SECRECY NEWS
from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2002, Issue No. 11
January 31, 2002

THE RETURN OF SPACE NUCLEAR REACTORS

For the first time in a decade, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will request funding for development of a space nuclear reactor in the 2003 budget request to be released next week.

Space nuclear reactor technology has followed a boom-and-bust pattern of development since the 1950s. The U.S. launched one space reactor in 1965, a 500 Watt system that operated for 43 days and which remains in orbit. The last U.S. space reactor development program, a joint NASA-Defense Department effort known as the SP-100, was terminated ten years ago following the expenditure of nearly half a billion dollars.

(The Soviet Union deployed around 30 reactors in Earth orbit between 1967 and 1988. The U.S. has launched some two dozen spacecraft utilizing plutonium-powered electrical generators -- which are not reactors -- that produce a low level of electricity, for missions such as the Cassini probe to Saturn in 1995.)

NASA is proposing the new reactor initiative in order to support future space exploration programs, an informed official said. He noted uncertainty about the viability of the program in the current budgetary environment. He also expressed concern about possible attempts to involve the Defense Department in the program, fearing such a move might make it more vulnerable to political opposition.

The use of space nuclear reactors is dictated whenever moderate levels of electrical power (tens of kilowatts or more) are required in space over an extended period of time. The availability of a space nuclear reactor could enable a variety of ambitious space exploration programs such as a multi-decade mission beyond our solar system.

By the same token, space reactors could also be used to power space weapons and other military systems in orbit, attracting the opposition of some arms control advocates and environmentalists.

In an attempt to square this circle, the Federation of American Scientists and Soviet colleagues in 1988 proposed a ban on the operation of nuclear reactors in Earth orbit that would nevertheless permit their use for space exploration.

See "Nuclear Power in Space," Scientific American, June 1991, for background on the checkered history of space reactors and discussion of the FAS proposal.

For some reason there has recently been a small surge of policy interest in space nuclear power, independent of the new NASA initiative.

"Thermionics Quo Vadis?" is the curious title of a new National Research Council report on the status of thermionics, which is an energy conversion technology used in some space reactor designs. The report provides some general information on space nuclear power. See:

The Department of Energy Inspector General reported this month on the administration of DOE's Advanced Radioisotope Power Systems program, which provides plutonium-powered electrical generators for NASA missions. See:


REDUCING INTERAGENCY BARRIERS IN INTELLIGENCE

One of the perennial defects of U.S. intelligence has been the bureaucratic friction among its various member agencies that tended to impede cooperation and the achievement of common goals.

In order to diminish barriers among intelligence agencies and to enhance coordination, the Intelligence Community now requires officials to serve for a period of time in an intelligence agency other than their own as a condition of advancement to senior positions.

This personnel exchange policy is intended "to develop the future leadership of the Intelligence Community" and "to promote a wider understanding of IC missions and functions; bolster IC coordination; and enhance the effectiveness of the Community," according to an official directive issued in February 2000.

See Director of Central Intelligence Directive 1/4 on "Intelligence Community Officer Programs" here:

The policy was initiated in 1997 and has been put into practice on a growing scale ever since. Last year there were approximately 900 slots throughout the Intelligence Community for such rotational assignments.

One Air Force implementation of this Community-wide program was recently described here:


OFFICIAL RESOURCES

The head of the General Accounting Office yesterday explained the GAO's decision to pursue litigation against the Bush Administration in order to gain access to records of the Vice President's Energy Task Force.

"Were the Vice President's arguments in this case [against disclosure] to prevail, any administration seeking to insulate its activities from oversight and public scrutiny could do so simply by assigning those activities to the Vice President or a body under the White House's direct control," wrote Comptroller General David M. Walker.

A copy of the GAO statement is posted here:

The latest public report from the CIA on "[Foreign] Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions" was released on January 30. A copy is posted here:

The Treasury Department announced a series of steps to increase the "transparency" of global financial systems. See "Treasury Strengthens Transparency on Global Standards":

Sen. John Edwards this week introduced the "Cyberterrorism Preparedness Act of 2002," a bill intended to improve computer security against cyberterrorism and cybercrime. See:


(TIME OUT)

Secrecy News will not be published for the next two weeks. Publication will resume during the week of February 18.

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Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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