The US Department of Defence (DoD) has announced three contracts to develop a mobile micro nuclear reactor that could be used to power military bases.

Three teams – BWX Technologies, Westinghouse Government Services and X-Energy – have been contracted to develop microreactors under Project Pele led by the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO).

The goal of Project Pele is to develop a safe, mobile and advanced nuclear microreactor. After a two-year design-maturation period, one of the companies will be selected to build and demonstrate a prototype reactor.

Project Pele programme manager Dr Jeff Waksman said: “The Pele programme’s uniqueness lies in the reactor’s mobility and safety. We will leverage our industry partners to develop a system that can be safely and rapidly moved by road, rail, sea or air and for quick set up and shut down, with a design which is inherently safe.”

Project Pele began in January 2019, when the SCO issued a request for information (RFI) for technology related to microreactors. Development of the microreactor will be run in coordination with the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Commenting on the contract, BWX Technologies Nuclear Services Group president Ken Camplin told Army Technology: “BWXT has shipped 400 nuclear reactor cores to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Programme and has led and/or supported the design of more than 40 nuclear reactor systems.

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“We believe this experience will provide us a solid platform from which to complete a robust and innovative approach that will support the Defence Department’s front-line power needs for its service members. We are extremely pleased to receive this award and look forward to working with our partners to complete this phase of the project.”

Before building a prototype, companies will first develop a high-fidelity engineering design which will be used to assess the possible reactors’ safety, resiliency, and reliability. The engineering design will also be used to reduce any future regulatory, technical and manufacturing risks that could come up in the prototype phase.

The DoD said that the contract would help the US military to sustain and expand operations over long periods by generating a nearly endless clean power supply. The DoD estimates that it uses 30 terawatt-hours of electricity per year and as much as 10 million gallons of fuel a day.

SCO director Jay Dryer said: “The United States risks ceding nuclear energy technology leadership to Russia and China, by retaking technological leadership, the United States will be able to supply the most innovative advanced nuclear energy technologies.”

Micro reactors are seen as a way to reduce the need for building expensive power infrastructure at military bases and deliver power to remote positions more easily. The DoD added that the reactors could also be employed to support disaster relief efforts when critical infrastructure is damaged.

Westinghouse president and chief executive officer Patrick Fragman said: “We are honoured to participate in this strategically important programme, Mobile nuclear reactors offer clean, flexible, and reliable power for our customers. We are now developing technology to provide energy security for the Department of Defence, bringing our exciting concept to realisation.”

Westinghouse has offered the DoD its eVinci microreactor which the company describes as a next-generation, very small modular reactor.

The DoD awarded BWX Technologies $13.5m, X-energy $14.3m, and Westinghouse $11.9m for the first phase of microreactor development.