Like It Or Not, New Nuclear Reactors Are Coming To The U.S. Waterfront

Credits: Michael Afonso/Unsplash

Over the next decade, a combination of strategic, economic, and environmental concerns will bring modern, fourth-generation nuclear reactors to the waterfront. American ports and ship operators that begin preparing the U.S. waterfront for nuclear power today—building a trained nuclear-ready workforce and establishing operational protocols for nuclear vessels and support infrastructure—will enjoy enormous competitive advantages, reports Forbes.

Beyond the grand scale

Today, new modular nuclear reactor designs are evolving beyond the grand-scale, thousand-megawatt “modular” pressurized or boiling water reactors used in America’s current-day nuclear power plants, offering smaller, scalable options for size and safety. The difference is stark—in Georgia, the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant is preparing to commission two big new reactors and become a massive four-reactor, 5000-megawatt regional generating center, while modular reactor startup NuScale Power offers a comparatively pint-sized four-reactor module set capable of generating up to 308 megawatts.

The idea that small, scalable “Generation IV” nuclear reactors can offer lower-risk reactor designs in facilities with a far smaller-footprint has fueled widespread investments in new modular reactor technology.

It is only a matter of time before these new reactor designs evolve to where they are “marine-ready” and able to meet U.S. waterfront’s future power generation needs both ashore and afloat.

The U.S. Military Can Be A Big Driver Of Maritime Nuclear Tech

America’s largest ship operator, the U.S. Navy, is already bringing more nuclear power to the waterfront. Navy nuclear reactors power America’s fleet of 68 nuclear-powered submarines and eleven aircraft carriers. The service is busy modernizing and giving every indication that the number of nuclear reactors in naval service will grow. And yet, while the Navy is doing great things, it can do more with nuclear power.

The Navy’s surface warfighting community—the sailors who operate conventionally-fueled cruisers and destroyers—may need nuclear power, too. Navy warfighters have an insatiable appetite for extra watts afloat—new electromagnetic warfare techniques, lasers and modern sensors all need the same thing—power. Coupled with logistical concerns over the Navy’s long-term ability to supply conventional petrochemical-based fuels to the fleet, nuclear power offers the Navy a viable and strategically sensible alternative.

In the U.S. Navy, conventional Cold War-era wisdom dismisses the use of nuclear power in surface combatants as either too dangerous or too expensive—and further freighted with hard-to-find and hard-to-retain specialists, offering fewer promotional avenues for surface warfare officers who are not nuclear certified.

Outside of aircraft carriers, America cancelled nuclear-powered surface combatants in 1999, when post-Cold War cost-cuts forced America’s last active-duty nuclear-powered surface combatant, the Newport News-built USS South Carolina (CGN-37), out of service. The surface warfare community, glad to be free of the expensive, time-consuming and safety-first-focused strictures of the Navy’s nuclear bureaucracy, never looked back.

But today, exactly 68 years after America’s first nuclear vessel, the USS Nautilus (SSN 571), signaled “underway under nuclear power,” atomic power is too important for the conventional surface Navy to ignore. New reactor technology, coupled with a struggle for the maritime industry to adopt one of several imperfect lower emission “alternative” fuels, is injecting new life into the idea of bringing nuclear power to surface ships of all types.

It may be profitable to have the U.S. Navy’s surface community bite the bullet and spearhead this evolution.

New Nuclear Tech Faces An Uphill Battle

But getting the Navy to embrace wider use of nuclear power is going to be difficult. Still organized along Cold War lines and riven by long-standing intra-service rivalries, the Navy—as long as it lacks a dynamic Rickover-like leader capable of forcing big changes—is unsuited to adopt a new propulsion technology anytime soon.

The Navy treats nuclear power as a world into itself, as a separate “Naval Reactors” community. The Navy’s four-star Director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program serves as the Navy’s gatekeeper for nuclear technology, and, as the leader of a conservative, risk-averse bureaucracy, that leader is not likely to support wider Navy adoption of hot and new nuclear technologies.

With a lot on its plate, Naval Reactors may simply be too busy to really focus on something new. Already stressed by America’s big submarine recapitalization program—and further pressurized by AUKUS, an effort by Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States to bring nuclear-powered submarines into the Australian Navy—new technologies may crush the Service.

