Thursday, January 10, 2013

Energy R&D and the Military:

Historic Partners

A couple of recent announcements about military projects to support energy development have recently been published.  One cites a Navy project to develop a wind farm in South Texas.  The other discusses a military biofuels initiative and the potential prospects to create jobs.  
I was particularly interested in these articles because I'd previously heard criticism of one of the same projects.  The argument was that the military mission is not to create civilian jobs or to develop civilian energy resources.  

This is true.  However, throughout history, the needs of the military have been the creative force behind many of the technologies we take for granted today.  Not the least of the military contributions to civilian life was the development of nuclear power.  

Of course, nuclear power is a by-product of weapons development.  Nevertheless, the R&D program that led to the atom bomb also resulted in the development of all the early technologies associated with nuclear power--reactors, enrichment processes and reprocessing facilities.  

Would nuclear technology have been developed without the weapons program?  Perhaps.  It certainly would have developed more slowly.

Obviously, it would be irresponsible for the military to spend money developing something that was not needed for the military mission.  However, the military could not operate without adequate and reliable sources of energy.  Whether the wind energy project really does that is open to question, although some of the ancillary activities that the Navy anticipates doing, such as studying ways to mitigate potential impacts of wind turbines on military operations, are arguably of some value.

The case for biofuels development is much clearer, as a strong biofuels option could help assure a security of supply of fuels for military operations.  Although the article doesn't delve into this, one particularly intriguing aspect of a military biofuels program would be the ability to produce the fuels at military bases around the world, thus reducing the ability of an enemy to cut off supplies.  I'm not in the military business (once was, but that was a long time ago), but I understand that the cost in manpower and equipment to transport oil to our foreign bases is significant, and the potential danger to personnel for those operations is significant. 

I should point out that many of the same arguments could be made for a role for the military in the development of small modular reactors (SMRs).  This is not a new idea.  In fact, it is a very old idea.  As my book on Nuclear Firsts details, some of the very early reactors after the end of World War II were developed under a US Army program with the intent to use them on remote bases.  In fact, a few were deployed to places like Greenland, Alaska, and Antarctica before the program was terminated.  The Army, and later the Air Force, also explored the feasibility of nuclear-powered aircraft. 

Although that program was dropped at that time, the renewed interest in SMRs makes it timely for the US military to reconsider such an option.  Current reactor technology options can meet a variety of needs on military bases, from electricity production to heat for base heating and even for producing biofuels.

Such ideas are being proposed.  The knee-jerk reaction I recently heard expressed that it is not the military's job to develop energy technologies should be abandoned.  If security of supply is important for our nation, it is certainly important for our military.  Obviously, the military can't fund every potentially useful project, so proposals for biofuels production, SMR development, or other energy projects need to be evaluated fully and objectively.  The fact that I am seeing articles about military projects in wind and biofuels is promising.  Perhaps the future will see the military support other energy projects that can enhance their security of supply--and later benefit the rest of the country.