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BWX Technologies Developing Microreactors With Military Customers In Mind

An illustration of a portable microreactor. Department of Energy Image

BWX Technologies is developing tractor trailer-sized micro nuclear reactors that could illuminate a small U.S. city, run a forward operating military base, power directed energy weapons or fuel deep-space missions.

BWX Technologies – the prime contractor building the reactors on the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers – has for years devoted a portion of its earnings to fund microreactor research and development funding, Rex Geveden, chief executive of BWX, said during a Tuesday morning conference call with analysts. Fiscal Year 2020 could be the year micro nuclear reactors move from proposal to reality.

“I think there’s a great deal of interest from a variety of government organizations for these applications,” Geveden said. “The DoD Strategic Capabilities Office, for example, is interested in a demonstration reactor. We hear interest form the Army and others for those kinds of reactors.”

The types of microreactors the military is interested in would generate between five and 10 megawatts of electricity and another 10 megawatts of thermal power, Lucian Niemeyer, acting assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment, said during a recent House Armed Services intelligence, emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee hearing.

“We do believe that there are vendors out there, there are technologies out there, that ultimately could be used on a military installation to island that installation off of commercial power, particularly where we have critical assets,” Niemeyer said

However, BWX Technologies is banking on the military and NASA seeing multiple uses for reactors that can be towed by a truck, loaded on a ship or launched into space. The company is also developing a fuel source that can power these microreactors.

“Think of the R&D opportunities in the single-digit millions (of dollars); think of the demonstration programs in tens of millions to hundreds of millions (of dollars), depending on how complex and depending on where we are in the supply chain,” Geveden said of potential future government spending on microreactors. “Fuel is a fraction of that, let’s call it 20 to 25 percent of that. You can imagine, you know, a fuel business that certainly that’s generating tens of millions (of dollars) in the future depending on the demand, or above that.”

Navy officials are concerned with their ability to deploy directed energy weapons on new destroyers because of the power required to run these weapons. The AN/SPY-6 Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR) on Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyers uses a lot of power, leaving a small margin to dedicate to other systems, such as directed energy, according to a May Congressional Research Service report.

The U.S. Army released a report a year ago detailing the possible uses of mobile nuclear power. The ideal is a power plant system that can fit inside a standard 40-foot shipping container, can be loaded onto a military transport plane or Navy ship, and can generate up to 20 megawatts of power for 10 years or longer without resupply, according to the report.

The Army report also suggests the use of tristructural-isotropic (TRISO) fuel, which is a series of tiny pellets packed into larger fuel assemblies for a reactor. “Each TRISO fuel kernel is coated with layers of three isotropic materials that retain the fission products at high temperature while giving the TRISO particle significant structural integrity.”

BWX Technologies announced on Oct. 2 it was restarting its existing TRISO nuclear fuel production line to “position the company to meet emergent client interests in Department of Defense microreactors, space reactors and civil advanced reactors,” said a statement released by BWX Technologies.

“The way we think about these new projects, the space and defense reactors and the fuel and the related work around that, we will as a company will spend some money on R&D to develop a new capability, new technology for these kinds of markets,” Geveden said Tuesday. “The end-game for all that is low rate production or high rate production for those kinds of reactors.”