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NASA Seeks Industry Partners to Design a Nuclear Power Plant for the Moon

Dan Yurman's picture
Editor & Publisher NeutronBytes, a blog about nuclear energy

Publisher of NeutronBytes, a blog about nuclear energy online since 2007.  Consultant and project manager for technology innovation processes and new product / program development for commercial...

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  • Nov 22, 2021
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  • Battelle Energy Alliance / INL, NASA Seek Industry Partners To Design Nuclear Power System For Lunar Applications
  • NASA Thinks US Needs Nuclear-powered Spacecraft to Stay Ahead of China
  • Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory wins $1 billion contract from AFRL for Space Nuclear Prototypes
  • US / New Funding Includes Site Feasibility Study For SMRs And Microreactors In Puerto Rico
  • Funding for Fusion Energy in the House-passed Build Back Better Legislation

Battelle Energy Alliance, NASA Seek Industry Partners To Design Nuclear Power System For Lunar Applications

NASA nuclear power on the moonBattelle Energy Alliance, contractor for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory, and NASA are seeking proposals from nuclear and space industry leaders to develop innovative technologies for a fission surface power (FSP) system for lunar power applications.

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The request for proposal can be viewed here. Proposals are due by Feb. 19, 2022. The contract is worth $5M. Q&A via email:  sebastian.corbisiero@inl.gov

The FSP project is sponsored by NASA in collaboration with the Department of the Energy and INL to establish a durable, high-power, sun-independent power source for NASA missions on the moon by the end of the decade, as well as potential subsequent missions. The proposal request targets the initial system design.

“A draft of the request for proposal has received significant interest from industry. “The feedback and enthusiasm we continue to see for space nuclear power systems has been very exciting, and understandably so,” said Sebastian Corbisiero, the Fission Surface Power Project lead at INL.

“Providing a reliable, high-power system on the moon is a vital next step in human space exploration, and achieving it is within our grasp.”

“Plentiful energy will be key to future space exploration,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C., which funds NASA’s fission surface power project.

“I expect fission surface power systems to greatly benefit our plans for power architectures for the moon and Mars and even drive innovation for uses here on Earth.”

Five Fast Facts About Fission Applications on the Moon

  • Fission surface power can provide abundant and continuous power regardless of environmental conditions on the Moon and Mars.
  • NASA plans to demonstrate and use a fission surface power system on the Moon first, then Mars.
  • NASA is collaborating with DOE and industry to design, fabricate, and test a 10-kilowatt class fission power system to operate on the Moon by the late 2020s.
  • NASA’s fission surface power project builds on heritage projects spanning 50 years, including SNAP-10A, NASA’s Kilopower project, and recent developments in commercial nuclear power and fuel technology.
  • Fission surface power reactor designs will focus on using low enriched uranium fuels.

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NASA’s fission surface power project is managed by NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. The technology development and demonstration are funded by the Space Technology Mission Directorate’s Technology Demonstration Missions program, which is located at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

& & &

NASA Thinks US Needs Nuclear-powered Spacecraft to Stay Ahead of China

(Space.com) The U.S. needs to invest more in nuclear-powered spacecraft to be competitive with nations like China. During a government hearing on 10/20/21 experts from NASA and the aerospace industry discussed how the U.S. stacks up against other nations when it comes to developing new nuclear propulsion technology. The U.S. needs to move quickly if it wants to keep up.

The congressional committee hearing, called “Accelerating deep space travel with space nuclear propulsion,” took place before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Science, Space and Technology Committee.

“Strategic competitors including China are aggressively investing in a wide range of space technologies, including nuclear power and propulsion,” Bhavya Lal, NASA’s senior advisor for budget and finance, said in the hearing. “The United States needs to move at a fast pace to stay competitive and to remain a leader in the global space community.”

Highlights of Opening Hearing Statement – Rep. Don Bter, (D-VA)

In terms of travel to Mars, space nuclear propulsion can produce thrust far more efficiently than conventional chemical systems, allowing for shorter trip times to Mars. Why does this matter? One reason is that shortening the trip reduces the risk of space radiation exposure to our astronauts. Another is that, depending on the technology used, space nuclear propulsion may enable more frequent trips to Mars than the typical 26- month intervals that rely on favorable Earth and Mars alignment. Reducing that 26-month interval increases mission flexibility to enable both cargo deliveries and human
missions to Mars.

Mars-missions-with-nuclear-thermal-propulsion_thumb.png

However, building an operational space nuclear propulsion system is hard and the technical challenges are many. Choosing a nuclear fuel type and source, developing a space-qualified fission reactor, developing the requisite materials and infrastructure, and carrying out testing, all while managing the required safety protocols for nuclear activities, are just a few examples of those challenges.

