The Dangers Of Nuclear Powered Drones, And Plutonium For Spacecraft

An MQ-9 Reaper is retrieved after crashing at the airport in Seychelles. (Courtesy Le Seychellois Hebdo)

The crash of a U.S. drone on the Seychelles Island in 2012  was the second crash of a U.S. drone on Seychelles in four months during a U.S. surveillance missions over Somalia. This underlines the deadly folly of a U.S. collaboration with national laboratory scientists and the Northrop Grumman Corp. for nuclear-powered drones.

The use of nuclear power on U.S. drones was “favorably assessed by scientists at Sandia National Laboratories and the Northrop Grumman Corp.,” revealed Steven Aftergood of the Project on Government Secrecy of the Federation of American Scientists.

Just consider if the drones that crashed on the Seychelles used nuclear power — and the impacts if the radioactive fuel they contained was released — or if the drones had crashed elsewhere, in Somalia, for instance, providing nuclear material to those who might want to make a “dirty bomb.”

Although the nuclear-powered drone scheme is ostensibly not going anywhere for now, other schemes to use nuclear power overhead — which also threaten nuclear disaster — are on the planning table and some are moving ahead.
These include:

AF Energy Agenda Map 2009

A new U.S. Air Force plan which supports “nuclear powered flight.” Titled Energy Horizons, states that “nuclear energy has been demonstrated on several satellite systems” and “this source provides consistent power… at a much higher energy and power density than current technologies.” It does admit that “the implementation of such a technology should be weighed heavily against potential catastrophic outcomes.”

Indeed, the worst accident involving a U.S. space nuclear system occurred with the fall to Earth in 1964 of a satellite powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator or RTG, the Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power SNAP-9A. It failed to achieve orbit and fell to Earth, disintegrating upon hitting the atmosphere causing its Plutonium-238 fuel to be dispersed as dust. Dr. John Gofman, professor of medical physics at the University of California, Berkeley, long linked the SNAP-9A accident to a global rise in lung cancer.

Systems for Nuclear drone

“A ground-breaking Russian nuclear space travel propulsion system will be ready by 2017 and will power a ship capable of long-haul interplanetary missions by 2025,” the Russian state news agency, Ria Novosti, reported. The worst accident involving a Soviet or Russian nuclear space system was the fall from orbit in 1978 of the Cosmos 954 satellite powered by a nuclear reactor. It also broke up in the atmosphere spreading radioactive debris which scattered over 77,000 square miles of the Northwest Territories of Canada.

The U.S. is moving again to produce Plutonium-238 for space use. RTGs powered by Plutonium-238 had been used by the U.S. as a source of electricity on satellites — as the Energy Horizons noted. But that was until the SNAP-9A accident which caused a shift to generating electricity with solar photovoltaic panels. However, RTGs using Plutonium-238 have remained a source of on board electricity for space probes.

warning nuclear

The Department of Energy plans to produce Plutonium-238 at both Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratories.

The U.S. is also developing nuclear-powered rockets. Ad Astra, headed by former astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz, is working on what it calls a Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket or VASMIR to be powered by a nuclear reactor. It would provide a “faster trip” to Mars, says Chang-Diaz, according to a Voice of America article, could be used “for missions to the International Space Station or to retrieve or position satellites in Earth orbit.”


The assessment of Sandia National Laboratories and Northrop Grumman Systems Corp. is carried out to explore the feasibility of next generation UAVsThe objective was “to increase UAV sortie duration from days to months while increasing available electrical power at least two-fold,” according to a June 2011 Sandia project summary.

And that objective could have been achieved by means of the unidentified technology, which “would have provided system performance unparalleled by other existing technologies,” the project summary said.

“As a result of this effort, UAVs were to be able to provide far more surveillance time and intelligence information while reducing the high cost of support activities.  This technology was intended to create unmatched global capabilities to observe and preempt terrorist and weapon of mass destruction (WMD) activities.”

But it was all for nought.

“Unfortunately, none of the results will be used in the near-term or mid-term future,” the project summary stated.  “It was disappointing to all that the political realities would not allow use of the results.”

Not only that, but “none of the results can be shared openly with the public due to national security constraints.”

It seems clear that the Sandia-Northrop project has done more than just contemplated the use of nuclear technology for onboard power and propulsion.

The project summary, which refers to “propulsion and power technologies that [go] well beyond existing hydrocarbon technologies,” does not actually use the word “nuclear.”  But with unmistakable references to “safeguards,” “decommissioning and disposal,” and those unfavorable “political conditions,” there is little doubt about the topic under discussion.

Furthermore, the project’s lead investigator at Sandia, the aptly named Dr. Steven B. Dron, is a specialist in nuclear propulsion, among other things.  He co-chaired a session at the 2008 Symposium on Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion at the University of New Mexico.

Interestingly, opposition to flying nuclear power sources in this case was internalized without needing to be expressed, and the authors were self-deterred from pursuing their own proposals.


ScanEagle unmanned surveillance drone. The next big defense procurement competition will be to replace the Predator, the now-famous unmanned missile-launching strike vehicle, built by San Diego, Calif.-based General Atomics, that is making headlines for their missions, and killing innocent civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That, and for crashing more than any other armed drone.

Meanwhile, integration of (conventional) unmanned aircraft systems into the National Airspace System will proceed, as mandated by Congress.  On March 6, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a scarcely mentioned request for public comments on the pending designation of six UAS test sites around the country.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center and other public interest organizations petitioned the FAA “to conduct a rulemaking to address the threat to privacy and civil liberties that will result from the deployment of aerial drones within the United States.”






5 thoughts on “The Dangers Of Nuclear Powered Drones, And Plutonium For Spacecraft

  1. Pingback: The “Benefits” Of Nuclear UAVs | Back Country Voices

  2. Pingback: Revealed: Northrop Grumman’s Unmarked Gray Helicopter Drone | Mountain Republic

  3. Reblogged this on lisaleaks and commented:
    “Unfortunately, none of the results will be used in the near-term or mid-term future,” the project summary stated. “It was disappointing to all that the political realities would not allow use of the results.”

    Not only that, but “none of the results can be shared openly with the public due to national security constraints.”


  4. Pingback: Nuclear Drones | Back Country Voices

  5. Pingback: Drone Crash Database | Back Country Voices

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