The Nuclear Reactor Renaissance: Space Exploration and National Security
The nuclear power sector is seeing a resurgence in innovation, supported by new policies and emerging technologies. The general public and various governments are starting to grasp the value of nuclear power as an alternative, sustainable energy source. Unlike renewables, such as wind and solar power, nuclear energy is not dependent on weather conditions for power generation, having a capacity factor of over 90 percent. Nuclear power is also more eco-friendly than natural gas and coal and its “carbon-free” attributes are seen as critical in the fight against climate change.
For decades, advancements in the nuclear power sector have been incremental and focused largely on making systems “walk away safe.” Today, the industry is pushing the boundaries and exploring applications for nuclear power in ways that have never before been considered.
BWXT is at the forefront of this nuclear renaissance. This 6,000-employee company operates on the model of letting capital drive strategy. BWXT is constantly evaluating new ways to ensure workers, funding, and policies are utilized in the most effective way possible. The company also analyzes the needs of numerous other industries to determine how nuclear power could provide innovative solutions.
This type of outward thinking is what has created new technologies, such as medical isotopes and common missile compartment tubes for Columbia-class nuclear submarines. Now, BWXT is paving a path forward in two of the U.S. government’s top priorities: space exploration and national security. These advancements will revolutionize both the technology and defense sectors by offering creative solutions to ongoing issues.
One of BWXT’s primary focuses is space exploration. The company is currently building a compact nuclear reactor for space shuttles to put an astronaut on Mars and possibly even explore Jupiter’s moons by 2024. This reactor will be operable with few to no people.
In August 2017, BWXT was awarded the contract for the Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) project by NASA to build a nuclear reactor to power manned missions to Mars. According to NASA’s fact sheet on the program, “NTP offers virtually unlimited energy density and a specific impulse roughly double that of the highest performing traditional chemical systems.”
The NTP reactor will be powered by low-enriched uranium (LEU) rather than the traditional highly enriched uranium. This change in fuel source is advantageous because it reduces the level of security regulations and could potentially be more affordable. NASA recognizes that nuclear power is the only fuel source capable of powering missions farther out into our Solar System, making such travel safer for astronauts by reducing the time humans are exposed to the physically altering conditions of space, such as zero-gravity and cosmic radiation.
Space exploration can go faster and farther than ever before with nuclear reactors. The UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs has stated that “for some missions in outer space, nuclear power sources are particularly suited or even essential owing to their compactness, long life, and other attributes.” By using nuclear power, NASA can significantly reduce the time it takes to travel within and outside our Solar System. Mars can be reached in four months rather than six. Jupiter can be reached in two to three years, and we can go beyond the Solar System in 12–14 years.
Nuclear reactors will also enable us to better study and utilize the resources in our Solar System by reducing travel time and reaching higher velocities. In comparison to the main engine of the Space Shuttle, nuclear reactors have double the propulsion efficiency and can therefore support the delivery of “large, automated payloads to distant worlds.” Powering spacecraft using nuclear energy will enable shuttles to transport larger and heavier payloads between the Moon and Earth.
Nuclear power can also play a role in defending assets in outer space. In June, President Trump announced his plan to create a sixth wing of the military to protect our interests beyond Earth’s surface, called the “Space Force.” It is clear that the U.S. government is very serious about the need to secure our resources in space as key adversaries aim to do the same. Revolutions in nuclear reactors come at the optimal time as the great power competition evolves into space.
On July 2, China announced its intentions to build a super heavy rocket that would surpass NASA’s Space Launch System. Since China’s space program is run by the military, it’s feasible that this technology can be used for defense purposes such as ballistic missiles and military satellites. In March, Russia announced the successful testing of a hypersonic missile of the Kinzhal missile system. This weapon is capable of being “launched into space, navigating on its own into Earth's atmosphere and avoiding radar and antimissile defenses.”
By using nuclear technology to support existing infrastructure, the U.S. can protect its assets in space from threats. Nuclear-powered space tugs are one such capability. A space tug is stationed in space and used to move cargo to different levels of orbit, such as from low Earth orbit to geospace. Payloads are at the greatest risk of attack when they are being launched into orbit since they can be struck by ballistic missiles before or during launch.
Since space tugs remain in orbit, they are capable of running multiple payloads in space rather than requiring a new tug be launched along with every delivery, thereby reducing costs and space debris while also eliminating the threat of attack during launch. Nuclear-powered space tugs would be more energy efficient than any other fuel source, giving space tugs a longer life span.
Innovations in nuclear reactor technology are not just limited to space. The same type of reactor that is being developed to power shuttles headed to Jupiter can also be used here on Earth to power military bases. Currently, U.S. military installations are 99 percent dependent on local utilities for power, making them more vulnerable to outages and sabotage.
By installing a compact nuclear reactor on site, military bases would be energy independent and critically able to continue operating in the event of an emergency. These reactors would function as a battery powered by LEU, which is non-proliferable, and would require minimal maintenance to operate.
The renewed interest around the nation and the world in sustainable energy sources is spurring a nuclear renaissance. As more companies and countries seek resilient, long-term, and environmentally friendly solutions, nuclear power is becoming an increasingly obvious choice. The World Nuclear Association reported in June that “50 power reactors are currently being constructed in 13 countries.” With companies like BWXT committed to using nuclear energy in a variety of fields to solve current and future problems, the future is looking brighter and more resiliently powered.
Rathna K. Muralidharan is a program director at the Lexington Institute with a focus on global security. You can follow her at @RathnaKM and the Lexington Institute @LextNextDC. Read her full biography here.