Uber for Nukes
The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has found itself in a predicament: it wants to power military bases and outposts with nuclear energy, but building a nuclear reactor is a massive civil undertaking.
But it doesn't have to be, according to Project Dilithium, which the DoD announced last month. The project involves shipping small, portable nuclear reactors by air, land, or sea to the military bases where they’re needed so they can provide cheap, reliable energy for about three year stretches — but the concept is making nuclear power experts nervous.
"Can" Versus "Should"
Experts suspect that the plan would work, from a technical standpoint, reports Popular Mechanics. That is to say, a small nuclear reactor could power a military outpost, and there's nothing inherent to the process of putting a reactor on a plane that would cause a disaster.
But The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists argues that the small reactors that can be built with today's technology won’t give the DoD the easy plug-and-play power source that Project Dilithium calls for. Rather, introducing a nuclear reactor into a warzone might be, you know, dangerous.
"If commanders need to expend significant resources to protect the reactors or their support systems from military strikes, such reactors could become burdens rather than assets," wrote Edwin Lyman, a physicist and the acting director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The portable reactors that would be shipped around the world as part of Project Dilithium would be powered by highly-enriched uranium — the same kind of fuel that could be used to make nuclear weapons.
"Even a reactor as small as 1 megawatt-electric would contain a large quantity of highly radioactive, long-lived isotopes such as cesium-137 — a potential dirty bomb far bigger than the medical radiation sources that have caused much concern among security experts," Lyman wrote.
[Editor's Note 2/27/2019: This article originally described Project Dilithium as a U.S. Army initiative. It is actually being developed by the Department of Defense.]
READ MORE: The Pentagon wants to boldly go where no nuclear reactor has gone before. It won’t work. [Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists]
More on nuclear power: Experts: The Only Way to Save the Planet is Nuclear Energy