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‘Star Wars’ Helps Revive Space-Based Nuclear Reactor Program

November 22, 1985

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The massive amounts of power needed to operate exotic weapons and radar in a ″Star Wars″ missile defense system is helping revive a 30-year-old program to develop compact nuclear reactors for use in outer space.

The revival is prompted largely by the need for sources of electricity more powerful than the batteries and solar cells now used on most satellites to power the futuristic lasers and tracking devices in President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative program.

But the small atomic reactors also are expected someday to power space stations and communications and air traffic control satellites, plus long- distance, unmanned voyages to Neptune and other outer planets and, in the distant future, a manned space flight to Mars.

″With a six-megawatt nuclear power plant, a five-man crew could travel to Mars in about 600 days, stay for 30 days and return in 270 days,″ says Herbert Davis, manager for the SP-100 space reactor development project at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The lab is attempting to develop a 300-kilowatt reactor by 1991 as the first step in renewing a massive atomic power in space program begun in the mid-1950s but dropped a decade ago.

Energy Secretary John Herrington was scheduled to announce formally today which of five competing national labs operated by his department would get the bulk of some $480 million over the next six years to develop and ground-test the reactor.

However, there were several indications late Thursday that he had picked the Energy Department’s Hanford, Wash., national laboratory over laboratories at Idaho Falls, Idaho; Oak Ridge, Tenn., Albuquerque, N.M., and at the Nevada atomic weapons test site near Las Vegas.

For one thing, Herrington scheduled a meeting this morning with Sens. Slade Gorton and Daniel Evans and Rep. Sid Morrison, all Republicans from Washington state. A spokesman for Gorton said there would be a press briefing with Herrington afterwards.

Both administration and congressional sources, asking not to be identified by name, said Herrington had no similar meetings scheduled today with delegations from other states vying for the project. Aides to congressmen from those other states took that to mean Hanford was Herrington’s choice.

Most of the government’s previous research on liquid metal-cooled fast reactors, the design chosen for the program, has been conducted at Hanford and Oak Ridge.

″The logical choice would be one of those two facilities; that’s where the expertise is,″ one aide said. ″But, ultimately, it’s a political decision, and this administration does not have a habit of throwing a favor to the other party.″

Tennessee’s two U.S. senators, along with the House member representing the Oak Ridge area, all are Democrats. The SP-100 project, which was launched in 1983 as a joint effort among the Energy and Defense departments and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is not the government’s first attempt to carry nuclear power into space.

From 1955 through 1978, the govermment spent between $3 billion and $4 billion on a series of nuclear reactor projects for the space program.

But the only reactor ever put into the heavens - the 500 watt SNAP (Systems for Nuclear Auxillary Power) model 10A in 1965 - worked for just 43 days before it was shut down prematurely by an electronics mishap.

When the Nixon administration in the early 1970s postponed NASA’s development of a space station, work on the space-based nuclear technologies slowed to a trickle.

Reviving it was the Air Force’s recognition that photovoltaic solar cells, chemical fuel cells and radioisotope thermoelectric generators - the three technologies now used to produce electricity for space vehicles - were too heavy or bulky to provide the needed power for space-based radars and lasers.

The House Science and Technology Committee also was told in 1983 by Pentagon officials that existing military communications satellites were vulnerable to electromagnetic forces from hostile nuclear explosions.

With more energy available from nuclear reactors, Pentagon officials said, those satellites could use less energy-efficient but much more rugged integrated circuits.