February 5, 2021
NUCLEAR ENERGY FOR SPACE EXPLORATION
Efforts to send humans to deep space present the need to find effective energy sources for traveling faster through the solar system and living sustainably on other worlds. Space nuclear systems are considered a helpful option for future sustainable deep space exploration as they can produce more power at lower mass and volume compared to other energy sources. Recently, NASA has increased its attention to nuclear power research and development.
As the previous administration’s term came to a close, the White House released Space Policy Directive 6 titled “National Strategy for Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion” to provide direction for the development of nuclear technologies that can be used for space, including surface nuclear power systems such as fission reactors, and nuclear propulsion. Specifically, the policy directs the following:
- • By the mid-2020s, the U.S. should develop processing capabilities that enable production of fuel that is suitable for lunar and planetary surface power plants and for in-space nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) and nuclear electric propulsion (NEP);
- • The policy encourages cost savings in the process of developing the fuel processing capabilities needed for surface power as well as for space propulsion systems. In this regard, it encourages the engagement of the private sector, as well as the development of capabilities that can be used for terrestrial and commercial applications along with space applications;
- • The policy directs that, before 2030, NASA conducts a demonstration of a fission power system on the Moon that can support a sustained lunar presence and can be scaled for the exploration of Mars;
- • The policy calls for a cooperative approach between different agencies, such as NASA, the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Department of Defense (DOD);
- • The Policy directs that nuclear power efforts be carried out safely, securely, and sustainably, and underlines limiting the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to missions that would not be viable with other nuclear fuels. The use of HEU raises concerns about nuclear proliferation as this method is also used for nuclear weapons.
Building on Space Policy Directive 6, the past administration also released an Executive Order on January 12 titled “Promoting Small Modular Reactors for National Defense and Space.” The order is directed at different agencies, but for NASA specifically, the document details requirements regarding transportability, safety, and management of small space nuclear reactors, among other stipulations. While it is not clear what the Biden administration will do with regard to the Space Policy Directives and Executive Orders from the previous administration, the effort to advance nuclear power for space is finding broad support among industry with equities in exploration, science, and commercial initiatives.
For further information on this topic or other Coalition for Deep Space Exploration policy briefs, please contact: Jamil Castillo – Manager, Space Policy Coalition for Deep Space Exploration