Nuclear Power Sources and Future Space Exploration

By Mirmina, Steven A.; Herder, David J. Den | Chicago Journal of International Law, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Power Sources and Future Space Exploration


Mirmina, Steven A., Herder, David J. Den, Chicago Journal of International Law


I. INTRODUCTION

On January 14, 2004, President Bush announced a multi-decade long "Vision for Space Exploration" that encompasses human and robotic travel to the moon, Mars, and beyond. Central to this vision, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration ("NASA") is pursuing "Project Prometheus," a program that will manifest NASA's intention to revolutionize exploration in the twenty-first century. Project Prometheus represents a tremendous development in technology. When complete, it will utilize new and highly advanced power systems, including nuclear fission reactor technology, to enable systemic and propulsive power generation in space. Eventually, future nuclear thermal propulsion applications realized under Project Prometheus would hope to cut the travel time for a human journey to Mars from three years round-trip to a mere ninety days each way. Prometheus plans to provide spacecraft and potential future outposts with thousands to hundreds-of-thousands of watts of electricity ("We"), as opposed to the mere tens or hundreds of watts currently realized (equivalent to a few household light bulbs). The amount of energy generated represents a true paradigm shift for mission planners, both due to the amounts of power that will be available for scientists to conduct their investigations and research, as well as the future ability to provide power to maneuver a spacecraft throughout its mission via nuclear electric propulsion.

In light of such innovation and on the brink of such a fundamental transformation in space exploration, the United States has an important opportunity to engage the international community in analyses of issues related to the use of Nuclear Power Sources ("NPS") in space. NPS have been the subject of numerous recent international discussions. Most notably, at the United Nations, NPS has been on the agenda of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee ("STSC") of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space ("COPUOS"). Additionally, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics ("AIAA") recently hosted a Working Group on Nuclear Power Sources for Space Exploration. With so much attention being directed to NPS issues, it is appropriate to examine international legal issues related to nuclear-powered space exploration, and further, to consider opportunities facing the United States and other spacefaring nations to ensure the prudent application of this technology.

In this article, we will first provide a brief explanation of what NPS is and how it works. The article will clarify how terms are used and explain some factual background so that the issues can be discussed with clarity. It will follow with a brief history of the use of NPS in space, illustrating that the United States and Russia (including the former Soviet Union) have employed various forms of NPS in space for more than forty years. Next, the focus will shift to a discussion of the international legal regimes governing NPS both in space and, to a limited extent, on Earth, before launch. After the international legal regime, the United States's domestic regulatory and procedural structure is examined, with a discussion of an illustrative case in which plaintiffs attempted to enjoin the US Government from launching the NPS-equipped Cassini spacecraft.1 We conclude by examining several policy issues concerning nuclear power and propulsion systems in space, including the rationale and need therefor, while advocating extensive public participation and transparency in the safety reviews and decision making related to the use of this technology. Finally, the Article calls for spacefaring nations to establish and observe an international, technically-based safety framework to provide assurance to the world population that space NPS will be used in a safe manner and to facilitate bilateral and multilateral cooperation on missions using nuclear reactors and technologies in space.

II. HISTORICAL BACKGROUND AND USE OF TERMS

An initial clarification of term usage is prudent. …

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