Military

US Air Force to install nuclear micro-reactor at Alaskan base

US Air Force to install nuclea...
An F-35A Lightning II assigned to the 355th Fighter Squadron (FS) takes off from Eielson Air Force Base
An F-35A Lightning II assigned to the 355th Fighter Squadron (FS) takes off from Eielson Air Force Base
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Diagram of a micro-reactor ready for shipment
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Diagram of a micro-reactor ready for shipment
Micro-reactor infographic
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Micro-reactor infographic
An F-35A Lightning II assigned to the 355th Fighter Squadron (FS) takes off from Eielson Air Force Base
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An F-35A Lightning II assigned to the 355th Fighter Squadron (FS) takes off from Eielson Air Force Base
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The US Air Force is installing a nuclear micro-reactor at Eielson Air Force Base (AFB), located 26 miles (42 km) southeast of Fairbanks, Alaska. Authorized by the Department of the Air Force, the commercially-owned next-generation reactor is scheduled to go into operation by 2027.

The US military operates bases and other installations located in remote, inaccessible regions – not only abroad, but also within US states and territories. Supplying these sites is often a formidable task, especially when it comes to heating and electricity.

In the case of Eielson AFB, this means regularly hauling in tonnes of coal to provide it with 33.5 MW of electricity. Aside from the environmental impact, it's also expensive, a logistical nightmare, and ties up personnel better employed elsewhere. This isn't unique to the Alaskan base, so the Air Force is interested in looking at nuclear energy as a cleaner and simpler alternative.

Diagram of a micro-reactor ready for shipment
Diagram of a micro-reactor ready for shipment

Micro-reactors that produce less than 20 MW are similar to the small reactors developed for nuclear submarines, though they differ in many aspects of their design. Both types of reactors use nuclear fuel that is more highly enriched than in conventional reactors, but micro-reactors are factory-built, modular, and do not always require water for cooling.

This simplified design not only provides electricity, but also direct heat. Because of their large surface-to-volume ratio, micro-reactors are easier to cool and self-regulating. This means that if the nuclear reaction becomes too robust, the heating naturally tamps down the reaction, which eliminates the need for a large crew of skilled operators. In addition, they only need to be refueled once every 10 years.

Micro-reactor infographic
Micro-reactor infographic

The idea is that micro-reactors could be built and assembled in factories with modules to order and then shipped in a standard container to Eielson for final installation. If successful, the pilot plant could lead to micro-reactors being used on other military bases, and potentially by remote civilian communities, mining sites, and oil fields, as well as for water desalination and hydrogen production.

"Energy is a critical asset to ensure mission continuity at our installations," says Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Environment, Safety, and Infrastructure Mark Correll. "Micro-reactors 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 AFB.

"This technology has the potential to provide true energy assurance, and the existing energy infrastructure and compatible climate at Eielson make for the perfect location to validate its feasibility."

Source: US Air Force

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9 comments
9 comments
Jim B
Molten Energy have a graphite moderated molten salt reactor that can run on low enriched uranium (5% U235) and fit on the back of a truck. If you could combine this with a 20MW supercritical CO2 turbine that can fit on the back of another truck, this would probably a much simpler system to build and maintain.

The key design differentiator of Moltex’s design is that the fuel salt is in vented tubes, cooled by another (non fuel) molten salt outside the pins which the graphite sits in. Other molten salt graphite moderated designs have the fuel salt in contact with the graphite, and when the graphite cracks the fuel salt enters these cracks and I believe creates hotspots that further degrade the graphite and shorten its lifetime. Moltex’s two salt design avoids this issue (also if the graphite need to be replaced it doesn’t contain U235, Pu239, and radioactive fission products (nuclear ashes).
mystixa
Not really a 'logistical nightmare' any more than anything else in Alaska. Coal comes up to Fairbanks and presumably Eielson as well by train. The trains don't stop too often except for the occasional avalanch or extreme earthquake but those are relatively rare. Tornadoes and floods play the same role in other places that rely on train transport.

I'm not generally a supporter of nuclear power due to our inability to deal with the waste as of yet. However in this extremely rare case it seems like the scale is small enough and the problems with coal large enough to justify it. The local climate effects will be noticeably nicer. Due to the nature of the extreme cold up there in winter the coal smoke tends to hang out in the area its produced due to very little air movement. Many winters you can spend monthes with visibility measured in feet rather than miles. So the health and environmental benefits of not burning masses of coal and diesel there in particular will be particularly noticeable.
pete-y
leaves more questions than answers.
What is the heat transfer medium - salt, sodium, water- all have problems.
CraigAllenCorson
I have often wondered why, if we can make reactors small enough to fit on a submarine, we haven't also used them for power in remote locations on land. Good to see that USAF is thinking along the same lines.
Ornery Johnson
My biggest concern for these types of reactors is that if used in a non-military location (with relatively lax security) it may be relatively easy target for a terrorist attack, such as attaching a conventional bomb to the outside of the container in order to make a "dirty bomb" that scatters nuclear material over a several hundred yard area. Of course, the risk depends on the radioactive isotope utilized and its half-life.
HoppyHopkins
When they have a 1MW thorium cycle version ready for testing, they can test it at my off grid place and I won't charge them a cent for a real world rest
Joseph McCusker
This "pilot project" comes well after the c.1960s nuclear powered air defense radar site at Sundance Air Force Station, Wyo. Also a pilot project, this was a successful small nuclear power plant that provided electricity to a remote radar site. Apparently it took all these years to be reinvented.
aksdad
It's great to see innovations like micro reactors and small modular reactors gaining traction. Most of the potential problems with nuclear power are solved with improved engineering like this. Highly radioactive waste, though extraordinarily small in size, needs to be addressed either through reprocesssing, burning it in hybrid reactors that can drastically reduce the waste, or stored temporarily in "permanent" repositories. Realistically, it's not going to be stored for tens of thousands of years, but only until it's reprocessed or burned in a reactor to further reduce the amount and the level of radiation.
nick101
Having lived in the arctic one winter, the worst thing was the smoke from the diesel generator on a calm night. It was awful.