Europe wants to recycle nuclear waste in space

In terms of energy, nuclear power is an excellent solution with a much higher return than wind or solar. But using enriched uranium to produce electricity presents several problems. The first of these is a security risk. The Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents are proof of this.

The second is environment. If nuclear production only releases water vapor, residual “waste” is always present when fission is complete. They are usually stored miles below the surface, buried in large concrete blocks covered with a lead screed.

A not ideal solution, much disputed by the environmental movements. To use this nuclear waste differently, a team of researchers proposes to use it to produce batteries. They would then be used in space to power satellites.

The first results “at the end of the decade”

This idea comes from the corridors of ESA, the European Space Agency. The use of such batteries could make it possible to propel space probes into regions of the solar system where darkness reigns. It would thus be possible to orbit the Moon without fear of passing through its shadow.

ESA researchers would like to use americium, a radioactive element derived from irradiated plutonium. Present in large numbers in European reactors, this element costs 50 times less than plutonium. This energy source would be powerful enough to heat scientific devices in the cold of space or even generate electricity and drive engines.

Europe wants its independence

As the war in Ukraine continues, trade between Europe and Russia is scarce. However, it is precisely Vladimir Putin’s country that supplies a large part of the plutonium that the old continent used. Athena Coustenis, Chair of the ESA Advisory Board, says: “The current political situation shows that you cannot always count on long-standing partners. »

ESA researchers are currently working on the use of americium in batteries. This is a major scientific first, and they expect to encounter several technical problems in their development. Within ESA, it is hoped to be able to integrate americium batteries “at the end of the decade. »

If this project ends, ESA can carry out its own space exploration missions. It would no longer have to do joint projects with NASA, Roscomos (Russia) or JAXA (Japan).

Nuclear: a solution considered but never used

Nuclear power has always been an option for the space world. Thermal nuclear propulsion uses a small nuclear reactor to heat a liquid and propel a rocket. Due to the risk of accidents, this solution has never been tested in flight. But in 2019, NASA received $125 million in funding to develop this technology. This propulsion method is now mentioned in connection with manned missions to Mars.

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