A Nuclear Renaissance via the Air?

Conn Carroll /

According to a recent article in Energy and Environment News, the Air Force is planning to build a 100-225 megawatt nuclear power reactor. It will not only provide affordable, reliable electricity to an Air Force base, which has yet to be chosen, but will also be used as a power source for the local community. This is a departure from the usual news regarding the comeback of nuclear power. These stories generally revolve around plans to build large, 1000-1600 megawatt commercial reactors to increase power supplies to consumers that rely on the current electricity grid (also known as base load capacity expansion).

While such planning certainly signals a new day for nuclear power, it does not necessarily represent the full scope of a true nuclear renaissance. The Air Force’s decision, however, demonstrates a growing recognition that nuclear energy has applications beyond simple base load expansion. And that is an indication that a nuclear renaissance is truly underway.

One of the advantages of nuclear power is its flexibility, which the Air Force has recognized with its decision. These small reactors share many of the advantages of their larger counterparts. They produce massive amounts of power, run on inexpensive uranium, require infrequent refueling, and are environmentally friendly.

Smaller reactors have some unique advantages as well. First, they allow its users to insulate themselves from an increasingly unreliable U.S. power grid. This vulnerability was demonstrated last week when a relatively minor disturbance on the grid caused massive blackouts across Florida. They are also physically smaller so that they can be constructed in more isolated locations. This would obviously be attractive to the armed forces, which relies on a distributed system of sometimes remote installations and bases.

Outside of the military context, these smaller reactors could have a role in providing modern power services to some of the one and a half billion people that remain without access to modern power services throughout the world. This is not to say that every rural African or Asian village should have its very own reactor. It is to say, however, that small reactors could play a role in providing the reliable energy to parts of the world that have been denied such basic services in the past.

The Air Force’s decision to build a small reactor, along with a growing number of utilities moving through the planning stages to build large commercial reactors, are concrete signals that a nuclear renaissance may be upon us.