The Air Force announced its intent recently to award a contract for a small nuclear reactor at a base in Alaska pending approval of the plan by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The contract went to Oklo Inc., of Santa Clara, California, for a small reactor at Eielson Air Force Base, a fighter base about 20 miles southeast of Fairbanks.
The Air Force micro-reactor pilot program is looking to deploy a small reactor that is capable of producing up to 20 megawatts of electricity.
By comparison, the R. E. Ginna Nuclear Power Plant in New York, the smallest of its kind in the United States, has a generating capacity of 582 MW, according to the Energy Information Administration.
The reactor pilot project is part of a mandate in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that at least one licensed microreactor is operating on a Defense Department installation by 2027. The Air Force said the Eielson project may determine the viability of microreactor use at its installations.
Oklo Inc. will design, build, own and operate its Aurora model microreactor at Eielson, according to the Air Force.
The company estimated the cost to build the microreactor at about $60 million and another $3 million per year to operate and maintain.
Construction of the power plant will cost the Air Force nothing upfront, Mark Correll, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for environment, safety and infrastructure, said in October 2021.
The Air Force will buy the plant’s electricity at “a rate that’s competitive with what the base pays now,” Correll said. The Air Force expects to pay for 39,420 MW annually, according to the request for proposals.
But first, Oklo must obtain a license to operate the reactor, which the regulatory commission denied the company last year, according to a Jan. 6, 2022, NRC letter to company CEO Jacob DeWitte.
The regulatory commission had no concerns about the reactor design’s safety or security, or the application’s merits, according to the letter on the NRC website.
But Oklo failed to provide “substantive information” on the “maximum credible accident for the Aurora design, the safety classification of structures, systems, and components” in response to requests from commission staff, the letter states.
The maximum credible accident refers to the worst-case accident scenario, a useful tool for identifying potential hazards in a reactor design, according to the U.S. Department of Energy website.
An Oklo spokeswoman said the company is addressing the NRC concerns.
“Oklo proposed a licensing pathway in its response to the requests for proposals and is already beginning discussions with the Air Force regarding the optimal licensing steps for this particular location and use case,” spokeswoman Bonita Chester told Stars and Stripes by email on Sept. 7.
The Aurora microreactor is equipped with built-in safety features that self-adjust to changing conditions and demands to prevent overheating, according to the Air Force.
“This pilot is imperative to the future implementation scalability of micro-reactors and the DoD will be working with other military departments to identify additional installations for the deployment of US-developed advanced nuclear tech,” Chester said.
The Pentagon is also considering a microreactor on Guam, a linchpin of U.S. military defense in the Pacific where personnel of every service are stationed. The reactor would supplement existing power sources on the island, where a typhoon in June left many residents without power for days.