(Image credit – JPL NASA)
For some, nuclear energy is akin to the technology of the devil. And we cannot blame this thinking. The current types of commercial nuclear reactors are unstable machines that require large containment buildings and control rooms to actively monitor their safety.
If something happens, say a tired night crew of engineers performs a simulation (Russia, Chernobyl), or nature shows a small sample of its might (tsunami, Japan, Fukushima), these machines tend to blow up and contaminate entire provinces, not for a couple of years, not for decades, but for millenia.
The fact that the technology was pushed primarily to build weapons of mass destruction also does not help.
A public weary of the environmental credits of these ‘atoms for peace’ is unwilling to export its problems into the pristine environment of space. This makes it difficult for space agencies to win a discussion using the more powerful versions of the technology to power their manned or unmanned space ships in the civilian and public programs, even when international law allows the use of nuclear reactors in space. Ironically, space is a much more radioactive environment than any safely operated terrestrial nuclear reactor.
But this is only half of the picture.
Reframing the nuclear debate
With an energy density a million times greater than coal (or oil), and renewables being much more expensive to operate if we decide use it for 100% of our power needs, the CO2 neutral nuclear technology still has a large role to play.
And there are nuclear technology out there that, on top of those advantages, are safe, do not need active control, cannot blow up under any circumstances, use an abundant resource quite equally distributed over the entire globe, and therefore are precisely what our world needs. … and they have remained behind doors for 70 years.
One of them is a breed of reactors that use thorium as their main fuel, instead of uranium. They are small compact devices, as small as your bath tub, while still enabling tens of megawatts of e-power to be produced. Instead of gases (leaky helium) or pressurised water (EPR), they use salts as their coolant. If these novel reactors should ever come to spring a leak (e.g. wartime), the salt runs out and cools immediately forming a sold plug. This compares very favorably with current commercial reactors. Also, the containment buildings are much smaller, requiring support facilities with a footprint as small as a high way gas station instead of a small village, while producing as much power. The last two decades, this technology, originally developed in the USA but abandoned in the seventies, is seeing a resurgence. The passive safety of the reactor, the reactor products having a low radioactive half-life (return to safe background radiation after hundreds instead of thousands of years) and its inability to create weapons grade nuclear material in most versions, eliminates any WMD proliferation risk and ensures that future generations will not be saddled with a radioactive apocalyptic landscape.
Still, despite of the resurgence in activity and funding, thorium reactors will require another decade to mature and jump through all the regulatory loops before a commercial unit is installed and taken into production.
NASA has more urgent needs. And… decided to develop an even safer and cheaper technology.
Under the KILOPOWER program, a test reactor called KRUSTY (why not) was developed for just USD 20 million. This one is as large as a metal trashcan and weighs about 400 kg. If you are still reading, it means you really need to take the time to watch this video shot at the MARS SOCIETY-21st Annual Mars Society conventions, held August 2018. The presentation given by Dr. David Poston of the Los Alamos National Laboratory who helped develop the impressive small reactor.
It discusses a 1 to 10 KW system, passively stable, self regulating, weighing below 1500kg (~3000lbs) . Amazingly this powerhouse can produce power, propellant, unattended for 200 years. It can even operate safely when damaged, which is a pretty disruptive capability. In brief, it responds to all the requirements your could ever throw at it to be a viable power source for manned bases on the Moon, including during the cold lunar nights. Although we are a large proponent of solar power technologies, it can replace the underwhelming power production of solar panels on Mars where it concerns life critical systems.
We’ve distilled some of the high points in this gallery:
Additional resources can be found on the dedicated NASA web page:
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