China and Russia Are Building a Nuclear Reactor on the Moon—Together

3d illustration of two crossed flags of china and russia
The Moon Is Going NuclearMo Semsem - Getty Images
  • Nuclear power is the go-to energy source for lunar operations due to Moon’s long nights and distinct lack of wind.

  • Russia’s space agency Roscosmos announced earlier last week that it will likely team up with China to create a lunar nuclear power plant.

  • This effort joins NASA’s own modern nuclear space technology ambitions that date back to at least 2015.

Every major space agency seems to have big plans for the Moon—orbital space stations, scientific base camps, mining operations—and all that activity is going to need a significant source of power. Solar power could be one source, but the Moon’s two-week-long “nights” make that particular option unreliable at best, and wind is obviously not a thing in the Moon’s nearly non-existent atmosphere.

So, nuclear power—which has grown increasingly pint-sized over the decades—seems like an obvious solution, as it can provide tons of power in a little package. And both Russia’s space agency Roscosmos and the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) seem to agree. Last week, the Russian state-owned news agency TASS announced that Russia and China are “considering” a collaboration to place a nuclear reactor on the Moon. Roscosmos’s CEO Yury Borisov announced the project during the World Youth Festival in Sirius, Russia.

“Today, we are seriously considering a project to deliver to the Moon and mount a power reactor there jointly with our Chinese partners somewhere between 2033 and 2035,” Borisov said in the TASS report. Borisov also said that they have the technology to make such a reactor fully automated, requiring no continuous human presence at the station.

This reactor is intended to be a piece of Russia and China’s joint operation (along with a handful of other countries) on the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), which will serve as a scientific base on the lunar surface. Announced back in 2021, the ILRS will likely be established in the 2030s, with precursor missions continuing throughout the 2020s—not unlike NASA’s own Artemis missions.

Of course, Russia and China are not the first to consider nuclear power as the go-to lunar energy source. Back in 1965, NASA flew the first nuclear reactor in space, known as SNAP-10A, and in 2015, the agency kickstarted the Kilopower project in an effort to design nuclear-powered technologies for spacecraft and potentially lunar operations. Three years later, NASA announced that the mission was complete. Now, they’re working on the fission surface power project, which aims to create a system that weighs under 6 metric tons and can deliver 40 kilowatts of power that NASA claims can reliably sustain 33 households for a decade.

In late January of 2024, NASA announced that the first phase of that project was complete, and when Phase 2 begins in 2025, its mission will be to create a final reactor design for testing on the Moon.

“A demonstration of a nuclear power source on the Moon is required to show that it is a safe, clean, reliable option,” Trudy Kortes, the Technology Demonstration Missions program director within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a press statement. “The lunar night is challenging from a technical perspective, so having a source of power such as this nuclear reactor, which operates independent of the Sun, is an enabling option for long-term exploration and science efforts on the Moon.”

NASA plans to have its own reactor launchpad ready in the early 2030s.

Many have referred to the global rush to the Moon as a new Space Race, and much like the original’s Cold War origins, nuclear power will play a pretty big role.

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