The United States Department of Energy has put in a formal request to build nuclear systems in space. These ‘fission surface power systems’ are aimed at allowing humans to survive and thrive for extended stints in space, especially on unforgiving terrains like that of the Moon and Mars.
The reactor in question must be able to generate an uninterrupted supply of at least 10 kW (an average Indian household uses 206.7 kWh a year), weight less than 3500 kg, and be able to operate in the harsh environment of space, with minimum repairs for at least 10 years. The designing of this reactor has been entrusted to the Idaho National Laboratory, notably responsible for constructing micro-reactors that didn’t need water cooling (unlike most functioning nuclear reactors on the planet).
However, the stated timeline and design parameters have raised some eyebrows, including those of Edwin Lyman, director of Nuclear Power Safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who fears that this reactor will require highly-enriched uranium to operate, which can be weaponised (reducing the amount of highly-enriched uranium is one of the key goals of all major unions that are working towards international nuclear disarmament). “This may drive or start an international space race to build and deploy new types of reactors requiring highly enriched uranium,” he said.
The USA remains undeterred by criticisms and concerns and already has a two-phase plan in place. The first is designing a reactor. The second is building a test reactor, a second reactor be sent to the moon, and developing a flight system and lander that can transport energy the reactor to the moon. The goal is to have a reactor, flight system and lander ready to go by the end of 2026.