In January 2019, the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) of the U.S. Department of Defense officially informed the world that it was interested in learning more about small, mobile, nuclear generators.
The SCO said it wanted to find out if there was technology available that could supply a forward operating base with abundant, emission-free electricity for three or more years without new fuel.
The request for information is an intermediate step in an accelerated acquisition process for a solution that can provide U. S. forces with enhanced power production capacity in a future, energy-intensive contingency.
The RFI will help the SCO determine the current state of the art and potentially support a decision to move forward with a prototype. If successful, the program could produce mobile power sources that could substantially reduce the Army’s dependence on routine fossil fuel deliveries.
It doesn’t take much imagination to recognize that such a capability could be important in wider variety of applications. Nuclear generators could have reduced suffering following Hurricane Maria’s devastation of numerous island power systems, especially within the still tenuous system that powers Puerto Rico.
If such systems were in our inventory today, several might be on their way to Venezuela, where an entire nation in its 4th straight day of being blacked out.
I’ve been involved in a number of conversations since the SCO issued its formal request for information. Many of them have started off with “It’s high time…” The enabling technologies have all existed for decades and are reaching ever increasing states of maturity.
From about 1966 until now, however, the Department of Defense, with its more immediate needs and large resources, has been reluctant to make the needed commitment to purchase mobile nuclear systems if proven to be capable of being built to their specifications.
In the early part of the 1960s after learning logistics lessons from Korea and before becoming entangled in a lengthy, expensive conflict in Vietnam, the Army explored the potential of small nuclear power plants, both fixed and mobile. Our ancestors have been here before; Project Dilithium is a revisitation, not an exploration into the unknown.
The early visits were a modest success that could have supported a more expansive effort to increase mobility and independence from fossil fuel supply lines, but the “Guns and Butter” budgets of the Johnson and Nixon Administrations left little room left for research and development.
By the time the Vietnam war ended, there was a strong antinuclear movement, the Army had lost much of its credibility due to the missteps of the nation’s political leaders and the nation had elected an antinuclear President who claimed to have been a nuclear engineer in the U.S. Navy.
There might have also been some resistance from the key, native state supporters of both Johnson (Texas) and Nixon (California). After all, the Army’s relatively high cost of hydrocarbons and their logistics chains represent important sources of revenue for those who sell the fuels and transportation services.
As a result of some or all of the above, plans for small, manufactured nuclear powered generators were left on the shelf while the dust deepened on their binders.
It was terrific news when I learned about the SCO’s RFI. I remembered how many times I had heard about the vulnerability of our logistics supply lines and the high portion of casualties in Enduring Freedom and the Long War associated with the enemy’s logical focus on attacking those convoys.
I also remembered the multiple times I had reminded military colleagues in and around the five sided puzzle palace about the incredible capabilities energy-dense nuclear fission offered.
There are, not surprisingly, naysayers who are not as happy as I am about the potential development of nuclear generators that can be readily moved to places where power is needed, but unavailable via the normal wire delivery methods.
According to Ed Lyman, the current go-to representative of nuclear opposition from the Union of Concerned Scientists, people who have determined that small, transportable, durable, high endurance nuclear reactors can be built in the near future are guilty of “naive optimism.”
He also characterized the international alliances of nuclear professionals who have been patiently refining materials, improving designs, testing components and even building and operating demonstration systems as “nuclear lobbyists.”
I take personal offense.
Personal interest in small modular reactors, especially mobile ones
Though my role has been as a bit player or sideline cheerleader, I’ve been intensely interested in what I often call “atomic engines” since the early 1990s. It’s almost depressing to realize that means I’ve been pursuing this technology for nearly 30 years.
In January 1990, I’d just completed a 40 month tour as the Engineer Officer of a 27 year old nuclear submarine. I had spent the 1980s either learning about nuclear energy, operating small, factory-constructed nuclear propulsion plants in sealed, underwater ships, or earning an advanced degree in Systems Technology.
While at graduate school in Monterey, CA, my running partner, Mike LeFever, was a former Chief Engineer on a gas turbine powered destroyer. Being typical Navy geeks, we spent many hours during long runs along California’s scenic coast comparing our experiences and our favorite platforms.
We agreed that a nearly perfect ship propulsion plant would have characteristics of both gas turbines and nuclear steam plants.
With that background, there were current events in January 1990 that motivated me to learn more about the politics of nuclear energy. I began a self-directed study program designed to help me find the root causes of the gap between what I knew to be true about nuclear energy and the general lack of interest in using nuclear energy as a powerful tool that could address many of the world’s biggest challenges.
A nuclear steam plant had been my most valued shipmate on USS Von Steuben. It provided the motive force that enabled us to perform our vital mission of strategic deterrence while also giving us the electrical power to live in relative comfort in our underwater habitat.
Because we used nuclear fission instead of fossil fuel combustion, we had refrigeration, air conditioning, fresh water, capable weapons control systems, entertainment systems, and even continously scrubbed air supplemented by freshly manufactured oxygen.
We manufactured that oxygen by tearing apart some of the pure H2O we made by removing salt and other contaminants from sea water. From our point of view, the associated hydrogen was a dangerous waste product that needed to be released back int the sea before it accumulated in explosive quantities.
From a curious nuclear submarine engineer’s perspective, it seemed rather strange to realize that the world was still fighting bitterly over control of oil producing regions. After all, my reliable boat engine had been built in the early 1960s in a manufacturing spurt that produced more than 100 submarines and about a dozen surface ships in less than a decade.
In every one of those ships, the alternative propulsion plant was an oil burner. Why weren’t there more ships, both Navy and civilian running on uranium? Why weren’t there smaller generators powering islands and other places still burning diesel fuel?
Why were the Army and the Air Force still dependent on diesel generators with their large and vulnerable supply infrastructure?
I realized, of course, that part of the answer might lie in the fact that steam cycles, like the one that my submarine had used, were bulky and sometimes ornery beasts that would be a bit challenging to operate in places that were not well supplied with water. (That still didn’t explain the relatively low use of nuclear propulsion on ships.)
As part of my self-study program, I haunted the Naval Academy’s extensive library collections on atomic energy. That was when I learned that there had once been a much broader interest in using atomic fission to address the applications I envisioned.
The early enthusiastic explorations included working demonstrations of small base-sized generators for the Army, small power plants for Air Force radar sites and barge mounted generators for ports and waterfront installations. It turned out that the Air Force had even developed several conceptual designs for plane engines as part of an extensive, billion dollar investigation of aircraft nuclear propulsion.
I found out that one of the Army’s plants and a couple of the Air Force concepts/prototype efforts used primitive versions of the combination of nuclear heat and Brayton Cycle gas turbines that Mike and I had casually chatted about as the “perfect” power plant.
Though the demonstrations had been reasonably successful, especially considering the fact that no two systems were alike and each had its own first of a kind (FOAK) challenges, neither the Army nor the Air Force had persevered or flourished like the Navy’s Nuclear Power Program. The most frequently offered explanation for this contrast rested on the slight shoulders of one man – Admiral Hyman G. Rickover.
To be continued…