Commercial nuclear innovation "new space" age

April 26, 2024, 3:03PMNuclear NewsAlex Gilbert, Harsh S. Desai, and Jake Matthews
Astronaut Alan Bean prepares fueling of a Pu-238 radioisotope thermoelectric generator during the Apollo 12 mission to the lunar surface. (Photo: NASA)

In early 2006, a start-up company launched a small rocket from a tiny island in the Pacific. It exploded, showering the island with debris. A year later, a second launch attempt sent a rocket to space but failed to make orbit, burning up in the atmosphere. Another year brought a third attempt—and a third failure. The following month, in September 2008, the company used the last of its funds to launch a fourth rocket. It reached orbit, making history as the first privately funded liquid-fueled rocket to do so.

How can the nuclear community support space applications?

April 22, 2024, 7:01AMNuclear NewsSean Doherty

Sean Doherty

The most important thing the nuclear community can do to support space nuclear applications is the same thing we must focus on for terrestrial nuclear science: developing the trust of the American public.

Americans are widely supportive of NASA, and space has long captivated our imaginations. Recently, the publicity surrounding the new U.S. Space Force and the popularity of commercial rocket launches have drawn the public eye skyward. We don’t need to convince people that space is important and exciting, but we do have a long way to go in promoting nuclear power to the public.

Radiant horizons: Fission surface power on the moon, Mars, and beyond

April 12, 2024, 7:02AMNuclear NewsLindsay Kaldon
A concept image of NASA’s Fission Surface Power Project. (Image: NASA)

Imagine what our world would be like today without the benefits of electric energy. Think of the inventions and technologies that never would have been. Think of a world without power grids and the electricity that makes them run. Without this power, we’d find it difficult to maintain our industrial and manufacturing bases or enable advancements in the fields of medicine, communications, and computing.

Now consider the moon, our closest celestial neighbor about which we still know so little, waiting for modern-day explorers in spacesuits to unveil its secrets. Lunar exploration and a future lunar economy require reliable, long-lasting, clean sources of power. Nuclear fission answers that call. When assessing the application of nuclear power in space, three Ps should be considered: the present, the potential, and the partnerships.

Nations envision nuclear reactors on the moon

March 25, 2024, 12:02PMANS Nuclear Cafe


Russian space agency Roscosmos has announced its intention to build a nuclear reactor on the lunar surface in collaboration with the China National Space Administration. According to Roscosmos director general Yury Borisov, “Today we are seriously considering a project—somewhere at the turn of 2033–2035—to deliver and install a [nuclear] power unit on the lunar surface together with our Chinese colleagues.” The reactor would apparently be used to supply power to the Russian-Chinese International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), plans for which the two nations unveiled in 2021.

These plans come on top of previously announced plans of the United States and United Kingdom for lunar nuclear reactors.

2023 in Review: January–March

January 10, 2024, 9:32AMNuclear News

Another calendar year has passed. Before heading too far into 2024, let’s look back at what happened in 2023 in the nuclear community. In today's post, compiled from Nuclear News and Nuclear Newswire are what we feel are the top nuclear news stories from January through March 2023.

Stay tuned for the top stories from the rest of the past year.

Young Members Group shines at YPC

January 9, 2024, 4:48PMNuclear NewsKen Petersen

Ken Petersen

A big thank-you to the American Nuclear Society Young Members Group for all it accomplished at the Young Professionals Congress (YPC) and President’s Special Session at the 2023 ANS Winter Conference and Expo.

The YPC was held on Saturday, November 11. Its chair, Miriam Kreher, and the YPC planning committee did an excellent job organizing and executing the congress. Its three tracks had something for everyone, including knowledge expansion and soft skills training. The speakers at the congress, including Katy Huff, assistant secretary for nuclear energy, were outstanding in every category.

The President’s Special Session was organized by the Young Members Group (YMG). Matt Wargon, YMG chair, and the planning committee did an incredible job. We kicked around several ideas for a theme before landing on “Space: The [Next] Nuclear Frontier.”

