US military eyes mini nuclear reactors to reduce convoy casualties

By James Conca

Military history buffs remember how the lack of oil and fuel for planes and tanks lead to losses in major battles and ultimately a war. Japan and Germany during WWII are the classic examples. Transport of liquid fuels and other supply-line needs, whether on land or sea, provide major vulnerabilities to any deployed force. Obviously, our military leaders understand this better than most. Liquid fuel and water comprise the majority of the mass transported to deployed military forces. Resupply of fuel and drinking water for troops in-theater costs lives, about 4 lives for every 100 convoys.

Multiple studies identify that air and ground delivery of liquid fuel comes at a significant cost in terms of lives and dollars. Approximately 18,700 casualties, or 52% of the approximately 36,000 total U.S. casualties over a nine-year period during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom occurred from hostile attacks during land transport missions, mainly associated with re-supplying fuel and water.

This alone is motivation enough to evaluate and deploy alternatives to petroleum-based fuel systems. Yet both fuel and water – and potentially other supplies including munitions and spare parts – could be produced close to where they are needed if the necessary technologies were powered by nuclear energy, whose resupply is once every several years  at most.

This is the plan of the U.S. Department of Defense. Their Defense Science Board’s reports on energy systems from 2016 and other reports from 2018 outlined these troubling sources of future vulnerability for our military forces. The modern battlefield has amplified the need for electrical power as well as the demand for fuel to provide mobility in the air and on the ground. Recent operations in the Middle East have brought the demand for fuel to record high levels and created productive targets for our adversaries, both from cyber-attacks and conventional attacks.

The efficiency of fuel delivery and management has increased over time as the military standardized fuel quality requirements, improved engines, and began utilizing larger fuel tanks and bladders. America’s new abundance of oil and gas from fracking and other drilling and extraction improvements means there will be no shortages in the foreseeable future.

But the fuel still needs to be transported to the field and this has always been a profound source of vulnerability and limitation of force movement. The logistics supply chain and any storage facilities for fuel increase the footprint and tactical signature of our facilities, contributing to the vulnerability of sites and personnel stationed there. As General James Mattis declared during the drive to Bagdad in 2003, “Unleash us from the tether of fuel!”

And that is just what the Army intends to do. As the Board discusses, energy is a cross-cutting enabler of military power and nuclear fuel provides the densest form of energy able to generate the electrical power necessary at forward and remote locations without the need for continuous fuel resupply.

Key points of the Army vision include high-intensity conflict where the Army must be ready to conduct major large-scale combat operations against near-peer competitors. Mobile nuclear reactors support strategic and operational deployment and can meet the anticipated power demands in both highly developed mature theaters, such as Europe, and the immature theaters of lesser developed areas globally.

Although energy sources such as wind, solar and other alternatives can play a role in powering domestic bases and small overseas systems like monitoring and weather stations, the study found that they are unlikely to meet current or future energy demands for forward operating bases, remote operating bases, and expeditionary forces. Instead, the Board concluded that very small modular nuclear reactors (vSMRs) would be optimal for projecting power abroad. Many new small modular, and even micro-reactors, have been designed and are being built and tested.

A small nuclear reactor offers a transformative technology, delivering one to ten MW or so of electrical power for years without refueling, in a size small enough to be transported by the existing defense infrastructure  that means trucks and planes. The reactor will be fully autonomous, load-following, cooled passively by the environment and meltdown-proof. These reactors are safer to the troops and civilians than the fossil fuels they will replace. These reactors would also be used for Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Relief (HADR) missions. They would have been wonderful in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

Some of these reactors are being designed for industry and some for NASA for use on the Moon and Mars, including NuScale, IMSRs, and even small fusion plants like CTFusion is building. But the Holos reactor has been designed for years for the military (see figure) and specifically to be mobile for the needs of DoD. Full power testing will begin within a few years with feasibility successfully tested via subscale prototype in 2018.

This reactor will use a form of low-enriched uranium known as High-Assay Low Enriched Uranium (HALEU), which is neither weapons-grade nor useful for radioactive dirty bombs. It satisfies all nuclear non-proliferation goals. It’s not like we haven’t tried this before. Rod Adams has an excellent review of Army reactors at Atomic Insights. And it’s not like we haven’t already done this with our Navy.

The Nuclear Navy has been using small modular reactors for 50 years. There have never been any real problems. And they have made our Navy the most powerful, and the most mobile, in history. Mobile land reactors will certainly do the same for the Army.

Dr. James Conca is an expert on energy, nuclear and dirty bombs, a planetary geologist, and a professional speaker.

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