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Nuclear power on the moon? It could happen by 2028

Nuclear energy has played a role in lunar exploration since the golden days of the Apollo moon program, when radioisotope power systems provided the wattage for scientific experiments.

Today such systems continue to power interplanetary spacecraft, ranging from the decades-old Voyager probes in interstellar space to the Perseverance rover that’s on its way to Mars. And now the U.S. Department of Energy and NASA are kicking things up a notch.

Tracey Bishop, deputy assistant secretary for nuclear infrastructure programs at the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy Office, provided a preview today during a virtual roundtable discussion focusing on the department’s role in space exploration.

“This summer the department, along with NASA, has initiated an activity to look at doing a demonstration for fission surface power systems on the moon in the 2027, 2028 time frame, ” Bishop said.

She said potential partners from the nuclear power industry as well as the aerospace industry showed up for a “very engaging Industry Day” last month. “We’re looking forward to issuing a request for proposals from industry sometime this fall,” Bishop said.

The lunar demonstration project would follow up on the research conducted as part of the NASA-DOE Kilopower program, which successfully demonstrated a small-scale nuclear power system in Nevada a couple of years ago.

And that’s not all: The National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous agency within DOE, is working with the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on a road map for developing nuclear thermal propulsion systems.

“What DARPA is trying to do is, they’re trying to have a demonstrator that will fly in the 2025 time frame,” said Kevin Greenaugh, assistant deputy administrator for strategic partnership programs.

It’s early in the process, but federal officials eventually plan to turn to industry experts for help in designing what basically would be a nuclear rocket engine, Greenaugh said.

The project — known as the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO — would use nuclear power to heat rocket propellants to temperatures high enough to produce thrust. Such a system would be two to five times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion, resulting in huge time savings for missions ranging from repositioning satellites to sending astronauts to Mars.

NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission tried to get a nuclear rocket called NERVA off the ground back in the 1960s.

“We did enough to understand what it was going to take, what the technical challenges are, and the fact that these [technologies] really are enabling for doing things such as certainly sending crews to Mars,” said Ralph McNutt, the chief scientist for space science at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.

Project NERVA fizzled in the post-Apollo era, due to shrinking space budgets as well as growing safety concerns about nuclear power. But now America’s space ambitions are on the rise again, and next-generation nuclear power concepts are raising confidence that the safety concerns can be adequately addressed.

“The advanced modular reactors are certainly adaptable to be used in earthbound applications, too,” said former U.S. Rep. Robert Walker, who now heads a space policy consulting firm called moonWalker Associates. “That’s where a lot of the work is being done right now.”

Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said following through on the concept could yield big payoffs.

“Nuclear propulsion could potentially cut the time of space travel to Mars by as much as half, which increases mission flexibility — which can be a true game changer for a Mars mission,” he said. “We’d like to get to Mars and back on ‘one tank of gas.’ That’s our goal, and that’s what we’re working for.”

Paul Dabbar, DOE’s under secretary for science, added that “it’s not just about getting to where we’re going, but it’s also about what we want to do when we get there.”

That’s where the interest in surface-based nuclear power comes to the fore. After all, if billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk envision building whole cities on the moon and on Mars, the power’s got to come from somewhere.

Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said future space settlements will almost certainly be built as public-private partnerships — with federal agencies like NASA and DOE blazing the technological trails for commercial ventures to follow.

“NASA has seen this in spades, when they did the development of resupplying cargo and crew to the ISS [International Space Station],” he said. “The government estimates that it saved between 20 and 30 billion dollars, compared to the traditional methods.”

So what will those extraterrestrial power systems look like? Will the moon go all-nuclear? Probably not, said Ben Reinke, executive director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Strategic Planning and Programs. Off-Earth settlements are more likely to rely on a mix of solar and nuclear power — plus batteries to store surplus electricity, as well as stores of hydrogen and oxygen that could be produced from ice on the moon or Mars.

“What you’re really talking about is a very small microgrid that has the same types of challenges that we have here on Earth,” he said. “You need some amount of power that would be baseload power. … And then on top of that, you would probably have some types of variable power, and a storage and distribution system that works for the proper size of that case.”

It turns out that nuclear fission isn’t the only option for energy on the moon: Reinke said lightweight, highly efficient perovskite solar cells could come into play. And who knows? Decades from now, nuclear fusion may even be part of the mix, with ample supplies of helium-3 fuel available on the lunar surface.

All of those technologies are part of the Department of Energy’s portfolio — so maybe Secretary Brouillette has a point when he says the DOE in his agency’s acronym could just as well stand for “Department of Exploration.”

