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This Alaskan Air Base Will Host An Experimental Mini Nuclear Reactor

All told, the facility is a good representation of remote power generation challenges, broadly, as well as logistical and other impacts as a result of the continued reliance on fossil fuels. With regards to the latter issue, the U.S. military has increasingly highlighted the potential security risks presented by global climate change in recent years and there have been numerous initiatives to reduce fossil fuel use across the services. Global climate change has also been a major factor in opening up access to new resources and trade routes in the Arctic, which has led to increased competition and growing concerns about the potential for conflict in the region. That, in turn, has increased the strategic significance of U.S. military bases in Alaska, including Eielson.

For Eielson, specifically, the use of coal presents environmental and cost issues due to the base’s power plant itself and the infrastructure necessary to support it. For instance, the Air Force owns a fleet of diesel locomotives that are dedicated to bringing in trainloads of coal, as well as other supplies, to the base on a regular basis.

“The winter sees the highest level of sustained power, about 13 to 15 MWe [megwatts of electric capacity], using up to 800 tons of coal per day,” according to a 2018 report from the independent Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). “The base maintains a 90 day supply of coal on site, and the plant has a thaw shed to de-freeze the coal prior to use.”

Eielson’s location, combined with the fact that it is a major Air Force base, presents certain benefits with regards to security and regulatory concerns, as well. “It should also be noted that numerous stakeholders have recommended that the first microreactor project in Alaska should be at a military base, possibly Eielson Air Force Base” where “DOD is not required to comply with State law,” a report from the Alaska Center for Energy and Power (ACEP) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, which was released in January, notes.

It is important to remember that Project Pele’s goal is not just to develop a small reactor to help power established facilities, but also one that could be readily deployable, including to forward locations on an actual battlefield. The idea is that this could streamline logistics and reduce costs for operations that currently rely on large, regular deliveries of gasoline, diesel, and other fuels.

Though advocates point to the increased reliability offered by modern TRISO-fueled micro-reactor designs, there remain various other safety and security concerns, including what might happen if such a reactor is hit by incoming fire or captured by hostile actors. TRISO fuel is also touted as offering benefits when it comes to general environmental concerns, including the matter of waste byproducts

At the same time, it is worth pointing out that 19,780 acres associated with Eielson are already designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a so-called “Superfund site,” due to existing toxic chemical contamination related to “closed and active unlined landfills, shallow trenches where weathered tank sludge was buried, a drum storage area, and other disposal and spill areas.” More recently, the base has been identified as one that also suffers from contamination as a result of the use of firefighting foams containing perfluorinated compounds.

“Public sentiment might affect potential decisions” when it comes to where to test micro-reactors, the January 2021 ACEP report notes.

The actual establishment of the micro-reactor plant at Eielson is still likely years away, in which time public sentiment and other factors could well impact the plan and its schedule. At the same time, the U.S. military, as a whole, is very interested in the potential that small reactors hold for providing large amounts of cost-effective power to support future battlefield operations and more routine day-to-day activities.

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