Feds announce contractor for small Eielson nuclear power plant
California-based Oklo is prospective choice to build, operate self-contained 5-megawatt microreactor
Federal officials have selected a contractor to install and operate a small, self-contained nuclear power plant at Eielson Air Force Base. The contract is subject to clearing regulatory hurdles, but if all goes according to plan, the microreactor will be up and running within five years.
Assistant Air Force Secretary Ravi Chaudhary announced the selection of a Silicon Valley-based firm as its prospective contractor for the Eielson microreactor during a Thursday meeting in Schaible Auditorium at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“I am super proud to announce the notice of intent toward selection of our first microreactor technology to Oklo Incorporated,” Chaudhary said, before the crowd broke into applause.
The announcement marked a milestonein a process that began a nearly three years ago, when the Air Force announced its intention to site a microreactor at Eielson. The contract won’t be awarded until the process is completed and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission issues a license. But Oklo special projects senior director John Hanson says his company is ready to go.
“We’re extremely excited to be here,” he said. “We’re honored to be selected for this project, and really excited to get started.”
Eielson 354th Fighter Wing commander Col. Paul Townsend says base personnel also are enthusiastic about the pilot project.
“Team Eielson is happy to partnership with these individuals to move this forward,” he said in an interview after the event. “It’s an exciting time.”
Townsend said the microreactor will help the 354th, which flies and maintains advanced F-35 jet fighters, to accomplish its mission. He says the technology that’s led to development of the small, self-contained reactor serves as an example of the kind of innovation that Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown says is essential to maintaining military superiority in the 21st century.
“General Brown tells us ‘Accelerate, change or lose,’ and we’re definitely leaning forward to help accelerate change and bring a tremendous capability to the state of Alaska,” Townsend said.
Chaudhary emphasized the microreactor’s ability to provide reliable energy without producing climate-changing carbon emissions. He’s the assistant Air Force secretary who oversees of the service’s energy, installations and environment issues. He said Eielson was chosen for the pilot project in part because of its strategic location in Alaska, from which the two squadrons of F-35s can quickly get to trouble spots in the Indo-Pacific region and elsewhere.
“You have an energy source -- local, within the installation -- that allows you to get those two critical fighter squadrons in the air and executing their business, executing their mission,” he said.
Chaudhary says the 5-megawatt facility would provide energy resilience in the form of backup power for the base’s 72-year-old coal-fired heat and power plant. And because Eielson also buys electricity from Golden Valley Electric Association, the microreactor would allow the base to unplug from the grid in case the utility came under cyber-attack.
“So having redundant systems is critical to that mission,” he said.
Besides providing backup power, Chaudhary said it also will enable the Defense Department to learn how the system could be used at other installations. Eielson is the first U.S. military installation to get a commercialized and licensed microreactor. The pilot project was mandated in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act. And he says it will benefit the state of Alaska.
“This will the first state that can actually hold a license,” Chaudhary said, “and that’s no small task, to hold a state and federal license for the execution and operation of a microreactor.”
But before it goes online, Oklo must complete the microreactor licensing process. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Safety and Licensing Project Manager Stephen Philpott says that likely won’t be done ‘til the end of 2026. The company could begin testing the facility the following year and unless problems arise, the system could begin operating in 2028.