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Fwd = [Secrecy News] The return of space nuclear reactors

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  • Frits Westra
    Forwarded by: fwestra@hetnet.nl (Frits Westra) Originally from: Aftergood, Steven Original Subject: Secrecy News -- 01/31/02
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 1, 2002
      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

      ========================== Forwarded message begins ======================

      >from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
      Volume 2002, Issue No. 11
      January 31, 2002


      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
      in 1995.)

      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
      missions. See:


      Secrecy News is archived at:


      Steven Aftergood
      Project on Government Secrecy
      Federation of American Scientists
      web: www.fas.org/sgp/index.html
      email: saftergood@...
      voice: (202) 454-4691

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