While there has been little interest of late in developing new-generation nuclear reactors to power the U.S. electric grid, some new initiatives at the Department of Defense – spurred in part by complaints of dumping by U.S. uranium miners – may just be the spark needed to move the U.S. back into worldwide leadership in the peaceful (as well as wartime) uses of nuclear energy.
In mid-April Energy Secretary Daniel Brouillette released a shocking report, “Restoring America’s Competitive Nuclear Energy Advantage,” which announced that the U.S. has lost its competitive global position as the world leader in nuclear energy to state-owned enterprises (Russia and China).
A week later, in an interview with talk show host Hugh Hewitt, Brouillette explained that in July 2018 Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross had initiated an investigation into whether the present quantity and circumstances of uranium ore and product imports into the United States threaten to impair national security.
Secretary Ross asserted he was responding to a petition filed by two U.S uranium mining companies, UR-Energy and Energy Fuels, who claimed nation-state actors were dumping uranium into the U.S market – dumping uranium at prices so low it made domestic production unprofitable. The investigation canvassed the entire uranium sector from the mining industry through enrichment, defense, and industrial consumption.
At the time, uranium still powered 99 U.S. commercial nuclear reactors that produced 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. Uranium is also the primary fuel for the U.S. Navy’s fleet of nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. But U.S.-produced uranium had dwindled from 40 percent in 1987 to just 5 percent in 2018.
Three U.S. companies had idled their uranium mining operations, and the two petitioners (who in 2018 produced over half of U.S.-mined uranium) had laid off over half their workforces and were operating at 9 and 13 percent capacity. Once a facility has been shuttered, current regulations require an entirely new round of environmental permitting – a costly and time-consuming nightmare that has no guarantees.
Armed with this information, President Trump created a working group to look at the entirety of the U.S. uranium industry with a focus on the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle – the site of the catastrophic collapse of the domestic marketplace. Secretary Brouillette told Hewitt that the review showed that the U.S. has lost its leadership in the nuclear space on both the technology side and the market side.
Brouillette explained that the credibility of the U.S. nonproliferation regime depends upon the U.S. having a viable, healthy and even robust civilian nuclear energy industry and a cutting edge technology leadership position. But today, of the 100-plus new nuclear reactors scheduled for completion by 2030, 43 are Chinese, 29 are Russian, 10 are Indian, 9 are South Korean – and none are American.
The lack of a domestic nuclear ENERGY industry is extremely troubling for the U.S. nuclear fleet as well as for replenishing the U.S. nuclear arsenal (which remains in place to protect the U.S. from a nuclear assault).
Brouillette asserted that it is in the U.S. national security interest to preserve and grow the assets and investments of the entire U.S. nuclear enterprise. We can do so by addressing domestic and international security interests, expanding nuclear generation, minimizing commercial fleet fiscal vulnerabilities, assuring defense needs for uranium, and leveling the playing field against state-owned enterprises.
He stated that the initial U.S. response is focused on two major initiatives. The Energy Department has begun a new $115 million Energy Department pilot project to create high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU), a fuel that is enriched to about 19.5 percent. The use of a higher density fuel will enable these microreactors to become smaller. A second initiative is the virtual test reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory that is intended to allow quick identification of materials suitable for the new modular reactors.
Now we learn that the Pentagon has a special interest in these new mobile modular reactors, which if deployable in the field could drastically reduce the need for fossil fuel fired generators and other makeshift energy sources vital to field operations.
Waksman had explained that 52 percent of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan happened on land convoy missions bringing fuel and water to the troops. The Defense Science Board in early 2018 issued a report citing energy logistics as an increasing risk, and that nuclear power had evolved to become a viable option even on the battlefield.
The Department of Defense then awarded contracts under Project Pele (named after the Hawaiian goddess of creation and fire) to three companies to develop competing designs for a mobile miniature nuclear reactor. According to program manager Jeff Waksman, the reactors that will be built in this project will be safer than any existing reactors. “We now have the capability to build completely, inherently safe reactors,” Waksman promised.
The reason is the revolutionary new tri-structural isotropic particle fuel (TRISO), which replaces large uranium cores with millions of tiny pellets, each of them sufficiently hardened to lock radioactivity inside so that they can remain intact at temperatures as high as 1,8000 C – hot enough to melt steel. The TRISO reactors thus cannot physically melt down, even if an enemy missile hits the TRISO reactor dead on.
Waksman added that these miniature reactors should be especially helpful for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions. Had they been available when Puerto Rico lost its entire electric grid in the wake of hurricane Maria, these reactors could safely power refugee centers or hospitals. These reactors could also provide first-time electricity reliability in some of the world’s darkest areas.
Hopefully, the military’s interest in these miniature reactors will also spur renewed interest in their slightly larger cousins – small modular reactors. SMRs allow for less on-site construction, increased containment efficiency, and enhanced safety in comparison to the massive conventional reactors that in the U.S have become difficult to near-impossible to bring online.