Military Uses for Nuclear Power

May 3, 2023
Nuclear Reactor Billowing Smoke

The first nuclear power plant in the United States began operating commercially in 1958. Today, studies show that nuclear energy provides approximately 19% of the United States’ electricity.

Nuclear power is important to civilians, but it is also proving to be a solution for the United States military as they plan for energy sources going forward. Access to power anytime anywhere is a unique challenge requiring intensive planning and research.

In times of conflict, the Army must be ready, no matter the circumstances. They cannot wait for supplies. Not only do they need weapons, vehicles, and technology, but they need the power to conduct their operations.

How can the U.S. Army assure it has the power to conduct operations anywhere in the world, even in places experiencing heavy conflict?

Proponents believe that nuclear power is the answer to meet the challenges the Department of Defense is facing. Here is why.

What Is Nuclear Power?

It uses nuclear reactions to produce electricity. You can get nuclear power from nuclear decay, nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion reactions. Today, most electricity coming from nuclear power comes from the nuclear fission of plutonium and uranium in nuclear power plants.

For over 60 years, the United States has used nuclear power to produce low-carbon, reliable energy. Also, nuclear power supports national defense activities.

Why the US Navy Uses Nuclear Power in Submarines?

Currently, the United States Navy powers multiple important vessels with nuclear reactors. Their aircraft carriers and submarines are nuclear-powered.

They limited submarines before nuclear power, as they could only use rechargeable batteries. While rechargeable batteries had the advantage of being quiet, the recharge cycle also had its limits, offering approximately a day of moving at cruising speed. The range with rechargeable batteries is not very grand.

If there is food onboard, a submarine can remain submerged while using nuclear power. This is extremely valuable for stealth. A United States submarine, with nuclear power, can leave its native shoreline and travel next to other countries, meanwhile, never rising above the water’s surface.

Even missiles will fire underwater, so they never need to come back until they reach home. While a submarine could remain underwater for three months, it would still run out of food for its crew members.

Mobile Nuclear Reactors For Military Application

Russia and China are developing microreactors for propulsion. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Defense Strategic Capabilities Office seeks an ultimate energy solution that is self-sufficient. They are pursuing mobile nuclear power plants.

As the U.S. Department of Defense envisions the future, the U.S. Army will no longer use diesel generator banks. Instead, they will replace them, sending microreactors that will be the size of a shipping container.

By the mid-2020s, the plan is for microreactors to allow electricity production for the Army. This is because nuclear power is 10 times more potent. The energy in nuclear power is denser than fossil fuels, making it a more ideal solution.

It would give the Army a robust supply of electricity that is free of vulnerabilities from the supply chain. Still, this plan begs one important question. Can nuclear reactors be truly suitable for the U.S. military to use?

Experts wonder if these nuclear reactors will help to keep the peace or create disasters instead.

Uncharted Territory

There is a growing need for energy, and the Army’s nuclear power program is seeking a solution. Further, they promise that within three years, they can put power on the grid.

The problem is that not since the 1960s has the Army fielded a nuclear reactor. Plus, they claim nuclear reactors are safe and accident-tolerant, but history tells a different story. Some people wonder if it is just a dream.

What the Army needs is a focus on basic design safety principles to avoid nuclear disasters like the SL-I accident in 1961. This is a workable goal with decades of technological advancements. Today’s material science and reactor controls can easily avoid such flaws as what the world witnessed 60 years ago.

Risks of a Nuclear Power Program

There are other modes of failure that could occur. The Army cannot rely on one safety mechanism only. Also, there is the risk of impermeability of fuel cladding.

What would happen if there was a release of radioactive material? What then? The Department of Defense needs a clear understanding of the risks in this scenario and prepares for it.

While they may consider the cost of fuel delivery, who is considering the cost of a significant release of radioactive material? There is more danger lurking than radiological consequences and physical dangers.

Inter-alliance tensions could rise with the introduction of nuclear power on the battlefield, corroding national security. What is worse is that adversaries can become familiar with the nuclear infrastructure and attack it during times of war and unrest.

Why Mobile Nuclear Power Reactors? How Will the U.S. Army Benefit?

If the U.S. Army is to enter a war today, they are energy more energy intensive than in the past. This is because of innovations like drones, highly networked systems, and battlefield computation. Nuclear power could solve some of these challenges.

Besides needing to provide energy in hostile terrain, there is also the need to provide electricity with nuclear power to forward operating bases. Sometimes these bases could face insecure supply lines, or there could be outages for large power installations, affecting the power grid of innocent civilians.

