Why is NASA testing bomb-grade materials for its Mars mission?
By Alan J. Kuperman and Edwin Lyman
Aug 20, 2017 | 6:00 AM
Absent funding for a manned mission to Mars, why is NASA rushing toward a September test of a bomb-grade uranium reactor that could undermine global efforts to minimize use of such dangerous fuel?
A new space race is afoot. President Donald Trump and CEOs Elon Musk (Tesla) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon) are all advocating manned missions to Mars, a tantalizing objective. However, in humankind's drive to explore strange new worlds, we must be careful not to endanger life here on Earth.
Regrettably, to power its Mars mission, NASA's Goddard Space Center is trying to develop a nuclear reactor fueled by weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium — the stuff of the Hiroshima bomb — threatening to undermine decades of progress in phasing out such dangerous material from reactors worldwide to reduce risks of nuclear terrorism and proliferation.
Instead of violating U.S.-led nonproliferation norms, NASA should embrace an ongoing alternative reactor design that uses fuel made with low-enriched uranium, unsuitable for nuclear weapons.
If terrorists got hold of a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium, they could set off an actual nuclear explosion simply by slamming two pieces of the material together. This was the principle behind the Hiroshima bomb that killed tens of thousands in 1945. The resulting devastation from blast effects, fire and high radiation would dwarf that from an improvised "dirty bomb," which disperses relatively tiny amounts of radioactive material.
The U.S. government needs to practice what it preaches. No competitor would forego bomb-grade uranium if NASA charges ahead with use of this dangerous material. Now is the moment to make clear that the global norm against highly enriched uranium in reactors applies to space missions too.
Fortunately, bomb-grade uranium is not necessary for a nuclear Mars mission — either to get to the planet or to provide energy once there.
Absent funding for a manned mission to Mars, why is NASA rushing toward a September test of a bomb-grade uranium reactor that could undermine global efforts to minimize use of such dangerous fuel? Good question. Taxpayer dollars and private capital would be better spent developing space reactors that use safe low enriched uranium, so these systems can be ready when the U.S. government eventually marshals the funds for a mission to the red planet, or beyond.
Alan J. Kuperman (ak@NPPP.org) is associate professor and coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project (www.NPPP.org) at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin; he is editor of Nuclear Terrorism and Global Security: The Challenge of Phasing Out Highly Enriched Uranium. Dr. Edwin Lyman (ELyman@ucsusa.org) is senior scientist in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists and co-author of "Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster."