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Environment & Climate

The Pentagon is sending a new nuclear design to Idaho

 INL's Materials and Fuels Complex is about 35 miles west of Idaho Falls at INL's Industrial Research Complex, which is part of the Department of Energy's 890-square-mile Idaho site.
Idaho National Laboratory
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INL's Materials and Fuels Complex is about 35 miles west of Idaho Falls at INL's Industrial Research Complex, which is part of the Department of Energy's 890-square-mile Idaho site.

The Pentagon has announced that a new nuclear design is going to be assembled in the Mountain West.

The Department of Defense's “Project Pele” aims to produce a mobile nuclear microreactor. That is, a reactor that can travel in up to four shipping containers.

While the Pentagon is still deciding between designs from two separate East Coast teams, the assembly of the reactor and fuel will happen at Idaho National Laboratory.

Jeff Waksman is the project’s program manager. He says they want to build the prototype for a few reasons.

“It’s designed to provide resilient and clean power to both allow the DOD to operate if the grid cannot be relied upon, and also to just in general reduce our dependence on fossil fuels,” he said.

According to the Department of Defense, the agency uses more than 10 million gallons of fuel per day.

Waksman also said community buy-in has been important. INL has a long and debatable history around the disposal of nuclear waste.

“We don’t want to be ‘big DOD just showing up and doing whatever we want,’” he said. “We’ve been doing a lot of engagement with the local communities around INL, so that includes the local government, the state government, and in particular the tribal authorities, or the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.”

Waksman added that he knows nuclear energy is “held to a higher standard than any other industry, and if there’s even the slightest release in radiation, it will be the death knell of the program.”

The agency plans to choose a design in the coming months and complete Project Pele in 2024.

It would be the first reactor of its kind built in the U.S., though one like it was built in China last year. The DOD specified that this design would have to provide one to five Megawatts of energy and last for three years of being fully powered. The chosen design contractors will test it at INL with Department of Energy oversight.

This project only involves a single prototype. Where things go from there is still hazy.

“That really is going to be a question for DOD leadership,” Waksman said. “There’s a lot of awareness of this. There’s a lot of interest in the potential of nuclear power, but until you have built one, it’s hard to know exactly what you’ll use it for.”

Defense spending around the Mountain West has been scattered, according to an analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Idaho had the lowest per capita spending in the region in Fiscal Year 2020 at less than $1,000 per capita. Montana, Wyoming and Nevada also had less per capita spending than the national average ($2,058).

Meanwhile, Arizona had the highest per capita spending in the region that year with more than $3,000 per capita.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

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