Imagine the snow-capped peaks of mountainous eastern Afghanistan. Wouldn’t it be better topped off with a cooling tower for a nuclear reactor? The Pentagon’s way-out research arm thinks so. It’s all part of a big push to make the military more eco-friendly.
Buried within Darpa’s 2012 budget request under the innocuous name of “Small Rugged Reactor Technologies” is a $10 million proposal to fuel wartime Forward Operating Bases with nuclear power. It springs from an admirable impulse: to reduce the need for troops or contractors to truck down roads littered with bombs to get power onto the base. It’s time, Darpa figures, for a “self-sufficient” FOB.
Only one problem. “The only known technology that has potential to address the power needs of the envisioned self-sufficient FOB,” the pitch reads, “is a nuclear-fuel reactor.” Now, bases could mitigate their energy consumption, like the solar-powered Marine company in Helmand Province, but that’s not enough of a game-changer for Darpa. Being self-sufficient is the goal; and that requires going nuclear; and that requires … other things.
To fit on a FOB, which can be anywhere from Bagram Air Field’s eight square miles to dusty collections of wooden shacks and concertina wire, the reactor would have to be “well below the scale of the smallest reactors that are being developed for domestic energy production,” Darpa acknowledges.
That’s not impossible, says Christine Parthemore, an energy expert at the Center for a New American Security. The Japanese and the South Africans have been working on miniature nuclear power plants for the better part of a decade; Bill Gates has partnered with Toshiba to build mini-nuke sites. (Although it’s not the most auspicious sign that one prominent startup for modular reactors suspended its operations after growing cash-light last month.) Those small sites typically use uranium enriched to about 2 percent. “It would be really, really difficult to divert the fuel” for a bomb “unless you really knew what you were doing,” Parthemore says.
But Darpa doesn’t want to take that chance. Only “non-proliferable fuels (i.e., fuels other than enriched uranium or plutonium) and reactor designs that are fundamentally safe will be required of reactors that may be deployed to regions where hostile acts may compromise operations.”
Sensible, sure. But it limits your options: outside of uranium or plutonium, thorium is the only remaining source for generating nuclear fuel. The Indians and now the Chinese have experimented with thorium for their nuclear programs, but, alas, “no one has ever successfully found a way” to build a functioning thorium reactor, Parthemore says, “in a safe and economical manner.”
For now, Darpa proposes to spend $10 million of your money studying the feasibility of the project. But it’s just one part of the researchers’ new push to green the military. Another $10 million goes to a project called Energy Distribution, which explores bringing down energy consumption on the FOBs. An additional $5 million will look at ways to keep fuel storage from degrading in extreme temperatures. For $50 million, Darpa proposes to build a turbine engine that uses 20 percent less energy.
But all of that is mere isotopes compared to the Nuclear FOB. Darpa appears to have thought about it a lot. It says it plans to work with the Department of Energy “to ensure that existing advanced reactor development activities are being exploited and/or accelerated as appropriate, based on the military’s needs.”
Still, if it can’t find the right non-proliferable fuel, it suggests that it might look to the “development of novel fuels.” Says a stunned Parthemore, “I have no idea why you’d want to bring that upon the world.”