The UK has been leading the work for the European Space Agency on the development of a novel power source for future space missions. Companies and organisations involved have included: The UK's National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL), The University of Leicester, Airbus defence and space, Lockheed Martin UK, and others in the UK.
Nuclear power - in the form of radioisotope power systems (RPSs) - has been used to power many of the most significant space missions during the last 50 years. For example, Voyager, Cassini and Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) to name just a few. These would have been impossible without RPSs, since the alternative of solar power does not work in the distant locations that these missions explored. RPSs contain a radioactive material (a radioisotope) which decays, producing heat, and this heat is then converted into electricity. For almost all the missions to date this radioisotope has been Plutonium 238. However Plutonium 238 is very expensive and difficult to make and the worldwide availability is so limited (with none in Europe) that missions using it can only be considered occasionally.
There is an alternative. In the UK used nuclear fuel has been reprocessed for many years and the plutonium which comes from this process has been stored for future use in nuclear reactors. When the plutonium is stored, over many years, some of it decays to form another radioisotope - Americium 241. However, the Americium 241 is a heat producing radioisotope that has similar properties to the Plutonium 238 used in RPSs. NNL have developed a process to safely extract the Americium 241 from the UK plutonium stocks, and to use it as a fuel in a European designed RPS. This takes what would otherwise be a waste material from the nuclear industry and uses it to power future science exploration missions in outer space.
Provision of RPSs to future mission would be a unique and highly valued upstream service. The lead the UK is taking in this area is already showing benefit, from provision of highly skilled STEM jobs within industry and universities, to research and development that has applicability to other national interests. Full production of RPSs to support European space exploration could be worth many £100s of millions and support high value long term jobs across the UK including in the Northwest and Cumbria. The potential for export to other nations interested in space exploration could increase this potential further, along with opportunities to spin out related technology to other sectors.