US on Nuclear Power Sources in Outer Space at COPUOS STSC 2022

Artist’s concept of the New Horizons spacecraft, whose miniature cameras, radio science experiment, ultraviolet and infrared spectrometers, and space plasma experiments are powered by the DOE’s radioisotope thermoelectric generator. (JHUAPL/SwRI)

59th Session of the Scientific and Technical Sub-Committee of COPUOS | Agenda item 15: Use of nuclear power sources in outer space

As prepared for delivery by Head of Delegation Kevin Conole, February 9, 2022

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

The United States calls on member states and international intergovernmental organizations considering the use of space-based nuclear power sources (NPS) to implement the Common Safety Framework developed in 2009 by this subcommittee, in partnership with the United States. International Atomic Energy Agency. The United States actively participated in the NPS Working Group, which provided a useful forum to discuss specific aspects of the security framework guidance and to learn from the presentations and papers. Our experience of more than 30 missions involving space NPS over the past 60 years allows us to offer mission-specific experiences implementing the guidance of the Security Framework. We look forward to the conclusion of this working group next year.

Since 1961, NPS applications have played a vital role in space exploration. Since landing in February 2021, the radioisotope-powered Mars 2020 Perseverance rover has explored Jezero Crater, looking for signs of ancient life and collecting rock and regolith samples for possible future return to Earth. Perseverance brought with it the world’s first alien rotorcraft “Ingenuity”, which has since flown 18 times.

The Dragonfly mission, which will follow the same successful safety processes as Mars 2020. Scheduled to launch Titan in 2027 and arrive in 2035, Dragonfly adds nuclear power to enable unlimited flight with eight rotors to fly like a large drone during multiple exits into the atmosphere. All NPS missions have been, and will continue to be, implemented using processes consistent with the Security Framework and in the spirit of the Principles.

Nuclear energy has opened up the solar system to exploration, allowing us to observe and understand dark, distant planetary bodies that would otherwise be inaccessible. Similarly, the use of nuclear power sources in space propulsion of spacecraft is a potential technology for crew and cargo missions to Mars, and science missions to the outer solar system, enabling human and faster and more robust robotics.

The United States remains committed to the Security Framework and Security Intent of the Principles as we continually improve our processes to be more effective and efficient. NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy are partnering to ensure safety as we provide these vital space energy technologies to enable and enhance such ambitious and exciting missions of exploration for the benefit of humanity.

The United States believes that the Principles and the Safety Framework provide a comprehensive basis to support the safe use of nuclear energy in outer space. The guidance provided by the Security Framework enables new approaches to security based on continued advances in knowledge and practice since the Principles were adopted. The security framework enables States and international intergovernmental organizations to innovate new approaches based on the expansion of knowledge and best practices gained from experience, and thus to continuously improve security. The practical application of the Safety Framework satisfies the safety intent of the Principles and therefore provides sufficient guidance for States and international intergovernmental organizations seeking to ensure the safe development and use of nuclear energy in the space.

As the current mandate of the Working Group comes to an end, the United States supports maintaining the agenda item on NPS to allow information sharing to promote better understanding and awareness of effective processes to ensure the safe use of nuclear energy in space. To further support these goals in the emerging NPS user community, the United States supports the creation of an International Technical Expert Group for the Safe Use of Nuclear Power and Space Propulsion Systems. Such a group of experts could gather and disseminate knowledge and best practices in the development and use of nuclear energy and space propulsion systems among governments, international/intergovernmental organizations, universities, organizations non-profit and private commercial entities, to promote the safe use of nuclear energy and space propulsion systems.

Mr. Chairman, the United States delegation expresses its gratitude to the United Kingdom for chairing the NPS Working Group, to the Secretariat for facilitating the work of the NPS Working Group, and for the excellent translation services.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Rosemary C. Kearney