Pentagon asks for proposals to build small nuclear power plant at Eielson Air Force Base

Fighter jets land on a runway
Eielson Air Force Base in 2015. (U.S. Airforce)

Pentagon officials have taken another step toward building a small nuclear power plant for Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks. Last week, they released a request for proposals that invites contractors to outline how they’d design, build and deploy a so-called microreactor at Eielson within five years.

Air Force officials announced last year that they’d selected Eielson as the site of a pilot project that would prove the viability of small-scale nuclear power plants at military installations.

“This is really about energy resilience,” said Mark Correll, a former Air Force deputy assistant secretary for environment, safety and infrastructure.

Correll said last November that the project at Eielson is meant to help demonstrate a microreactor’s capability to provide power in case the base’s main source of electricity — a 70-year-old, 15-megawatt coal-fired heat and power plant — goes offline.

“We’re looking to make sure that at any point in time, any of our bases with any mission will have the power it needs, where it needs it, when it needs it, in the quantities that it needs, to assure that we can continue to do the defense mission that we have,” he said.

The United Coalition for Advanced Nuclear Power is backing the Eielson project.

“There’s both a geopolitical reason, as well as an energy-resilience reason. Which is why Eielson is so exciting,” says Lucian Niemeyer, a principal with UCAN, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for nuclear-powered electrical generation.

Niemeyer says the Eielson microreactor may demonstrate that the technology holds promise for the Interior’s other remotely located military installations.

“Eielson relies on a coal plant with oil backup in a very critical area of the country,” he said in an interview Monday.

Critical because of the area’s national security assets — Eielson’s two squadrons of advanced F-35 fighters; Fort Wainwright’s airborne units; and the missile-defense installations at Fort Greely and Clear Space Force Station.

“Nuclear power can serve a significant capability to run these critical bases and assets on reliable power for a period of five to 10 years without refueling,” Niemeyer said.

The request for proposals calls for construction of a facility to accommodate a micronuclear reactor that would generate up to 5 megawatts and operate for 10 years, until its fuel is spent. The plan calls for construction to begin in three years and for the reactor to begin generating power in 2027.

Correll, who talked about the project in a news conference held after it was announced, said the microreactor would be self-contained in a structure that’s about the size of a CONEX shipping container that’ll be located in a site of about 5 acres. He said it won’t cost the Air Force any money upfront. Instead, it’ll pay for it through power purchases from the company that’ll build and operate it, at a rate that’s competitive with what the base pays now.

Niemeyer says the Pentagon and industry likely will learn a lot from how the facility performs.

“I think the lessons we learn from that are going to drive maybe a decision to start looking at other locations,” he said.

Air Force officials say they’ll conduct a conference and site visit to Eielson on Oct. 12 for industry representatives considering submitting proposals for the project.

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Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.