Lessons from LANL’s Nukes-in-Space Breakthrough

Last night Errors of Enchantment was at Santa Fe Community College for “Kilopower: Powering NASA Missions on Mars,” a presentation by Los Alamos National Laboratory Fellows Patrick McClure (at the lectern in photo above) and David Poston. The scary-smart engineers are in charge of the Kilopower project, “a near-term technology effort to develop preliminary concepts and technologies that could be used for an affordable fission nuclear power system.”

With the solar system failing to offer “easy access to electric power” — solar isn’t so spectacular here on Earth, but it’s essentially worthless out beyond Mars — space exploration far from our planet’s immediate neighborhood is going to need a safe, reliable, and relatively cheap source of juice. Atomic power “could provide abundant energy anywhere that humans or our robotic science probes might go,” so McClure and Poston are working to develop a “compact, low cost, fission reactor for exploration and science, scalable from 1 kW to 10 kW electric.” They achieved proof-of-concept in 2012, and in late 2017 and early 2018, put the Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling TechnologY (KRUSTY), depicted below, through its paces at the Nevada National Security Site.

KRUSTY underwent five months of successful testing, and the engineers are almost giddy with excitement about where they go from here. Besides NASA, the military is interested (Afghanistan, the Arctic) and they’ve spoken with both SpaceX and Blue Origin.

It was a fun evening. Errors of Enchantment‘s correspondent elicited laughter and applause when he told the scientists: “I have never said this to government employees before in my entire life, but congratulations on your brilliant work.”

But the event offered many reminders of that Big Science’s presence in New Mexico is both an asset and a liability. McClure made note that between 1970 and 2010, NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) plowed enormous sums of taxpayer revenue into space-reactor programs, “with limited success and NO flight missions.” The reasons? “Too complicated and costly,” dependency on “new materials and processes,” development timelines “usually longer than the mission can wait,” and unfounded “optimism for out-of-the-box system performance.” The Kilopower project may be reversing that curse — and doing so at a fraction of the expense — but the future is anyone’s guess. Politicians, not scientists and engineers, are in charge of “national investment” in research and development, and legislative careerists have proven to be stunningly inept at picking which cutting-edge technologies make the most sense. In addition, pols are susceptible to the hysterical claims of the deep-pocketed environmental lobby. (Think fission-in-space will go over well with “greens”?)

Another lesson from last night: The government and the private sector come at technological risk-taking from very different angles. McClure mentioned that space companies’ top concern with Kilopower project-type energy is regulation. Interested firms have decided, quite reasonably, that the government can’t be trusted to to lay down a sensible, consistent regulatory architecture. So why not let the taxpayers continue to fund experimentation? The Pentagon, as a “customer” of the tech, has a similar trust issue. It doesn’t want to spend a dime from its budget, given how often it’s been “burned” by unmet NASA/DOE promises.

Finally, as shown below, despite being ground zero for brainiacs who have forgotten more about science and engineering that most of us will ever know, Los Alamos National Laboratory isn’t above playing the PR game. Swag — stress balls, glasses-cleaning cloths, and hot/cold pads — were distributed by the flacks who joined McClure and Poston at the lecture.

As left-leaning, public-payroll economist Lee Reynis observed several years ago, “If the federal government is so good, how come we’re so poor?” No one in New Mexico’s political establishment has an answer to that question — or is even interested in asking it. The Kilopower project offers some evidence for those who defend the value of federal R&D spending. But it also reminds us that for every success, there have been many failures, and the much-touted “tech transfer” said to promise spectacular economic development in the Land on Enchantment still hasn’t arrived.

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