Such reactors would “fundamentally change the logistics of forward operating bases, both by making more energy available and by drastically simplifying the complex fuel logistical lines which currently support existing power generators operating mostly on diesel fuel,” the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office said in that January request seeking outside help.
The unit will be “semiautonomous—Not requiring manned control by operators to ensure safe operation,” the Pentagon says. Starting it up should take less than three days, and shutting it down should take no more than a week. Their basic design is as simple as nuclear power gets: as the reactor fuel decays, it generates heat that is then turned into electricity. The Pentagon plans on funding up to three designs before tapping a winner from among them. Other nations—Canada, China, and the United Kingdom—are also exploring such small reactors.
Last fall, the Army climbed aboard the Pentagon’s atomic bandwagon with a report that began with an unusual, standalone quote that sat like a hood ornament atop an M-1 tank. “Unleash us from the tether of fuel,” the study began, quoting one “Gen. James Mattis, former commander of the 1st Marine Division, during the drive to Baghdad, March 2003”—and, coincidentally, you can bet, the sitting defense secretary when the Army published its report (although that, of course, the report did not mention).
The Army report mainlined hype. “The return of nuclear power to the Army and DOD will have a significant impact on the Army, our allies, the international community, commercial power industry, and the nation,” the report said. (Added bonus: militarized nuclear power would lead to “decreasing carbon dioxide emissions.”)
Then the Army overdid it. “A movement towards increased reliance on nuclear power from MNPP [mobile nuclear power plant] development, could spur worldwide jobs in high tech, electric utility, specialized manufacturing, and uranium mining industries,” it said. “Additionally, the academic disciplines relating to nuclear power would be revitalized and once again become a source of professionals for the rest of the world. In sum, the social aspects of nuclear technology development would be deep and wide, and would enhance the economic prosperity of the nation.” Whew!
And one more thing, the Army added: The nation needs nuclear reactors on the battlefield to wage twenty-first century wars. That’s because “fundamental change in the character of warfare” has now replaced “the obsolete peace/war binary.”
Sure, the Army conceded, nuclear power is a mixed bag. “Despite failed construction of two light water reactors (LWR) reactors in South Carolina [after spending $9 billion], and Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing by Westinghouse Electric [the company building them], the current political environment for nuclear power is favorable,” the Army report said. “Nuclear power enjoys strong support from both the current administration and Congress.” (So, of course, do deficit reduction and winning wars.)
Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists says the “lobbying push” to build micro-nukes for the U.S. military comes from the U.S. Nuclear Industry Council. The Washington-based trade group says it is “composed of over 80 companies” and “represents the ‘Who’s Who’ of the nuclear energy supply chain community, including key utility movers, technology developers, fuel cycle companies, construction engineers, manufacturers and service providers.”
But nuclear insiders also are playing a critical role. Among the authors of that key Defense Science Board report were some atomic heavyweights, including co-chairman Michael Anastasio, the only person to ever run two of the nation’s nuclear labs (he is the former head of Los Alamos in New Mexico, and Lawrence Livermore in California), and William Madia, who served as director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state. Nuclear power is the labs’ bread and butter, and continued work in the field will keep their workers (more than 10,000 at Los Alamos alone) employed. Frank Bowman, who spent eight years in charge of the Navy’s nuclear-propulsion program, where he oversaw the operation of 100 nuclear reactors aboard U.S. aircraft carriers and submarines, was also on the panel.