ENS NEWS N° 36, Intro: The final frontier.
For many citizens nuclear energy is used to generate the electricity that powers our homes, hospitals, schools and industry. Others immediately associate it with non-civil applications. But how many citizens know that medical isotopes are used to treat and save the lives of thousands of patients worldwide every day? How many realise that nuclear technology is used to improve agricultural yield and kill harmful bacteria and viruses that would otherwise contaminate our food? Limited knowledge of the multiple applications of nuclear science and technology prevents people from appreciating the vital contribution that they make to man’s health and wellbeing. It also means that much of the work and achievements of the nuclear science community remain unseen, unheard, unheralded. There is another highly specialised field of nuclear research and development - one with potentially far-reaching consequences for the future of mankind - that most people are probably even less aware of.
Long before astronaut Neil Armstrong uttered those famous words “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” as he stepped onto the surface of the Moon, man had always dreamt of exploring space; of crossing that final frontier and making contact with other potential life forms. But is space exploration and colonisation of far flung areas of the cosmos a justifiable enterprise and a realisable objective? Is it worth investing energy, time and money in long-term? Or is it a Holy Grail, tantalisingly out of reach?
I recently read a fascinating paper on nuclear technology and space exploration written by the Secretary General of ENS, Jean-Pol Poncelet. I would like to share with ENS NEWS readers some of the thought-provoking points that he made. As a former Director of Strategy and External Relations at the European Space Agency (ESA) and Senior Vice President at AREVA Jean-Pol highlighted, with authority, how long distance space travel is impossible without the availability of a vast and totally reliable source of energy – nuclear energy. According to which orbit one uses as a starting point, the planet Mars is only approximately 100,000,000 km from Earth and a spacecraft can reach it in around 200 days. Although in space travel terms 200 days is just a sprint compared to the marathon of travelling for months or even years to reach a distant outpost of our galaxy (a manned mission to nearby Mars and back, e.g., takes at least a year to complete), the dilemma still remains - how can a spacecraft store the vast amount of energy needed to transport it to Mars and back – or even further afield?
The answer is to use a small fission reactor to produce the MWs required to enable orbit transfer, interplanetary flight and the sustainable management of space stations. This source of energy can also power the robotic probes and rovers that are needed to conduct experiments on Mars and other planets. Other energy sources simply don’t make the grade: the suitability of traditional fuel types is limited because of the vast quantities that would have to be stored on-board to enable long-distance travel and because of their inherent volatility. The intensity of solar energy diminishes considerably as the spacecraft travels away from the sun, preventing the creation of photovoltaic electricity.
Once again, the answer is nuclear, which has an established track record and solid credentials when it comes to space travel. Many of the spacecraft used by NASA space missions have been equipped with radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) and radioisotope haster units (RHUs). These RTGs were vital to the spectacular success of the recent Cassini-Huyghens joint NASA/ESA mission to Saturn and Titan. It is worth remembering, stresses Jean-Pol, that the Cassini spacecraft had more than 30 kg of non-weapons grade plutonium 238 on-board. A fission reactor can achieve a power range of between 1-10 MWe.
Of course, because we are talking about nuclear energy, the question of safety is paramount and a key to gaining public acceptance. Once citizens are more aware of nuclear technology’s role in space travel they need to be reassured that it is safe for man, the environment and outer space. Only then will this specialised application of nuclear technology receive the public acceptance it deserves.
Europe is a world leader in nuclear science and technology and a credible partner to Russia and the US in large-scale, long-term collaborative space ventures, such as the International Space Station (ISS) that cost $100 billion to finance. The expertise exists and is ready to be tapped if the political will is there. ESA and the European nuclear industry are at the forefront of this cutting edge nuclear technology. Without the mobilisation of Europe’s decision-makers, EU member states and the whole nuclear community, this highly innovative nuclear technology will never be fully exploited and crossing the final frontier of space might continue to elude us.
I would like to invite any readers with experience or an interest in nuclear technology and space exploration, or with an opinion to give on the subject, to contact me. I will tell your story and recount those views.
Coming back to earth, ENS NEWS N° 36 kicks off with the traditional Word from the President piece. This time Marco Streit gives us his personal appraisal of what has been a very busy first quarter of 2012 for the nuclear community. This is followed by a first glimpse of a new event that ENS is launching entitled: ENC 2012 Careers, which uses ENC 2012 as a springboard for bringing employers from the nuclear sector together with potential employees to discuss future career prospects.
The ENS Events section features information on three very important upcoming ENS conferences – TopFuel 2012, ENC 2012 and ETRAP 2013 – and invites readers to book their places at the conference debating table and send in their technical papers and abstracts.
A packed Member Societies section includes a summary of the French Nuclear Society’s (SFEN) Annual Convention, which included a strong pro-nuclear address from France’s Prime Minister, François Fillon, as well as a range of reports on key nuclear issues, prize awards and events organised by the Austrian, Belgian, Hungarian Slovakian, Slovenian and Spanish nuclear societies.
The usual injection of youthful dynamism (not that the more mature among us are not dynamic, of course!) is provided in the Austrian Young Generation section by a YGN member’s personal perspective on the PIME 2012 conference that took place in February, in Warsaw.
The Corporate Members section spotlights a ground-breaking partnership agreement that was recently signed by Ansaldo Nuclear, in Italy, and the companies Nuvia and Cammell Laird; a report on the world’s first movie shot in an operational NPP and news of the winner of this year’s Professor van Geel Prize, which is awarded by SCK-CEN in recognition of an excellent paper written about an innovative new area of research.
The European Institutions section provides a status report on the work of the Implementing Geological Disposal of Radioactive Waste Technology Platform (IGD-TP) that was introduced by the European Commission to promote research into the suitability of the long-term deep underground disposal of high-level radioactive waste
Finally, the ENS World News section has an introduction to the work of the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) in the UK, which provides its expanding customer base with a range of specialised nuclear technology services.
Editor-in-Chief, ENS NEWS