In a week that saw Alaska’s COVID-19 surge continue, firings and a lawsuit within Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration, the final knell for any hope of fiscal progress this year in Juneau, and a dozen other high-profile news items, the announcement that the Department of Defense is planning a pilot microreactor program at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks didn’t make many waves. But the miniature power plant could have a big impact on the future of power for Alaska — particularly when it comes to communities outside the Railbelt.
According to military officials, the plan is to design, build and operate a 1-5 megawatt micronuclear reactor at Eielson by 2027. As power plants go, that’s pretty small, and as nuclear power plants go, even more so — traditional plants are often in the gigawatt range, 200-500 times the capacity planned for the Eielson minireactor. One gigawatt plant could power all of Alaska, except that building a transmission network to connect all of our communities would be prohibitively expensive. But if the microreactor technology pans out, it will be at a scale that could actually be useful for many Alaska communities that currently burn costly diesel fuel to power generators.
The military’s reason for investigating microreactors also revolves around diesel generators: In Iraq and Afghanistan, the armed forces got decades of firsthand experience with the drawbacks of a military machine that relies heavily on trucked-in convoys of diesel fuel for generators running 24/7/365. The generators are loud, dirty, expensive and they break down — and the convoys themselves, which required military guards, were a magnet for insurgents’ attacks. Solving the power problem with a generation source that is compact, quiet and doesn’t require constant refueling is understandably attractive to the military brass, and Eielson will be a test to see if the microreactor represents a better way.
But Alaskans are well aware that inventions designed for military purposes can see their greatest value in civilian use, as anyone who’s ever worn bunny boots can attest. Specifically, a cost-effective 1-5 MW power generator that doesn’t require refueling could represent a sea change for rural power in our state, as that range covers the needs of dozens of villages off the road system that currently have some of the costliest power in the state — and which are vulnerable to generator breakdowns in the dead of winter, when the consequences can be life-threatening. It’s a problem that Sen. Lisa Murkowski has pointed out for years, singling out microreactors as a potential solution.
The microreactor plan also has tremendous potential for Alaska in terms of our transition to a clean-energy future. The Eielson reactor will only replace a fraction of the power generation from the base’s coal power plant, which puts out 13-15 MW per day in the winter months — but, at that power level, the plant burns up to 800 tons of coal per day. And it’s one of five coal plants of a similar scale operating in the Interior — at Eielson, Fort Wainwright, downtown Fairbanks, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and in Healy. It doesn’t take much imagination to see what replacing even some of those power sources, or those operating on diesel fuel, would do to reduce generation of carbon dioxide and particulate pollution.
Thanks to well-publicized incidents such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, nuclear power in general has gotten an undeservedly poor reception in the court of public opinion. That’s not to say that a strong focus on safety is unwarranted — to the contrary, the long half-life of fission components make it important to design with an eye toward bulletproof fail-safe mechanisms. Fortunately, the microreactor program represents that kind of design, most similar in scope to reactors used in U.S. Navy ships — which have logged more than 5,700 reactor-years without a single reactor accident. The question of how to dispose of spent fuel is still being determined, but both the quantity and toxicity of that safely stored fuel will be orders of magnitude less severe in scope than the byproducts of any other generation option.
Even in the best case, Eielson’s pilot reactor won’t be online until 2027. But it’s gratifying to finally see the ball rolling on new potential energy solutions for our state’s far-flung communities, especially ones that could lead to serious reductions in Alaska’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. The Eielson microreactor project is the rare event that should be cause for optimism among rural advocates, climate activists and development boosters alike.