NASA Plans to Use Nuclear Reactors on MARS


KiloPower Design – Image Source: Dasari V. Rao, Patrick McClure, Los Alamos National Laboratory as published in R&D Magazine 02/14/17

  • The reactors would use highly enriched uranium as a fuel to power fission processes.
  • The development of the technology would also require completion of the design and flight qualification of the Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator (ASRG)

The first humans to settle on Mars could have small nuclear power stations responsible for providing energy. Solar energy won’t be sufficient to meet the power requirements of a group of astronauts living and working on Mars for an extended period of time.

Scientific American reports that NASA is currently working on a project to develop nuclear fission reactors that could work on the red planet. The agency has built several small test prototypes of the reactors and is due to start testing the technology in a few months.

Each nuclear reactor can produce up to 10 kilowatts of power – enough to support two people on an expedition mission to the planet. NASA has estimated that an eight-person expedition would need 40 kilowatts of power.

This isn’t the first time the US space agency has experimented with nuclear reactors in space. Also the Russians have considerable experience with RTGs and fission reactors in space. (WNA profile of space nuclear technology)

Back in the 1960s it developed the SNAP (Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power) program that led to the creation of the radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG). This device uses a small mass of decaying plutonium-238 that gives off heat by converting it to electric power with a solid state thermocouple. (NASA fact sheets) (Infographic in NASA missions using RTGs)

The Curiosity rover currently exploring Mars uses an RTG for power as does the Cassini probe .

Chief Technologist Lee Mason, who oversees power and energy storage technology development at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, told that these new reactors will be the “first time we operate a fission reactor that could be used in space since the 1960s SNAP program.”

Successfully installing a power source on Mars is going to be a key part of establishing humans on the planet. Fission reactors are a better choice than solar panels because of Mars’ distance from the sun and their power output would not be diminished by the planet’s dust storms.

“We’ve landed some really cool things on Mars and they’ve had some pretty remarkable power systems … but they’re not going to cut it for human missions,” Mason said during last month’s Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, D.C.

The biggest power requirement for future human expeditions is running the equipment to produce fuel, air and water, plus running the habitat and recharging batteries for rovers and science equipment.

NASA envisions sending four or five small fission reactors, each capable of generating about 10 kilowatts of power, to Mars, Mason said at the Humans to Mars Summit. The units would be launched cold and activated once they reach their destinations.

“They’re not operating at launch, whereas once you fuel an RTG, it’s operating, and you have to process the thermal output,” Mason said.

“The reactors also have a very low radiological inventory at launch — less than 5 curies — so it’s benign … There are no fission products until the reactor is turned on, and that’s when there will be some radiation.”

A key element of any nuclear power system to be used in space is that it has to be strong enough to survive a failed launch.  NASA RTGs are build to extremely rugged specifications to meet this requirement.

According to the report in Scientific American Mason said  tests scheduled for this September are designed to validate Kilopower’s design and performance. After that, NASA would be ready to proceed with developing a bigger system for testing on Mars.

The test reactor, which is about 6.5 feet tall is designed to produce up to 1 kilowatt of electric power. To keep costs down, the test unit does not include a full array of Stirling engines (ASRG) which would be needed to convert energy generated by the fission process into heat. (LANL technical summary of KiloPower)

In 2013 NASA cancelled development of the ASRG for flight and consigned the project to R&D status. The major portion of the funding originally allocated to the ASRG was transferred by NASA to the Department of Energy (DOE) to refurbish its neglected and aging facilities needed to produce PU-238 for RTGs.

DOE had been relying on purchasing PU-238 from Russia to support NASA RTGs, but when that country cancelled the sales, the US was left with only a small inventory of PU-238 and half of it was more or less unusable. DOE facilities at ORNL and LANL were not ready to fill the gap.

If the ASRG is going to produce the electrical power from the fission reactor to be built to be used on Mars, development work will have to be restarted on it at NASA Glenn.

In 2013 Mason’s work was recognized with a prestigious R&D 100 award.

The KiloPower team includes Lee Mason and Marc Gibson of Glenn as well as members of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and National Security Technologies in Las Vegas.

Nuclear Industry Says No Impact Seen from Hacking Campaign

Officials for the nuclear utility industry say there has been no apparent impact from a hacking campaign that has drawn the attention of federal officials.

