18 November 2017
Nuclear Power in Space - in Time of Trump
By Karl Grossman
Huffington Post


The website nuclear-news this month declares: “Nuclear Power and Space Exploration—theme for November 17.” And, indeed, a desire of nuclear power zealots for decades is, now in 2017 with the Trump administration, poised for possible major implementation.

As nuclear-news says: “Coinciding with the severe downturn in the nuclear industry is the rush for enthusiasm for space exploration—and the goal of ‘putting a man on Mars.’ The nuclear industry must be pleased” now with the focus on nuclear-powered rockets to Mars. The apparent motive? “Space travel might save their industry?”

Continues nuclear-news: “The effects of a spacecraft crash on an Earth city are almost unimaginable, and certainly never properly condemned by the space technocrats and nuclear enthusiasts. To them, this is an ‘acceptable risk.’”

As Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space told me: “For many years the nuclear power industry held an annual conference in New Mexico to promote the use of their deadly product in space. Nuclear-powered mining colonies and nuclear-powered rockets to Mars were key themes at these events.”

Now with Trump as president and green lights given to industry after industry to do or continue to do deadly things, Trump and his band of scoundrels are pushing for the nuclear industry to bring its deadly product into the heavens.

“Trump’s spaceman,” was the headline in February of a Vice News piece about Trump campaign space advisor Robert Smith Walker, an arch-conservative ex-congressman who had been chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, the panel with NASA oversight. The sub-head: “President Trump has a plan for space domination.”

“Trump has appointed former Rep. Thomas Walker as a space science policy advisor, and he has an aggressive, business-type vision for NASA,” it says. “Under Trump, missions are expected to be more deep-space-oriented, beginning with robots mining for resources such as Helium 3 on the Moon. Walker foresees human lunar colonies as well as spaceships fueled by nuclear power to cut travel time to Mars from months to weeks.”

In a Vice News interview, which can be heard online, Walker speaks of mining on the Moon for Helium 3 to be used as a fuel for nuclear fusion and of the U.S. “developing a generation of spaceships powered by nuclear power.”

Originally a high school teacher, Walker left the House in 1997 after 20 years representing a portion of Pennsylvania. He later was named by President George W. Bush as chairman of the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry and also was a member of the President’s Commission on Implementation of the United States Space Exploration Policy. He is executive chairman of the Washington lobbying firm, Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates.

In July, Scientific American published an article headlined: “NASA Seeks Nuclear Power for Mars.” Its sub-head: “After a half-century hiatus, the agency is reviving its reactor development with a test later this summer.”

It starts: “As NASA makes plans to one day send humans to Mars, one of the key technical gaps the agency is working to fill is how to provide enough power on the Red Planet’s surface for fuel production, habitats and other equipment. One option, small nuclear fission reactors, which work by splitting uranium atoms to generate heat, which is then converted into electric power.”

“NASA’s technology development branch has been funding a project called Kilopower for three years, with the aim of demonstrating the system at the Nevada National Security Site near Las Vegas. Testing is due to start in September and end in January 2018.” (The Nevada National Security Site was previously called the Nevada Test Site and before that Nevada Proving Ground where nuclear weapons tests were conducted.)

The Scientific American piece offers a history of the U.S. developing nuclear power for space use. “The last time NASA tested a fission reactor was during the 1960s’ System for Nuclear Auxiliary Power, or SNAP, program, which developed two types of nuclear power systems. The first system—radioisotope thermoelectric generators, or RTGs—taps heat released from the natural decay of a radioactive element, such as plutonium. RTGs have powered dozens of space probes over the years, including the Curiosity rover currently exploring Mars. The second technology developed under SNAP was an atom-splitting fission reactor. SNAP-10A was the first—and so far, only—U.S. nuclear power plant to operate in spaee. Launched on April 3, 1965, SNAP-10A operated for 43 days, producing 500 watts of electrical power, before an unrelated equipment failure ended the demonstration. The spacecraft remains in Earth orbit.”

The Scientific American article does not mention a far more serious accident involving a SNAP nuclear device that occurred a year before: the SNAP-9A accident happening in 1964, on April 24. A U.S. satellite using a plutonium-powered SNAP-9A system failed to achieve orbit and fell to Earth, disintegrating upon hitting the atmosphere causing its Plutonium-238 fuel to be dispersed as dust. The late Dr. John Gofman, an M.D. and professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, long linked the SNAP-9A accident to a global rise in lung cancer.

Global Network