Nuclear power plants for settlements on the Moon and Mars

Nuclear power plants for settlements on the Moon and Mars

Summary: The first nuclear power plant being considered for production of electricity for manned or unmanned bases on the Moon, Mars and other planets "may really look like it came from outer space."

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On earth, nuclear reactors are under attack because of concerns over damage caused by natural disasters. In space, however, nuclear technology may get a new lease on life.

Plans for the first nuclear power plant for the production of electricity for manned or unmanned bases on the Moon, Mars and other planets were unveiled today at the 242nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

James E. Werner, the project leader at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), said that innovative fission technology for surface power applications is far different from the familiar terrestrial nuclear power stations, which sprawl over huge tracts of land and have cooling towers and other large structures.

An artistâ??s concept of a fission surface power system on the surface of the Moon. Credit: Galaxy Wire

A fission reactor itself is about 1.5 feet wide by 2.5 feet high, roughly the size of a carry-on suitcase, according to Werner. And there are no cooling towers.

"A fission power system is a compact, reliable, safe system that may be critical to the establishment of outposts or habitats on other planets. Fission power technology can be applied on Earth's Moon, on Mars, or wherever NASA sees the need for continuous power," said Werner.

Nuclear fission power in space is actually old news. In 1965, the U.S. launched SNAP-10A, which was a 45 kWt thermal nuclear fission reactor that produced 650 watts using a thermoelectric converter. (It operated for 43 days before it was shut down due to a satellite malfunction--but remains in orbit today.)

Nuclear fission works by splitting uranium atoms to generate heat that is then converted into electric power. A fission power system contains components that are similar to those found in the commercial reactors currently in use: a heat source, power conversion, heat rejection and power conditioning and distribution. For space applications, however, nuclear fission features a number of differences compared with commercial reactors.

"While the physics are the same, the low power levels, control of the reactor and the material used for neutron reflection back into the core are completely different," Werner said. "Weight is also a significant factor that must be minimized in a space reactor that is not considered in a commercial reactor."

Sunlight and fuel cells were traditionally the mainstays for generating electricity for space missions, but engineers realized that solar energy has limitations. Solar cells do a great job supplying electricity in near-Earth orbits and for satellite-borne equipment, but nuclear power offers some unique capabilities that could support manned outposts on other planets or moons.

Werner explains:

The biggest difference between solar and nuclear reactors is that nuclear reactors can produce power in any environment. Fission power technology doesn't rely on sunlight, making it able to produce large, steady amounts of power at night or in harsh environments like those found on the Moon or Mars. A fission power system on the Moon could generate 40 kilowatts or more of electric power, approximately the same amount of energy needed to power eight houses on Earth.  Nuclear power has the ability to provide a power-rich environment to the astronauts or science packages anywhere in our solar system and that this technology is mature, affordable and safe to use.

Werner contends that once the technology is developed and validated, it may prove to be one of the most affordable and versatile options for providing long-term base power for the space exploration programs.

The team is scheduled to build a technology demonstration unit in 2012.

The project is a collaboration between NASA and DOE.

Source:  American Chemical Society

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36 comments
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  • RE: Nuclear power plants for settlements on the Moon and Mars

    Another really bad idea being pushed by the nuclear cowboys. A release of plutonium oxide into the earth atmosphere if one of these things is damaged at launch will give millions lung cancer and contaminate thousands of square miles at minimum. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_military_nuclear_accidents) Stupid is as stupid does propeller heads!
    bfried1968
    • RE: Nuclear power plants for settlements on the Moon and Mars

      @bfried1968
      This is clipped from the linked article:

      "January 3, 1983 ? The Soviet nuclear-powered spy satellite Kosmos 1402 burns up over the South Atlantic."

      I remember that at the time at least one network TV news report let us know that it was OK because the plutonium had "harmlessly burned up" in the atmosphere rather than falling to the sea. That bit of science reporting just amazed me.
      Bill4
    • RE: Nuclear power plants for settlements on the Moon and Mars

      @bfried1968<br><br>NASA has already launched many "Radioisotope thermoelectric generators" into space on the Cassini, New Horizons, Galileo and Ulysses space probes. These relied on the decay of Plutonium-238 which as you mention is a highly toxic substance. A nuclear reactor on the other hand, would fly into space using enriched uranium which is not much more dangerous than lead. Therefore, launching a nuclear reactor into space would be less several orders of magnitude less risky than launching RTGs, which NASA has already done. <br><br>The notion that Plutonium will cause millions of deaths if dispersed into the atmosphere is nothing more than a myth dependent on the debunked "hot particle" theory. <br><br>In other words, STFU. It's people like you who are holding back science.
      scott_melb
      • We should go back to America of our forefathers!

        @scott_melb

        No need for anyone but white men to vote. Let's get rid of roads, planes, internets, phones, power. It was SO much safer back then when we didn't have all these modern "scientists" (I call them witches) running around endangering mankind. I have to imagine our average life span back then was in the 100s of years.
        LiquidLearner
      • RE: Nuclear power plants for settlements on the Moon and Mars

        @scott_melb

        The danger of Plutonium is vastly lower than you think. Plutonium is actually less dangerous than Uranium. Plutonium is a beta emitter in it's native form. That means it gives off an electron, and changed into a light form of uranium, after around 200,000 years on average. Uranium, on the other hand gives off an Alpha particle, which does potentially much more damage on a per atom basis.

        But, before you panic, please remember that Uranium is between the 8th and 10th most common salt in seawater. The amount that would be released is unmeasurable with the much greater amount that is already there.

        Uranium is there in sea water, and it always was.
        YetAnotherBob
    • Yes, you're absolutely right!

