President Donald Trump recently directed NASA to send astronauts to the Moon by next decade, and then to Mars. NASA is exploring nuclear reactors – both for rockets to get there and for power on the planetary surfaces. As these decisions loom, NPPP hosts a symposium on “Nuclear Energy in Space: Nonproliferation Risks and Solutions.” Speakers will come from NASA, Congress, the Institute advising the White House on space policy, companies building space reactors, academia, and NGOs.

Controversy centers on NASA’s choice of fuel for the surface reactor it tested in 2018: 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, potentially disperse nuclear weapons material to adversaries in the event of a launch failure, and increase political opposition to space reactors. They say that an alternative reactor fuel – low-enriched uranium, which is unsuitable for nuclear weapons – could reduce the security, economic, and political risks.

President Trump, in August 2019, 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.” Relatedly, the U.S. House of Representatives, in June 2019, passed an appropriations bill including an amendment by Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), the only physicist in Congress, directing NASA to “work towards the development of a low enriched uranium (LEU) space power reactor.”

NPPP’s symposium aims to promote debate on space reactor fuel before NASA makes a decision that could have significant security, economic, and political consequences. The event will be held at the LBJ Washington Center.

Scheduled speakers include:

  • Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) – U.S. House of Representatives
  • Jeffrey A. Sheehy – NASA, Chief Engineer, Space Technology Mission Directorate
  • Jericho Locke and Bhavya Lal – IDA Science and Technology Policy Institute
  • Paolo Venneri – USNC-Space, CEO/Director
  • Vanessa Clark and William Kowalski – Atomos Nuclear and Space, CEO and COO
  • Steven Howe – Howe Industries
  • Jeffrey C. King – Colorado School of Mines, Associate Professor
  • Edwin Lyman – Union of Concerned Scientists, Senior Scientist
  • Alan J. Kuperman – University of Texas at Austin, Associate Professor