Chair of Nuclear Regulatory Commission touts ‘passive safety’ of small reactors, like the type planned for Eielson

Man in tie in wood-paneled room
Christopher Hanson is chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. (NRC)

The chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said he’s intrigued by the kind of small nuclear power plant the military wants to install at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks.

“The safety features that they have …(are) kind of passive safety features, right?” Chairman Christopher Hanson said at a U.S. Senate hearing last week. “It doesn’t have as many moving parts, so there aren’t as many things to break, or pay attention to.”

The Air Force announced in October that it has chosen Eielson for a first-of-its-kind mini reactor. It would supply about half of the electricity the base needs. Eielson now primarily relies on a 70-year-old coal-burning power plant.

Hanson said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing several concepts for micro-reactors and one license application.

He told U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan the technology could be a boon for remote areas because they don’t need new fuel every year or two, as standard large reactors do.

“Some of these micro-reactors don’t have to be refueled for 10 or even 20 years, depending on the fuel formulation,” Hanson said. “So that has the potential, as you point out, to bring down the delivered cost of energy. Which of course is, I know, of great concern to Alaskans.”

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According to the U.S. Energy Department, most micro-reactor designs rely on highly concentrated uranium-235.

Massive radioactive disasters in the Soviet Union and Japan have damaged the reputation of nuclear power, which a lot of Americans have never trusted. Despite concerns about radioactive waste and pollution, some advocates say nuclear power is a solution to climate change.

The Air Force hopes to have a micro-reactor running at Eielson by the end of 2027. It would be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and owned by a commercial enterprise.

RELATED: Eielson Air Force Base may have a small nuclear power plant by 2027

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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