Last week China announced the launch of a company to build twenty (20) floating nuclear power stations.  Russia continues to move forward with its floating nuclear power station, which are to be mass-produced at shipbuilding facilities and then towed to areas in need of power.  In fact, it is working towards initial fuel load on its first floating reactor.  Politics aside, these developments highlight a trend in nuclear power, which is the growing interest to power our cities with smaller, more flexible  reactors—which could be located offshore.

China and Russia are not the first to suggest the concept of sea-based reactors.  The world’s first operational nuclear reactors were naval reactors for submarines, and nuclear reactors continue to power submarines and aircraft carriers around the world.  In the commercial power space, a floating nuclear reactor effort called the Offshore Power System project was explored in the 1970s to provide power onshore, although it eventually did not move forward.  Since then, Russia has taken a lead role, constructing the Akademik Lomonosov, a floating reactor that will be towed to Pevek in Russia’s Eastern half for power generation.  Private enterprise has also taken interest in the concept.  For example, a company called ThorCon is proposing a molten salt reactor power that would be located on a ship and deploy-able around the world, called the ThorConIsle.  However, China’s effort may ultimately prove to be one of the more extensive ones.  The company will be formed by five entities including the China National Nuclear Power Corporation, and will have an initial capital of $150 million.

The legal, policy, and regulatory issues posed by floating reactors are as interesting as the technology.  The location of the floating reactors next to other countries is of course a key concern. The Akademik Lomonosov had to change where it would be fueled due to concerns by Norway.  Some are alleging that the Chinese reactor project is part of an effort to help boost control of the South China Sea.  The transit of floating nuclear reactors–which do not propel the vessels they are on–by neighboring countries raises legal issues that would need to be navigated.  In addition, just as the siting of wind turbines offshore has at times generated strong local opposition, similar grass-roots opposition could arise to challenge the siting of floating reactors located offshore.  These challenges can be overcome, but should be considered early on in project development.

The regulatory framework in which a private company would construct a reactor would also need to be examined.  For example, in the United States, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) Standard Review Plan for examining the safety of nuclear reactors does not necessarily envision floating reactors.  That does not mean a floating reactor could not get licensed in the United States, however, and in fact the Offshore Power System, and the licensing of the NS Savannah provide some useful precedent.  The NS Savannah was licensed by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor agency of the NRC, and although this was built to be a “goodwill ship,” a goal in the construction of the ship was to meet civilian safety requirements so the vessel could be usable by the public.  Moreover, the NRC works with the Department of Energy (DOE) to provide technical support for DOE’s oversight of the U.S. Nuclear Navy.

Extending civilian use of nuclear power to the ocean presents questions, but also significant opportunities, for both the developed and developing world.  Please do not hesitate to contact the authors if you wish to learn more.

Yesterday, NASA awarded a nuclear contractor, BWXT, nearly $20 million to explore conceptual designs for a nuclear thermal propulsion system.  This is one sign that nuclear power may see a comeback in space, raising interesting legal and regulatory questions.

Nuclear space propulsion can offer much higher thrust with less weight than chemical rockets.  The BWXT project is part of NASA’s “Game Changing Development Program,” and has the potential to significantly alter space travel.  Although the exact design of any nuclear space propulsion system to result from this effort is unclear, it is clear that any design would be a novel, next-generation reactor concept.

Nuclear power has been long embraced by NASA.  For example, the Voyager spacecraft, the farthest man-made objects in space, use nuclear batteries.  NASA’s Orion and NERVA projects directly experimented with nuclear propulsion, although those programs were terminated.  But as NASA has more closely looked at travel to Mars, nuclear propulsion has reentered the fray as a potentially suitable means of travel.

The legal questions that arise from the use of nuclear power in space are varied.  There are treaty issues.  Five treaties and five declarations of legal principles govern many aspects of the exploration and use of outer space, and these and other legal documents would touch on increased reliance on nuclear power.  The Orion project, which essentially sought to use nuclear explosions to drive spacecraft, was cut off by a treaty, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.  There are also commercial issues, such as a shortage of plutonium for nuclear space batteries (radioisotope generators).

Moreover, the current legal regime focuses on the government’s use of nuclear power for peaceful purposes in space.  DOE has extensive experience with radioisotope generators, and most if not all U.S. nuclear power systems launched to date, including for both security and NASA missions, have been provided under the NASA/DOE Radioisotope Power Systems Program. Space, however, is quickly being privatized, with independent companies aiming to get to Mars far earlier than NASA is planning.  The entry of private companies into space may call for an increased role for the government to take on a role as a regulator of private nuclear spacecraft efforts.

Jurisdictional oversight would need to be addressed for commercial projects that do not fall under the authority of the Department of Energy.  For example, in the U.S., the nuclear regulator for civilian nuclear projects—the Nuclear Regulatory Commission—has its oversight limited to the jurisdictional boundaries of the U.S.  Other issues that would need to be addressed include fuel sources.  The United Nations Principles Relevant to the Use of Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space provide a requirement that nuclear reactors in space use highly enriched uranium, not plutonium, which has historically been used in radioisotope generators.  Highly enriched uranium can be hard to procure in the commercial sector.  Pursuant to presidential directives, nuclear power sources in space may also need Presidential approval before launch.  Other issues that would need to be addressed include nuclear insurance and nuclear liability for third party damages.

Nonetheless, the use of nuclear power in space is not a new frontier for NASA, and the agency’s renewed interest presents a promising use of this powerful technology.  Moreover, the legal and commercial issues associated with any potential civilian use of nuclear technology in space do not appear to be insurmountable.  With the amount of energy nuclear power can provide, for long duration, while using small amounts of material, this technology makes sense for space travel and exploration.

For more on the use of nuclear power in novel applications, from space travel to micro-batteries and everything in between, please contact the authors.