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America’s new mini nuclear ambitions

Both the Pentagon and NASA have announced plans to develop mini nuclear power plants for operations both on earth and off planet.

Both see mini nuclear power plants as solving a range of power supply and logistics problems their missions face. One thing they both have in common is the problem to ensure secure affordable energy supplies to their teams often working in hostile and remote locations.

Why there is a need for mini nuclear reactors

In the case of NASA, the energy mission challenge is the need to generate and supply industrial quantities of energy needed to operate such research bases and convert local minerals into building materials and fuel for rockets. One thing for certain is nuclear power enjoys certain advantages over rival sources of electricity generation, as well as powering deep space exploration craft.

As for the Pentagon, the energy mission is to reduce the military logistics challenge of delivering energy supplies to ensure a forward base for a brigade of a 1000 men in a remote part of Afghanistan or Iraq. In 2008, during the Iraq war, the US Government Accountability Office estimated that more than 900,000 gallons of fuel went to bases for meeting power needs like lighting and refrigeration alone. For the American military, it helps reduce the huge logistics and security challenges of delivering hundreds of litres of fuel to remote bases in hostile environments.

Also, such power technology could prove useful in meeting the power needs in disaster areas, remote town and mines, remote hospitals and bases.

The technology behind it

In fact, the operation of mini nuclear power plants is not a new idea, there have been for many years, successful operation of such technology including those operating in American and Russian nuclear submarines, American aircraft carries and Russian ice breakers and floating power stations. And there have been space craft that have used, for example, the Curiosity and Horizon craft utilise heat generated by the natural decay of nuclear fuel to create electricity.

In the NASA design known as Kilopower, the reactor splits the nuclear fuel into a fission reaction. Because of this, it can generate more power by an order of magnitude. The Kilopower, as a device, is even with its heat shielding and external systems, is no larger than a typical rubbish bin, and can generate power for several decades. If the project to build such reactors gets the final go-ahead, the plan is to build two models of fission reactors. They would design the first version to produce 1 kW of power for spacecraft expeditions to the outer planets, and the second would produce some 10 kW, to support operations on the Moon and Mars.

As for the Pentagon, they are looking at super small reactors based on radioisotope thermoelectric generators. They operate, making use of reactor fuel — either plutonium-238 or strontium-90 — decays, it slowly but surely releasing lots of heat, which is converted by thermocouples into electricity. One of the projects under consideration is Project Dilithium  it could be transported in a truck or a cargo plane and generate from 1 MW to 10 MW for three years without refuelling. A team of men could set it up and have it closed down in just a week suggests the Pentagon website 

Currently, both NASA and the Pentagon are working with Idaho National Lab and Los Alamos National Lab on developing new mini nuclear reactor power plants.

Prospects

Even if the technology challenges of the latest American designs can be sorted out, there is both political, legal and commercial challenges to face, from investors who have experienced projects being over budget and late, plus concerns about nuclear safety after the 2012 Fukushima Daiichi disaster, a sensational event that obscured the fact that nuclear energy is far cleaner and safer than alternatives like oil and coal.

As for the US military operating such technology outside the United States, it is likely to face problems with many nations. Already, several countries including Australia, Greece and New Zealand that have banned american nuclear powered vessels from their ports.

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