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DOD’s Innovative Micro-Reactor Tied Up and Down in Red Tape

The ground-breaking initiative to provide nuclear power to a military installation disappeared.

Heralded as a first-of-its-kind initiative to power a US Air Force base with a micro-reactor, the Eielson, AFB, Alaska small nuclear reactor project has dropped off the radar. The proposal to establish a pilot program at one of the coldest northern-tier bases was to determine the feasibility of using a miniature nuclear plant to replace a reported 800 tons of coal the base uses each day. So, what happened?

In 2021, when Liberty Nation News first reported the story, the Eielson, AFB micro-reactor pilot project was promising. As LNN explained:

“The microreactor project will have significant government oversight to ensure safety provided by the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Along with efficient production of electricity, the GAO [Government Accountability Office] explained, the microreactors can be produced more quickly, less expensively, and more efficiently, and ‘the entire reactor could be factory assembled under controlled environment conditions with quality control procedures.'”

Then, the program hit a snag. Being able to be “produced more quickly, less expensively, and more efficiently” met the slow, expensive, and breathtakingly inefficient Department of Defense (DOD) acquisition system. No project could have had more going for it to be developed and put into operation. Congress passed the FY2019 National Defense Authorization Act that “required the Secretary of Energy to report on a pilot program to provide resilience for DOD facilities by contracting with a commercial entity to build and operate at least one licensed micro-reactor by December 31, 2027.”

The Micro-Reactor Had Strong Administration Backing

Additionally, the Eielson AFB micro-reactor had the backing of former President Donald Trump’s Executive Order 13972, which directed the Secretary of Defense to “establish and implement a plan to demonstrate the energy flexibility capability and cost-effectiveness of a Nuclear Regulatory Commission-licensed micro-reactor at a domestic military installation.” Congressional legislative authorization and a presidential directive told the DOD to develop and operate a micro-reactor to power a military base. The Air Force was the military department to make the project happen, and Eielson AFB, Alaska, was chosen as the pilot base. What could go wrong?

It’s simple. The program was thrown into the US Air Force and Defense Logistics Agency competitive source selection process. This is supposed to allow for fair and equitable competition for procurements, but instead it subjects programs of record to interminable processes with the attending delays. The Request for Proposal (RFP) was supposed to be released in Spring 2022, but as of February, the Draft RFP was not through the review process in the DOD’s acquisition office. By August 2022, no Micro-Reactor Pilot project at Eielson AFB request for contractors’ proposal submissions was released. “As a first pilot program of its kind, the Department of the Air Force (DAF) Micro-Reactor program must undergo significant scrutiny and coordination from the agencies involved in its success,” explained Eielson Micro-Reactor Quarterly Update.

Fast forward to the end of September, approximately six months late, the Air Force released the RFP. In January 2023, the time for contractor proposal submission was closed, and the evaluation of the proposals began. Seven months later, in August 2023, the DOD issued a Notice of Intent to Award a contract. In other words, the Pentagon had selected a winner.

But not so fast: While the ink was drying on the award notice, it was rescinded. One of the competitors who did not win filed a protest with the Court of Federal Claims. The process stopped. In March 2024, a bidder filed a formal protest with the Government Accountability Office, and a stop work order was issued.

Promising Program Stopped in Its Tracks

As the latest report from Eielson AFB explained, the micro-reactor project is paused. Additional proposal reviews, “anticipated to conclude by the end of Summer 2024,” are ongoing. So, the pilot energy program hit the bureaucratic wall. The Air Force maintained it “still aims to meet the 2027 timeline for the project.” With the track record for meeting scheduled events, that sounds more aspirational than actual.

What was to be a first-of-its-kind clean energy program that would provide a “reliable and resilient energy supply for critical national security infrastructure” is just another defense program that has fallen prey to a system hostile to innovation and getting programs to the warfighter in a timely fashion. One would have thought that with the Biden administration’s focus on clean energy, this program would have had special emphasis, but evidently not. In the end, when the Eielson AFB Micro-Reactor is operational, count on it being after 2027 and over cost.

 The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliate.

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