The Pentagon's Strategic Capabilities Office recently announced that it will reengage the development of a miniature nuclear reactor that can be carried in a C-17 strategic transport aircraft known as "Project Pele." In the future, in addition to solving the problem of power for US military bases in harsh environments, such a device can also reduce carbon emissions and geopolitical risks originating in oil-producing countries.
The U.S. military has been trying to develop miniature nuclear reactors for decades and has produced a variety of prototype devices but they have never been able to become the main source of power generation due to safety issues. R&D funding has also been frequently removed or put on hold by Congress, resulting in slow progress on new generation reactor designs.
However, in recent years, fourth-generation reactor technology has gradually taken shape and it is safer than previous generations of reactors. The Pentagon said that Project Pele will partner with American energy technology companies to build the first fourth-generation reactor produced locally in the United States.
The world's first successfully operating commercial fourth-generation reactor is China's Shidao Bay nuclear power plant opened in Rongcheng, Shandong in 2021. It adopts High Temperature Gas Reactor (HTGR) technology and can produce up to 10 megawatts of electricity. .
The goal of Project Pele is to design a device with a power generation of 1-5 megawatts and a total weight of 40 metric tons which can be loaded into standard 20-foot containers and transported to front-line bases in harsh environments or have difficulty generating power by C-17 strategic transport aircraft.
In recent years, as the United States has turned to the strategy of great power competition and based on considerations for defending against the Chinese People's Liberation Army in western Pacific islands, the concept of miniature nuclear reactors has begun to gain more support in the US Congress. European countries are under threat from Russia, so the funding of Project Pele is expected to receive less obstruction by Congress.
However, many nuclear scientists are still concerned about the safety of micro-reactors. Alan J. Kuperman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, published a paper last year saying that if the US military wants to develop microreactors for front-line bases, it must face a direct fire threat from the enemy. No matter how many safety features a fourth-generation reactor itself has, the radiation leakage problem caused by the destruction of the reactor by artillery fire cannot be avoided.
Strategic Capabilities Office spokesman Navy Lt. Cmdr. Timothy Gorman stated, as with any application of new technology, the initial goal of the new microreactor is to address areas with harsh environments that are less vulnerable to enemy fire for example, the air force's base in Alaska. As experience in usage and breakthroughs in protection technology are achieved, it will be considered for use in frontline bases.
The Pentagon is expected to select a winning bidder between BWX Technology in Virginia and X-Energy in Maryland within weeks, and begin testing in 2025.
（Image：Los Alamos National Laboratory）