Should nuclear power be used in space? Is it too dangerous? Do the benefits outweigh the risks, or can we take no chances in the final frontier?
by Maanas Shah
Nuclear power in space could revolutionize space exploration and spacefaring, pushing the limits past our current reach, but at the same time, this form of energy could be incredibly dangerous as it has already proven to be on Earth. Should nuclear power be implemented in space, and, if so, how? Is there any neutral stance between these two options?
The possibility of using nuclear power in space travel/exploration has been considered since the advent of two technologies. In theory, it should be relatively straightforward; we simply use the technology of nuclear reactors that we have already developed in space to power crafts that will then be able to go further and faster. However, the usage of nuclear power on Earth is still a heavily debated issue, and using it in space brings more nuances that might make even the most avid supporters reconsider its feasibility. Considering these risks, it should be obvious then that nuclear power in space cannot be used, right? The possible benefits, however, may be too much to overlook, and it is from this argument in which this Trilemma forms.
Should nuclear power be used in space? Is it too dangerous? Do the benefits outweigh the risks, or can we take no chances in the final frontier? In addition to these questions we will consider as well if there is any other neutral stance that is possible between these polarizing options. Finally, it should be noted that to really understand the nature of this Trilemma, one should have an understanding of the trilemma around nuclear power on earth itself (You can find an article about the topic, written by Pranav Arun here).
Nuclear Power in Space is Essential:
Nuclear power on Earth already has huge and very apparent advantages that benefit millions-if not billions-of people worldwide in its mass creation of power. The main draw to nuclear power is the amount of energy it can create, and the speed in which it can be created, all from (relatively) small amounts of fuel (uranium in this case). These would be the main draws to nuclear power in space as well, but due to the inherent nature of space, these benefits would be even more helpful there. For example, a spacecraft, whether it is a probe or an entire rocket, needs to travel huge amounts of distance at fast speeds (in proportion to the distance it goes). In addition, the spacecraft also would have no choice to refuel, as we do not have the existing space infrastructure for refueling yet, and because of this, the smaller the source of energy is, the more effective it can be as there is less mass to propel. Because it can solve all three of these crucial issues, nuclear power in space would thus go beyond just “more power” and could be vital to making interstellar probes or manned missions in our solar system possible.
Many people cite that nuclear power is dangerous due to the disastrous accidents, such as the Chernobyl and Fukushima incidents (where entire regions of Russia and Japan were devastated), that have taken place before. However, to counter that it is just a matter of how much effort is willing to be put in. Humans are prone to error and many of our endeavors, including spacefaring, have been met with disasters, but that has never stopped us before. As technology ages, safety will increase as well. With the proper staff and training, these disasters can be avoided as they have on earth for the last several years. Of course, it will be more challenging in space, but spacecrafts are not easy things to control in the first place, and those who are capable of it are definitely able to follow the proper safety procedures of nuclear power.
Nuclear Power in Space cannot be considered:
While there are many benefits to it, nuclear power in space comes with many dangerous risks to consider. Nuclear power has already shown us several times in the past (in events such as the Cherynobel and Fukushima incidents) that it is a dangerous tool with devastating consequences. During these events, huge portions of nations were destroyed by an explosion or affected with radiation, rendering the whole region uninhabitable by humans for millennia. Nuclear accidents may not be incredibly prevalent, but when they do occur, they are some of the worst accidents that can happen to mankind, and this devastation would only be further afflicting in space. In the stranded expanses of space, a nuclear meltdown would almost wipe out everyone aboard that ship, station, or settlement, as they would have nowhere to escape or get aid from. While training is, of course, possible, no matter how much humans are trained, they will always make a mistake eventually; it is simply human nature. And in this case, one mistake is all it takes to potentially overturn any of the possible benefits gained by this technology. Additionally, nuclear disasters have occurred on Earth as a result of natural disasters (i.e earthquakes and storms) and this unpredictability does not vanish in space, which brings its own natural disasters (i.e. asteroids and solar flares).
The process of creating nuclear power brings many risks as well. The radioactivity of uranium (fuel for nuclear reactors) and the need to dispose of the radioactive and slow decaying (thousands of years) nuclear waste, are also huge arguments against nuclear power on Earth, and in space. Sure, these issues might not plague unmanned probes, but in the long run, larger crafts which carry humans and will need the most fuel will have to deal with these issues.
Where could fuel that is toxic and dangerous to the limited crew of a spacecraft be stored safely, and where would the waste from this substance be handled? Surely, ejecting it into space may work at first, but is the pollution of outer space really the safest option? Either way, there will need to be contact between some of the crew and the radioactive substances, which poses a huge threat to the entire crew. Spacecrafts may be large, but since the actual space within for astroughts is limited, and the fact that qualified personnel are scarce, their crews are quite small. This means there would likely be no space for a specialized crew or crewmate to handle the uranium or waste. While these specialized crews could be possible in full space colonies, it will be a long time before civilians will habitat these colonies. Thus, if nuclear power is to be used, it must be maintained at the start by the limited astronauts initially deployed. This means that one of the piloting members will have to handle it, and they might contract radiation poisoning which would severely hinder the mission. Even worse is the possibility that they spread the radiation around the ship (or settlement) or to other astronauts, inflicting them with radiation poisoning (an illness caused by the overexposure of radiation and will almost always result in death).This is an issue that might be even more important to consider than nuclear accidents, and needs to be thoroughly reviewed before considering nuclear power in space.
A neutral stance to Nuclear Power in Space?:
Now that we’ve looked at our two sides of the spectrum, we ask the age-old question if there is a neutral stance somewhere in between? In this case, however, there is no true neutral stance. If we do decide to invest in nuclear power in space, it is imperative that we go all out and make sure safety procedures are carefully created and strictly set in stone to prevent any possible dangers. However, if we decide to not invest in nuclear power in space citing safety concerns, then we mustn’t consider it at all to prevent haphazard attempts, and should instead invest in the search for safer alternatives.