August 4, 2021

The White House Executive Order supports the development of nuclear power systems for space and defense

2 min read

The White House issued an executive order on January 12 to facilitate the production of small nuclear reactors for defense and space purposes, less than a month after releasing a policy guideline on space nuclear technology. “Promoting Small Modular Reactors for National Defense and Space Exploration,” the executive order provides separate directives for NASA as well as the Department of Defense to explore small nuclear reactors for their use while working on common technology for those programs.

The executive order mandates the NASA administrator to draft a report within a period of 180 days for space exploration to identify “criteria for NASA’s use of the nuclear power systems for robotic and human exploration missions by the year 2040 and to evaluate the benefits and costs of these criteria.” These prerequisites include specifics such as size, power levels and mass of reactor, and technical concerns associated with them. The executive order arises just over a month after the announcement of the Space Policy Directive (SPD) 6 on December 16, which defined the blueprint for both nuclear space reactors as well as nuclear propulsion systems.

The production of surface nuclear power systems was also given priority over the nuclear thermal propulsion. “These are some of the things this executive order does take it a little further,” a white house official said, thinking about executive order in the past. “It takes the objectives we have from SPD-6 as well as develops a more comprehensive roadmap that combines these space development projects with the advancements and innovations of the earth.” The official continued that “SPD-6 is a very great start, leading us to a really great situation.” “More precisely, the executive order maintains that progress.”

Another part of this executive order requires the Energy Department to conclude a three-year plan to improve high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU) processing technologies. HALEU was previously described by NASA as well as the Energy Department as a possible fuel for the space nuclear energy systems, offering better efficiency compared to the low enriched uranium however without enriched uranium non-proliferation problems. The order also urges the Energy Department to move the HALEU technology for larger-scale development to the commercial market.

In the United States, there is presently no commercial source of the HALEU, federal officials stated. Other parts of the order concentrate on the defense applications for small modular nuclear reactors, such as a ‘micro-reactor’ experiment at domestic military facilities approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as a measure to see how those devices could satisfy the requirements of the Defense Department elsewhere. It also demands the Department of Defense collaborate with other departments, such as NASA, to recognize uses of space nuclear energy systems for national security.

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