To date, the U.S.’s use of space nuclear technology has been in battery-like radioisotope power sources for probes traveling to distances where sunlight is insufficient  to produce power for the spacecraft. When it comes to propulsion, the United States has yet to fly a fully integrated space nuclear propulsion system in space.

A recent NASA-commissioned National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine study on space nuclear propulsion found that a system could be ready to support a human mission to Mars in 2039, but only if we act aggressively now. According to the study, the required space nuclear propulsion systems would need to be available in 2033 for advanced cargo emplacement and risk reduction prior to a human mission.

Congress has prioritized development of nuclear space propulsion over the past several years, directing about $100 million annually for NASA to advance nuclear thermal propulsion capabilities with the goal of conducting a future in-space flight test.

& & &

Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory wins $1 billion contract from AFRL for Space Nuclear Prototypes

(Space News) The Air Force Research Laboratory announced 11/15/21  it has awarded its largest-ever contract for space technology development to Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory.

Space Dynamics, based in North Logan, Utah, received a $1 billion five-year indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract for “space and nuclear advanced prototypes, experiments and technology,” according to a news release.

The sole-source award, announced by the Defense Department on Nov. 10, was not competed. Space Dynamics is one of 14 nonprofit DoD-affiliated University Affiliated Research Centers. UARCs are considered “trusted agents of the government.”

“This contract solidifies the long-term strategic partnership between AFRL and USU SDL,” said Col. Eric Felt, director of the AFRL Space Vehicles Directorate. “The partnership will accelerate critical space science and technology projects, especially when we need to quickly respond to urgent and unexpected needs.”

Felt said this contract allows AFRL to “conduct scientific investigations and technology, research and development in the UARC’s core competency areas without the bureaucracy and delay of awarding multiple smaller individual contracts.”

Areas covered under the contract include space sensors, space cybersecurity, nuclear science and technology for deterrence, advanced satellite navigation and Global Positioning Systems technology, precision quantum and photonic sensors, space environmental research, small satellites and radio-frequency sensing.

& & &

US / New Funding Includes Site Feasibility Study For SMRs And Microreactors In Puerto Rico

(NucNet) Washington wants to commercialize technologies in small island and remote locations. It selected the non-profit Nuclear Alternative Project in Puerto Rico to address this objective.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awarded $8.5 million to help commercialize promising advanced nuclear technologies. The funding supports industry-led projects across the country and leverages the latest modeling and simulation tools developed by DOE, in addition to siting analysis and other research activities that will inform the future deployment of advanced reactors on islands or for the potential use in maritime applications.

“Advanced reactors will completely change the way we engineer, build, and operate nuclear reactors,” said Dr. Kathryn Huff, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy.

“These awards support technical and regulatory strides necessary for commercializing new carbon-free nuclear technologies poised to help our nation reach net-zero emissions by 2050.”

The awards are funded through the Office of Nuclear Energy’s U.S. Industry Opportunities for Advanced Nuclear Technology Development funding opportunity, which has invested more than $215 million in advanced nuclear technologies since 2017. The solicitations are broken down into three funding pathways to support first-of-a-kind nuclear demonstration readiness projects, advanced reactor development projects, and direct regulatory assistance.

Summary of Awards

In Puerto Rico, the non-profit Nuclear Alternative Project will evaluate the general site suitability for SMRs and microreactors. Results of the study will support the DOE’s mission to commercialize these technologies in small island and remote locations. The funding for the project is $1,628,285.

A 2020 study by the Nuclear Alternative Project concluded that advanced nuclear reactors provide a combination of reduced electricity costs, zero-emission baseload electricity and minimal dependency on fuel imports that could lead to “a strong degree of energy security and reliability” much needed for a robust manufacturing and industrial sector in Puerto Rico.

The report said in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in September 2017 more than 3,000 deaths were attributed to the lack of electricity and basic services. This has led to a need to evaluate the feasibility of advanced nuclear reactors for Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island and US territory.

