In an effort to reduce its carbon footprint and pursue alternative energy options, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is moving forward with a major transportable advanced nuclear microreactor project.

As part of Project Pele, the DoD's Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) has chosen two private companies to help accomplish this mission: BWXT Advanced Technologies and X-energy. Westinghouse Government Services is also part of the program.

Project Pele in action

Project Pele is a whole-of-government effort, which includes the DoD, the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Nuclear Security Administration. Its goal is to develop a portable nuclear reactor to power operations in the field. If successful, this project would result in a stable and portable source of a significant amount of power for the military.

According to a DoD press release, the department currently uses approximately 30 Terawatt-hours of electricity per year and more than 10 million gallons of fuel per day. With current plans to grow the number of electric vehicles in its fleet, this will only increase the amount of energy consumed by the DoD. The department is seeking a transportable nuclear reactor system that will operate for at least three years and generate up to 5 megawatts of electricity.

"The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.""The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement."

The aim is to provide a stable power supply for disaster relief operations and critical infrastructure support. This will make the military's energy supply more resilient to an electric grid attack. It will also streamline energy logistics and delivery for forward-operating bases, all without increasing the DoD's carbon footprint.

About the contractors

Based out of Lynchburg, Virginia, BWXT Advanced Technologies, LLC, has more than 60 years of nuclear innovation. It has delivered more than 400 reactors for Naval nuclear power, provided 315 steam generators to nuclear power plants and managed 18 high-consequence U.S. sites.

Operating out of Greenbelt, Maryland, X-energy, LLC, is a nuclear reactor and fuel design engineering company that designs safe and efficient modular reactors for a wide range of global markets and applications. The company also manufactures its own proprietary particle fuels.

Current state of the design and development process

In March 2021, the companies were awarded preliminary contracts of less than $15 million. Final designs are not due until 2022. At that point, the DoD will make a determination on the project's viability for long-term production. As it stands, Dr. Jeff Waksman, Project Pele program manager, is optimistic about the project's success.

"We are confident that by early 2022 we will have two engineering designs matured to a sufficient state that we will be able to determine suitability for possible construction and testing," Dr. Waksman stated.

After the second design phase of the project, and following an environmental analysis, the SCO may competitively award the manufacturing and deployment of the microreactor prototype. Ultimately, the companies involved will have to demonstrate a successful combination of this first-of-its-kind technological solution and proven production processes to meet DoD's power generation needs.