By George Lobsenz

The Air Force is considering a pilot program to deploy small nuclear power reactors at two of its bases, saying it would complement its ongoing alternative energy development efforts and provide more insurance against any widespread disruption in grid-provided electricity.

In their most extensive comments to date on their interest in nuclear power, two top Air Force officials told the Senate Armed Services Committee and reporters earlier this month that the service was considering Cannon AFB, N.M., as one potential location for an advanced reactor capable of producing up to 50 megawatts of power.

The officials emphasized they were responding to congressional interest in deploying reactors at military bases, but added that they saw clear energy security benefits from on- site nuclear generation in the event of a major breakdown in the nation’s electricity grid.

"We’ve asked the contractors to come in and tell us [about new reactor options]," Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne told the committee at a March 5 hearing. "We would like a– you can’t terrorist-proof it–but what we want is something that is not dangerous to the community.

"And they…have now available interesting designs, which we can put on parts of our base. You can actually almost bury it. But it takes up about a football field to produce about 50 megawatts."

However, he added that building such an on-site reactor "would take the military off the grid, which I think might be valuable in the event of a grid catastrophe…. It’s one of those things that I have been worried about since we stood up cyber command and people began to tell me about what the threats are. I said maybe we ought to make sure that we’re protected in several ways."

In comments to reporters after the hearing, Wynne confirmed that the Air Force was looking at a pilot program where reactors would be built and operated at two bases.

He said it would be "nice to have two so you can do a comparative analysis and all of that, and allow the regulators to really come in and see what they like about it as well.

"So we’re just thinking, let’s work a pilot program or two to see how it works, and get ourselves in a little bit of trouble instead of a lot of trouble."

Asked about what sites were under consideration, Wynne said: "The thoughts are, right now we’re talking about Cannon [AFB] out in New Mexico…."

He emphasized that the Air Force is only in the early stages of considering reactors and it would be years before any action is taken. He noted extensive consultations would be needed with affected communities near bases as well as regulators and the contractors that actually would build the reactors.

"We can only do siting," he added. "Somebody else has got to do all [the other] work. In fact, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission [chairman], Dr. Dale Klein, has actually talked to us about it."

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley told the committee that the Air Force looked at nuclear power as the obvious next step in its drive to develop clean, alternative energy sources to run all its operations. In particular, he said while the Air Force had extensively deployed wind, geothermal and solar power at its bases, it was reaching the limit of what it could get from those renewable energy sources, leading the service to consider nuclear.

"We’ve personally gone about as far as we can on geothermal, on wind and on renewable energy and alternative energy sources," Moseley said."We run most of our bases west of the Mississippi on alternative energy. We’ve also flown airplanes with synthetic jet fuel.

"Under the secretary’s leadership, we’ve pushed very hard into that world of renewable and alternative energy. There’s a limit to wind and geothermal and solar. This seems to be an opportunity to begin to ask the question, ‘What can we do next?’"

The comments from Wynne and Moseley were prompted by questions from Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a nuclear power advocate, who praised the Air Force for considering reactors.

Inhofe asked about the issue after noting a passage in Wynne’s formal testimony to the committee in which he said that "as a result of congressional interest, we have begun considering the potential for small-scale nuclear power production on Air Force property."