NASA, DARPA Testing Nuclear Engine For Future Mars Missions

NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced a plan on Tuesday to test out a nuclear-powered thermal rocket engine which will enable NASA-crewed missions to Mars, according to NASA.

The program, called Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO, could allow for faster transit time, an increased payload capacity, and higher power for instrumentation and communication.

In a nuclear thermal rocket engine, a fission reactor is used to generate extremely high temperatures. The engine transfers the heat produced by the reactor to a liquid propellant, which is expanded and exhausted through a nozzle to propel the spacecraft. Nuclear thermal rockets can be three or more times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion. -NASA

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‘Major breakthrough’ in nuclear fusion that will go down in history: Scientists produce more energy than what was used to activate it – unlocking potential for endless clean energy

The US Department of Energy announced an accomplishment in nuclear fusion that will go down in history – scientists have produced more energy in fusion than what was used to activate it.

The feat, called ‘net energy gain,’ has been the holy grail of scientists who have been on a decades-long quest to harness the same energy that powers the sun and stars 

A team of scientists made the breakthrough at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California on December 5, which houses a sports stadium-sized facility equipped with 192 lasers. 

The experiment saw the high-energy laser converge on a target about the size of a peppercorn, heating a capsule of hydrogen to more than 180 million degrees Fahrenheit and ‘briefly simulated the conditions of a star,’ said Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories Director Dr Kim Budil.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm called the breakthrough a ‘landmark achievement.’ 

Granholm said scientists at Livermore and other national labs do work that will help the US ‘solve humanity’s most complex and pressing problems, like providing clean power to combat climate change and maintaining a nuclear deterrent without nuclear testing.’

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China and the US Are Racing to Go Nuclear in Space

China has disclosed new details of its space exploration plan in the next decade, including the use of nuclear energy to power its moon base, intensifying its space race with the U.S. 

“We are now developing a new system that uses nuclear energy to address the moon station’s long-term, high-power energy demands,” said Wu Weiren, chief designer of the country’s Lunar Exploration Program, in an interview with state broadcaster CCTV on Monday. 

The outpost is developed in conjunction with Russia and is expected to be built by 2028 on the lunar south pole, which has patches of sunny spots as well as permanently shadowed craters. The U.S. has identified potential landing sites in the same area for its Artemis 3 mission, which is scheduled to launch in late 2025 to put Americans back on the moon using a SpaceX lander.

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Where Will the Nuclear Waste Go?

“Where will the state’s nuclear waste go?” was the headline of a story bannered last month across the front page of Connecticut’s largest newspaper, the Hartford Courant.

What, indeed, is to be done about the nuclear waste that has been produced at the two Millstone nuclear power plants which have been operating in Connecticut? (They are now the only nuclear power plants running in New England.)

And what is to be done about the nuclear waste at other nuclear power plants?

Decades ago, one scheme was to put it on rockets to be sent to the sun. But the very big problem, it was realized, is that one-in-100 rockets undergo major malfunctions on launch, mostly by blowing up.

As Forbes magazine has pointed out, because of the “possibility of launch failure” if “your payload is radioactive or hazardous and you have an explosion on launch…all of that waste will be uncontrollably distributed across Earth.”

So, scratch that idea.

Then there has been the plan to construct a “repository” for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. It was designated the nation’s “permanent nuclear repository” in 1987 and $15 billion was spent preparing it.

The very big problem concerning Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste dump: it’s in “an active earthquake zone, with 33 faults on site.”

So, that idea was scratched.

Now, Finland has built a nuclear waste site for its four nuclear power plants. “Finland wants to bury nuclear waste for 100,000 years,” was the title of an CNBC’s piece about it and how it uses “a labyrinth of underground tunnels.”

The very big problem: nuclear waste needs to be isolated from life for way more than 100,000 years. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 2004 ordered the EPA to rewrite its Yucca Mountain regulations to acknowledge a million years of hazard, notes Kevin Kamps, radioactive waste specialist for the organization Beyond Nuclear.

“And that’s actually a low-ball figure,” said Kamps in an interview.

Some nuclear waste stays radioactive for millions of years, Kamps points out: “Iodine-129 that is produced in reactors has a 15.7 million-year half-life.”

After a half-life, a radioactive material is half as radioactive as when it was produced. For determining a “hazardous lifetime,” a half-life is multiplied by 20.

Thus Iodine-129 remains radioactive for 314 million years.

