NRC’s Supporting Role in NASA’s Mars 2020 Launch

Don Helton
Senior Reliability and Risk Engineer

global-color-views-mars-pia00407-full“Outer space” may not come to mind when you think about the NRC. But we’re excited to be involved with NASA in the planning for a 2020 launch of another Mars rover.

As explained by NASA:

The Mars 2020 rover mission is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the red planet. Designed to advance high-priority science goals for Mars exploration, the mission would address key questions about the potential for ancient life on Mars. The mission would also provide opportunities to gather knowledge and demonstrate technologies that address the challenges of future human expeditions to Mars. The mission would take advantage of a favorable launch opportunity in 2020 when Earth and Mars are in ideal positions in their orbits for a Mars landing in early 2021.

So what does planetary exploration have to do with the NRC? Well, like past missions of this type, the Mars 2020 mission will use a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator – which goes by the fancy acronym of MMRTG. That’s a fancy name for using the radioactive decay of plutonium to produce electrical power needed to run the rover and its instruments.

mars-2020-rover-cad-diagram-pia20759-fullSince the NRC regulates the safe use of radioactive materials, we are part of the Mars 2020 Interagency Nuclear Safety Review Panel that NASA has convened to assure the safety of the launch. This process was originally put in place by Presidential directive and is used each time the U.S. prepares for this type of launch. In addition to NASA and the NRC, the panel includes members from the Department of Energy (which builds and owns the MMRTG provided to NASA), the Department of Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency.

I am honored to serve as the NRC-appointed technical advisor to the panel. The panel’s job is to prepare a Nuclear Safety Evaluation Report — which will be delivered to the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy as part of NASA’s request for the President’s authorization of the launch. The panel will evaluate the potential radiological hazards associated with the launch, and the methods used to mitigate the risks.

The NRC has served a similar role in other NASA launches over the past several decades, most recently with the 2011 launch of the Mars Science Laboratory mission and its rover, Curiosity. In addition to this important activity, the NRC and NASA share knowledge in safety, reliability, and risk analysis methods and applications though a Memorandum of Understanding and other interactions.

NRC policy requires other federal agencies to reimburse us for providing services that aren’t part of our statutory mission. So NASA will reimburse us for labor and travel costs associated with our service on the launch safety review panel. In other words, NRC’s licensees (such as nuclear power plants) don’t end up footing the bill for NRC’s participation in this activity.

More on the Mars 2020 mission can be found at NASA’s website, and in the associated Final Environmental Impact Statement associated with this mission.

A Bit of NRC Myth Busting — Part II

Eric Stahl
Acting Public Affairs Officer

 Facebook1As we said in yesterday’s Part I, we’ve taken a few of the interesting comments we’ve received on our Facebook page and posed them to our experts for their take on the question, suggestion or assertion. Here are their responses.

One user had several ideas for dealing with spent fuel including “mixing it in glass” and then burying it “in ice in Antarctica” or “blasting the glass off to Venus or Mars.”

 Mixing spent fuel with glass, a process known as “vitrification,” is one method that has been tested to treat nuclear waste in several countries. The idea supposes that mixing radioactive waste with other materials will create a more stable solution that won’t degrade over time.

??????In the U.S., over 50 million gallons of liquid waste from plutonium production at the Hanford site in Washington State will be vitrified and then stored onsite. DOE, who is responsible for oversight at Hanford, expects radioactivity levels in the material to greatly reduce in the future. If the country’s nuclear waste disposal policy was to turn toward vitrification, an application would need to come from the Department of Energy to the NRC. The NRC would be responsible for regulation.

However, burying vitrified spent fuel in Antarctica isn’t an option. Article V of the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, which the U.S. signed, prohibits the disposal of nuclear waste in Antarctica.

PrintSending vitrified spent fuel into space would be a risky and prohibitively expensive idea. According to NASA, it costs approximately $10,000 per pound to send things into orbit. Considering there’s currently more than 70,000 tons of spent fuel in the United States, shooting it into space wouldn’t be cost effective. In addition, a catastrophic accident involving a spacecraft hauling nuclear waste into space could cause radioactive material to contaminate the environment.

In any event, U.S. policy for spent fuel disposal is to place it in a deep geologic repository. Until and unless Congress changes the law, that will remain the policy.

And, finally, there are multiple comments about the wisdom and benefit of new reactor designs, especially one using fissile uranium salt.

The NRC is working to ensure we have the expertise available to review future advanced reactors (such as molten salt or high-temperature gas designs). The NRC will determine if those future designs are acceptable for U.S. use, and we’re working with the Department of Energy to inform advanced reactor designers how the review process will work. The NRC’s role, though, is regulating new designs, not initiating them.