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Nuclear Energy in Space: Nonproliferation Risks

Press Release From: University of Texas-Austin
Posted: Tuesday, September 17, 2019

On October 17, experts from NASA, Congress, and reactor companies will gather in the nation’s capital to discuss ongoing development of nuclear reactors for space missions and the potential security risks.

 

The event is free, but pre-registration is required.  For further details, and to register, please see: https://space-nuclear.eventbrite.com.

 

The program will feature Jeffrey A. Sheehy, NASA’s Chief Engineer in the Space Technology Mission Directorate.   The keynote address will be delivered by Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), the only physicist in Congress and a member of the House Science Committee.

 

Controversy centers on NASA’s choice of fuel for the reactor it tested in 2018 for use on a planetary surface: weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium.  NASA scientists believe such uranium would enable smaller reactors, reducing launch costs.  However, critics argue it could undermine decades of U.S. progress in reducing worldwide civilian commerce in this dangerous material, create a precedent that could help rogue countries obtain nuclear weapons, sharply increase security costs, impede NASA’s cost-saving collaboration with commercial partners who lack licenses for such uranium, and potentially disperse nuclear weapons material to adversaries in the event of a launch failure.  They say that an alternative reactor fuel – low-enriched uranium, which is unsuitable for nuclear weapons – could reduce the security, economic, and political risks.

 

Last month, President Trump issued a Presidential Memorandum on the launch of space nuclear systems, which highlighted the security risk: “Due to potential national security considerations associated with nuclear nonproliferation . . . The President’s authorization shall be required for Federal Government launches . . . when such systems utilize any nuclear fuel other than low-enriched uranium.”  In June 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an appropriations bill that included an amendment by Rep. Foster, directing NASA to “work towards the development of a low enriched uranium (LEU) space power reactor.”

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