Pentagon Pushes for Fission As Fighting Weapon

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A graphic from a 2016 Defense Science Board report showing how the U.S. military envisions deploying nuclear reactors to the battlefield. (DSB image)

Whether or not you think the United States’ post-9/11 wars were for oil, there’s no doubt that many troops died trying to get oil to the front lines. The lengthy convoys of fuel trucks required to keep the electrical generators humming 24/7 at remote U.S. outposts in Afghanistan and Iraq were targets for enemies armed with roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades. In fact, U.S. troops conducting convoy operations accounted for more than half the U.S. casualties in those countries between 2001 and 2010.

“Thinking about sending portable nuclear reactors off to war is kind of like invading a country with no plan for how to get out.

That’s one reason the Pentagon wants to build flyable and truckable nuclear-power plants to generate the power U.S. troops need to wage war deep in hostile territory.

The concept of micro-nuclear power plants on the battlefield is both inspired and insane. The idea of landing portable nuclear reactors inside a war zone is as outlandish—economically and environmentally—as it sounds.

Yet the Pentagon’s nuclear push didn’t “go critical”—achieve a self-sustaining atomic reaction—on its own. “It is the culmination of a patient, decade-long effort by nuclear lobbyists to interest Defense and its congressional overseers in a costly product—small nuclear reactors—that few in the private sector seem to want,” Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in February. “The Pentagon is precisely the savior small nuclear reactor vendors need: deep-pocketed and unbeholden to return-seeking investors.”

Beyond that, the Pentagon’s nuclear advocates argue that battlefield nuclear reactors would improve the environment and help jump-start the nuclear-reactor business, creating thousands of well-paying jobs in the process. That meshes with the U.S. nuclear industry’s push to peddle more civilian reactors abroad, including a meeting with President Trump in February. “He really wanted to hear from us on what our views are on how we win the global nuclear energy technology race,” said J. Clay Sell, head of Maryland-based X-energy, an advanced nuclear-reactor company seeking business in Jordan. (Sell was also President George W. Bush’s deputy energy secretary from 2005 to 2008). The confab was initiated by Jack Keane, a retired Army general whose company has advocated U.S. nuclear development in the Middle East, Bloomberg reported.

Atomic power is big business. “The nuclear energy industry is a powerful engine for job creation,” the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the industry’s main trade group, says. The industry’s 98 power plants, and businesses that support them, employ nearly half a million workers, according to the NEI.

So it should come as no surprise that the nuclear industry is pulling out all the stops as it sees climate-change concerns giving it a second lease on life, even as renewable energy (wind, solar, hydroelectric) is now producing more power in the United States. The NEI spends about $2 million annually seeking favors from the federal government. Conveniently, the Trump Administration is seeking to bail out the nuclear industry.

The nuclear industry’s push isn’t only in Washington, DC. It’s gaining traction with state legislatures as well, most notably in Pennsylvania, home to Three Mile Island, the site of the most serious nuclear-power plant accident in U.S. history. In the last three years, Exelon, which operates Three Mile Island, has ramped up its lobbying efforts in Pennsylvania, in hopes of boosting taxpayer subsidies.

The Pentagon has had a long-standing romance with nuclear power, dating back to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also is exploring renewable energy sources like wind and solar. At Fort Hood in Texas, for example, the Army is drawing about half its power from them. But they’re not ready for prime time, according to the Defense Department. “Renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar can reduce the need for some fuel, but most renewable resources are limited by location, weather, time of year, storage capacity, and constrained by available land area and/or constructability,” the Pentagon’s influential Defense Science Board concluded in a 2016 report.

In the post-9/11 wars, the number of U.S. service members killed in action has been relatively low compared to earlier conflicts. But the Pentagon has been swapping blood for oil. “The increasing number of convoys required to transport an ever-increasing requirement for fossil fuels is itself a root cause of casualties, both wounded and killed in action,” said a 2009 study by the consulting firm Deloitte. “The use of IEDs and roadside bombs has been an especially effective means to disable friendly fighting forces by disrupting their supply of energy.”

Backers of battlefield nuclear reactors are leveraging this fact to bolster their case that investing billions to develop and deploy reactors is worth it. And the Pentagon is trying to build support for the plan by noting that mini-nukes have heart-warming peaceful uses, too. “A small mobile nuclear reactor would enable a more rapid response during Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations,” it said earlier this year in a “request for information” seeking outside help to develop portable atomic reactors for war zones.

But, as they say on late-night TV, “But wait, there’s more!” Think of it as atomic alchemy. “It is not just about basing, but warfighting capability enabled by the assured supply of energy,” the 2016 report by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board said. According to the report, a battlefield polka-dotted with portable nuclear reactors could pretty much sustain itself. “Supplying liquid fuel and water to military forces is a significant sustainment challenge, as the two commodities typically comprise the majority of mass transported to deployed locations,” the study said. “Yet both fuel and water—and potentially other supplies (e.g., munitions and spare parts)—could be produced close to where it is needed with the necessary industrial technologies that could be powered by nuclear energy.”

That makes military planners salivate. The Pentagon has been talking for decades about lasers and similar weapons that would require mass quantities of electricity. Nuclear power could be the best choice to fuel such futuristic weapons, assuming they’re ever produced. Getting fuel to remote bases is costly—as much as $50 per gallon when delivered by truck and $400 a gallon when delivered by air—which could render battlefield lasers even less likely than physics already does. “Energy intensive capabilities are under development for which there is no parallel development for power sources,” that Defense Science Board report noted ominously. Smart taxpayers might wonder why.

