CHANTILLY, Washington – A revised policy for approving the launching of spacecraft with nuclear energy systems is the latest measure designed to support the greater use of nuclear energy systems in orbit and beyond.
The policy, officially issued by President Trump on August 20 to coincide with the last public meeting of the National Outer Space Council, updates guidelines on how government and commercial spacecraft carrying space nuclear systems are reviewed and approved for launch.
The policy establishes a three-tier system for the review of payloads carrying nuclear energy systems, such as radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) or fissile reactors based on the amount of radioactive material on board and the likelihood of certain levels of radiation in the event of an accident.
Spacecraft that fall into the first two levels will be approved by their sponsoring agency, though in some cases with review by a new Interagency Nuclear Safety Review Board, which NASA is tasked to create within 1
"Our primary objective here is to ensure that rigorous and effective nuclear safety analysis and reviews are carried out prior to the launch of any space nuclear system," Kelvin Dragemeyer, Director of OSTP, said during a comment at the The National Space and Space Council at the Udar-Hazi Center for the National Air and Space Museum. "To this end, we must provide clear guidance to help planning missions and approval authorities launch launch security."
Polly teak, he continued, also aims to promote a "positive safety analysis" and a "forward-looking" resolution process that can announce new space nuclear systems.
Droegemeier stated that the policy was only one step in support of the wider use of space nuclear systems. "Moving forward, we need to focus on ensuring that we maintain the skills here in America, as well as developing the technologies necessary to provide space nuclear systems that are ready to propel and power future US space ships, "he says.
The policy does not go into technology development and related issues, calls on the Minister of Transport to develop guidance for private organizations offering to launch a space nuclear vehicle next year. This guide would explain the process of licensing and reviewing such systems.
However, there is little commercial interest in space nuclear energy, given not only regulatory challenges but also technical and cost considerations. A startup based in Denver's Atomos Space has proposed developing nuclear space vehicles for space transportation, although the company plans to launch solar power systems and did not specify when it will attempt to fly nuclear systems.  There are also few applications of space nuclear energy systems in government missions, at least in the unclassified sphere. NASA has used RTGs in some missions, but rarely because of the cost and limited supply of plutonium-238, the isotope used in RTGs. The only upcoming NASA formally approved missions to use RTG are the Mars 2020 Rovers mission and the recently selected Dragonfly mission to Saturn's lunar titanium.
This may change in the next few years. NASA is working with the Department of Energy on a small nuclear fission reactor called Kilopower that could be used in future moon and Mars missions. Congress has also increased funding for nuclear thermal propulsion work at NASA, including a provision in the report accompanying the 2019 budget bill calling for a demonstration of a nuclear system flight by 2024.
During a panel discussion on board meeting, Rex Goveden, president and CEO of BWX Technologies and a former NASA contributor, supported the development of more ambitious space nuclear power systems, citing his decades-old nuclear power company experience regulatory systems, including NASA-funded nuclear thermal propulsion.  "At present, America has the nuclear technological capability to push the boundaries of human exploration of the moon and beyond to Mars," he said. "If we meet the objectives of President Trump's first space policy directive to establish a long-term presence on the moon and send the first Mars mission outfitted, nuclear energy is perhaps the most important technology to achieve these bold national targets."  NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstein approved the widespread use of nuclear energy and propulsion technology. "This is an absolute game changer," he said of the nuclear heat engine. "It gives us the ability to really protect life" by limiting the exposure to space radiation that astronauts would receive on long-haul flights, such as transits to and from Mars.
Goveden told Bridenstein during a brief discussion at the meeting that nuclear energy could also be used in "various national security applications", such as for remote bases or for targeted energy weapons.
"This targeted energy weapon could be used, for example, to protect the Earth from an asteroid? "Bridenstein asked.
" I think you could predict this, "Gedven replied, adding that similar systems could also be used to eliminate orbital debris.
" I think, Mr. Vice President, " Bridenstein told Vice President Mike Pence, "There is an incredible opportunity here that the United States of America should take advantage of."