Ep 224: Juan Vitali - Strategist, US Army
Becoming Boom Boom Vitali (0:08)
0:08-11:11 (Juan explains his motivation to enter the nuclear industry and his journey to becoming a strategist for the US Army.)
Q. How did you first get interested in nuclear?
A. Three Mile Island first sparked Juan Vitali’s interest in nuclear. Juan was awarded a scholarship to the University of Florida where he studied nuclear engineering. At the time Venezuela, where Juan is from, was interested in building nuclear reactors to replace fuel exports and planned on becoming a nuclear power of Latin America.
At the University of Florida, Juan focused on power plant engineering. He then got a Master’s in radiation technologies and a PhD in plasma physics. After, Juan worked on molecular spectroscopy with a special focus on flame and combustion at the Air Force Research Laboratory. There, Juan helped find the solution for the halon problem, which is a strong ozone depleter. The Air Force F-16 tank uses halon 1301 as an explosion suppressant which is then dumped into the ozone. Juan’s desire to protect the environment became his underlying motivation to find an alternative to halon.
Juan was then recruited by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) as the Director of Operational Testing Evaluation of Live Fire Testing. His role was oversight of weapons systems and understanding how fire extinguishing systems work. This involved many test explosions, earning Juan the nickname “Boom Boom Vitali.” After three years at OSD, Juan became a faculty member at Georgia Tech Research Institute. He then entered the Army to test and evaluate aviation systems before transitioning to the Logistics Innovation Agency where he is now a strategist.
Nuclear’s role in Army logistics (11:12)
11:12-18:30 (Juan explains the importance of logistics and why nuclear can decrease casualties.)
Q. What is so important about logistics?
A. Logistics are needed to win wars. Logistics involves the movement of goods and people, doing maintenance, and providing fuel and supplies to battlefields. Fuel, water, food and ammunition, known as ordinance, are the primary goods transported during times of war to enable fights to be won. This supply must therefore be optimized to provide for the needs of war while avoiding becoming a burden. The need to improve logistics became apparent during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars when 50% of casualties occurred during fuel and water transportation.
In 2013, Congress saw the opportunity of modular reactor technology and decided to explore the idea of a modular reactor in a battlefield. With nuclear, synthesizing fuel in the field is a possibility. Producing fuel at a site through CO2 capture to create JP-8, a type of fuel similar to diesel, is a possibility. Fischer-Tropes Synthesis, which is a 50 year old patent, is the process of capturing CO2 to reconstitute hydrocarbons. The Navy already does this with seawater, however capturing CO2 from the air is more difficult. Using nuclear will allow the US to increase logistics efficiency thereby saving lives while also contributing to climate action.
First steps towards mobile nuclear plants (18:31)
18:31-27:35 (Juan describes the military’s process of beginning to explore mobile nuclear plants.)
Q. What is your process to begin thinking about how to bring mobile nuclear to the military?
A. The Defense Science Board came together after Congress began exploring the idea of modular reactors in the field. A report was issued that broadly laid out what the options, opportunities and challenges were and explained the issues that needed attention. The report also recommended the Army take the lead.
Juan’s team took on the research project. The Army used to have a reactor program which was established in the wake of Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace. Juan’s team produced the Study on the Use of Mobile Nuclear Power Plants for Ground Operations report which laid out the challenges and opportunities of nuclear power. The opportunities focused on the favorable political environment, the readiness of technology, the desire to rebuild the US nuclear industry and the ability to make supply lines survivable to protect soldiers. The challenges included not having built a reactor in many years, no significant demand for enriched uranium and the overall challenge of restarting the nuclear fuel industry. Additionally, it is unclear what the international legal process is when a reactor is shipped across an ocean or flown over other countries.
Juan sees the opportunities to be far greater than these challenges. Operational casualties in nuclear are far less than other forms of energy production. Nuclear also allows for the elimination of entire supply chains. Despite this, the Army has yet to make a decision on the topic.
The electrification of the Force (27:36)
27:36-37:59 (Juan explains how adopting nuclear will enable the military to become electrified, maintaining a technological edge. He describes the current progress in designing a small modular mobile reactor and the measures in place to protect the reactor if under attack.)
Q. The US Army seems like it is in the best position to take on a nuclear research project, right?
A. The other reason for adopting nuclear is to move towards the electrification of the Force. Juan believes the Army and Department of Defense (DoD) should explore how to transition to a Force that adopts electric tanks, aviation and transportation vehicles. Moving away from an internal combustion engine has been realised with Tesla, the electrified Chinese and European rails and the electric helicopter. There must then be a source of power for this electrification of transportation and the use of lasers in directed energy weapons and 3D printing at scale. Small modular mobile reactors can provide this power more efficiently than liquid hydrocarbon fuels.
Maintaining the technological edge is also critical to winning wars in the future.
Adopting small modular mobile reactors is already in motion. The Office of the Secretary of Defense Strategic Capabilities Office, which is separate from the military branches, are working on a microreactor prototype. They have already submitted a Request for Information and Request for Solution and are currently in the process of selecting a private company. A few designs will be chosen, which will undergo a 1 to 2 year review process. Building will then begin with the goal of producing a working prototype by 2024, which can be tested and operated in the field to provide power.
Protecting the reactor from livefire in or near a battlefield requires placing it underground where the earth can act as a shield. Further, the Army requires the use of tri-structural isotropic (triso) fuel, which is encapsulated so fission products are unable to escape. In the event the reactor is hit by livefire, no volatiles are able to escape, meaning no cleanup is required. Triso has already been tested thoroughly, making it the preferred fuel choice for quickly building and testing the prototype.
Roadblocks to faster development (38:00)
38:00-42:53 (Juan explains that regulations, siting and environmental assessments slow development.)
Q. What are the main roadblocks which stop faster development?
A. Moving from concept to prototype takes time. Understanding the safety issues is also not easy. The regulations, siting and environmental assessments all take time. However, considering that the Department of Energy (DoE) has estimated that a 50 to 300 megawatt small modular reactor will not be constructed for 10 to 15 years, it is remarkable that the Army will deliver a prototype by 2024.
The Army Reactor Office will help determine where and how the reactor will be placed. Because it will be built at Idaho National Labs, it will be exempt from the usual nuclear regulations. The NRC, however, will still be overseeing the project. The project is currently well-coordinated and moving quickly. For Juan, the project is personal. Adopting nuclear will reduce the number of casualties associated with current fuel transportation, something Juan is passionate about pursuing.