Prodded to act by that 2016 Defense Science Board study, the Pentagon launched “Project Dilithium” in January. (Dilithium is a molecule made up of a pair of lithium atoms, although it is perhaps more commonly known as a key element in a fictitious Star Trek superfuel that propels spaceships via a warp drive—faster than light.)

The Pentagon wants a reactor capable of generating between 1 and 10 megawatts (enough for a base housing at least 1,000 troops for three years without refueling. Weighing no more than 40 tons, it must be “sized for transportability by truck, ship, and C-17 aircraft.” And to avoid the problems posed by water-cooled reactors, it needs to be cooled by “ambient air,” just like the original VW Beetle and its distinctive putt-putt engine.

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.

Other members were logistics experts, including Gerald Galloway, a long-time logistics expert at the University of Maryland following a 38-year Army career. “No one’s envisioned bringing them out in combat zones,” he said of the micro-reactors in 2010, “but they could provide energy in theater at large staging areas.” He apparently was out-voted, or had a change of heart, when it came time to draft the Defense Science Board report six years later.

The panel learned firsthand how sensitive fossil-fuel casualties are inside the Pentagon. “Although the Task Force was discouraged from referencing convoy casualty factors which have been estimated in several reports, it is well-known that a significant number of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan were associated with resupply logistics—much of which was attributed to fuel and water,” the 2016 report noted. That was a deft use of the passive voice so the panel didn’t have to say just who did the discouraging.

More than half the U.S. casualties between 2001 and 2010 in Afghanistan and Iraq happened during convoy operations (18,700 of 36,000, or 52 percent, according to a 2015 RAND Corporation report). An Army Environmental Policy Institute assessment estimated that there was nearly one U.S. casualty for every 24 fuel resupply missions. “Every 55,702 barrels of fuel burned in Afghanistan by the U.S. military forces corresponded to one casualty,” according to an Army Technology analysis of the study’s findings.

The U.S. military, and those responsible for powering it, say it needs to stop bleeding for oil. “If a better way could be found to generate electricity at remote bases—that’s what most of the fuel is used for—it could greatly reduce the risks to our military,” Andy Erickson of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, home of the world’s first nuclear bombs, noted last fall. He argued that a new kind of “micro-nuclear reactor” under development by Los Alamos and Westinghouse could help reduce the carnage. “The reactor core itself is about the size of the garbage can that you roll down to your curb each week,” he said, offering a new vision of nuclear waste. “By working with an experienced nuclear vendor like Westinghouse to design, build, and test these units, a near-term solution to remote power for the military can be quickly realized.”

There are proliferation risks associated with deploying nuclear reactors amid wars. The 2016 Defense Science Board report suggested that portable nuclear reactors be fueled only with low-enriched uranium that couldn’t be turned into nuclear weapons, although it conceded they would represent “a lucrative target to become a dirty bomb if breached.” The Pentagon’s January 2019 solicitation said that “technology, engineering, and operations must demonstrate minimization of added proliferation risk.” Of course, the U.S. government has been through this before, dating back to President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative. That led to the first nuclear reactors in Iran and Pakistan.

Harnessing nuclear power on the battlefield would require changes in U.S. military training, nuclear regulation and licensing, as well as convincing foreign governments to let them on their soil. “Since the U.S. nuclear industry and its regulators have not yet dealt with a mobile or transportable design, the Army will experience many unique first-time costs in laying the groundwork for regulatory and international approvals and acceptance,” the Army’s fall 2018 report said. “This work will be costly and time-consuming, and require much interagency coordination and support to accomplish.” Piece of yellowcake!

Training soldiers to deploy and operate portable nuclear power plants would be challenging, although the Army said in the report, “this requirement is not anticipated to be as demanding as that of a nuclear weapon.” Any Army port-a-nuke “must prevent the reactor from going critical when it should not, such as during movement/transport.” While such a reactor “is not expected to survive a direct kinetic attack,” the Army said it would be designed “for the protection of personnel who may be adversely affected by the system or threats to the system.”

Outsiders are dubious. “Even a reactor as small as 1 megawatt-electric would contain a large quantity of highly radioactive, long-lived isotopes such as cesium-137—a potential dirty bomb far bigger than the medical radiation sources that have caused much concern among security experts,” the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Lyman warned in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “At best a release of radioactivity would be a costly disruption, and at worst it would cause immediate harm to personnel, render the base unusable for years, and alienate the host country.”

Any radiation leakage would be far more vexing than the cleanup after dumping about 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides on Vietnam from 1961 to 1971. “While design simplification and damage-resistant fuel choices help, detailed planning for cleanup and removal of battle-damaged reactors or reactor components will be expensive and pose some technical challenges to resolve,” the Army report said, likely requiring changes to “existing treaties, international agreements, and policies.”

At the end of the day, of course, the big bugaboo is what to do with all that spent, but still dangerous, nuclear fuel. But not to worry: the Army has figured that out, too. “Nuclear fuel is a DOE [Department of Energy] responsibility,” the Army notes. “Issues such as recycling of nuclear fuel or long-term disposal are not DOD’s business.”

Perfect.

Of course, the Energy Department hasn’t figured out what to do with the 80,000 metric tons of spent nuclear-reactor fuel created by U.S. commercial reactors over the past half-century. Bottom line: thinking about sending portable nuclear reactors off to war is kind of like invading a country with no plan for how to get out.

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