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Air Force plans to build small nuclear power plant on Eielson

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Isaac Johnson/354th Fighter Wing public affairs
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DVIDS
A locomotive that pulls railcars filled with coal idles next to Eielson's heat and power plant. The Air Force says it will build a microreactor to ensure key parts of the installation would be able to function if problems arose with its 70-year-old heat and power plant and Golden Valley Electric Association was unable to provide full power for the base.

Microreactor would generate up to half of base’s electricity needs to ensure ‘energy resilience’

The Air Force plans to build a small nuclear power plant on Eielson Air Force Base that would generate up to half of the installation’s electricity needs. Air Force officials say the so-called microreactor is part of a pilot project to test the viability of using nuclear power to ensure military installations can continue operating after they lose their main source of electricity.

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UAF Alaska Center for Energy and Power
A microreactor similar to the one Air Force officials are considering for the Eielson pilot project would be about the size of a steel CONEX shipping container. The microreactor would be self-contained and transported to Eielson, then installed at an approximately 5-acre site on base.

Air Force officials came up with the plan to build a microreactor at Eielson after the agency adopted a policy a few years ago to ensure its installations could continue to carry out their missions even if they lose their primary source of electricity. Which, in this case, is Eielson’s 70-year-old coal-fired heat and power plant.

“This is really about energy resilience,” says Mark Correll, a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force who oversees management of the service’s environment-, safety- and infrastructure-related issues.

“We’re looking to make sure that at any point in time, any of our bases with any mission will have the power it needs, where it needs it, when it needs it, in the quantities that it needs, to assure that we can continue to do the defense mission that we have,” he said.

Correll says a provision in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act required the Defense Department to build a microreactor and ensure it’s operational by 2027.

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Brian Garmon/Air Force IMSC public affairs
Air Force Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety and Infrastructure Mark Correll at a 2018 event at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The installation has since been redesignated as Vandenberg Space Force Base.

“We expect to meet that goal without any difficulty, and we expect to do that at Eielson,” he said in news conference Friday.

Correll says the Air Force chose Eielson because it’s an important installation that’s located in a relatively isolated area, about 20 miles south of Fairbanks. And he says if its 15-megawatt heat and power plant were to go offline, the base has only one backup source of electricity – Golden Valley Electric Association. He says in that situation, the microreactor would continue generating electricity to keep parts of the base operating. But Eielson does not have a backup source of steam heat, which would be a serious problem during the winter.

“If that central heat and power plant goes down,” he said, “we’ve got some real issues on the installation, besides just being able to launch aircraft.”

A local energy expert says another possible reason Eielson was chosen for the pilot project is that it’s a very expensive base to operate.

“Of all the Air Force bases, it is the one that has the highest energy cost overall,” says Gwen Holdmann, who directs the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Alaska Center for Energy and Power. Holdmann told the Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation Tuesday that the microreactor could serve as a backup source of heat.

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UAF Alaska Center for Energy and Power Director Gwen Holdmann fields questions during Tuesday's online presentation to the Fairbanks Economic Development Corp.

“It would probably meet all of the base’s needs, in terms of thermal energy,” she said during an online meeting conducted by FEDCO.

Eielson on average needs 10 to 15 megawatts daily to operate, and demand sometimes peaks as high as 25 megawatts.

Correll says the base’s Air Force did not include the aging power plant among its reasons for selecting Eielson for the microreactor. But he says the potential reduction in emissions that it could facilitate is an additional welcome benefit.

“There’s no doubt that the elimination of greenhouse gases as a result of that is integral are extraordinarily positive, and we’re happy to do it,” he said. “But it wasn’t the main focus.”

Correll says the microreactor would be self-contained in a structure that’s about the size of a CONEX shipping container that’ll be located in a site of about 5 acres. He says it won’t cost the Air Force any money upfront. Instead, it’ll pay for it through power purchases from the company that’ll build and operate it, at a rate that’s competitive with what the base pays now.

“The discussions we’ve had with a couple of companies that are doing this,” he said. “They assert that their cost to produce power is going to be comparable to what it costs us to produce it or what it would cost us to buy it from Golden Valley.”

Correll says the Air Force hopes to begin soliciting proposals from qualified companies in February and will select a vendor later in the year. The service will then begin working on licenses and permits from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which will oversee the project. Construction of the microreactor will begin in 2025, and it’s scheduled to begin operation in 2027.