      @bfried1968

      Despite the fact that Nuclear power has proven to be, by far and away, the absolute safest form of energy we produce, let's completely ignore that fact. Let's limit our ability to setup outposts on other planets because something might possibly happen that could, if everything went exactly wrong, might kill some people. Coal and oil kill more people in a single year than Nuclear power has killed [b]ever[/b]. I know it's hard for you to understand such a simple concept...

      Nuclear power is absolutely critical to the advancement of the human race. To state otherwise you may as well tell me evolution is make believe. Oh wait, I'm guessing that's what you would think. Ignorant is as ignorant does!
      LiquidLearner
      • RE: Nuclear power plants for settlements on the Moon and Mars

        @LiquidLearner

        Sorry, but you are making a simple mistake. People like bfried1968 don't really separate nuclear power from nuclear bombs. There have been more people killed by nuclear bombs (close to a half million between Hiroshima and Nagasaki) than have been documented killed by coal induced pollution. Though the figures for coal induced pollution for China alone are probably near that number, they just aren't clearly documented.

        Also, your use of sarcasm might be lost on some of the people here.

        Remember Stupidity is as Stupidity does.
        YetAnotherBob
      • Well, your right until something unexpected and unique happens

        @LiquidLearner

        It has been reported that the surrounding area around the Japanese nuclear power plants damaged by the earthquake and tsunami event this year will be unlivable for decades.

        Per a August 22nd news release, "...Residents who lived close to the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant are to be told their homes may be uninhabitable for decades, according to Japanese media reports.

        The Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, is expected to visit the area at the weekend to tell evacuees they will not be able to return to their homes, even if the operation to stabilise the plant's stricken reactors by January is successful."

        Your right, LiquidLearner, Nuclear power is very, VERY safe -- until something happens.
        kenosha77a
      • RE: Nuclear power plants for settlements on the Moon and Mars

        @YetAnotherBob

        If you bring that in then you have to count traditional bombs as a traditional power source... That doesn't make sense. You can't lump nuclear power with nuclear weapons. It's just stupid to do. Lead in a bullet has killed far more people than the nuclear explosions, should all lead be banned?

        Okay, so one of the original nuclear reactor designs was unsafe. How is that an argument against furthering nuclear designs? Modern reactors don't suffer these issues. In fact newer reactors can even use spent fuel from older reactors to fuel reactions. The waste from a newer reactor is much less volatile because much more is used. Many use Thorium, which is very safe. And because of the design if a reactor was built today, it couldn't melt down. If all external power were lost, all cooling systems, the reaction would stop once reaching a certain temperature. It's very, very, very, very safe.

        And it's unfortunate that people in a 10 mile radius may not be able to return for decades. That still doesn't point to any loss of human life. Keep in mind the disaster in Japan was the second worst of all time and it hasn't taken any lives directly. At most we may see a handful of cancer cases that wouldn't have occured otherwise.

        http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/03/deaths-per-twh-by-energy-source.html

        Deaths per TWH
        Coal - 161 (counting figures from china)
        Nuclear - .04

        You can follow the link for more detailed information on other power sources and where from where the information is compiled.
        LiquidLearner
    • RE: Nuclear power plants for settlements on the Moon and Mars

      @bfried1968 When Space Shuttle Columbia crashed to Earth in 2003, one of the items that survived was a videocassette. The video contained in the cassette was still playable. If a videocassette that wasn't designed to survive a Mach 50 re-entry and 50-mile fall to Earth can survive, we can probably design something that would keep plutonium or uranium from dispersing in a launch accident.
      Pooua
    • RE: Nuclear power plants for settlements on the Moon and Mars

      Snagged. Thanks. <a href="http://www.replicawatchesbest.org">imitation rolex watches</a>
      @bfried1968
      meimeili
  • Most interesting, thanks Chris.

    It's either Nuclear, or, we need to locate a very long extension cord, maybe 220 Volt Edison would work. :/
    Dietrich T. Schmitz *Your
  • RE: Nuclear power plants for settlements on the Moon and Mars

    If it can be made to operate safely, then it is great thing. No need to create something that will turn other planets in to toxic waste dumps.
    Rick_Kl
    • RE: Nuclear power plants for settlements on the Moon and Mars

      @Rick_Kl
      Huh, poisoning the surface of a moon that has no shielding against stellar radiation anyway...that sounds scary.
      Amc.
  • RE: Nuclear power plants for settlements on the Moon and Mars

    I saw this on Space 1999. I don't think that ended very well.
    rsavage@...
    • RE: Nuclear power plants for settlements on the Moon and Mars

      @rsavage@...

      Yes, it did end very well indeed. It carried the series for a full season. Something the writers and actors couldn't have done without it.

      But, anyway, we are not being rational about the waste of the nuclear industry. These isotopes will be very valuable someday. They do need to be kept locked away, but it as much to keep them until they are needed as it is to protect us from the radiation.
      YetAnotherBob
  • It's called building things to fail-safe

    Light-weight fission reactors can be built that don't vaporize when they plunge through the atmosphere, or their transport blows up.
    Dr_Zinj
    • RE: Nuclear power plants for settlements on the Moon and Mars

      @Dr_Zinj

      Yes, and it will be built by the lowest bidder! What could possibly go wrong?
      mlashinsky@...
  • Love it!

    "A fission reactor itself is about 1.5 feet wide by 2.5 feet high, roughly the size of a carry-on suitcase..." I do not even need to hijack the plane or hit a building.

    The world-of-terror is drooling over this one, baby! Or should I say baby-boomers.
    d_baron@...
    • RE: Nuclear power plants for settlements on the Moon and Mars

      @d_baron@... Actually, such technology has been around for decades. This is nothing new for your hypothetical terrorists to drool over.
      David A. Pimentel