June 28, 2011

Debate Continues on Small Modular Nuclear Reactors

Wired’s Danger Room reported that
last week the Senate Armed Services Committee recommended $150
million in cuts to DARPA’s budget
. Included in those cuts, the SASC
suggested that DOD cut a project to push along small modular nuclear reactors for use on forward operating bases. 

My reaction via Twitter: “Hurray!”

be clear, I have nothing against this technology. (Nor do I think DARPA
presents the DOD work most worthy of cuts.) I hope small modular reactors move
along as many expect, a good sign of which is that the Tennessee Valley Authority recently signed a letter of intent with Babcock & Wilcox to explore building several right here in the U.S. of A. The private
sectors in the States and other countries have been exploring these reactor
designs for years, and I do hope that they can provide the benefits of nuclear
power while reducing some of its risks.

I dislike is the unique focus on military bases – and especially FOBs, where transmission,
safety and a plethora of additional concerns meet the unique challenges of
conflict settings.

few years ago, we found a solid spike in interest in using small nuclear
reactors to “island” military bases, including and especially domestic bases.
The rationale was often prevention of cyber attacks, with
assured electricity supplies usually serving as the secondary logic in our
conversations with personnel at many bases. My concerns were less with the
reactors than with the idea of fully isolating military bases from the communities
in which they are set. As Will and I wrote in an op-ed in The Hill last year:

contend that sufficient numbers of military base personnel may not have the
requisite training in nuclear reactor management, oversight and regulatory
credentials to attend to reactors in the round-the-clock manner necessary. In
most cases, additional qualified personnel and improved physical security and
safety requirements would be needed. As with all nuclear power generation,
materials proliferation, water usage, radioactive waste management and public
opinion will also be major concerns.

our 2010 report exploring the effects
of climate change on the services and Combatant Commands
, we further noted:

If improving
energy security includes all strategic assets, personnel and logistics involved
with a given base’s activities, then the definition of islanding would
similarly need to expand to include parts of the greater community around the
base, for example nearby ports. There is also a concern over negative public
image that could stem from military bases having vast energy resources while
the surrounding communities experience disruptions and other problems.

felt very strongly that policies on small modular reactor use and islanding
bases were debates worth having in the public realm – including with lawmakers
on the Hill who are involved through the budget process but should care for all the other reasons that this is an important national topic. These issues affect military communities around the
country, and get to the core of how isolated the military community often feels
from most of American civilian life.

a really good overview, you should all read a solid piece co-authored by the
fabulous Rich Andres that National Defense University published in February, “Small Nuclear
Reactors for Military Installations: Capabilities, Costs, and Technological
.” It’s short but still includes most of the key issues that
everyone should understand. Brush up on this now: it’s a debate that will continue.