Lawmakers Push for More Nuclear Microreactors in INDOPACOM

Reps. Rob Wittman and Jen Kiggans, members of the House Armed Services Committee, are pressing U.S. Indo-Pacific Command boss Adm. John Aquilino to ask for more procurement for nuclear micro-reactors in the fiscal 2025 budget request, as a way to ease the logistics of powering forward bases in his command.

“Many of our most critical military installations in your theater are heavily dependent upon imported fuel for their enduring energy needs,” wrote the two Virginia Republicans in a Jan. 8 letter. In particular, they noted that nuclear microreactors could be transported aboard C-17s.

“Fuel was a dominating consideration in our last great contest in the Pacific, and will likely play a similar role in any potential conflict with a well-equipped and determined adversary,” they added. “It would be unwise to expend such a precious resource on demands that could be so easily met by an extremely capable and reliable alternative that is impervious to mercurial weather patterns or the perils of threatened logistical lines.”

The Pentagon has multiple plans to test nuclear microreactors in the near future. Project Pele, being developed by the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office, awarded a contract to BWX Technologies of Lynchburg, Va., in 2022, and the Air Force and the Defense Logistics Agency are working on a test program to build a unit at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.

Such systems could be crucial for the Air Force’s operational concept of Agile Combat Employment, as a way to avoid having to deploy large numbers of resupply aircraft to far-flung Pacific bases with fuel—under ACE, small detachments of aircraft would deploy to an established or austere base, then quickly pick up and move to another location to prevent China from being able to target all USAF assets in theater with tactical ballistic or cruise missiles.

Wittman, who chairs the tactical air and land forces subcommittee, and Kiggans, a former Navy helicopter pilot, wrote that they “believe the strategic and tactical value of these systems providing durable power to military facilities, long-range missile defense systems, and command and control centers is invaluable, considering the operational imperatives of a contested logistics environment.”

They asked for Aquilino’s “assessment of the strategic benefit to INDOPACOM if increased procurement of the microreactor” being pursued under Project Pele “was funded in the forthcoming Fiscal Year 2025 budget.” If he thinks more reactors would be a benefit, they urged that he request the powerplants, “considering the planning required for serial production of micro-nuclear reactors coupled with the lead time for fuel preparation.”

Project Pele remains on pace, but the joint Air Force-DLA effort has slowed. In September, DLA Energy rescinded its “notice of intent to award” a microreactor contract to Oklo, a California-based startup. The agency said it needed to comply with a law requiring post-award negotiations if the value of the contract exceeds $100 million. An “intent to protest” the award based on that law was filed by Ultra-Safe Nuclear Corp. of Seattle, Wash.

A DLA spokesperson told Air & Space Forces Magazine that the Eielson generator is “an ongoing and active procurement and all respondents are still being considered.” The program calls for a 5-megawatt reactor that would supplement Eielson’s 15-megawatt coal plant.

The spokesperson said the DLA intends to “meet all deadlines” for the Eielson program, which calls for operational capability in 2027.

Overall interest in microreactors still remains strong. Companies attending an industry day session about microreactors in 2023 included Rolls-Royce, Seimens and Westinghouse. And just a year ago, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the first micro-reactor design—called a Small Modular Reactor—developed by NuScale Power of Portland, Ore.