By Frank Whitman
Department of Defense officials are gathering information to determine the feasibility of using a small-scale nuclear power reactor on Guam.
Two DoD representatives were in Guam for a week at the end of January for that purpose and to inform residents and local officials about “Project Pele”- the name given the reactor which is still being developed.
“Project Pele is a transportable micro nuclear reactor producing one to five megawatts of net electrical power for three years,” said Jeff Waksman, program manager for DoD’s Strategic Capabilities Office. He was speaking to members of the Guam Legislature during a public hearing on Jan. 25.
Waksman emphasized that no decision has been made as to where to deploy the reactor once it has been built. Guam is one of a number of locations being evaluated, he said. He would recommend against operating it where local residents opposed it, as part of what he called consent-based siting.
Project Pele is to utilize a new nuclear fuel named advanced gas reactor tri structural isotropic particle fuel, known as AGR TRISO. The TRISO fuel particles are tiny, about the size of a poppy seed, according to the Department of Energy website. Each particle comprises a spherical uranium, carbon and oxygen fuel center. The center is encased in three layers of carbon- and ceramic-based materials that prevent the release of radioactive fission products.
The Pele reactor does not have any flowing water.
Officials hope to begin assembling the reactor prototype this summer in Lynchburg, Virginia, and then will transport it to the Idaho National Laboratory for further testing by mid-2025.
Once assembled, the generator will be about the size of two shoeboxes.
The purpose of the project is - in light of the nation’s dependence on power generated using fossil fuels - to make the nation’s military less vulnerable to disruptions in the transportation of fossil fuels.
The reactor is designed to enhance the resilience of small power systems, “that are power hungry, things that have to have reliable power,” he said.
“Most logical would be hospitals, data centers, communication links, radar systems.” It would be particularly suited to those facilities in locations where the logistics of transporting fossil fuel are the most problematic such as the Arctic and islands.
The project involves efforts from several U.S. government agencies in addition to DoD: the Department of Energy, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers and NASA.
Only one reactor using the TRISO fuel is currently in operation; it is in China, Waksman said.
Legislators expressed concern about the safety of the device, concerns Waksman sought to dissuade. “From the safety perspective, there are two benefits to the TRISO fuel,” he said. “One is that it can withstand incredibly high temperatures, which means that you don’t have the risk of a meltdown that you have with older reactors. The other benefit is because it’s individually encapsulated it means that even in the case that you somehow break open the reactor, each individual particle contains the fission products, and gases in it so it means you are very unlikely to release a large fraction of the radioactive material inside.”
In addition, the government will not be permitted to leave any radioactive materials on the island. “You have to have the entire plan of how it’s going to leave the island before you even show up,” Waksman said.
He noted that if it were being built by a commercial entity it could be abandoned as a result of bankruptcy or some similar private sector event.
Legislators, however, were skeptical, particularly in light of radiation detected on Guam from post-World War II testing in the Marshall Islands and other waste building up on the island. “I find it arrogant that you’re here promoting this, considering our history,” said Sen. Sabina Perez.
Though he opposes nuclear weapons, Waksman said he is a proponent of nuclear power generation. Using current technology, nuclear generators are safe, do not emit greenhouse gases or other pollutants and produce power that is less costly than fuel produced by other means.
All the nuclear waste that has ever been created by the U.S. can fit in a football stadium, he said. Radioactive waste products are currently encased in concrete and are considered safe for 1,000 years.
“We can store (radioactive waste) at Department of Energy laboratories for a thousand years,” he said. “Hopefully at some point in the next thousand years someone will decide where they want to put their permanent repository. It’s a political issue, not an engineering one.”