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Moon may be next frontier in U.S. competition with Russia, China for nuclear superiority

Though nukes on the moon might seen farfetched, the idea is certainly not new

Published: March 9, 2024 10:30pm

The battle for global dominance pitting the U.S. against China and Russia may soon become otherworldly – after the United States' two largest rivals announced plans to collaborate on building a nuclear power plant on the moon

Though such a plan might seen farfetched, it's certainly not new.

Just two years ago, NASA gave an Artemis Concept Award, part of its new lunar-exploration program, to a design proposal for a nuclear fission surface power system on the lunar surface.

In 1983, then-GOP President Ronald Regan announced a program called the Strategic Defense Initiative – more popularly known as "Star Wars" – that sought to render nuclear weapons obsolete and included the exploration of a space-based missile systems.

But the newest developments come amid worldwide concerns that Russia plans to deploy nuclear arms in space to take out the satellite networks that make global communications possible.

Russia President Vladimir Putin has said such concerns are “bogus” and politically motivated, and the White House appears to be downplaying the threat. But a GOP-led House Intelligence Committee last month called the classified matter a "national security threat."

The panic started when U.S. spy agencies in February told Congress and foreign allies that Putin might deploy and use an atom bomb in space that could disable thousands of satellites, according to The New York Times. And among them would be roughly 600 launched into orbit by China. 

Both the early-stage U.S. plan for nuclear power on the moon and the proposed Russia-China plan call for a small-scale nuclear power facility operating there within roughly a dozen years, though that may be ambitious. Such large-scale, cutting-edge projects almost always take longer than planned

The theory behind the plans is not as far-fetched as it may sound at first glance. 

Any lunar colonization plan will require large amounts of energy. Until recently, most strategies for building on the moon relied on power from lunar panels (solar panels on the moon). The same side of the moon is always facing the sun (except during eclipses), which means a large array of such panels could generate power around the clock. 

But a nuclear plant on the lunar surface would provide more power than lunar panels from less space. As such, it would require the transport of less material and could work without sunlight, making it a solution that could be used to one day colonize Mars or other planets. 

The U.S. took a big step toward leading the way in the militarization of space in 2019, when President Donald Trump signed a $738 billion military defense bill that, among many other things, created the Space Force as an autonomous sixth branch of the U.S. military. 

Now, there are fears that the new emphasis on space-related projects from Russia, China, and others could represent a serious security threat because of risks to satellite networks, long-range surveillance and the potential disruption of terrestrial power and communications networks. 

That is a particular risk due to the kinds of high-tech drone and surveillance warfare taking place in Ukraine and against the Houthis in the Red Sea. A potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan would likely go even further, making control of near-earth space even more important. 

GOP Rep. Mike Turner, chairman the House Intelligence Committee, is asking the Biden White House to immediately declassify information related to Russian space initiatives. But Turner did not provide details of the threat. 

Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes, the committee's top Democratic, says he supports Turner’s call but warned also warns threats were not imminent

He says Turner is right to highlight this issue, but it’s "so sensitive" that it cannot be publicly discussing.

“I don’t want people thinking that Martians are landing or that your Wednesday is going to be ruined," Himes continued. "But it is something that the Congress and the administration needs to address in the medium to long run.”

NASA says the agency's eventual goal is to have people living on the moon by 2040, a target date that provides many technical challenges considering the last manned lunar mission took place 52 years ago with the U.S.’s Apollo 17 in 1972. How a lunar community would be powered is turning out to be another major challenge.

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