Coated uranium fuel kernels, as viewed through a glovebox. (Photo: BWXT)
Nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) is one technology that could propel a spacecraft to Mars and back, using thermal energy from a reactor to heat an onboard hydrogen propellant. While NTP is not a new concept, fuels and reactor concepts that can withstand the extremely high temperatures and corrosive conditions experienced in the engine during spaceflight are being designed now.
BWX Technologies announced on December 13 that it has delivered coated reactor fuels to NASA for testing in support of the Space Technology Mission Directorate’s NTP project. BWXT is developing two fuel forms that could support a reactor ground demonstration by the late 2020s, as well as a third, more advanced and energy-dense fuel for potential future evaluation. BWXT has produced a videoof workers processing fuel kernels in a glovebox.
Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. (Photo: PG&E)
Last April, Entergy had to close its Indian Point nuclear plant. That’s despite the plant’s being recognized as one of the best-run U.S. nuclear plants. That’s also despite its 20-year license extension process having been nearly completed, with full support from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
This closure was due in large part to opposition by antinuclear environmental groups. These groups also mobilized existing negative public opinion on nuclear energy to get politicians to oppose the plant’s license extension. Another factor is unfair market conditions. Nuclear energy doesn’t get due government support—unlike solar, wind, and hydro—despite delivering clean, zero-emissions energy.
Artist’s concept of a fission surface power system on Mars. (Image: NASA)
NASA and Idaho National Laboratory have just opened a competitive solicitation for U.S. nuclear and space industry leaders to develop innovative technologies for a fission surface power system that could be deployed on the surface of the moon by the end of the decade. Battelle Energy Alliance, the managing and operating contractor for INL, issued a request for proposals and announced the news on November 19. Proposals are due February 17.
Hot-fire test at Blue Origin’s West Texas launch facility in July 2019. (Photo: Blue Origin)
In July 1969, the public’s attention was fixated on NASA’s Apollo 11 mission—a “giant leap for mankind” that was memorably marked by Neil Armstrong as he stepped onto the surface of the moon. This July, the possibilities of spaceflight are once again capturing the public’s imagination and news headlines. While NASA invests in nuclear propulsion research and development to stretch the limits of U.S. space missions, private companies Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are stretching the definition of “astronaut” and proving they can offer a high-altitude thrill to paying customers.
The Crab nebula, an iconic Milky Way supernova remnant, as viewed by the Herschel Space Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope. (Image: NASA, ESA, and Allison Loll/Jeff Hester, Arizona State University)
Traces of freshly made plutonium and radioactive iron recovered from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean are contributing to an understanding of how heavier elements are created from exploding stars and other cosmic events, according to a National Public Radio report.
Statement from American Nuclear Society President Mary Lou Dunzik-Gougar and CEO Craig Piercy
ANS congratulates NASA for the successful landing of Perseverance on Mars. We look forward to watching from afar its exploration of the Red Planet and search for past microbial life. This is a proud moment as well for nuclear science and technology as a multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator will be powering the rover to mission success.