Full disclosure: I served as the moderator for today’s virtual roundtable presentation, titled “Department of Exploration: Because You Can’t Get to Space Without the U.S. Department of Energy.”

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TerraPower advances plans for next-gen nuclear power

BELLEVUE, Wash. — TerraPower, the nuclear energy venture that’s backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, has gotten a boost on two fronts in its campaign to pioneer a new generation of safer, less expensive reactors.

On Aug. 24, the Idaho National Laboratory announced that an industry team including TerraPower has been selected to begin contract negotiations to design and build the Versatile Test Reactor, a federally financed facility that’s meant to test advanced nuclear reactor technologies. The team is led by Bechtel National Inc., with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy among the other industry partners. (Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is on the concept development team.)

“We received excellent proposals from industry, which is indicative of the support to build a fast-spectrum neutron testing facility in the United States,” Mark Peters, director of the Idaho Falls lab, said in a news release. “We are excited about the potential for working with the BNI-led team.”

The plan calls for work on the project to begin in 2021, and for the reactor to be completed by as early as 2026.

Then, on Aug. 27, the Bellevue-based venture announced that it’s working with GE Hitachi on a reactor architecture that could supplement solar and wind energy systems with always-on electricity.

The system architecture, known as Natrium, would involve building cost-competitive, sodium fast reactors as well as molten-salt energy storage systems. The heat generated by the 345-megawatt reactors could be stored in the molten-salt tanks, and converted into grid electricity to smooth out fluctuations in renewable energy.

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TerraPower, GE Hitachi team up on nuclear project

Versatile Test Reactor design
This cutaway graphic shows the design of the Versatile Test Reactor. (DOE Illustration)

TerraPower, the nuclear energy venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and headquartered in Bellevue, Wash., is collaborating with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy in pursuit of a public-private partnership to design and construct the Versatile Test Reactor for the U.S. Department of Energy.

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TerraPower branches out into medical isotopes

Nuclear processing
A team at Oak Ridge National Laboratory opens a uranium-233 canister inside a glovebox. (ORNL Photo)

TerraPower, the nuclear research venture founded by Bill Gates, is joining with Isotek Systems and the U.S. Department of Energy in a public-private partnership aimed at turning what otherwise would be nuclear waste into radiation doses for cancer treatment.

The partnership matches TerraPower’s demand for radioisotopes with the federal government’s need to dispose of nuclear material that’s been stored for decades at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Isotek, a DOE contractor that’s responsible for overseeing Oak Ridge’s inventory of uranium-233, will use the proceeds from the sale of extracted thorium-229 to accelerate the schedule for disposal of the Cold War stockpile. In a news release, the Department of Energy said the deal will save $90 million in taxpayer dollars.

TerraPower will use the thorium that it purchases from Isotek to further medical applications of radioisotope technologies.

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Nuclear venture targets coal-based carbon fiber

TerraPower lab
TerraPower, a venture co-founded by Bill Gates, conducts nuclear energy research at a 10,000-square-foot laboratory in Bellevue, Wash. (TerraPower Photo)

BELLEVUE, Wash. — TerraPower, the venture that’s working on next-generation nuclear reactors with backing from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, is now working on next-generation uses for coal as well.

The privately held company, based in Bellevue, is part of a team that’s receiving more than $1 million in federal funding to develop an emissions-free process to produce carbon fiber from coal.

The prime recipient of the funding is Ramaco Carbon — a coal resource, research and carbon manufacturing company based in Sheridan, Wyo. Ramaco focuses on developing high-value applications for coal that don’t involve its use in power plants.

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Space Council highlights moon, Mars … and nukes

Vice President Mike Pence delivers opening remarks during the sixth meeting of the National Space Council at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. The space shuttle Discovery towers over him. (NASA Photo / Aubrey Gemignani)

The latest meeting of the National Space Council provided a forum to build support for NASA’s twin-focus plan to send astronauts to the Moon in preparation for trips to Mars – and for the idea of using nuclear-powered rockets to get there.

In contrast to some of the council’s past meetings, today’s session at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia produced no Space Policy Directives with capital letters. Instead, administration officials – led by Vice President Mike Pence – summarily approved a set of recommendations aimed at fostering cooperation with commercial ventures and international partners on NASA’s moon-to-Mars initiative.

Pence said the recommendations give NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine a 60-day timeline for “designation of an office and submission of a plan for sustainable lunar surface exploration and the development of crewed missions to Mars.”

