How can nuclear energy help power deep space exploration? What are the policy and regulatory issues for nuclear-propelled space travel? These are the types of questions a panel of experts, including two staff members from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), discussed as part of a space symposium hosted by the University of Washington (UW) Space Policy and Research Center (SPARC).
Nuclear engineer Jeff Katalenich and Jessica Rogers, a legislative and regulatory analyst, served on the panel, “Power for Propulsion,” during the November event. The virtual symposium brought together researchers, policymakers, and industry professionals to discuss the challenges and opportunities around powering space.
Katalenich works to develop improved methods for processing nuclear fuel sources, such as plutonium-238—a radioisotope used to fuel long-lasting batteries for spacecraft electronics. He spoke about the potential use of nuclear-reactor technology to develop high-powered electric systems for spacecraft propulsion.
“In the context of nuclear electric propulsion, I think there’s a lot of potential in the coming years,” he said during the event. “We may see space reactors being deployed this decade, but there are a lot of associated challenges.”
Among these challenges is the question of how nuclear-powered space exploration can affect law and policy surrounding the use of nuclear materials in the United States and around the world. During the panel discussion, Rogers shared her perspective on the issue as an international lawyer who specializes in arms control and nonproliferation.
“I think a lot about how these ambitious space activities, and especially how our goal to get to Mars, are likely to increase the use and the amount of nuclear material in outer space,” Rogers said.
“From a policy perspective, the main questions I want to address are: How do we ensure peaceful and responsible use of nuclear power for space,” Rogers said. “What are the risks? And how can we mitigate them now to really ensure we will successfully pursue our space propulsion endeavors without any unintended consequences?”
Shaping space policy and law
As government and industry look to develop nuclear fuel systems for deep space exploration, the need to secure and safeguard nuclear materials becomes increasingly crucial. Rogers said PNNL’s deep experience and expertise in global nuclear security and nonproliferation—combined with its broad international reach and world-class research capabilities—strongly position PNNL to contribute to and influence the growing conversation around deep space exploration.
“As with every developing technology, it’s essential to think through the long-term consequences of our legal and policy choices as early as possible,” Rogers said. “Due to our technical reach and multidisciplinary nature here at PNNL, we have the tools to do so and to help our government sponsors keep pace with technological development.”
In addition to participating in the UW SPARC Space Symposium, Rogers is lending her expertise as co-chair of the Space Law Interest Group of the American Society of International Law. Earlier this fall, she served on the European Space Agency’s Young Lawyers Symposium panel discussing a legal regime for Mars. She also co-moderated a panel at the Space Law Week conference hosted by the University of Nebraska in September.
Rogers’s participation in these forums is an example of how PNNL is leading the charge to help shape future space policy and law, said Kathleen Doty, advisor for nonproliferation treaties and agreements. Like Rogers, Doty is a lawyer who works on space law issues as part of PNNL’s Global Security Technology Policy group.
“This area of law and policy will only grow in its importance for government and industry stakeholders as new actors and technologies emerge that engage with space,” Doty said. “Our future collective security will depend on the early establishment of norms for the safe and secure use of space.”
“Our future collective security will depend on the early establishment of norms for the safe and secure use of space.” — Kathleen Doty
PNNL and UW SPARC form new partnership
PNNL recently entered a partnership with UW SPARC with the goal of establishing a collaborative relationship to increase opportunities for joint research in science, technology, and policy topics affecting United States activities in space.
The memorandum of understanding between the two research organizations provides a formal framework for collaborative research, joint publication, student internships, exchange of expertise and technical capabilities, and other partnership opportunities.
Sarah Frazar, who leads the Global Security Technology Policy group, said PNNL’s Seattle office location, along with its historic relationships with federal, state, and local stakeholders, provides a solid foundation for the UW SPARC partnership and other regional collaborations.
“PNNL is perfectly situated to assist the Pacific Northwest space industry and to help PNNL’s federal sponsors understand and shape the policy and legal frameworks governing peaceful use of space,” she said.