In a week that saw the continuation of the COVID-19 outbreak in Alaska, layoffs and a lawsuit within the administration of Mayor Dave Bronson, the death knell for any hope of budgetary progress this year in Juneau, and a dozen other high-profile news items, the announcement that the Defense Department is planning a microreactor pilot program at Eielson Air Force Base, near Fairbanks, did not make much waves. But the miniature power plant could have a big impact on the future of electricity in Alaska, especially for communities outside of the Railbelt.
According to military officials, the plan is to design, build and operate a 1 to 5 megawatt micronuclear reactor at Eielson by 2027. As the power plants go, it’s pretty small, and as nuclear power plants go, even more – traditional plants are often in the gigawatt range, 200 to 500 times the capacity expected for Eielson’s mini-jet. A 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 microreactor technology does come to fruition, it will be on a scale that could actually be useful for many communities in Alaska that are currently burning expensive diesel fuel to power generators.
The reason the military is investigating microreactors also revolves around diesel generators: In Iraq and Afghanistan, the armed forces have gained decades of first-hand experience with the drawbacks of a military machine that relies heavily on fuel. convoys of diesel fuel trucked for generators running 24/7 365. The generators are loud, dirty, expensive, and they fail – and the convoys themselves, which required military guards, were a magnet for insurgent attacks. Solving the power problem with a compact, quiet, non-constant refueling production source is naturally appealing to the military, and Eielson will be a test to see if the microreactor is a better way.
But Alaskans are well aware that inventions designed for military purposes may find their greatest value in civilian use, as anyone who has ever worn rabbit boots can attest. Specifically, an economical 1-5MW generator set that does not require refueling could represent a radical change for rural electricity in our state, as this range covers the needs of dozens of villages off the road network that currently have some most expensive electricity in the state – and which are vulnerable to generator failure in the dead of winter, when the consequences can be fatal. It’s a problem that Senator Lisa Murkowski has pointed out for years, choosing microreactors as a potential solution.
The microreactor plan also has huge potential for Alaska in terms of transitioning to a clean energy future. The Eielson reactor will replace only a fraction of the power output of the base coal-fired power plant, which produces 13 to 15 MW per day during the winter months – but, at this power level, the plant is burning. up to 800 tonnes of coal per day. And it’s one of five coal-fired power plants of a similar scale operating in the interior – at Eielson, Fort Wainwright, downtown Fairbanks, the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, and Healy. It doesn’t take much imagination to see what even replacing some of these energy sources, or those running on diesel, would do to reduce carbon dioxide production and particulate pollution.
Thanks to high-profile incidents such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, nuclear energy in general has received unfairly poor reception in the court of public opinion. This is not to say that a strong focus on safety is not justified – on the contrary, the long half-life of the fission components makes it important to design with consideration to bulletproof and fail-safe mechanisms. . Fortunately, the microreactor program represents this type of design, the scope of which is most similar to reactors used in US 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 the amount and toxicity of this safely stored fuel will be orders of magnitude less severe than the by-products of any other production option.
Even in the best-case scenario, Eielson’s pilot reactor will not be online until 2027. But it’s gratifying to finally see the ball rolling on potential new energy solutions for communities remote in our state, especially those that could involve serious reductions in Alaska’s contribution. greenhouse gas emissions. The Eielson microreactor project is the rare event that should spark optimism among rural advocates, climate activists and development promoters.