In what might be another significant step to someday installing small nuclear energy generation for mobile military and commercial & industrial microgrids, the U.S. Department of Defense has found a partner to complete its microreactor project at the Idaho National Laboratory.
The Defense Department (DoD) selected Maryland-based developer X-energy Co. for its Project Pele initiative to design and test an advanced small nuclear power station which can be transportable and cost-effectively built. The expanded contract with X-energy is worth about $17.5 million, under the Strategic Capabilities Office of the department.
The department launched its initial work about four years ago and decided on the Idaho National Lab and microreactor concept in 2022. Once completed, this would be the first electricity-generating Generation IV nuclear reactor built in the U.S., following the HTR-PM project which reached criticality in China two years ago, according to reports.
The plan is to perhaps install the technology in remote military locations, DoD also hopes the microreactor will be utilized for C&I use in civilian applications. Some of the Project Pele insiders have theorized that the technology could be used in lunar and Mars exploration operations.
These reactors are expected to deliver energy in the 1 to 5 MW range, according to reports.
“Due to their extraordinary energy density, nuclear reactors have the potential to serve multiple critical functions for meeting resiliency needs in contested logistical environments,” Jeff Waksman, Project Pele program manager, said in a statement. “By developing two unique designs, we will provide the services with a broad range of options as they consider potential uses of nuclear power for both Installation and Operational energy applications in the near future.”
Microreactors and small modular reactors, like all nuclear energy, could deliver power without carbon emissions, proponents say. Nuclear energy currently generates close to 20 percent of the U.S. utility-scale electricity mix and more than half of its carbon-free power, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
X-energy was selected among two finalists --the other being BWX Technologies--after a preliminary design competition and won the award as the DoD narrowed its focus. The next phase of the work, the company said, is refining the design, prototype testing and starting the review process with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“We learned a tremendous amount while working through the first phase of Project Pele with subject matter experts at the Department of Defense,” said Harlan Bowers, X-energy president, who led the project team during the initial phase of work. “We intend to build on the knowledge and experience from the first phase of work to create a clean, practical, and cost-effective microreactor to be competitive with fossil fuel-based power generation used today.”
The small modular reactor industry is gaining a foothold in future-focused conversations around carbon-free microgrid power. Supporters such as Microsoft co-founder and alternative energy investor Bill Gates and former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz have backed nuclear energy expansion as the only way to truly meet net zero goals.
On the other hand, many detractors bring up health, safety and spent fuel issues. Microgrids are located near the demand load, and locating such projects in populated areas will be challenged heavily by opposition groups, they have noted.
Others who support microgrid decarbonization argue that the remote nature of this project could overcome that problem.
The micro reactor will utilize TRISO fuel and the Idaho National Lab will test the project for about three years.
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