“The design of the storage facility” for nuclear waste in Finland “has taken into account the potential impact of earthquakes and even future ice ages,” related CNBC. But not for anything close to millions of years.

So, what should be done about nuclear waste?

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Biden administration to waive sanctions so Russian energy firm can build Iranian nuclear plant

As we’ve said before, the Biden administration has some mixed feelings about getting into a direct confrontation with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. At first, the administration sanctioned everything but energy and continued buying oil from Russia, with the explanation that the United States imports only 10 percent of its oil from Russia. Then there’s climate envoy John Kerry, who’s counting on Russia to be a partner in things like the Paris Accords. And speaking of Kerry, there’s also his precious Iran nuclear deal to consider.

Adam Kredo of the Washington Free Beacon is reporting Wednesday that the Biden administration’s new Iran deal will remove sanctions so that a Russian energy firm can build Iran a nuclear power plant.

Kredo writes:

Russia’s top state-controlled energy company is set to cash in on a $10 billion contract to build out one of Iran’s most contested nuclear sites as part of concessions granted in the soon-to-be-announced nuclear agreement that will guarantee sanctions on both countries are lifted.

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DeepMind Has Trained an AI to Control Nuclear Fusion

THE INSIDE OF a tokamak—the doughnut-shaped vessel designed to contain a nuclear fusion reaction—presents a special kind of chaos. Hydrogen atoms are smashed together at unfathomably high temperatures, creating a whirling, roiling plasma that’s hotter than the surface of the sun. Finding smart ways to control and confine that plasma will be key to unlocking the potential of nuclear fusion, which has been mooted as the clean energy source of the future for decades. At this point, the science underlying fusion seems sound, so what remains is an engineering challenge. “We need to be able to heat this matter up and hold it together for long enough for us to take energy out of it,” says Ambrogio Fasoli, director of the Swiss Plasma Center at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.

That’s where DeepMind comes in. The artificial intelligence firm, backed by Google parent company Alphabet, has previously turned its hand to video games and protein folding, and has been working on a joint research project with the Swiss Plasma Center to develop an AI for controlling a nuclear fusion reaction.

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Ex-SpaceX Engineers Are Building a Cheap, Portable Nuclear Reactor

Nuclear power is going portable in the form of relatively lightweight, cost-effective microreactors. A team of former SpaceX engineers is developing the “world’s first portable, zero-emissions power source” that can bring power to remote areas and also allows for quick installation of new units in populated areas, a press statement revealed.

Last year, the team secured $1.2 million in funding from angel investors for their startup Radiant to help develop its portable nuclear microreactors, which are aimed at both commercial and military applications.  

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US military eyes prototype mobile nuclear reactor in Idaho

The U.S. Department of Defense is taking input on its plan to build an advanced mobile nuclear microreactor prototype at the Idaho National Laboratory in eastern Idaho.

The department began a 45-day comment period on Friday with the release of a draft environmental impact study evaluating alternatives for building and operating the microreactor that could produce 1 to 5 megawatts of power. The department’s energy needs are expected to increase, it said.

“A safe, small, transportable nuclear reactor would address this growing demand with a resilient, carbon-free energy source that would not add to the DoD’s fuel needs, while supporting mission-critical operations in remote and austere environments,” the Defense Department said.

The draft environmental impact statement cites President Joe Biden’s Jan. 27 executive order prioritizing climate change considerations in national security as another reason for pursuing microreactors. The draft document said alternative energy sources such as wind and solar were problematic because they are limited by location, weather and available land area, and would require redundant power supplies.

The department said it uses 30 terawatt-hours of electricity per year and more than 10 million gallons (37.9 million liters) of fuel per day. Powering bases using diesel generators strains operations and planning, the department said, and need is expected to grow during a transition to an electrical, non-tactical vehicle fleet. Thirty terawatt-hours is more energy than many small countries use in a year.

The department in the 314-page draft environmental impact statement said it wants to reduce reliance on local electric grids, which are highly vulnerable to prolonged outages from natural disasters, cyberattacks, domestic terrorism and failure from lack of maintenance.

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The U.S. military is getting a nuclear-powered space vehicle

A nuclear thermal propulsion system meant to operate in low Earth orbit may sound like the stuff of the future, but the future will come much sooner than most of us expect. 

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (better known by its acronym, DARPA)  just announced three companies will be designing America’s most futuristic engine – and it’s expected to be operational by 2025. 

This engine is not known by its acronym, DRACO, which stands for Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations. DARPA says the three big contractors designing over the next four years will be General Atomics, Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin.

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