New executive order calls for DOD to explore uses for space nuclear power

By Courtney Albon / January 13, 2021 at 12:52 PM

President Trump this week issued a new executive order that would require the Defense Department to work with the Commerce and Energy departments as well as NASA to consider the benefits and utility of advanced nuclear reactors for space power.

The order, issued Jan. 12, directs DOD to: pilot a transportable micro-reactor prototype; initiate an analysis of alternatives for the technical, regulatory and personnel requirements needed to inform decisions around nuclear power usage; and consider how the United States and foreign adversaries could use space nuclear power and propulsion technologies in a military context.

“Fuel demands for a modern United States military have dramatically grown since World War II and are anticipated to continue to increase in order to support high-energy-usage military systems,” the order states. “In this context, nuclear power could significantly enhance national defense power capabilities.”

The order also directs DOD and NASA as well as the State, Commerce and Energy departments to craft a common technology roadmap that explores terrestrial-based advanced nuclear reactor and space-based nuclear power and propulsion efforts. With a look toward 2030, the roadmap should include assessments of foreign nations' space nuclear power and propulsion capabilities and pathways for transitioning "federally supported programs to private-sector activities."

According to the executive order, the roadmap is due prior to the NASA, State, Commerce and Energy department budget submissions.

The executive order follows a new space policy directive, SPD-6, which was released Dec. 16 and laid out a path for space nuclear reactors and propulsion systems.

Elsewhere in the order, the president directs the defense secretary to demonstrate the energy flexibility and cost effectiveness associated with using commercial micro-reactors at a domestic defense installation, calling for a demonstration plan within six months.

"If the demonstration is successful, the secretary of defense shall identify opportunities at domestic military installations where this capability could enhance or supplement the fulfillment of installation energy requirements," the order states, noting that DOD should consider defense-unique needs as it analyzes possible applications.