How Nuclear Waste could Power Spacecraft

According to the European Space Agency (ESA) one of the most dangerous, toxic substances on Earth, nuclear waste, may become the future fuel for interplanetary freighters and space luxury liners.

What to do with nuclear waste has been the subject of spirited debates since the first successful atomic pile (nuclear reactor) was constructed and operated in Chicago by pioneer physicists working on the U.S. government’s top secret Manhattan Project during World War Two.

Some have scoured the Earth seeking places to bury the waste that may remain radioactive for many thousands of years.

During the past 15 years huge controversy erupted in reaction to the federal government’s plan to bury nuclear waste underneath Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. Some argued that the site was too near earthquake fault lines and others that it might eventually contaminate the deep, subterranean aquifers.

But as a handful of futurists predicted decades ago, nuclear waste may someday be considered valuable if it can be used for something productive. Historically, waste often has a habit of finding a use.

Now the ESA may have found a use: fuel for future spaceships. The space agency has demonstrated through experiments that batteries powered by the nuclear waste of a special isotope in decaying plutonium can be employed to power extended, deep space missions to Jupiter and the outer planets. Eventually those missions will be manned.

As part of the nuclear waste conversion project, the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) has successfully retrieved the isotope americium-241 from the waste plutonium. The radioactive sludge can potentially replace plutonium-238 that has been used by the U.S. and Russia to power space probes using nuclear batteries.

NNL’s Tim Tinsley oversees the innovative project that many believe may be a godsend. Nuclear waste has piled up by the tons in British ponds near Sellafield, a nuclear reprocessing facility located near the village of Seascale by the Irish coast of Cumbria, England.

“It is available due to a twist of fate,” he told the Financial Times. “We have been able to extract that americium and prove that it works.”

Tinsley explained that “There are export opportunities. A lot of countries such as China and India have interests in space.”

The conversion of nuclear waste to fuel is not limited to nuclear batteries aboard spacecraft. The technology could one day be used to power drone aircraft, nuclear-powered dirigibles, undersea research submersibles and other more exotic craft such as deep ore borers and subterranean drilling vehicles that travel underneath the earth.

The expanding technology eventually could find a use for all nuclear by-products that are now considered waste. If so, it would underscore the old adage that one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure.