Friday, 5 APRIL
1991 Washington, DC
1. SECRET DEVELOPMENT OF NUCLEAR ROCKET FOR STAR WARS
Last fall, Congress eliminated the directed energy weapons budget
account from the SDI program (WN 19
Oct 90), but Congress didn't even know about a "black"
program to develop a nuclear rocket to launch such weapons into
space. Since orbiting weapons would be vulnerable, the idea was
to employ "pop-up" weapons to counter a missile attack. That's
not simple. Chemical lasers, for example, would require many tons
of fuel. The "solution" was to undertake development of a
nuclear rocket engine with a very high specific impulse. Project
"Timberwind" is based on a particle bed reactor using tiny
uranium carbide pellets as fuel. The pellets would be used to
heat hydrogen propellents. Nuclear rocket engines are not a new
idea; NASA abandoned efforts to develop such an engine in 1972
because it needed the funds for the space shuttle. An NRC panel
recommended a year ago (WN 2 Mar
90) that the program be revived as part of a Moon/Mars
mission. The problem is safety.
2. RAIN OF TERROR: SHOULD NUCLEAR REACTORS BE KEPT OUT OF
In 1978, a Soviet radar satellite, powered by a 3-kw reactor, re-
entered the Earth's atmosphere over Canada, scattering highly
radioactive debris over 40,000 square miles of tundra, yet the
SDI program was supporting development of a 100-kw nuclear
reactor to supply electrical power for spaced-based defenses.
Star Wars plans called for hundreds of the SP-100 reactors. But
the useful lifetime of untended reactors is only about seven
years; then they would have to be replaced. The spent reactors,
of course, would still be there--if we're lucky. It is the spent
reactors that are most dangerous, because of the build-up of
fusion products over their operating lifetime. It is generally
thought that the risk of using reactors to supply power for
interplanetary missions is acceptable, particularly if they are
launched cold. The use of nuclear engines for the upper stages
of rockets on interplanetary missions also seems reasonable, but
the idea of using them to transport objects into orbit is nuts.
The revelation should give impetus to Rep. George Brown's call
for a moratorium on nuclear power in Earth orbit (WN 10 Feb 89).
3. IT'S THE LIBRARIANS VS. ROBERT MAXWELL AND MARTIN
Well, why not? They took on the FBI in the infamous "library
awareness" case and won. Now they are backing the Information
Dissemination Equity Act (IDEA) which offers single-point access
to federal electronic databases at cost to most subscribers or
free through the depository library program. At present this
electronic information is very expensive, since private vendors
have arranged exclusive contracts to sell information collected
at taxpayer expense: Martin Marietta sells USDA data; Robert
Maxwell, the British publishing magnate, puts out the GAO's US
Legislative History Collection. Asked how IDEA relates to Sen.
Gore's "information superhighway," a spokesperson for the
American Library Association said, "This is the filling station."