State-Side Military Bases of the Future Could Be Nuclear Powered
Are micro-reactors safe? Is the Air Force prepared to manage a meltdown? Would micro-reactor technology be similar to those that experienced meltdown during the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster?
The logistical benefits of powering military bases with nuclear energy are clear: a steady, reliable carbon-neutral electricity supply.
The United States Department of the Air Force selected Eielson Air Force Base as an ideal location to build a small nuclear micro-reactor. It stated that the “next-generation energy capability will provide the installation with a clean, reliable, and resilient nuclear energy supply technology for critical national security infrastructure.” Eielson AFB is deep within the Alaskan interior, about twenty-five miles southeast of Fairbanks.
“Energy is a critical asset to ensure mission continuity at our installations,” explained Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Environment, Safety, and Infrastructure Mark Correll in the Air Force statement. “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.”
Furthermore, “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.”
Along with the announcement, the Air Force also released a detailed Frequently Asked Questions document, providing additional details on the micro-reactor project. One of the document’s common threads is safety—are micro-reactors safe? Is the Air Force prepared to manage a meltdown? Would micro-reactor technology be similar to those that experienced meltdown during the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster?
The FAQ document explains that “Micro-reactors are self-adjusting–this means built-in safety features that require little human oversight or offsite electrical power prevent conditions that could lead to overheating the fuel.”
Furthermore, micro-reactors small size “minimizes decay-heat generation after shutdown, preventing it from reaching levels that can damage the core,” making them—at least according to the Air Force—much less likely to experience a meltdown type event.
The Department of Defense (DoD) previously expressed interest in providing funding for a “transportable advanced nuclear microreactor prototype” to provide power to battlefield command posts. The DoD tender specified quick deployment and setup—just three days from delivery to turning the lightbulbs on—and a power output timespan of three years. In addition, tear-down should take no longer than a week.
One report by the Nuclear Energy Institute, a nuclear energy trade association organization, estimated a small nuclear reactor could meet the energy needs of about 90 percent of the United States military’s domestic military installations.
Still, detractors note that regardless of a micro-reactor’s inherently safe design, nuclear-powered military installations could present tempting targets to an adversary, with significant environmental and health consequences if reactors—irrespective of how small—fail.
Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and Defense Writer with the National Interest. He lives in Berlin and covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society.