Fwd = [Secrecy News] The return of space nuclear reactors
- Forwarded by: fwestra@... (Frits Westra)
Originally from: "Aftergood, Steven" <saftergood@...>
Original Subject: Secrecy News -- 01/31/02
Original Date: Thu, 31 Jan 2002 13:28:02 -0500
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>from the FAS Project on Government SecrecyVolume 2002, Issue No. 11
January 31, 2002
THE RETURN OF SPACE NUCLEAR REACTORS
For the first time in a decade, the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration will request funding for development of a space nuclear
reactor in the 2003 budget request to be released next week.
Space nuclear reactor technology has followed a boom-and-bust pattern of
development since the 1950s. The U.S. launched one space reactor in
1965, a 500 Watt system that operated for 43 days and which remains in
orbit. The last U.S. space reactor development program, a joint
NASA-Defense Department effort known as the SP-100, was terminated ten
years ago following the expenditure of nearly half a billion dollars.
(The Soviet Union around 30 reactors between 1967 and 1988. The U.S.
has launched some two dozen spacecraft utilizing plutonium-powered
electrical generators -- which are not reactors -- that produce a low
level of electricity, for missions such as the Cassini probe to Saturn
NASA is proposing the new reactor initiative in order to support future
space exploration programs, an informed official said. He noted
uncertainty about the viability of the program in the current budgetary
environment. He also expressed concern about possible attempts to
involve the Defense Department in the program, fearing such a move might
make it more vulnerable to political opposition.
The use of space nuclear reactors is dictated whenever moderate levels
of electrical power (tens of kilowatts or more) are required in space
over an extended period of time. The availability of a space nuclear
reactor could enable a variety of ambitious space exploration programs
such as a multi-decade mission beyond our solar system.
By the same token, space reactors could also be used to power space
weapons and other military systems in orbit, attracting the opposition
of some arms control advocates and environmentalists.
In an attempt to square this circle, the Federation of American
Scientists and Soviet colleagues in 1988 proposed a ban on the operation
of nuclear reactors in Earth orbit that would nevertheless permit their
use for space exploration.
See "Nuclear Power in Space," Scientific American, June 1991, for
background on the checkered history of space reactors and discussion of
the FAS proposal.
For some reason there has recently been a small surge of policy interest
in space nuclear power, independent of the new NASA initiative.
"Thermionics Quo Vadis?" is the curious title of a new National Research
Council report on the status of thermionics, which is an energy
conversion technology used in some space reactor designs. The report
provides some general information on space nuclear power. See:
The Department of Energy Inspector General reported this month on the
administration of DOE's Advanced Radioisotope Power Systems program,
which provides plutonium-powered electrical generators for NASA
Secrecy News is archived at:
Project on Government Secrecy
Federation of American Scientists
voice: (202) 454-4691
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