Richard B. Andres
Micah J. Loudermilk
Faced with the dual-obstacles of growing worldwide energy demand and a renewed push for clean energy, the stage is set for a vibrant revival of the nuclear power industry in the United States. During his 2008 campaign, President Barack Obama committed to setting the country on the road to a clean, secure, and independent energy future - and nuclear power can play a vital role in that. With abundant energy resources available and near-zero emission levels, nuclear power offers a domestically-generated, clean, and long-term solution to America's energy dilemma.
While countries around the world are building new reactors though, the U.S. nuclear power industry has remained dormant - and even borders on extinction - as no new plants have been approved for construction in the more than three decades following the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. Although Congress and the Executive Branch have passed laws and issued proclamations over the years, little actual progress has been made in the nuclear energy realm. A number of severe obstacles face any potential entrant into the reactor market - namely the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which lacks the budget and manpower necessary to seriously address nuclear power expansion. Additionally, public skepticism over the safety of nuclear power plants has impeded serious attempts at new plant construction. However, despite the hurdles facing private industry, the U.S. military is in a position to take a leading role in the advancement of nuclear reactor technology through the integration of small reactors on its domestic bases.
While the Obama Administration has pledged $8 billion in federal loan guarantees to the construction of two new reactors in Georgia and an additional $36 billion in new guarantees to the nuclear industry, this comes on top of $18.5 billion budgeted, but unspent, dollars. Despite this aid, it is still improbable that the U.S. will see any new large reactors now or in the foreseeable future as enormous cost, licensing, construction, and regulatory hurdles must be overcome. In recent years though, attention in the nuclear energy sphere has turned in a new direction: small-scale reactors. These next-generation reactors seek to revolutionize the nuclear power industry and carry a host of benefits that both separate them from their larger cousins and provide a legitimate opportunity to successfully reinvigorate the American nuclear industry.
When compared to conventional reactors, small reactors have a number of advantages. First, the reactors are both small and often scalable - meaning that sites can be configured to house one to multiple units based on power needs. Although they only exist on paper and the military has yet to embrace a size or design, the companies investing in these technologies are examining a range of possibilities. Hyperion, for example, is working on a so-called "nuclear battery" - a 25 MWe sealed and transportable unit the size of a hot tub. Similarly, Babcock & Wilcox - the company which built many of the Navy's reactors - is seeking licensing for its mPower reactor, which is scalable and produces 125 MWe of power per unit. Other designs, such as Westinghouse's International Reactor Innovative and Secure (IRIS) model, have a generating capacity of up to 335 MWe.
Second, large reactors come with enormous price tags - often approaching $10 billion in projected costs. The costs associated with building new reactors are so astronomical that few companies can afford the capital outlay to finance them. Additionally, the risks classically associated with the construction of nuclear reactors serve as an additional deterrent to interested utilities. As a result, companies must be willing to accept significant financial risks since ventures could potentially sink them or result in credit downgrades - as evidenced by the fact that 40 of 48 utilities issuing debt to nuclear projects suffered downgrades following the accident at Three Mile Island. All of this adds up to an environment that is not conducive to the sponsorship of new reactor plants.
On the other hand, small reactors are able to mostly circumvent the cost hurdles facing large reactors. During the construction of large reactors, utilities face "single-shaft risk" - forced to invest and tie up billions of dollars in a single plant. However, small reactors present the opportunity for utilities to buy and add reactor capacity as needed or in a step-by-step process, as opposed to an all-or-nothing approach. Small reactors are also factory-constructed and shipped, not custom-designed projects, and can be built and installed in half the time - all of which are cost-saving measures.
Additionally, despite concerns from critics over the proliferation and safety risks that a cadre of small reactors would potentially pose, the reality is considerably different. On the safety side, the new designs boast a number of features - including passive safety measures and simpler designs, thus reducing the number of systems to monitor and potential for system failure, enhancing the safety of the reactors. Small reactors can often be buried underground, are frequently fully contained and sealed (complete with a supply of fuel inside), can run longer between refueling cycles, and feature on-site waste storage - all of which serve to further insulate and secure the units. Finally, due to their small size, the reactors do not require the vast water resources needed by large reactors and in the event of an emergency, are far easier to isolate, shut off, and cool down if necessary.