Several  other projects that  received funding include

  • Off-Gas Modeling and Uncertainty Propagation to Support Molten Salt Reactor Licensing – Terrestrial Energy USA, Inc. (Charlotte, NC) will develop an approach to handling uncertainty in the modeling of off-gas systems of molten salt reactors. The team will use available Nuclear Energy Advanced Modeling and Simulation program tools developed by DOE and will apply this methodology to the company’s Integral Molten Salt Reactor design. Total Award Value: $2,998,325
  • Accelerating Commercial Maritime Demonstration Projects for Advanced Nuclear Reactor Technologies  American Bureau of Shipping (Spring, TX) will focus on addressing hurdles in the maritime domain so that new reactor technology can be rapidly deployed for commercial applications. Advanced nuclear technology is well-positioned to be one of the strongest tools available to help the industry achieve its aggressive decarbonization goals. Total Award Value: $793,999
  • On the Path to a Nuclear Fuel Digital Twin: Modeling and Simulation of Silicon Carbide Cladding for Accelerated Fuel Qualification – General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems (San Diego, CA) will deliver a constitutive model, based on physics, for its silicon carbide-based fuel for high-temperature gas reactors. The new tool will be benchmarked against commercially available models and experimental data to demonstrate to regulators how the fuel behaves under all conditions in a reactor. Total Award Value: $2,730,335& & &

Funding for Fusion Energy in the House-passed Build Back Better Legislation

The U.S. House of Representatives for passing HR5376, the Build Back Better Act, which includes investments into fusion energy research, development, and deployment as a part of the legislation’s climate and energy provisions. It includes $885 million for work on fusion energy systems.  The funding, which would become available if the Senate also votes for the bill and this level of support, includes.

– $325 million for a new milestone-based public private partnership program,
– $200 million for Fusion Materials Research and Development,
– $140 million for a new Inertial Fusion Research and Development program,
– $200 million for a new Alternative and Enabling Fusion Energy Concepts program, and
– $20 million to initiate Fusion Reactor System Design.

A New Public Private Partnership

In particular, the new public-private partnership program, funded at $325 million would incorporate best practices from other productive partnerships such as NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) and DOE’s Small Modular Reactor (SMR) Licensing Technical Support and Advanced Reactor Demonstration (ARDP) cost-share programs.

This program would support the development of a US-based fusion power industry by researching and developing technologies leading to the construction of new full-scale fusion demonstration facilities.

The goal of this program would be for private companies to build demonstration facilities in partnership with the government capable of making significant improvements in the performance of fusion systems and leading to the establishment of a new clean energy source for the nation.

This new performance-based program will directly reimburse private companies for the development of new US-based fusion capabilities over a fixed program period. Government dollars would be leveraged with substantial private sector cost share.

Payments for Performance

Payments from the government would not be made until jointly established milestones throughout each company’s trajectory have been completed by industry and verified by DOE; if industry participants failed to reach these agreed-upon milestones, no government payments would be made, and the government would have the option to redirect those funds elsewhere in the program. A simple application process would encourage a broad range of applicants and result in a portfolio of many participants with diverse technologies through a competitive process.

Next Steps for the Legislation

As the bill passes the House, the Senate is expected to offer significant changes throughout. The Fusion Industry Association and the broader fusion community support the House-passed language on fusion energy research. There are opportunities in the Senate to increase overall funding for both U.S. National Lab infrastructure and Department of Energy R&D spending.

Recent significant investments by the governments of China and the UK show their intent to be the first to commercialize fusion energy. These investments, if launched now and sustained over the next decade,  will ensure the U.S. takes the global lead in fusion energy with the demonstration of multiple commercial fusion energy technologies, an advantage that will last decades and result in a clean, safe electric power grid for generations to come.

# # #

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 22, 2021

"These investments, if launched now and sustained over the next decade,  will ensure the U.S. takes the global lead in fusion energy with the demonstration of multiple commercial fusion energy technologies, an advantage that will last decades and result in a clean, safe electric power grid for generations to come."

Hmm. I would rather see the money invested in a clean, safe electric power grid for generations to come powered by fission technology - clean tech that's already well-understood. Anything else, at this moment in history, is an expensive distraction.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 22, 2021

Really neat to think about the nuclear plant on the moon. I suppose one of the benefits is not that much (relatively speaking) uranium is needed for the power output. Would there need to be water transported for the traditional cooling purposes, or would that area be less pressing on a lunar site than it is when a plant is considered on typical Earth sites? 

Dan Yurman's picture
Dan Yurman on Nov 23, 2021

Ice has been found in the permanent shadows of some craters on the moon, but the reactor designs that would be used don't need it. In the vacuum of space, the heat from the reactor would be radiated off into space as well as being used to maintain ambient temperatures inside the habitat used by the crew. 

 

Recall that in the vacuum of space, which includes the surface of the moon, temperatures in the "shade" are -280F and in the sun are 260F or hotter than boiling water (212F).  There is no atmosphere on the moon to move heat from hot areas to cold or v.v..

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