World Nuclear News is reporting that NASA is gearing up to test what it calls a kilopower reactor at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. The idea is to provide future Space Probes and even human expeditions into Deep Space a new power source that will serve as an alternative to solar power or Radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). The work is being done with the help of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

How does a kilopower reactor work?

The core of a kilopower reactor consists of a quantity of uranium 235. The heat generated by the uranium will be transferred by sodium pipes to Stirling engines that will use it to create pressure forces to move a piston.

The engine is attached to an alternator to generate electricity. A kilowatt reactor would be able to produce one to ten kilowatts of electricity a year.

What are the advantages of this sort of power source?

Kilopower reactors are not dependent on the sun or orientation to the sun to gain power. It uses easy to acquire uranium rather than scarce plutonium-238. Moreover, both solar energy and RTGs generally provide a couple of hundred watts of electricity, which can limit the capabilities of a space probe. With one to 10 kilowatts to play with, relatively large space probes with powerful ion propulsion units could be launched to explore the solar system. Several kilopower reactors clustered together could provide enough power for a lunar base or a deep spacecraft.

Does the technology have any civilian applications?

The main impediment for using a killopower reactor for civilian application is that it uses material that is used to create atomic bombs as well as fuel nuclear power plants. In theory, one could use the technology for a home power unit or even, if it can be made small enough, a replacement for a battery in an electric car.

In every case, the problem of nuclear security exists. One cannot have terrorists gathering material for a bomb by breaking into home power units or even under the hood of electric cars. The idea of a spill of radioactive material happening as a result of an automobile accident is not something anyone wants to contemplate.

For the foreseeable future, at least, kilopower reactors are going to be consigned to specialized government and military use.

One can imagine using the technology to power remote military bases where the supply line may be disrupted by enemy action. It can also be used to provide emergency power, under strict supervision, in the event of natural or human-caused disasters.