top of page
  • Writer's pictureAdmin

What is the role of nuclear microreactors on Guam?


Photo courtesy of Department of Energy

By Dana Williams


The potential strain of the military buildup on Guam’s power system has raised concerns in the Senate Armed Services Committee, where nuclear microreactors have been suggested as a possible solution to the energy problem. However, the devices deliver only small amounts of power, raising questions about what role- if any – they could play in the island’s future.


Guam Power Authority supplies all the electricity for civilian and military interests on the island, and members of the Senate committee are asking if the supply will be sufficient as the U.S. adjusts military forces in the Western Pacific.


Two paragraphs in the 661-page committee’s defense funding report describe the situation, in which military units will “require substantial generator support, as well as likely overtaxing the existing capacity of Guam’s fragile power grid.


Neither of these outcomes are desirable, nor operationally sustainable as the expanded use of generator power will divert critical fuel supplies away from ships, aircraft, and vehicles, and increasing the draw on Guam’s civilian power grid will increase maintenance requirements and worsen brown-out conditions on the island.”


The report says the Senate committee “has long supported DOD efforts to develop and operationalize modular microreactors, such as Project Pele, as a means of improving operational energy supplies for the U.S. military in a sustainable, environmentally sound manner.”


Photo courtesy of Department of Energy

Project Pele will build, demonstrate and test a mobile nuclear microreactor generating between 1 and 5 megawatts of power at Idaho National Laboratory.


For perspective, GPA’s peak demand in 2019 was 255 megawatts.


The Senate committee directed the Secretary of Defense to work with the administrator for Nuclear Security and the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command to brief congressional defense committees by March 1, 2024, “on the potential for using modular microreactors to support U.S. forces in Guam.”


While the Navy has had nuclear-powered vessels for almost 70 years, a land-based reactor would be new for Guam. The island first heard of the idea on June 26 when the Pacific Center for Island Security tweeted: “U.S. military nuclear reactors planned for Guam?”


The tweet was linked to the executive summary of the Senate’s National Defense Authorization Act, which called for the briefing. No other information was immediately forthcoming from the military or the Senate.


Although there was speculation that the microreactors would be tied to the proposed 360-degree missile defense system, Joint Region Marianas Commander Rear Adm. Gregory C. Huffman sent a July 14 letter to Speaker Therese Terlaje explaining that the project “is not considering nuclear microreactors as a power source.”


But former Del. Robert Underwood, who chairs the Pacific Center for Island Security, said microreactors are impractical for large-scale power generation.


“The thinking behind micro nuclear reactors is to allow for an independent and stable source of power for small installations or for small, confined military activities,” he said. “Well, it sort of coincides with the development of the 20 proposed sites connected with the anti-missile defenses.”


Microreactors are not a new idea for the military. Transporting large quantities of petroleum products to remote locations can be challenging and dangerous, and a compact, long-lasting fuel source could provide an advantage for military units.


The Army built and tested eight portable reactors from the 1950s through the 1970s, including one at a top-secret base in Greenland. A 2018 Army report, which listed Guam as a potential location for a microreactor, noted that “nuclear fuel provides the densest form of energy able to generate the electrical power necessary at forward and remote locations without the need for continuous fuel resupply.”


Jeffrey Waksman, the scientist running Project Pele, said there have been a number of studies over the years laying out options for potential mobile reactors, and now the Department of Defense’s Strategic Capabilities Office is building the prototype.


“This prototype that we're building is never going to leave the contiguous 50 U.S. states, so there's zero chance that the reactor I am building is going to go to any sort of island in the Pacific, because that's not the point,” he said in an interview with the Pacific Island Times.


Waksman’s organization designs and builds prototypes to test equipment, collect data, and help the military make informed decisions about what might be needed in the future.


The prototype reactor he is building in Idaho will be designed to be “inherently safe.” Traditional nuclear reactors have multiple safety redundancies, so if one safety feature is compromised, there is a backup.


“With an inherently safe reactor, you do not need redundancies. It means that the reactor cannot melt down, no matter what combination of things go wrong,” he said. “There’s no requirement for power on site, and even if a terrorist were to gain control of the reactor operating system, there's no button that they can press to melt the reactor down.”


In addition, microreactors are small, with about 1/1000th the amount of nuclear material that is at the core of a naval vessel. “There's just not very much radioactive material there at all,” he said. “So we're not saying that there's no risk of any release into the environment.” However, Walkman added, “there's no scenario where a very large-scale evacuation would be necessary.”


Alan J. Kuperman, an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, has said microreactors are in danger of overheating if they are covered by dirt or debris, and that could happen if a missile strikes nearby, or possibly during an earthquake.


Waksman said the prototype is being developed in a seismically active area about two hours from Yellowstone National Park, so “we have to take earthquakes into account for the prototype.” He said other potential dangers, like missile strikes, are also evaluated.


ADVERTISEMENT

“The DOD is not going to deploy these reactors if we believe that there's a significant risk that a missile would do harm to the soldiers in the area. That’s why we do this testing first.”


The plan is to begin assembling the prototype in 2024, then ship it to Idaho in early 2025. By late 2025 or 2026, the Department of Defense will decide if they want to build more.


He said if the Department of Defense decides to deploy microreactors to Guam or anywhere else in the future, they would do so only after having extensive conversations with the community. “People should not be worried that someone's going to sneak a nuclear reactor in overnight,” he said.


Under the National Environmental Policy Act, federal agencies have to assess the environmental effects of their proposed actions before making decisions. They look at impacts on social, cultural, economic and natural resources, and they ask for input from local government officials and members of the public.


Currently, the military is seeking public comments on the proposed missile defense system.


Monaeka Flores, a member of the group Prutehi Litekyan: Save Ritidian, said that in previous impact studies, thousands of comments were submitted, but “a lot of us in the community felt like they were being ignored.”


She noted that the microreactor idea was first brought to light by the Pacific Center for Island Security, not the military or elected officials on Guam or in Washington.


ADVERTISEMENT

“It's very uncomfortable with how they've slipped it into the NDAA,” she said. “What else is right under our noses that we can't see?”


A bill has been introduced in the Guam legislature to ban nuclear power on the island.


Speaker Therese Terlaje, one of the bill’s sponsors, raised questions at the meeting about whether the community was being adequately informed about plans.


“Different sources point to nuclear microreactors,” she said. “And yet, in one of the letters, it says ‘Oh, be informed that that's not going to be.’ Well, this is the kind of information that I'm afraid our experience tells us, this is not reliable.”


Underwood said even if the bill becomes law, it might not be enforceable on a military facility.


“Congress reserves the right to overturn any Guam law they don’t care about,” he said. If passed, the law “would certainly complicate and highlight the issues that are ahead for DOD’s use of these micro nuclear reactors. So while it may not really technically block them in the long run, it presents an obstacle.”


The military has invested heavily in the Guam power system in the past. As part of the Marine Corps base relocation to Guam, the Navy spent $62 million to install an underground power line to increase the capacity of the existing electrical infrastructure in Northern Guam.


“The electrical system in Dededo is now fully interconnected between the Harmon Substation, the Marine Corps Base Camp Blaz substation, and an existing substation on Andersen Air Force Base,” said Lt. Cmdr. Katie Koenig, Joint Region Marianas public affairs officer.


“Joint Region Marianas is committed to working closely and collaboratively with the government of Guam and the Guam Power Authority to fortify electrical system and energy infrastructure capacity and reliability.”



Subscribe to

our digital

monthly edition

댓글


bottom of page