Nuclear Propulsion for Space and Sea

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While we often speak of nuclear power in terms of electricity production for our homes and businesses, it also has a number of other uses, including nuclear power and propulsion for space and maritime use, and there are a number of recent developments here.

Space

On October 20, 2020, Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to expand the DOE-NASA partnership on space exploration. Space nuclear power and propulsion is among the key areas of interest listed in the MOU. The MOU establishes a joint working group to research the concept of using nuclear power in space. In the form of a one page paper, the working group will report on “[d]eveloping a multibillion-dollar plan to research, develop, test, and evaluate nuclear propulsion systems for Mars missions transporting astronauts.” The paper will also include a legislative plan and funding network.  It is due to come out in early December 2020.

Additionally, in November 2020, DOE is expected to release two space technology solicitations: a Fission Surface Power (FSP) System Design Solicitation and a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) Industry Solicitation. The solicitation for fission technologies would build upon a DOE July 2020 request for information (RFI) on FSP. The RFI notes that “[s]mall nuclear reactors can provide the power capability necessary for space exploration missions of interest to the Federal government.” The FSP system would aid in exploration of the moon and potentially Mars.  The latter thermal propulsion solicitation would stems from a DOE August 2020 pre-solicitation notice for NTP reactor preliminary design.

These activities cap off a year where DOE has significantly increased its attention on space travel.  In February of this year DOE joined the National Space Council, and over this period a DOE Secretary of Energy Advisory Board Space Science Working Group has been evaluating DOE’s role and capabilities in space exploration—the results of which are expected shortly.

Finally, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is conducting a study on nuclear propulsion technology for space exploration. The study will pinpoint the various challenges and merits of developing and utilizing such technology. The study is expected to conclude in the early 2021. Despite the significance of these new endeavors in the area of NTP, this isn’t the first time NASA has turned to propulsion technology. In 2017, the space agency awarded nuclear contractor BWXT $20 million to explore NTP designs. For further discussion on potential regulatory and legal questions with nuclear space propulsion, please see our previous blog post, “Back to the Future — NASA Renews Interest in Nuclear Space Propulsion.”

Maritime

On November 2, 2020, UK-based Core Power announced that it is working with Advanced Reactor developers, Southern Company, TerraPower, and Orano USA, to meet the demand for disruptive energy technology in ocean transportation.  According to Core Power, the four companies have applied to the U.S. Department of Energy to be considered for its Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) to create a prototype molten salt reactor (MSR) technology. ARDP is a new DOE cost-sharing endeavor where selected projects share a 50/50 financial burden. Core Power believes that MSRs could be used for propulsion or electricity generation to decarbonize the world’s commercial shipping fleet, while also increasing shipping speed and efficiency.

If you recall from our previous blog post, TerraPower’s Natrium MSR project (in partnership with GE-Hitachi) was granted $80 million by ARDP to build a 345 MW reactor.  In 2018, the International Maritime Organization created a strategy focused on reducing climate change impacts from ships. It set a goal that the carbon intensity of international shipping be cut by at least 40% by 2030 and 70% by 2050, when compared to 2008 levels. It further directed that the international shipping industry cut total annual greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2050 from 2008 levels.

According to the World Nuclear Association, nuclear power is well suitable for vessels at sea for long periods without refueling, or for powerful submarine propulsion.  After all, nuclear power is at the core of United States’ naval strategy.  Nuclear reactors power our navy’s aircraft carriers and submarines and enable them to conduct the long-term blue-water operations necessary for sustaining global peace and security.  Indeed, there are already over 160 ships operating around the world powered by more than 200 small nuclear reactors.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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