Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Good Things in Small Packages:Small Reactors for Military Power

I started out my military career working with nukes, the kind that made large, smoking holes. My attention now turns to the more productive side of atomic power, namely, power. In a new paper from the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, Richard B. Andres and Hanna L. Breetz make the argument for micropower for military installations, foreign and domestic, using small (less than 300 megawatt) nuclear reactors.
The authors argue that installations are vulnerable because they are grid tied (domestic) or require convoys of fuel to power them (foreign). They also point out that DOD has the most experience in this space (see USS Nautilius) and that the financial burden could be borne in the name of National Security.

They conclude that DOD should lead the charge for small reactors to meet their own needs as well as to make sure that the US leads that industry’s development. When first written the paper mentioned that most of the technology was stymied somewhere between the drawing board and production. But there is good news in the President’s 2011 Budget for nukes.

The New York Times reported that the budget contains $500 million over five years for DOE to complete two designs and secure National Regulatory Commission (NRC) approval. The reactors will be built entirely in a factory and trucked to the site, like “modular homes”. Sounds just like what Dr. Andres ordered. Only problem is that $500 million is only about half of the cost to get to NRC approval. Actual production is in the $2 billion neighborhood, and that is a pricey neighborhood. Enter Amory Lovins.

Amory has often derided the cost for nuclear power as an unnecessary expenditure. His argument is that micropower is the way of the future, not big honking gigawatt nuclear power plants. Although there has been a resurgence in the interest in nuclear power, it is still difficult to find private investments willing to underwrite the expense. Maybe the development of small nukes for national security reasons will lead to cost effective small nukes for distributed micropower nationwide.

Small reactors for FOBs are more problematic. Even Bagram only needs about 25 MW with other FOBS being smaller. Security will be the first concern. If someone tries a smash and grab at Fort Hood they have to go through a couple of armored divisions and have a long way to got to get away. Kabul to Peshawar is only 128 miles. Cost shouldn’t be an overriding factor in considering secure power, but even at a 75% cost reduction in production, half a billion for 25MW is a bit much. Of course if you could produce a 300MW system, Bagram could air condition Kabul! The real soft power.

My buddy, T.C. the fighter pilot, would tell you that DOD's mission is to fight and win the Nation's wars, not spark business recovery. DOD needs to focus on conserving energy. “Reducing the consumption at Miramar by 50% might save a lot of fuel and money, but I'd rather reduce consumption by 50% at PB Jugroom even though the savings in gallons and dollars are tiny.” Reducing demand reduces risk.

All that being said, it may well be worth DOE and DOD efforts to explore the potential. It is something that may be beyond the means of commercial entities, but not government (See China). If there is going to be a market here, let us not be left behind as we have been with other alternative energy production means.

Pictured: Hyperion (left) and Babcock & Wilcox (right) Small Reactors. Click image for article.

1 comment:

Andy B said...
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