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The 2022 National Security Strategy identified climate change as an existential challenge, and the Defense Department’s Climate Adaptation Plan calls for reducing carbon emissions across the services. The Department of Defense is the largest energy user in the U.S. government and uses approximately 29 million megawatts of electricity annually. Despite being such a large energy consumer, only 6.5% of the electricity the DoD uses comes from renewable energy sources, which lags well behind the national average of about 20%.
To address the existential challenge of climate change and reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the U.S. military should build and operate modular nuclear reactors to power its domestic bases. Along with reducing its impact on climate change, this would also prepare the military services to operate forward-deployed nuclear reactors in support of combat operations.
Although addressing climate change and reducing the emission of greenhouse gases is a multifaceted challenge, one of the most critical aspects is producing electrical power without releasing carbon dioxide. Electric power production was the source of 25% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States in 2020. There is a growing push for using renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. However, without significant technological leaps, these do not offer a realistic path to greenhouse gas-free electricity at the scale needed.
Nuclear power is a well-proven technology that offers carbon dioxide-free electricity. One of the main objections to the expansion of nuclear power in the U.S. is based on the perception that it is dangerous. This is primarily based on the historical cases of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. In reality, there have been very few safety issues with nuclear power since it first came into use in the 1950s.
Some countries have embraced nuclear power, such as France, which produces 70% of its electricity from nuclear power. The new modular reactors are even safer than existing reactors and, according to some experts, do not pose any threat of a meltdown. For example, Bill Gates wrote about the TerraPower reactor design that “accidents would literally be prevented by the laws of physics.”
The U.S. military has a long history of using nuclear energy. It is well known that the Navy operates nuclear-powered ships and submarines, but the Army also had a nuclear power program from 1954 to 1976. This program operated small nuclear reactors both domestically and at deployed locations. So there is a strong historical foundation of safe operations of nuclear power reactors to build upon.
In addition, there are existing nuclear power programs that could be expanded. In 2022, the Pentagon announced that it was designing and building a mini-nuclear reactor under Project Pele. The Air Force also announced that it plans to operate a modular reactor at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska, with “demonstration and operational testing” expected to start in 2027. These projects are both good starts but are focused on microreactors at very remote or overseas locations. These programs should be expanded to include larger modular reactors housed on bases throughout the continental United States.
Along with reducing the department’s carbon footprint, modular nuclear reactors could increase the military’s combat capabilities. This has been recognized by the Pentagon and is one of the driving factors behind Project Pele. The ability to operate and deploy nuclear reactors could be vital in supporting operations during a high-end global conflict. The military is becoming more reliant on electrical power as we develop systems such as directed-energy weapons and electric-powered combat vehicles. The U.S. military has had relatively uncontested logistics access during all of its conflicts since World War II due to air and sea power superiority, which has given us the ability to control vital lines of communication.
However, it should be assumed that potential adversaries in the future will have the ability to disrupt lines of communication, particularly on bulk shipments like fuel oil. Modular nuclear reactors would reduce the U.S. military’s reliance on fuel shipments and ensure the availability of the energy needed for high-tech combat systems. Developing and operating the capability domestically would provide the military training and experience needed to operate nuclear reactors in support of overseas operations.
By building and operating modular reactors to power U.S. domestic bases, the military could help address the existential challenge of climate change by reducing the department’s carbon footprint. Since the military has a long history of operating nuclear power reactors and has high security — and often remote bases to house them — there may be less public pressure against building military nuclear power facilities than there would be against the immediate expansion of civilian facilities.
Furthermore, once the military developed a safe track record of operating modular nuclear reactors, that could be used to support the further development of civilian nuclear power facilities. If this were successful, it could have a much larger impact on the nation’s overall greenhouse gas reduction.
U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Jared Harlow is a graduate student at the National War College. He currently holds a bachelor’s degree in marine environmental science and a master’s degree in defense and strategic studies. During his most recent role with the service, Harlow oversaw and executed maritime law enforcement missions. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. Coast Guard or the National War College.
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