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Game-changer: INL to test mobile microcreactor prototype using ‘inherently safe’ nuclear fuel

The Idaho National Laboratory may begin testing a mobile nuclear microreactor prototype for the Department of Defense as soon as 2024, Gov. Brad Little’s Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission heard this week.

INL Project Pele Program Manager Justin Coleman said the new technology would be a “game-changer,” giving the United States an opportunity to “invert the paradigm of military energy.”

More than half of the casualties recorded during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom between October 2001 and December 2010 resulted from attacks on land transport crews, most of which carried fuel and water, INL said in a previous Project Pele presentation.

Those fuel transports would not be necessary in locations with mobile nuclear reactors, and their associated power conversion systems, in place.

“(This prototype) has the opportunity to replace a lot of diesel trucks,” Coleman said. “It’s a transformational technology.”

The microreactor, which can fit inside of a 20-foot shipping container, will be able to produce 1 to 5 megawatts of power for three-plus years, offering 2 million times the energy density of diesel, Coleman said.

“Nuclear power is uniquely suited to meet Department of Defense needs,” he said, noting that “energy usage on the battlefield is likely to increase significantly over the next few decades.”

‘Inherently safe’

The mobile microreactor prototype will utilize “inherently safe” nuclear technology that can “withstand external attacks without creating a large evacuation zone,” Coleman said.

The inherent safety comes from a type of fuel the Department of Energy has been studying for decades, with INL’s help.

The fuel is made of tristructural isotropic particles, each of which contains a “kernel” of uranium, carbon and oxygen that is “wrapped up” in three layers of carbon- and ceramic-based materials that keep the core of the particle from getting too hot and releasing radioactive fission products, according to the Office of Nuclear Energy.

“That reactor cannot get hot enough to melt that silicon carbide,” Coleman said. “You can go to really high temperatures.”

A company called BWX Technologies is manufacturing the fuel, which INL plans to purchase for microreactor demonstrations.

The reactor itself will be fabricated off-site then moved to INL for low-power initial testing, likely in the decommissioned Experimental Breeder Reactor-II, which is being repurposed to serve as the National Reactor Innovation Center’s facility for Demonstration and Operation of Microreactor Experiments, or DOME.

“That DOME project is critical for the success of Pele for initial reactor testing,” Coleman said.

After the initial testing phase is completed, Coleman said the reactor will be moved from the DOME — which actually is dome-shaped — to a more remote, independent grid at INL equipped with transmission and communication lines.

“We can put the mobile microreactor in its fuel configuration, and we can hook it up (and) operate this unit,” Coleman said.

He anticipates that the U.S. Army could have the opportunity to decide whether it wants to “transition the technology” by 2025.

The Pele Project could also serve as a “pathfinder to advanced nuclear reactors in the commercial sector,” Coleman said, allowing private companies to eventually offer “a high-density energy source” for “remote and strategically important locations in the United States.”

“We are seeing a shift toward a recognition that we really need 24/7 non-carbon-emitting electricity to get where we’re trying to go,” INL Director and LINE Commission Co-Chairman John Wagner said. “That is driving conversations in this area.”

Source: Post Register