The Future of Nuclear Space Reactors and Missions

  • The first private citizen to fly around the moon will be Yusaku Maezawa in 2023.
  • The Kilopower Project is based on High Enriched Uranium.
  • High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU) could become an alternative fuel.

There is a global interest in space travel and the question experts are discussing is “what type of fuel should the space reactors run on?” Commercial projects, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX, desire the conquering of other planets and even creating space colonies on the moon. Last year, SpaceX announced fashion innovator and Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa will be the first private passenger to fly around the Moon in 2023.

The US has a vested interest in the new generation of space reactors. NASA completed the Kilopower Project last year, a near-term technology effort to develop preliminary concepts and technologies that could be used for an affordable fission nuclear power system to enable long-duration stays on planetary surfaces. It is based on highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel.

NASA’s long term forecast includes exploration of Mars and actually inhabiting the Moon.

Thus far the only US reactor that has left the Earth is SNAP-10A, a US experimental nuclear powered (using HEU) satellite launched into space in 1965 as part of the SNAPSHOT program. The test marked the world’s first operation of a nuclear reactor in orbit, and also the first operation of an ion thruster system in orbit.

Historically, any development interest in the nuclear field usually involved classified defense programs. The prime example would be the Cold War Era between the US and the Soviets. Currently, the question remains, “Can enriched uranium be used in space reactors from a security prospective?” Some of the risks are outlined in the report, “US Highly Enriched Uranium: Mitigating the Risk.

Nuclear reactors can provide new moon colonies with energy and also shorten the duration of the flight time to Mars, all with less radiation emission, which is harmful to human life in large doses.

High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU) could become an alternative fuel used in future space missions. HALEU uranium is enriched up to 20%, hence it is still considered civilian. On November 6, it was announced that US Centrus Energy Corporation has signed a three-year contract with the US Department of Energy (DOE) to deploy a cascade of centrifuges to demonstrate production of high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel for advanced reactors. HALEU reactors will be heavier and will be more complex to service. However, they will be more cost efficient.

According to the DOE classification, highly enriched uranium is considered to be Category I, hence the handling carries high costs and requires additional security during production. The Kilopower Project is geared to use HEU and will have very tight regulation and US government involvement and approval for flights. HALEU is considered to be category IV, meaning it does not need the same security measures to handle.

It will be interesting to observe the further development of both HALEU and HEU.

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Christina Kitova

I spent most of my professional life in finance, insurance risk management litigation.

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