Eielson Air Force Base

Participants in Eielson Air Force Base's Arctic Lightning Air Show soar over the base Friday, July 30, 2021. 

On Friday, the United States Air Force revealed that Eielson Air Force Base has been selected as the organization’s first microreactor location.

The pilot program was initiated in response to the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act requirement, “to identify potential locations to site, construct, and operate a microreactor by the end of 2027,” an Air Force release said, adding that microreactors produce reliable, clean energy and can operate independently from the electric grid, making them ideal for remote military bases like Eielson.

“The nuclear reaction is just providing a heat source, so the actual power conversion equipment and stuff like that isn’t that different from what you would see at a coal plant,” explained Gwen Holdmann, director of Alaska Center for Energy and Power. “You’ve got a nuclear reaction that’s taking place in the core of the reactor, and you’re using that available heat energy to drive a turbine to turn a generator.”

The microreactor will produce 1-5 megawatts of energy for the base, an electric power output smaller than most coal fired plants in the Interior, and will not be connected to the commercial power grid, according to the U.S. Department of the Air Force microreactor FAQ. The project’s targeted completion date is 2027.

While all nuclear energy poses some risk, microreactors — small enough in size to fit inside a shipping container — are designed to cool without the need for offsite power, which markedly reduces the potential for accidents and risk to surrounding communities.

A representative from the Air Force said the organization’s expert on the subject matter was out of the office and did not provide more information on the project.

“The big thing that makes me excited about microreactors is that they have these sort of passive inherent safety features,” said Holdmann, who explained that microreactors are self-adjusting and built to sustain natural disasters.

“All of these reactors are designed to withstand earthquakes. That’s very clearly going to be built into the general design of a reactor,” she said. “If there was a disaster where [the microreactor] lost all its power for a month, there’s no way it could melt down. It’s not enough nuclear material to allow a runaway reaction to occur under any circumstances.”

While the pilot location’s microreactor technology has not yet been selected by the Air Force, Holdmann said that microreactors producing less than 10 megawatts of energy are not typically refueled on site.

“Generally, the idea is that the entire reactor core is shipped back to the manufacturer so you’re not bringing fuel in and replacing that kind of in situ,” she said. “So there isn’t really waste material that’s going to be on site. That’s sort of like the vision for it.

“It isn’t that we are planning to refuel or store any spent nuclear material in Alaska. That is not part of any plan that is on record and in fact, it’s kind of disallowed by state statute right now,” Holdmann continued.

According to the Division of Environmental Health Solid Waste Program, “There are no NRC radiological waste permitted facilities in the State of Alaska and it must typically be disposed of out of state.”

“Thorough environmental studies will be conducted as part of the pilot evaluation process in compliance with National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements,” the U.S. Department of the Air Force micro-reactor FAQ said.

Local environmental groups, including the Alaska Center and Renewable Energy Alaska Project, declined to comment on the projected environmental impacts of microreactors in the state, citing their unfamiliarity with the new technology.

“Contamination of the environment, whether you’re looking at the air or the water or the land, is occurring in many ways no matter what our power generation systems are,” Holdmann said. “Nuclear has slightly different concerns associated with that but they are not necessarily greater than the status quo.”

Holdmann encouraged members of the community to join the Alaska Nuclear Energy Working Group, an informal group of stakeholders interested in following developments related to small nuclear energy technologies, at the University of Alaska Fairbanks or contact the Alaska Center for Energy and Power directly with questions.

Contact Liv Clifford at 459-7582, lclifford@newsminer.com or follow her at twitter.com/FDNMcrime.

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