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Peek inside TerraPower’s nuclear research lab

TerraPower lab
A panoramic view of TerraPower’s laboratory shows a full-scale fuel assembly test stand at the center of the frame – with lab facility manager Brian Morris pointing out details toward the left of the frame. The circle that’s painted on the floor indicates how big the nuclear containment vessel would be. Click on the picture for a larger version. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

BELLEVUE, Wash. – Just a stone’s throw away from Interstate 90’s crush of traffic, a decade-old startup founded by Bill Gates is running tests aimed at building the next generation of nuclear reactors.

You’ll find no more than a smidgen of radioactive material at the privately funded venture, known as TerraPower. But if Microsoft’s co-founder and TerraPower’s other leaders have their way, the technologies being pioneered at the 10,000-square-foot lab could boost electrical grids around the world.

We got a rare look inside the lab, which is housed alongside facilities for Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue’s Eastgate neighborhood, and we heard from TerraPower’s executives about the connection between Gates’ past as a co-founder of Microsoft and his vision for future energy innovation.

“If you think about Bill Gates’ accomplishments in computing, we’re really trying to repeat that for nuclear energy,” said Chris Levesque, TerraPower’s president and CEO. “We think nuclear is overdue for technology demonstrations.”

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Bill Gates endorses bill to boost nuclear power

TerraPower test
A technician places a full-size test fuel pin bundle in TerraPower’s pin duct interaction test apparatus. TerraPower, founded by Bill Gates, is working on traveling-wave reactor technology. (TerraPower Photo)

If dollars were votes, newly reintroduced legislation aimed at boosting nuclear energy innovation and advanced reactors would be a winner, thanks to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’ strong endorsement today.

The world’s second-richest person is the founder and chairman of Bellevue, Wash.-based TerraPower, a startup that’s working on next-generation nuclear fission reactors. Back in December, Gates listed nuclear energy research as one of his top policy priorities, and he reportedly followed up by promising lawmakers he’d invest $1 billion of his own money and line up another $1 billion in private capital if federal funds were approved for a TerraPower pilot project in the United States.

TerraPower had planned a pilot in China, but trade tensions upset the plan.

During the waning days of the previous congressional session, a bipartisan group in the Senate introduced a measure called the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, which would promote next-generation nuclear power by boosting research and setting up long-term agreements for federal power purchases from newly licensed reactors.

The bill would require the Department of Energy to demonstrate two advanced reactor concepts by 2025, followed by another two to five concepts by 2035.

That would brighten the outlook for TerraPower as well as other next-gen nuclear power companies such as Oregon-based NuScale Power, which is planning to build a small-scale modular reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory by 2026.

There wasn’t enough time to move the bill out of committee last year — but on Wednesday, the legislation was reintroduced by 15 senators, including Republicans such as Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham as well as Democrats such as New Jersey’s Cory Booker and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin.

That came as music to Gates’ ears, and today he let the world know on Twitter.

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Bill Gates shifts nuclear sights from China to U.S.

TerraPower lab
TerraPower, a venture co-founded by Bill Gates, conducts nuclear energy research at a 10,000-square-foot laboratory in Bellevue, Wash. (TerraPower Photo)

In his year-end letter, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates says his to-do list for 2019 includes persuading U.S. leaders to regain America’s leading role in nuclear energy research and embrace advanced nuclear technologies such as the concept being advanced by his own TerraPower venture.

“The world needs to be working on lots of solutions to stop climate change,” Gates wrote in the wide-ranging letter, released tonight. “Advanced nuclear is one, and I hope to persuade U.S. leaders to get into the game.”

Gates acknowledged that tighter U.S. export restrictions, put in place by the Trump administration, have virtually ruled out TerraPower’s grand plan to test its traveling-wave nuclear technology in China.

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Hanford sounds all-clear after steam sparks alarm

Hanford waste site
Crews inspected the area around a tunnel at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation that contains nuclear waste. (Department of Energy Photo)

Workers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeastern Washington state were told to take cover for several hours today when steam was seen escaping from a tunnel where radioactive waste is being stored.

The take-cover order was lifted at about 12:15 p.m. PT when inspectors confirmed that there was no radiological release from Tunnel 2 at Hanford’s Plutonium Uranium Extraction facility, or PUREX, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Richland Operations Office reported in an update.

For the past few weeks, Hanford workers have been filling the 1,688-foot-long tunnel with thousands of cubic yards of grout to guard against the tunnel’s collapse. The tunnel, which dates back to 1964, houses a set of 28 rail cars that contain contaminated equipment. The last rail car was placed inside in 1996.

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