The assurances came after federal officials told electricity grid operators last week about a hacking or phishing campaign that has targeted the energy and manufacturing sectors.

John Keeley, spokesman for the industry’s Nuclear Energy Institute, says no reactors operating in the U.S. have been affected. Keeley adds that if they had, the incidents would have been reported to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Scott Aaronson, executive director for security for the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned power companies, says there has been no impact to systems controlling power grids. He say the threat was unrelated to this week’s ransomware attack against companies around the world.

The New York Times and the Bloomberg wire service broke the story based on a report prepared as part of a joint effort by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.

The Washington Post reported the joint alert from the FBI and DHS, first reported by Reuters on June 30, said the hackers have been targeting the industry since at least May. Several days earlier, E & E News, an energy trade publication, had reported that U.S. authorities were investigating cyber-intrusions affecting multiple nuclear-power-generation sites.

The report said that hackers, most probably linked to Russia, gained access to business systems at the Wolf Creek nuclear plant in Kansas and the Fermi II plant in Michigan. Both plants reported that no safety related systems were impacted by the cyber attack.

Access was gained to the business systems by sending malicious software disguised as ordinary emails with MS Word attachments. Once the attachment was downloaded and opened, the software was launched inside the office system.

In December 2015, Russian hackers disrupted the electric system in Ukraine, plunging 225,000 customers into darkness. Last December, they tested a new cyberweapon in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, capable of disrupting power grids around the world.

Progress Reported on India’s Fast Nuclear reactor at Kalpakkam

(Indian English Language wire services) India plans to commission its first fast breeder reactor (FBR) by the end of this year at Kalpakkam in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. India’s Prototype Fast Breed Reactor (PFBR) will produce 500MW of power.

India would be the second country worldwide to have a commercial reactor currently produce power through a fast-breeder reactor. Russia owns the other commercially run FBR, the Beloyarsk Nuclear Plant.

According to World Nuclear News a 500 MWe prototype fast breeder reactor (PFBR) is under construction for some time at Kalpakkam and was originally expected to be operating late in 2014, fueled with uranium-plutonium oxide. It is now expected to begin operation in 2018.

It will have a blanket with thorium and uranium to breed fissile U-233 and plutonium respectively. Initial FBRs will have mixed oxide fuel or carbide fuel but these will be followed by metallic fueled ones to enable shorter doubling time.

The PFBR will take India’s ambitious thorium program to stage 2, and set the scene for plans to eventually achieve full utilization of the country’s abundant thorium to fuel reactors. Four more such fast reactors have been announced for construction by 2020.

India is also developing mixed carbide fuels for FNRs (U-Pu-C-N-O). Carbide fuel in FBTR has reached 125,000 MWd/t burn-up without failure, and has been reprocessed at pilot scale. It envisages metal fuels after 2020

Arun Kumar Bhaduri, Director of the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR), Kalpakkam said in a media briefing, “fast breeder reactors are far safer than the current generation of nuclear plants and that all efforts are being made to kickstart within this year India’s first commercial fast breeder reactor at Kalpakkam.”

The world’s only commercially operating fast breeder reactor is situated in the Ural Mountains of Russia at the Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Plant, not far from Russia’s fourth largest city Yekateringburg.

The Russians are the global leaders in fast breeder reactors having operated a fast breeder reactor called BN 600 since 1980. In 2016, the Russian nuclear agency Rosatom commercially commissioned the BN 800 fast breeder reactor. This reactor produces about 800 MW of electricity and supplies it to the Ural region including the city of Yekateringburg.

China Expects Two New AP1000 Reactors To Go Commercial By End of 2017

(NucNet): China expects to bring two new commercial nuclear reactor units online by the end of the year, bringing its total to 39, the Shanghai Daily reported last week.

The English-language newspaper said Sanmen-1 in Zhejiang province, south of Shanghai, is close to getting authorization to connect to the grid.

Haiyang-1 in Shandong province, northeastern China, is also expected to go commercial by the end of 2017, the newspaper said, quoting Wang Binghua, chairman of the State Power Investment Corporation.

Both units are Westinghouse AP1000 plants. The AP1000 is a Generation III+ AP1000 pressurised water reactor. There are four AP1000 nuclear units under construction in China – two at Sanmen and two at Haiyang.

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