Postprint version. Published in Science & Global Security, Volume 1, Issue 1, January 1, 1989, pages 59-82.
Unshielded nuclear reactors provide the lightest and most survivable long-lived sources of electric power available to support military satellites. Restricting their use now, before a new generation of larger space reactors is tested and deployed by the US and USSR, could help prevent an arms race in space.
Space nuclear power systems have been used by the United States and the Soviet Union since the 1960s. The Soviet Union has used orbiting nuclear reactors to power more than 30 radar ocean reconnaissance satellites (RORSATs). Two RORSATs have accidentally re-entered and released their radioactivity into the environment, and a third, Cosmos 1900, narrowly avoided a similar fate.
The United States is developing much more powerful space reactors, of which the SP-100 is farthest along, primarily to power satellite components of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). A working group associated with the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and the Committee of Soviet Scientists for Peace and Against the Nuclear Threat (CSS) has been studying a proposed ban on orbiting reactors. A proposal by the FAS/CSS group that includes such a ban is attached in the appendix to the Overview.
The first five papers in this section, all by members of the working group, summarize the technological and historical background to nuclear power in space and show that restrictions on orbiting reactors are verifiable. The final paper, by Rosen and Schnyer of NASA, surveys the civilian uses of nuclear power in space.
The overview is a nontechnical introduction to the issues of space reactor arms control, including the proposed ban on orbiting reactors.