Air Force secretary talks nuclear reactors

Cannon Air Force Base has been mentioned as a possible home for a nuclear reactor. While that decision seems months away, Air Force officials held an energy forum Monday in Arlington, Va., to talk about a vision for nuclear energy.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Kevin W. Billings moderated that forum. He spoke with the CNJ on Friday.

Q: What bases are being considered as homes for nuclear reactors?
A: (At this time) no specific bases are being considered.

Q: Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne was quoted in a story by InsideDefense as saying Cannon Air Force Base and Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho are being considered for nuclear reactors. Why was that statement made?
A: (U.S.) Senator (Jeff) Bingaman was at the forum and one of the letters we received was from (U.S.) Senator (Pete) Domenici. Domenici had written the secretary of the Air Force a letter asking about nuclear plants. That may have triggered (Wynne’s response) and may be why a base in New Mexico may have popped into his head, but there’s nobody on the list.

How can a base or community ask to be considered for a nuclear reactor?
A: If somebody came and had the idea of doing this at any base across the country, we would have to do some site visits and talk to the wing commander (of that installation). If it has an adverse impact on the mission, that’s going to be the No. 1 and first hurdle that we look at. If it’s going to have an adverse impact on the mission, we’re not going to do it.
That’s an issue for the wing commanders and major commanders to look at if something is proposed.

Q: If the concept of Air Force nuclear reactors reaches the point of reality, how will the process go and will the public be aware?
A: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission would be playing a key role in this. If it happens, it’s going to have to be a transparent process that involves all of the stakeholders. Before anything’s actually built, it will be years. There is certification and licensing — it is a long process. It would be a 12- to 14-year process. There are a lot of things that will have to happen. And there are things that can stop or stall the process. Given the fact that the entire process of doing (this is very complex), there’s a lot of opportunity for things to end. (The bottom line is) everybody will be looking to make sure that the public and everyone is adequately protected as we go forward.

Q: There have been reports the Air Force hopes to issue a letter of intent by November to ensure planning doesn’t get lost with a new administration coming in to the White House. Have you set such a deadline for a letter of intent?
A: One of the things the Air Force prides itself in is actually getting things done. We think that as we move forward with all things.

Q: What will a letter of intent mean?
A: If there is a letter of intent signed, it will be a letter of intent for a specific plant at a specific base. A letter of intent will be exactly that, a letter of intent, a plan to get from here to there.

Q: Is the Air Force intending to just launch one reactor at the onset?
A: The key is if we have two consortiums propose two different types of reactor designs and one proposes a plant in southeast and one in the southwest, we’ll work with both of them. It is all going to be a function of the value to the Air Force.

Q: It is said neighboring communities would be able to share the power generated from Air Force installation reactors. Is this true?
A: That’s true depending on the size of the reactor and the amount of energy a base needs. The Air Force isn’t going to buy any more energy than it needs to. (But there may be deals forged with communities.)

Q: What is the current face of energy usage for the Air Force?
A: We need to move forward with all technology (and ask) how can we reduce our environmental footprint? The Air Force is the largest user of renewable power in the government and third in the nation. That’s one of those things that we’re very proud of. (For example,) at Kirtland Air Force Base (we are evaluating) an opportunity to build a large solar plant.

Q: Have solar plants been considered for Cannon Air Force Base?
A: In the analysis we did, one of the limiting factors for solar plants is very close access to large transmission grids. That was one of the limiting factors down there (at Cannon).

Q: What were some of the things discussed at the forum?
A: We sent out a request for information (about nuclear power) in January and got good responses to that. At the energy forum we had a tract of three sessions where we talked about, from a global perspective, the nuclear future in terms of the broad (applications). In a second session folks from the Air Force talked about how to work with the Air Force and we had a third session listening to the folks from the (nuclear) industry talk about what they might need from the Air Force.

Q: What is the next step after the forum?
A: In April we will release a Request For Qualifications (RFQ) that in broad terms tells what we’re looking for from a technical provider and financial people. (From that we hope to create a) consortium of people who might want to build this at an Air Force base. Hopefully we’ll have some people respond with ideas and we’ll move forward.

— Compiled by CNJ staff writer Sharna Johnson