New modeling of nuclear device to deflect or destroy asteroids en route to Earth

December 21, 2023, 3:03PMNuclear News
LLNL physicist Mary Burkey developed a novel approach to simulating the energy deposition from a nuclear device on an asteroid’s surface. (Photo: LLNL)

The same high energy density that makes nuclear energy a clean and efficient source of power could make it a good alternative to defend the planet against catastrophic asteroid impacts. NASA demonstrated the world’s first planetary defense technology in September 2022 by deliberately crashing a “kinetic impactor”—a heavy, box-like spacecraft—into an asteroid. Now, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have developed a new tool to model how a nuclear device could deflect—or even destroy—an asteroid threat to Earth in a more efficient and controlled way.

Investments for peace

December 8, 2023, 7:01AMNuclear NewsKathryn Huff

Kathryn Huff

President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his “Atoms for Peace” speech to the United Nations General Assembly in December 1953. In this historic address, he invoked the existential threat of nuclear weapons proliferation and the potential horror of nuclear war to muster the diplomatic energy of the United Nations toward establishing peaceful uses for the atom. The speech launched domestic and international initiatives, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, that would underpin decades of robust, peaceful nuclear power commercialization and expansion.

This month, as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of that speech, we celebrate Eisenhower’s prescience in suggesting that “experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities” and “to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.” Mobilizing American experts, of course, would mean refocusing the work of the national laboratories toward peaceful uses of the atom and repurposing the vast weapons complex investments of the 1940s toward more peaceful ends.

ANS Winter Meeting: Space—the next nuclear frontier

November 15, 2023, 12:00PMNuclear News

Put nuclear technology in space or on the moon, and just as on Earth it can provide a power density unmatched by any other source. But what roles can nuclear power and propulsion play as the world enters a 21st-century space race? That was a key question put to six speakers during the November 14 American Nuclear Society Winter Meeting plenary session “Space: The (Next) Nuclear Frontier.”

USNC gets NASA contract for NTP fuel assemblies and testing

October 19, 2023, 12:15PMNuclear News
Concept art of a nuclear thermal propulsion system. (Image: USNC)

Ultra Safe Nuclear (USNC) announced on October 17 that it had been awarded a contract by NASA to develop and mature space nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) systems to advance the nation’s cislunar capabilities. Under the contract, USNC says it will manufacture and test proprietary fuel and simultaneously collaborate with its commercial partner, Blue Origin, to mature the design of an NTP engine optimized for near-term civil science and cislunar missions.

Leading DRACO to launch: An interview with DARPA’s Tabitha Dodson

July 28, 2023, 2:59PMNuclear NewsSusan Gallier

Sometimes, even with decades of research and testing, a project never gets off the ground. That has been the case for U.S. nuclear thermal rockets—so far. Research began in the 1950s and peaked with a series of rigorous ground tests for NERVA—the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications—before the program was canceled in 1973. Five decades on, this technology has yet to make it to the launchpad. But while mission priorities shift, the physics is solid: Fission-powered nuclear thermal rockets (NTRs) still offer two to five times greater efficiency than conventional rockets.

NASA partners with companies for moon and exploration technology

July 27, 2023, 7:02AMNuclear News
Concept art showing Project Harmonia’s RSG for lunar surface missions. (Image: Zeno Power)

NASA has selected 11 companies, including Zeno Power, to develop technologies that could support long-term exploration on the moon and in space. The technologies range from lunar surface power systems to tools for in-space 3D printing, which will expand industry capabilities for a sustained human presence on the moon through the Artemis program, as well as other NASA, government, and commercial missions.

BWXT to provide engine, fuel for DARPA space project

July 26, 2023, 3:01PMNuclear News
Image: Lockheed Martin

BWX Technologies announced today that it has been selected to supply the nuclear reactor and fuel for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program—the goal of which is to demonstrate a nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) engine in orbit.

DOE ramps up plutonium oxide production to fuel NASA’s deep space missions

July 20, 2023, 7:01AMNuclear News
ORNL has developed an automated metrology system to produce Pu-238 pellets. (Photo: ORNL)

The Department of Energy recently shipped half a kilogram of plutonium oxide pellets from Oak Ridge National Laboratory to Los Alamos National Laboratory, the agency announced July 18, marking the largest such shipment since the DOE restarted domestic plutonium-238 production over a decade ago.