Notwithstanding all of these benefits, with a difficult regulation environment, anti-nuclear lobbying groups, and skeptical public opinion, the nuclear energy industry faces an uphill - and potentially unwinnable - battle in the quest for new reactors in the United States. Left to its own devices it is unlikely, at best, that private industry will succeed in bringing new reactors to the U.S. on its own. However, a route exists by which small reactors could potentially become a viable energy option: the U.S. military.
Since 1948, the U.S. Navy has deployed over 500 reactors and possesses a perfect safety record in managing them. At the same time, grave concern exists over the fact that U.S. military bases are tied to and entirely dependent upon the civilian electric grid - from which they receive 99% of their power. Recently, attention has turned to the fact that the civilian grid, in addition to accidents, is vulnerable to cyber or terrorist attacks. In the event of a deliberate attack on the United States that knocks out all or part of the electric grid, the assets housed at the affected bases would be unavailable and U.S. global military operations potentially jeopardized. The presence of small-scale nuclear reactors on U.S. military bases would enable these facilities to effectively become "islands" - insulating them from the civilian grid and even potentially deterring attacks if the opponent knows that the military network would be unaffected.
Unlike private industry, the military does not face the same regulatory and congressional hurdles to constructing reactors and would have an easier time in adopting them for use. By integrating small nuclear reactors as power sources for domestic U.S. military bases, three potential energy dilemmas are solved at the same time. First, by incorporating small reactors at its bases, the military addresses its own energy security quandary. The military has recently sought to "island" its bases in the U.S. -protecting them from grid outages, be they accidental or intentional. The Department of Defense has promoted this endeavor through lowering energy consumption on bases and searching for renewable power alternatives, but these measures alone will prove insufficient. Small reactors provide sufficient energy output to power military installations and in some cases surrounding civilian population centers.
Secondly, as the reactors become integrated on military facilities, the stigma on the nuclear power industry will ease and inroads will be created for the adoption of small-scale reactors as a viable source of energy. Private industry and the public will see that nuclear reactors can indeed be utilized safely and effectively, resulting in a renewed push toward the expansion of nuclear power. Although many of the same hurdles will still be in place, a shift in public opinion and a stronger effort by utilities, coupled with the demonstrated success of small reactors on military bases, could prove the catalysts necessary for the federal government and the NRC to take more aggressive action.
Finally, while new reactors are not likely in the near future, the military's actions will preserve, for a while longer, the badly ailing domestic nuclear energy industry. Nuclear power is here to stay around the globe, and the United States has an opportunity to take a leading role in supplying the world's nuclear energy and reactor technology. With the U.S. nuclear industry dormant for three decades, much of the attention, technology, and talent have concentrated overseas in countries with a strong interest in nuclear technology. Without the United States as a player in the nuclear energy market, it has little say over safety regulations of reactors or the potential risks of proliferation from the expansion of nuclear energy. If the current trend continues, the U.S. will reach a point where it is forced to import nuclear technology and reactors from other countries. Action by the military to install reactors on domestic bases will both guarantee the survival of the American nuclear industry in the short term, and work to solidify support for it in the long run.
Ultimately, between small-scale nuclear reactors and the U.S. military, the capability exists to revitalize America's sleeping nuclear industry and promoting energy security and clean energy production. The reactors offer the ability to power domestic military bases, small towns, and other remote locations detached from the energy grid. Furthermore, reactor sites can house multiple units, allowing for greater energy production - rivaling even large reactors. Small reactors offer numerous benefits to the United States and a path initiated by the military presents a realistic route by which their adoption can be achieved.
Richard B. Andres is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University and a Professor of National Security Strategy at the National War College.
Micah J. Loudermilk is a researcher at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily represent those of National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.