But the bifurcated bureaucracy is entrenched. One nuclear-certified Navy Captain wrote, in a 2019 U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings article, that “nuclear-trained officers serve two masters—their parent warfare community and Naval Reactors” and must step away from the conventional surface warfare promotion pathway to work in nuclear-related jobs aboard aircraft carriers. The subsequent lack of proficiency in conventional naval surface combatants, he worried, would put nuclear certified surface warfare officers at a disadvantage at sea, while efforts to gain proficiency at sea would move nuclear-certified officers too far away from nuclear propulsion systems.

In addition to the challenges facing Navy in training and personnel management, the U.S. Navy’s institutional biases against merchant ships may blind the service to interesting opportunities in using nuclear power in the Navy’s big fleet of auxiliaries. In the Cold War, aspiring surface Navy leaders were often required to skipper otherwise unglamorous tankers and auxiliary ships—former Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Mike Mullen, often recalled that he once commanded the USS Noxubee (AOG-56), an ignominious gasoline tanker. As the Cold War wound down, these duties were turned over to civilian operators, and their naval stewards at the Military Sealift Command were downgraded in importance. But, today, nuclear-powered auxiliary ships and freight-carriers might be a great investment for America, helping the country better understand the technical challenges ahead as the world races to “marinize” nuclear power.

Needless to say, the atmosphere in the Navy’s nuclear bureaucracy is not set up to promote creative new ideas—it wants to safely execute an established mission set. To that end, the U.S. Department of Defense may need to push the stressed Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program to evolve. If the future of warfare is pointing towards the need for new, energy-hungry technology—and away from traditional liquid hydrocarbon fuels—the Department of Defense will be obligated to step in and change things.

And that may already be happening. In press releases promoting “Project Pele,” an innovative Department of Defense effort to explore modern micro-reactors, the U.S. Navy is conspicuously absent in what is billed as a “whole-of-government effort” to “advance energy resilience and reduce carbon emissions while also helping shape safety and nonproliferation standards.” Instead, the Army Corps of Engineers gets a bigger billing, alongside the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and NASA.

How The Pentagon Can Help Navy Can Muddle Through

Even if the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program won’t “play ball” and “Big” Navy rejects the potential for nuclear-powered combatants or auxiliary ships, there are other things the Department of Defense can do to help a reluctant Navy “set the table” for a wider exploitation of nuclear power in the maritime.

First, the Department of Defense can continue to “help” the Navy both test basic strategic assumptions and “incentivize” the adoption of technologies that have wider potential to address national needs. A stream of basic studies on the feasibility of nuclear icebreakers, nuclear-powered next-generation surface combatants like the DDG(X), nuclear-powered auxiliaries, and nuclear-powered subsystems might be useful.

Second, the Pentagon can press the Navy to develop new nuclear-ready shipyards in areas that could use the investment—Baltimore, Puerto Rico and Guam all offer interesting opportunities. With the Navy slowly awakening to the heretical idea that pricey, taxpayer-owned shipyards can and do save taxpayer money, the service is openly mulling the idea of starting one or two new public shipyards. If established, these new yards will help the Navy overcome a backlog in nuclear submarine and aircraft carrier maintenance. But, in a decade or two, they will have a trained workforce ready to support a wave of new nuclear-powered surface ships.

Third, the Defense Secretary can help get the Navy to discuss notional concepts-of-operations for nuclear vessels. In conjunction with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Coast Guard and others, the service can lead another all-of-government initiative to dust off old operating guidelines from back when NS Savannah, America’s first—and only—nuclear-powered merchant ship, sailed the seas, and start re-developing the regulatory framework needed to support the safe operation of nuclear-powered commercial and military vessels in U.S. waters.

And, finally, the Department of Defense can recognize and work to mitigate pressure on Naval Reactors that may constrain innovation. If the organization is struggling to contend with the daily grind of maintaining—and growing—America’s nuclear force, and seems threatened by the prospect of bringing nuclear submarines into Australian service, then the organization may need both guided reform and funding to better position the service for new nuclear technologies.

The challenge is pretty stark. Either push forward on nuclear technology and lead in the maritime—or simply wait around until China starts developing nuclear-powered merchants and surface combatants, making new nuclear technologies impossible to ignore.

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Source: Forbes