By Richard Outram,
Published by the Nuclear Free Local Authorities, 12 April 2023
It may mirror the plot of classic ‘70s British sci-fi series, Space 1999, which also features a moon base and the threat posed by radioactive waste, but the UK/Ireland Nuclear Free Local Authorities also have real concerns that the development of a future British moon base powered by nuclear fission could represent a further unwanted development along the road to the militarisation of space.
Today is the UN International Day of Human Space Flight. On April 12, 2011, the UN General Assembly established the day on the 40th anniversary of Major Yuri Gagarin becoming the first human being to circle the Earth in his spacecraft ‘Vostok’. UN delegates reaffirmed ‘the important contribution of space science and technology in achieving sustainable development goals and increasing the well-being of States and peoples, as well as ensuring the realization of their aspiration to maintain outer space for peaceful purposes’.
Last week, the UK Space Agency announced a £2.9 million grant is to be awarded to Rolls-Royce SMR to collaborate with academic institutions to develop mini-reactors for deployment in space, with most media reports focusing on its potential to power a future moon base as part of the UK’s commitment to an international project to colonise the Earth’s near neighbour (Project Artemis). However, in welcoming the new funding, Rolls-Royce’s director of future programmes Abi Clayton tellingly said: ‘The technology will deliver the capability to support commercial and defence use cases.’
Whilst projects in outer space can be both benign and beneficial, the UK Space Strategy and UK Space Defence Strategy both identify that ‘NATO has made space one of five operational domains’, and the UK Space Defence Strategy is subtitled ‘Operationalising the Space Domain’. To make this a reality, the UK Government is intent upon investing £6.4 billion in a ‘Defence Space Portfolio’ for defence ‘in and through space’.
For these purposes, the UK has joined the US and France in developing its own Space Command, and a nuclear moon base could in time become a part of the ‘portfolio’ from which UK Space Command operates, in line with the government and military’s desire to ‘assure our access to, and operational independence in, space’.
These activities are all completely contrary to the legal commitments the UK made a half century ago to preserve space for peace.
“Ironically the UK was in 1967 one of the first three co-signatories of the Outer Space Treaty which pledged the sponsors to ensure ‘that the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes’”, said Councillor Lawrence O’Neill, Chair of the NFLA Steering Committee.
“Our fear is that any future nuclear-powered moon-base could be ultimately crewed by military personnel from Space Command conducting operations that would be far from benign and beneficial, whether this be the permanent surveillance of perceived hostile states on Earth or more sinisterly as a platform for offensive weapons systems to project military power ‘through space’.
“And of course, once one major power establishes such a base, then the others, all not wishing to be outdone, will seek to do the same.”
The NFLA also has real practical concerns about the environmental impact of such a nuclear-powered base.
Councillor O’Neill added: “We have worries about the transfer of nuclear materials into space. It is not unknown for rockets to malfunction and explode on take-off or in early flight, indeed sadly this has led to the loss of human life, nor for radioactive material to be distributed across the surface of the Earth by exploding space vehicles, witness the accident involving Soviet satellite Kosmos 954. And the UK Government’s own Committee on Radioactive Waste Management dismissed the idea of blasting radioactive waste into space on the grounds of both risk and cost.
“And in turn, a nuclear-powered moon base would generate radioactive waste. Where would this be put? If it came back to Earth, there would remain the risk of an accident on re-entry and states parties to the Outer Space Treaty also pledge to ‘avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies’ so burial in situ below the lunar surface or blasting it into space would be unlawful”.
Lastly there is also a latent threat posed from outer space itself to the facility.
In 2016, NASA announced the findings of their Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission. Observing the lunar surface since launch in 2009, NASA scientists reported that ‘200 impact craters (had) formed during the LRO mission, ranging in size from about 10 to 140 feet (approximately 3 to 43 meters) in diameter’. Consequently, NASA recommended that ‘equipment placed on the moon for long durations – such as a lunar base – may have to be made sturdier. While a direct hit from a meteoroid is still unlikely, a more intense rain of secondary debris thrown out by nearby impacts may pose a risk to surface assets.’
In concluding Councillor O’Neill said: “We have all been concerned recently with the potential damage that could be caused on Earth to Ukrainian nuclear facilities from shelling and missile strikes so what happens if a meteoroid, or a fragment thereof, with massive kinetic energy hits a nuclear reactor based on the surface of the moon?
1. UK Space Agency, UK National Space Strategy, Page 35
2. UK Defence Space Strategy, coversheet and throughout
3. UK Space Agency, UK National Space Strategy, Page 7 and 19
4. Ibid, Page 20, Goal 4
5. UK Defence Space Strategy, Page 29, Section 6.6
6. Ibid, Page 32, Section 6.7, Point E
7. The Outer Space Treaty (unoosa.org)
8. Wikipedia, Kosmos 954
9. NASA, Earth’s Moon Hit by Surprising Number of Meteoroids
See: Original Article