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Pentagon extends contract options for nuclear microreactor prototype

This 2019 photo shows the former SM-1 nuclear power plant at Fort Belvoir from outside the security gate. Photo by Rebecca Nappi/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
This 2019 photo shows the former SM-1 nuclear power plant at Fort Belvoir from outside the security gate. Photo by Rebecca Nappi/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

March 23 (UPI) -- The Department of Defense awarded contract options this week to two companies to create a final prototype for a transportable advanced nuclear microreactor.

BWXT Advanced Technologies and X-energy, both of which won contracts last year to develop portable nuclear reactors, will continue that work under the new options, according to a Pentagon press release.

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The teams are working under a Strategic Capabilities Office initiative called Project Pele.

One of the two companies may be selected by the Pentagon to build and demonstrate a prototype once design review and environmental analysis are finished early next year, according to the Pentagon.

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"We are thrilled with the progress our industrial partners have made on their designs," Dr. Jeff Waksman, Project Pele program manager, said in the release.

"We are confident that by early 2022 we will have two engineering designs matured to a sufficient state that we will be able to determine suitability for possible construction and testing."

Project Pele is intended to help address DoD power uses -- about 30 Terawatt-hours of electricity per year and more than 10 million gallons of fuel per day -- which are expected to increase due to more energy-intensive capabilities maturing and the electrification the vehicle fleet.

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The Pentagon is looking to meet this demand with a small, transportable energy source that won't add fuel needs and be usable in remote environments.

The prototype should be capable of running within three days of delivery and be safely removed in seven days, and be able to deliver one to five Megawatts of electrical power for at least three years.

In addition to filling power needs in remote environments, the system could lead to similar commercial technologies, which would reduce carbon emissions and provide new tools for disaster relief, the DoD said.

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It's not clear how much the new contract options are worth. In 2020 BWXT, based in Virginia, received $13.5 million and Maryland's X-energy received $14.3 million for the first development.

Westinghouse Government Services was also awarded an $11.9 million contract for the initial phase of development last year but was not mentioned in this week's press release announcing options.

"Production of a full-scale Fourth Generation nuclear reactor will have significant geopolitical implications for the United States," said Jay Dryer, SCO director.

"The DOD has led American innovation many times in the past, and with Project Pele, has the opportunity to help us advance on both energy resiliency and carbon emission reductions," Dryer said.

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