USNC closes deal to build a microreactor factory in Alabama, delivers TRISO fuel

June 23, 2023, 9:30AMNuclear News
Concept art of the planned Gadsden, Ala., MMR assembly plant. (Image: Ultra Safe Nuclear)

Ultra Safe Nuclear (USNC) announced on June 21 that it has selected the city of Gadsden, Ala., to host a $232 million MMR assembly plant. Modules for the company’s high-temperature, gas-cooled and TRISO-fueled microreactor, dubbed the Micro-Modular Reactor (MMR), would be manufactured, assembled, and tested at the “highly automated facility once it is in operation.

Westinghouse, Astrobotic team up on lunar plans for eVinci microreactor

June 5, 2023, 12:01PMNuclear News
(Photo: Nielander/WikiCommons)

Westinghouse Electric Company says its eVinci microreactor technology is “100 percent factory built and assembled before it is shipped in a container to any location.” And “any location” is not restricted to planet Earth, given the company’s goal of sending a scaled-down version of eVinci to the lunar surface or on a mission to provide power in other space applications.

Student winners announced in NASA’s RPS contest

May 5, 2023, 9:30AMANS Nuclear Cafe
The three winners of NASA’s Power to Explore Student Writing Challenge, are, left to right, Luca Pollack, Rainelle Yasa, and Audrielle Paige Esma. (Image: NASA/Kristin Jansen and Gayle Dibiasio)

Three winners have been announced in NASA’s Power to Explore Student Writing Challenge, in which U.S. students in kindergarten through 12th grade could participate by writing about imaginary space missions using radioisotope power systems (RPSs). Out of almost 1,600 submitted entries, 45 semifinalists, and nine finalists, Luca Pollack of Carlsbad, Calif. (in the K–4th grade category), Rainelle Yasa of Los Angeles, Calif. (in the grades 5–8 category), and Audrielle Paige Esma of Wildwood, Fl. (in the grades 9–12 category) snagged the top prize in their age groups. The April 25 announcement by NASA includes links to the winning essays.

Atoms: Space travel plans

April 26, 2023, 3:00PMNuclear News

Earthbound air travel can be a hassle, even for careful planners. So if you’re heading to the Moon or beyond, it’s time to shift your planning into hyperdrive. Our advice, when there’s no guidebook, no proven vehicle, and your destination is a moving target? Don’t forget to pack your nuclear power bank.

Dynamic radioisotope power system development for NASA missions

April 21, 2023, 3:19PMNuclear NewsSal Oriti, Ernestina Wozniak, and Max Yang
The multimission radioisotope thermoelectric generator for NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover is tested at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in 2020. The choice of an MMRTG as the rover’s power system gave mission planners significantly more flexibility in selecting the rover’s landing site and in planning its surface operations. (Photo: NASA)

Under the Radioisotope Power Systems Program, NASA and the Department of Energy have been advancing a novel radioisotope power system (RPS) based on dynamic energy conversion. This approach will manifest a dynamic RPS (DRPS) option with a conversion efficiency at least three times greater than a thermoelectric-based RPS. Significant progress has recently been made toward this end. A one-year system design phase has been completed by NASA industry partner Aerojet Rocketdyne, which resulted in a DRPS with power of 300 watts-electric (We) with convertor-level redundancy. In-house technology development at the NASA Glenn Research Center (GRC) has demonstrated the conversion devices in relevant environments and has shown all requirements can be met. Progress has also been made on the control electronics necessary for dynamic energy conversion. Flight-like controllers were recently upgraded and achieved an 11-percentage-point increase in efficiency. Control architectures have been developed to handle the multiconvertor arrangements in the latest DRPS design. A system-level DRPS testbed is currently being assembled that will experimentally demonstrate the DRPS concept being pursued.

Challenges facing our space nuclear future

April 11, 2023, 12:00PMNuclear NewsSara M. Sanders, Mikaela Blood, and Lisa D. May

Lisa D. May

Mikaela Blood

Sara M. Sanders

At the advent of space nuclear power in the 1960s, the combination of fundamental nuclear principles and first-of-its-kind spacecraft technology were the largest barriers to entry. In the modern era, however, nuclear power production and space technology have matured industries and no longer present major challenges. These days, the biggest hurdles are advanced flexible technology development, regulations and policy, and public perception, and these issues must be successfully navigated to clear the way for a nuclear future in space.