With its withdrawal from Afghanistan and decision to end programs that typified America’s conflicts of past two decades, the Biden administration’s Pentagon is planning for long-term competitions against China and Russia. But for the Pentagon’s mobile micro-reactor effort, Project Pele, it’s still 2007.
Designed to supply energy to remote troops, Pele is geared for fighting the last war, which lacked high-end threats and during which vulnerable fuel convoys were a significant source of American casualties.
The Pentagon is asking Congress to spend $60 million next year on Pele. Congress should hit the brakes. Not only is Pele rooted in anachronistic military scenarios, but against Chinese, Russian, North Korean or Iranian militaries, it would be a prime target for precise missiles and drones as well as a source of friction with nuclear-skeptic U.S. allies expected to host the reactors.
The issue is not feasibility. Small reactors like Pele should be able to provide electrical power to forward-operating bases and could — in concert with electric or hybrid vehicles — nearly eliminate the need for fuel convoys on the front lines.
The problem is that power-generation equipment and other support infrastructure are at the top of Chinese and Russian target lists. China’s newest ballistic missiles can deliver warheads ranging from explosive submunitions to high-speed tungsten rods, while recent attacks in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh showed the lethality of Russian, Chinese, Turkish and Iranian missiles and drones. These weapons could cause catastrophic damage to a reactor plant.
To address the threat of attack, Pele’s fuel is intended to be inherently stable and resistant to meltdown.
Perhaps, but a large attack could bury the fuel in debris, preventing it from dissipating heat and causing it to exceed its design temperature. And even if the fuel remains intact, it is radioactive and would create a contamination risk once released from the reactor by an attack.
Count on our allies being unwilling to host Pele reactors that opponents are sure to strike. Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, where the governments were beholden to the United States and guided-weapons threats were nonexistent, U.S. troops facing China would have to operate on Japanese, Australian or Philippine soil — nations that harbor strong anti-nuclear sentiments. U.S. governments in Guam or the Northern Mariana islands may have less choice in the matter, but residents there will hardly welcome new radioactive targets for Chinese missiles.
U.S. forces could reduce the threat to mobile reactors by taking them off the front lines. However, this reduces their value in solving logistical problems. More important, moving Pele away from the front will place it closer to civilian populations worried about Pele’s everyday radiological footprint. Consider instead of platoons of diesel mechanics and convoys of fuel, the Army needs squads of nuclear power plant operators and pallets of testing supplies and water treatment equipment. The return trip will also be full. Every glove, paper towel and sample bottle would likely be considered low-level waste and require specialized disposal, possibly back in the United States.
Bottom line: Pele creates more military challenges than it solves.
Mobile reactors might make sense for powering remote settlements and polar or moon stations, which is why NASA and the Energy Department are backing the project. But Pele is the wrong answer for tomorrow’s power-hungry military sensors, electric combat vehicles and directed-energy weapons. To supply these systems, the Pentagon should take a broader approach. Instead of advancing a comfortable solution from the past, the Defense Department should drive energy innovation through competition, such as the prize challenges that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency successfully used to advance new robotics and semiconductor designs.
New energy technologies are available. Solar and wind generation are being advanced and fielded today by commercial industry. Developments in batteries, capacitors and flywheels are already revolutionizing energy storage. A combination of these and other as-yet unidentified technologies could address the U.S. military’s expeditionary energy needs and be more feasible to deploy than Pele. Congress should reallocate Pele’s proposed budget to fund competitions to surface and exploit these new approaches rather than picking a winner today that is likely to lose tomorrow.
Bryan Clark, a retired U.S. Navy nuclear submarine officer, is currently a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the director of its Center for Defense Concepts and Technology. Henry Sokolski is the executive director at the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. He served in the U.S. Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment and as the department’s deputy for nonproliferation policy under then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.