The initial location for nuclear reactors will probably be in locations that are extremely remote areas. Such areas could be Kwajalein and Guam. The intention would be to continue to adopt the system in more installations, places where the Department of Defense will need electrical power in case reliable fuel supplies are not available.

Nuclear Energy Recommendations

Studies from the Department of Defense and the Defense Science Board identify that forward operating bases in the future will require a growing power supply. It is a fast-emerging issue, which is why they recommend nuclear energy as a response.

The analysis suggests that while, logically, weapons systems in development will require more energy, also, the supply of diesel for electricity is a contributing factor to significant casualties in the past.

With a nuclear reactor, there is less frequent refueling. This dramatically decreases the amount of material needed for maintaining military installations. Likewise, it takes away the cost of a hydrocarbon supply chain.

In theory, when operating from a great distance away from infrastructure, nuclear power can enable greater resiliency and independence. Some proponents of this type of system believe that the military can attain this capability soon.

Do the Benefits of a Mobile Nuclear Power Plant Outweigh the Risks?

The development program for a mobile nuclear power plant from the U.S. Army centers on Project Pele. Project Pele is a truck-and-air-transportable microreactor. Boasting a big promise, Pele is an I-5 megawatt electric power system that weighs under 40 tons.

A C-17 transport aircraft can transport it. The U.S. Army wants a mobile nuclear power plant that can deploy at minimally prepared sites and start under brief notice.

The intention of the mobile nuclear power plant is to deploy it at a forward operating base, but also that it is easy to deploy somewhere that is remote.

Rapidly progressing, in 2020 and 2021, this project is garnering $133 million. The program’s design phase ended in 2022. The program expects that by the end of 2023, it will be able to fully power-test it.

When you compare this to the timeline of creating a commercial reactor system, this is an amazingly short timeline.

What Proponents Are Saying

According to those backing Project Pele, it is an accident-tolerant reactor that offers a walk-away-safe. This mobile nuclear power plant will use tri-structural isotropic fuel and advanced heat transfer technologies.

The design of the reactor does not need concrete castings or deep burial for protection. This is to maximize transportability and protect the core in case of a kinetic attack. Instead, it uses fuel cladding, the usual last line of defense.

Fuel cladding prevents radioactive products from exiting the fuel with a thin layer of protection. It blocks a catastrophic radiation release. Since 40 tons is the weight limit for the Pele reactor, there is not much room left for armor.

The response by designers is the tri-structural isotropic fuels, to eliminate significant radiological challenges in case there would be an attack. Further, if there was an attack, it would not require highly trained emergency staff to respond. The locations that would house this reactor would only need limited emergency staff and simple response equipment.

This is not typical of the tri-structural isotropic fuel’s operation history, nor is it usual for its behavior in the extreme environment of the reactor fuel’s fundamental physical properties. In comparison, it is robust and resilient to high temperatures.

While There Are Many Advantages, This Does Not Eliminate Challenges

However, that does not mean that tri-structural isotropic particles are immune from vulnerabilities. They could release a hazardous amount of fission product. Further, there is still a question of its resiliency to kinetic impact.

There is a silicon carbide coating surrounding the fuel material. This is brittle. With munitions, it could fracture.

Not only that, but when there is exposure to water at high temperatures or to air, graphite moderator material is vulnerable to oxidation. A strike could distribute intact fuel fragments, too. This could prove dire consequences for effectiveness and readiness.


Because of such weaknesses, a crafty adversary could use this to hinder U.S. forces. They will realize that this is an area-denial target. Usually, an area-denial tactic will require the continuous use of munitions. If the munitions last, so will the tactics.

This means that a strike of this caliber will have months of the exclusion. The cost would be a few high-explosive warheads that are in a dominant position. Regional adversaries have this capability.

Not Intended For the Front Lines

The Pele reactor is for revetments that are well-guarded. That is why this nuclear reactor is for forward operating bases that the U.S. Army sees as a less likelihood of conflict and an attack on its supply line.

Plus, the Pele reactor will not have encasement, nor will the government bury it in concrete. They need to be in a position where they can be moved quickly. The consequences are serious if there is a reactor strike, requiring extensive preparation and a detailed understanding of the best place to position it.

Even if there is no attack, there could be direct irradiation resulting from reactor fuel fragments. Defense equipment cannot mitigate this.

From a tri-structural isotropic fuel fragment the size of a pea, the dose rate of gamma is 50cm. The burnup would be the same as the end of the fuel cycle, offering a near-fatal dose in less than one hour.

Fragments like this could settle in or on equipment easily. This is like the experience of the cleanup effort of Chornobyl. It would render equipment useless.

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Whether it is the need for nuclear power or other solutions to resolve the challenges the U.S. Army faces, America relies on innovation to keep its nation safe.

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