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Pentagon asks proposals for small nuclear power plant at Eielson

Idaho National Laboratory
Microreactors like those proposed for Eielson Air Force Base are small enough to transport by trucks in CONEX-type shipping containers, as shown in this rendering generated by the Idaho National Laboratory.

Microreactor 'an important first step toward developing the next-generation energy technology,' base officials say

Pentagon officials have taken another step toward building a small nuclear power plant for Eielson Air Force Base. On Monday, they released a request for proposals that invites prospective contractors to outline how they’d design, build and deploy a so-called microreactor at Eielson within five years.

U.S. Department of Energy

Air Force officials announced last year that they’d selected Eielson as the site of a pilot project that would prove the viability of small-scale nuclear power plants to provide a reliable backup source of electricity for military installations. And on Monday, the Air Force and Defense Logistics Agency jointly announced they’d released a request for proposals for the project.

“This is really about energy resilience,” according to Mark Correll, a former Air Force Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety and Infrastructure.

Correll said last November that the project at Eielson is intended to help demonstrate a microreactor’s capability to provide power in case the base’s main source of electricity — a 70-year-old, 15-megawatt coal-fired heat and power plant — goes offline.

“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.

That’s why the United Coalition for Advanced Nuclear Power is backing the Eielson project.

“There’s both a geopolitical reason, as well as an energy-resilience reason. Which is why Eielson is so exciting,” says Lucian Niemeyer, a principal with UCAN, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for nuclear-powered electrical generation.

Niemeyer says the Eielson microreactor may demonstrate that the technology holds promise for the Interior’s other remotely located military installations.

“Eielson relies on a coal plant with oil backup in a very critical area of the country,” he said in an interview Monday.

Critical, because of the area’s national security assets. Like Eielson’s two squadrons of advanced F-35 fighters; and Fort Wainwright’s rapidly deployable 11th Airborne units; as well as the two missile-defense installations at Fort Greely and Clear Space Force Station.

“Nuclear power can serve a significant capability to run these critical bases and assets on reliable power for a period of five to 10 years without refueling,” Niemeyer said.

UAF Alaska Center for Energy and Power
A slide from a presentation on the Eielson microreactor by the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Alaska Center for Energy and Power points out that the facility will not be connected into Golden Valley Electric Association's grid and that it will be licensed by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The microreactor's owner/operator will be selected in the process that began this week with the Defense Department's release of a request for proposals.

The Air Force/Defense Department request for proposals calls for construction of a facility to accommodate a micronuclear reactor that would generate up to 5 megawatts and operate for 10 years, until its fuel is spent. The plan calls for construction to begin in three years and for the reactor to begin generating power in 2027.

Correll, who talked about the project in a news conference held after it was announced, said 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 said 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.

Niemeyer says the Pentagon and industry likely will learn a lot from how the facility performs.

“I think the lessons we learn from that are going to drive maybe a decision to start looking at other locations,” he said.

Eielson officials say they’re hopeful the technology will ensure a power failure won’t endanger base operations. The officials released a statement Tuesday in response for the RFP that says, quote, "We are excited to be hosting the Micro-Reactor Pilot Program. It will be an important first step toward developing the next-generation energy technology needed for energy resilience at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.”

Air Force officials say they’ll conduct a conference and site visit to Eielson on Oct. 12 for industry representatives considering submitting proposals for the project.

Tim Ellis has been working as a KUAC reporter/producer since 2010. He has more than 30 years experience in broadcast, print and online journalism.