The overland train concept is a favorite of ours here at War Is Boring and was initially to be nuclear-powered, but the Transportation Corps concluded that the costs outweighed the benefits. Operational overland trains were fitted with diesel or gas-turbine generators.
However, that nuke train powerplant led to the PM-2A reactor that provided Camp Century, Greenland, with power, heat and water from 1959 to 1966. Another Army reactor, the MH-1A aboard the converted Liberty ship USS Sturgis, allowed the Canal Zone authorities to “overdrive” the Panama Canal during the Vietnam War.
The ANPP even developed the ML-1, a field-portable nuclear-powered gas-turbine system, that broke down into six containers. It was to be used as part of a nuclear-powered fuel depot, where atomic heat would convert water, air and biomass into liquid fuels. The project stopped in 1965 in the face of the Vietnam War and technical difficulties. But like all things nuclear, its potential keeps it alive. A 2001 article revived the concept for again with an emphasis on security.
In pure Soviet fashion, the Russians produced an entire power station on tank treads. The TES-3 mounted on four modified T-10 heavy tank chassis — one for the reactor, one for the cooling system, one for the generators and one for the crew. With a power output of only two megawatts, the system was abandoned in the mid-’60s.
However, the Soviets tried again in the 1980′s and developed the “Pamir” system, which condensed the power plant onto two gigantic missile transport vehicles. The prototype was unveiled in 1986, just in time for Chernobyl, and was poorly received.
The portable reactors so far developed suffer from two key shortcomings: to get enough oomph in such a small volume the nuclear fuel must be weapons-grade, and they just don’t produce that much power. Two or three megawatts seems like a lot, until you realize that most of that is heat. These days there are wind turbines three times more powerful.
Nevertheless, there will always be places and situations where nothing but a nuke will do. It’s the ultimate energy for the Final Frontier, and the most portable reactors and batteries were developed for space programs. We’ll look at those systems later.
Now, why bring these up retro-visions in the wake of Fukushima? The downsides of nuclear energy, of course, were known from the earliest days of the Atomic Age. The Manhattan Project alone generated tons of radioactive hardware and byproducts, much of which is buried at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation on the Columbia River. In the seven decades since, that mass of material — spent fuel, reactor cores, buildings, plumbing, soil and sludge — has grown into a pile that literally needs a mountain or a desert to put it in. The Russians have whole lakes and rivers full of radioactive waste.
Like it or not, though, nuclear energy will be around for a while, notwithstanding its incredibly long-lived byproducts. New-generation reactor designs use inherent safety features such as low-enriched fuel, sealed containment vessels and new-generation liquid-metal coolants to make theft and proliferation difficult. The impact of burning fossil fuels to replace that which nuclear energy supplies would be far worse for the next few decades.
A look back suggests that portable reactors might be safer than fixed ones. A portable nuclear plant can be towed away from populated areas (or towed to them, as the Russians are planning to do with the Academician Lomonosov powerplant barge). The French have drawn the logical conclusion and devised FlexBlue, a submersible portable reactor that consists essentially of a nuclear sub’s power plant in a hull section fitted with cables and ballast tanks. A FlexBlue reactor would be towed to an offshore site, submerged and hooked up to the onshore grid. Service calls and Bad Days woud be dealt with by surfacing and towing.
Naval reactors in the hands of well-trained and well-funded services have a pretty good safety record, perhaps the best. For over half a century the U.S., French and Royal Navies have operated nuclear-powered surface ships and subs with few incidents. During the Tohuku earthquake and tsunami, the USS George Washington merely bumped against its pier while in Guam the nuclear subs bobbed around like bath toys with no damage. Soviet and Russian reactors comprise the bulk of the known sunken nukes, and the Norwegians have been devoting some of their oil wealth to monitoring the Barents Sea.