering designs following an SCO request for information issued in January 2019. BWX Technologies has been awarded USD13.50 million, X-energy USD14.31 million and Westinghouse USD11.95 million. Coordination with the Department of Energy, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, National Nuclear Security Administration and industry partners will allow the rapid development of workable prototype designs that ultimately support construction and testing, the DOD said.

Westinghouse said it will use the funding to finalise the design for a prototype defence-eVinci (DeVinci) mobile nuclear power plant which will expand on the transportable capabilities of its eVinci microreactor design by allowing for operations via a mobile platform using standard military transportation.

"Mobile nuclear reactors offer clean, flexible and reliable power for our customers," Westinghouse President and CEO Patrick Fragman said. "We are now developing technology to provide energy security for the Department of Defense, bringing our exciting concept to realisation."

The US Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) said the DOD's programme was the latest example of public-private partnerships allowing developers to demonstrate technology prior to commercial deployment and verify the capabilities of their designs. "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," NEI Senior Director of New Reactors Mark Nichol said. "Micro-reactors will offer tremendous social benefits, bringing carbon-free electricity to remote communities and developing countries across the globe."

The DOD earlier this month published a notice of intent to conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS) associated with Project Pele. It has invited the public, as well as federal, state and local agencies, to participate in the scoping process for preparation of the EIS.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News