Parthemore & Rogers: Nuclear Reactors on Military Bases May Be Risky

Posted May 20, 2010 at 10:06am

Are small nuclear reactors a smart choice for increasing energy security and reducing greenhouse gas emissions at federal government facilities? In recent months this has become a hot question in particular at domestic U.S. military installations, which must meet unique energy needs while reducing their carbon footprints.

[IMGCAP(1)]Now, it appears that this question is taking Capitol Hill by storm as well.

The media have reported that Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) is proposing a joint Department of Energy/Department of Defense demonstration project to examine the use of small reactors on federal sites. For some Department of Energy sites, such as Oak Ridge National Lab in Alexander’s home state — a site certainly accustomed to housing nuclear technology — demonstrating new nuclear reactor technology is largely a no-brainer. However, using nuclear reactors to power the nation’s defense installations warrants deeper consideration.

Proponents of boosting this carbon-free energy source on military bases argue that these installations have unique capacities that would ease concerns over its use, namely more gates and more armed guards already on base 24/7. Likewise, the U.S. military services have unique energy security needs. Consistent energy supplies are a critical component of America’s ability to train at home and to operate globally. Energy is so important that some analysts are even exploring “islanding” the energy systems on some military installations to reduce vulnerabilities related to their reliance on often brittle domestic electric grids. Consideration of nuclear energy as part of these islanding concepts is on the rise.

On the other hand, opponents contend that sufficient numbers of military base personnel may not have the requisite training in nuclear reactor management, oversight and regulatory credentials to attend to reactors in the round-the-clock manner necessary. In most cases, additional qualified personnel and improved physical security and safety requirements would be needed. As with all nuclear power generation, materials proliferation, water usage, radioactive waste management and public opinion will also be major concerns.

Most military bases also strive to be integrated into their surrounding communities, and, by our experience, many base officials consider integrated electric infrastructure an important point of connection between local and military needs. Concepts for nuclear energy generation solely to supply military bases must be sensitive to what public perceptions could be in the event of extended blackouts for surrounding communities.

Any legislation to consider the option of small nuclear reactors on military bases must include examination of these important concerns.

We recommend that this examination should be initially led by a blue ribbon commission, led by the Department of Energy and including relevant DOD officials who have been examining this option. A blue ribbon commission, by conducting a thorough and transparent cost-benefit analysis and examining the interests of all key stakeholders, is a necessary first step in determining the viability of small nuclear reactors for federal facilities, and especially for military bases.

This commission would need to include a range of stakeholders and experts qualified — and trusted by the public — to design national policies that will address and balance these concerns (even if that entails not going down the path of installing nuclear reactors on military bases at a large scale). Academics, regulators, nuclear scientists, proliferation and waste safety experts, state officials, and the governmental and nongovernmental policy communities should all be represented. It should seek to consider the full expanse of relevant concerns, including what technologies or models are most appropriate, what locations would be ideal or off-limits, where the energy security needs are the highest (for example, at combatant command locations), and along what timeline nuclear generation would even come online.

The question of a proper policy approach to the issue of locating small nuclear reactors on bases is heating up, especially as energy and climate change are increasingly important topics of public debate. It is time to set the stage for a national conversation on the most appropriate path for this technology. Ensuring national security interests and a cleaner energy future demands no less.

Christine Parthemore is the Bacevich fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Will Rogers is a CNAS researcher. This piece is based on a recently released CNAS report on climate change, energy and the Department of Defense available here.