Small Modular Reactors and US Military Bases

29 March 2013, 2315 EDT

Bear with me, because this post has a long backstory.

As many of you know, I’m a former policy debater. Indeed, so are a number of guest and permanent bloggers at the Duck of Minerva. And not a few other international-relations scholars. Well, this weekend is the National Debate Tournament (NDT), which is like the NCAA basketball tournament for fast-talking nerds, misfits, and future legal power players. In fact, the two aforelinked Ducks are former NDT champions.

Last year something odd happened. I was at a GDS debate reunion talking to some current college debaters. One of them stopped and said, more or less, “wait, are you Nexon of ‘Cooley and Nexon?'” As it turned out, a Foreign Affairs online article that Alex Cooley and I co-wrote provided key evidence for an affirmative case dealing with the US base in Bahrain. Interesting.

Now it turns out that a popular case this year is to deploy small nuclear reactors at US military installations (PDF). I’ve received emails asking about the merits of the case. I immediately roped in Alex Cooley — who is, after all, much more of a basing expert than I am — and talked to some scholars and practitioners I know associated with the nuclear-security community. The topic seemed compelling enough for a blog post.

In essence, this strikes me as a problematic proposal.

The main argument for the Department of Defense (DoD) developing small modular reactors (SMRs) is straightforward. US military bases, whether at home or overseas, are  dependent upon civilian power grids. Forward operating bases–such as those that play a critical role in Afghanistan–are especially vulnerable to disruption as long as they rely on liquid-fuel generators to supply electricity. All three categories of bases are therefore at risk to various forms of interdiction–ranging from near-future cyber attacks to well-aimed mortar attacks. Advocates further maintain (PDF) that no foreseeable developments in renewables will prove adequate to resolve these vulnerabilities. SMRs are supposed to be safe and reliable: “The entire reactor — the core, the cooling system, everything — is self-contained in this rocket-shaped steel cylinder. The industry says that makes it safer. And the reactors will be small enough to build in a factory and ship on trucks, like prefabricated houses.” Because they use low-enriched uranium (LEU), they don’t pose a proliferation risk.

To begin with, we’re in the very early stages of SMRs. The technology might work as advertised, but it would be a mistake to assume that what goes into mass production will live up to current hype. There’s a good chance that they’ll face significant operational problems, particularly in the early generations; many experts point out that SMRs will likely face similar safety and waste-disposal challenges as standard nuclear reactors (PDF). They also make good targets for insurgents and terrorists. Recall that last year protestors snuck into the Y-12 facility at Oak Ridge, prompting assurances of tightened security at tactical-nuclear storage facilities in Europe. As Matthew Baker argues:

… oneof the biggest qualms that the public has to nuclear is problems associated with nuclear waste. A more decentralized production of nuclear waste inevitably resulting from an increase in SMRs production was not even discussed. The danger of transporting gas into some military bases in the Middle East is already extremely volatile; dangers of an attack on the transit of nuclear waste would be devastating.

Indeed, advocates tend to gloss over some of these issues, or assume that future technological ingenuity will resolve them.

Advocates also seem to underestimate the political problems involved. These are substantial. No matter how comparatively safe SMRs actually are, the combination of “small,” “nuclear,” and “military base” isn’t likely to go over well either in the United States or among the citizens of overseas base hosts. Even if the Pentagon rules out deployment of SMRs at some of our most important overseas facilities, SMRs will still need to transit through the overseas basing and access network in order to be deployed at forward-operating locations. Consider how we would get them into Afghanistan if they existed already: doing so might involve  (1) traversing NATO members’ airspace or territorial waters, (2) landing in Baku, (3) crossing  some combination of Central Asian states, and (4) then winding up in Afghanistan. Future conflict scenarios might involve fewer partners. They might involve more.  Regardless, it should be clear that we are looking at significant opportunities for political backlash–of the kind that might lead to the loss of critical basing and access agreements.

When I asked Alex Cooley about this, his response was even more negative. He notes that:

  1. There’s no comprehensive study on the topic, but there are several individual accounts of the handling of the strategic-bomber related accidents in Spain (Palomares) and Greenland/Denmark in the 1960s and the resulting political and social fallout. The bottom line is that both countries received iron-clad guarantees against future nuclear deployment and transit, as exceptions to neither confirm nor deny.
  2. New Zealand of course was very contentious and led to the US suspension of security commitment under ANZUS.
  3. Regarding Japan, my own feeling is that this would be a non-starter and possibly a very bad idea, given Fukushima as well as the legacy of Prime Minister Sato signing a secret minute with Nixon–and denying it publicly–that allowed for nuclear deployment in Okinawa. Also, there is a pretty virulent NIMBY politics in Japan and a developed set of NGOs and civil society organization devoted to such advocacy.

His final assessment: “basing politics have been relatively stable in most of the established allies in Europe and Asia for the last 20 years (unlike in the 1980s). Such an issue could reopen scrutiny of what the US is doing, what these agreements cover and the necessity of the US presence for common security commitments. Why risk such potential political externalities?”

In fact, even attempting to negotiate the deployment of SMRs, might create political problems–and not only with Japan, Spain, and Denmark. Germany has abandoned nuclear energy in the wake of Fukushima; asking them to either host or provide transit for SMRs could produce significant tensions. Similar controversies could develop with any number of hosts. Even the knowledge that the US has SMRs in circulation–particularly given the history Alex alludes to–could itself complicate basing arrangements. As Alex and I have argued elsewhere, political contention over US bases amounts to a “non-balancing” process with serious implications for US power-projection capability and its ability to command the commons.

Moreover, I share some critics’ skepticism about the “we must do it now or doom!” claims that sometimes come up in the literature. One is that a failure to put major military resources into SMRs will lead to the “lock in” of designs that aren’t “optimal” for military purposes. It isn’t exactly clear what kind of “lock in” advocates have in mind. Connection to the power grid? Fuel fabrication? If SMRs  really develop as promised, this reasoning doesn’t make a great deal of sense.

Indeed, the primary study cited by the authors of the NDU paper making this claim involves the triumph of light-water reactors, which doesn’t have a lot of bearing on the kinds of variation associated with SMRs. Ironically, the reason for the dominance of light-water reactors over superior alternatives? Admiral Rickover’s biases during the Pentagon’s push to develop nuclear-powered submarines. In short, the main evidence for the “lock in” argument concerns the military doing a poor job of picking winners and losers.

For what it’s worth, I agree with advocates that we need to take steps to reinvigorate our decaying nuclear infrastructure and nuclear know-how. This requires some kind of better support for nuclear power. One major obstacle right now is the same for all forms of nuclear power: the low cost of natural gas. It isn’t terribly clear how an expanded DoD commitment to SMRs changes that equation.

A final note. Some years ago we went through a round of pressure for the US to remove its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe.* My general impression was that while there isn’t a pressing need for those weapons, the process itself wasn’t worth the trouble. In essence, it exposed factures in the NATO alliance. I can’t help but think that a major near-future push for SMRs in overseas bases might reactivate some of those fault lines. Not because there’s an actual connection between tactical nuclear weapons and SMRs, but because of the “nuclear!” “small! “bases!” cues that conjure up all kinds of negative associations among average citizens.


*Fun fact: the Russians have tended to respond to calls for mutual restrictions on tactical nuclear weapons by saying, in essence, “we’ve pulled all of our tactical nuclear weapons back to the homeland, why doesn’t the US do the same? Then we can talk.

Note: edited to correct factual errors relating to the history of the affirmative case itself.