Academic journal article Connections : The Quarterly Journal

U.S.-Russian Cooperation in Science and Technology: A Case Study of the TOPAZ Space-Based Nuclear Reactor International Program

Academic journal article Connections : The Quarterly Journal

U.S.-Russian Cooperation in Science and Technology: A Case Study of the TOPAZ Space-Based Nuclear Reactor International Program

Article excerpt

The TOPAZ International Program (TIP) was the final name given to a series of projects to purchase for testing in the United States the TOPAZ-II, a space-based nuclear reactor of a type that had been more fully developed in the Soviet Union than in the United States. The TOPAZ-II represented the more than twenty years of the Soviet space program's experience with nuclear thermionic power system technology, which matured during the period from 1969 to 1990. In the changing political situation associated with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it became possible for the United States to not just purchase the system, but also to employ Russian scientists, engineers, and testing facilities to verify its reliability. The TIP presented the only opportunity for Russian scientists and engineers to continue the development of thermionic space nuclear power systems for civil (non-defense) applications, as funding for these efforts in the USSR had been cut off. The TIP became the first prominent example of international cooperation between Russia and the United States in a formerly highly classified area of technology following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The TIP story began in January 1989, when Russian scientists led by Academician Dr. Nikolay N. Ponomarev-Stepnoy of the Kurchatov Institute first described the TOPAZ-II reactor at a scientific symposium in Albuquerque. Several U.S. engineers recognized the commercial potential of this technology and succeeded in obtaining funding from the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) to arrange for delivery and testing in Albuquerque of six functioning models, eventually employing up to fifty Russian scientists, engineers, and technicians at any one time and over 250 Russians total from 1991-95 to work with U.S., British, and French scientists and engineers on proving its effectiveness.

They began working together as the Thermionic System Evaluation Test (TSET), conducting thermal vacuum, electric power, and mechanical testing and evaluation of the USSR-built TOPAZ-II without nuclear fuel. The successes of TSET led to the ambi- tious Nuclear Electric Propulsion Space Test Program (NEPSTP), which proposed placing a TOPAZ-II reactor in space; however, NEPSTP was cancelled before this was attempted. Meanwhile, ancillary testing regimens, such as the Thermionic Fuel Element Verification Program (TFEVP), provided valuable insights into the durability of components and materials science in general as well as ways to ensure the nuclear safety of the space reactor. For complex political and technical reasons, funding for TIP was cut in 1996, forcing the return of the scientists and the functioning TOPAZ models to Russia. The lessons learned from the TIP illuminate some of the institutional and cultural challenges to U.S.-Russian cooperation in technology research that remain true today.

The Science of TOPAZ

"TOPAZ" is a Russian acronym for "Thermionic Experiment with Conversion in Active Zone." The TOPAZ power system utilized thermionic energy conversion, a process in which a heated surface emits electrons that are collected by a cooler surface. This transfer of electrons generates electrical power. This process is completely static, meaning that there are few moving parts, making the reactor highly durable and reliable.

There were two types of TOPAZ reactors: the TOPAZ reactor developed by the Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) Scientific Industrial Association and the Institute for Physics and Power Engineering, and the TOPAZ-II reactor developed by the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, the Central Design Bureau for Machine Building, and the Research Institute of the LUCH Scientific Industrial Association. The TOPAZ-II reactor featured a single-cell construction of the Thermionic Fuel Elements (TFEs), while the TOPAZ used a multi-cell construction. The single-cell TFEs in the TOPAZ-II allowed for a non-nuclear testing process in which tungsten electric heaters could be substituted for nuclear fuel, which reduced the financial costs and improved the safety and environmental considerations of determining power system performance and reliability characteristics. …

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