The United States nuclear power sector has been in steep decline for years. Even though nuclear energy, which produces zero greenhouse gas emissions, stands to have a huge advantage as the world moves toward decarbonizing the global energy industry, U.S. nuclear just can’t catch a break. While the nuclear energy sector is booming in countries like Russia and China, which are constantly adding new plants to their fleets, nuclear energy plants in the United States have been shutting down or relying on hefty government subsidies just to stay afloat. In a domestic energy sector absolutely flooded by cheap natural gas from the West Texas shale revolution, nuclear just hasn’t been able to compete for years. What’s more, the sector has largely failed out of public and political favor as nuclear energy has become largely associated with high profile disasters like the tragedies as Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island.
Now, the nuclear sector has received yet another blow from the COVID-19 pandemic, and now many experts are wondering whether the industry can weather the storm. And while many other countries are creating green stimulus packages that lend a hand to sectors like wind, solar, and nuclear as part of their post-coronavirus economic recovery plan, the United States has not followed suit, and is therefore likely missing out on a major energy opportunity.
But now, the United States has unveiled new plans that may launch the country’s failing nuclear industry into the stratosphere. Literally. This week Time reported that “the U.S. wants to build nuclear power plants that will work on the moon and Mars, and on Friday put out a request for ideas from the private sector on how to do that.”
This request was made by the U.S. Department of Energy, which put out a call for the construction of a “ fission surface power system” that would enable humans to survive for extended periods of time in outer space’s decidedly inhospitable environment. “The Idaho National Laboratory, a nuclear research facility in eastern Idaho, the Energy Department and NASA will evaluate the ideas for developing the reactor,” Time writes. The Idaho National laboratory has been “leading the way in the U.S. on advanced reactors, some of them micro reactors and others that can operate without water for cooling. Water-cooled nuclear reactors are the vast majority of reactors on Earth.”
The small nuclear reactors that have long been touted here on Earth as the future of cheaper, more reliable, and safer nuclear plants, will be key for bringing nuclear energy to space. “Small nuclear reactors can provide the power capability necessary for space exploration missions of interest to the Federal government,” the DOE wrote in its notice published last Friday.
The DOE has formulated a two-phase plan, along with NASA, U.S. contractors and Idaho National Laboratory affiliate Battelle Energy Alliance to bring nuclear into the space age. The first phase of the plan consists of developing a reactor design that would be suited to the moon and Mars. The second phase is developing a test reactor, and then a beta version that will actually be sent to the moon for testing. This will require the development and construction of a flight system and landing apparatus to make the delivery possible. If all goes according to plan, phase two will be ready for launch in just over five years. “The goal is to have a reactor, flight system and lander ready to go by the end of 2026.”
These first reactors will not be very powerful, as far as nuclear plants go. “The reactor must be able to generate an uninterrupted electricity output of at least 10 kilowatts. The average U.S. residential home, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, uses about 11,000 kilowatt-hours per year,” reports Time. “The Energy Department said it would likely take multiple linked reactors to meet power needs on the moon or Mars.”
While these first reactors alone may not change the world here on Earth, they will set an incredible--and, almost in equal measure, frightening--precedent for moving our Earthly industries--especially higher risk ones--to space. When it comes to energy, in just a few short years, the sky will no longer be the limit.