National Nuclear Laboratory


Friday 12 August 2022

UK Space Agency visits NNL to see nuclear solutions for future space missions

The National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) invited Dr Paul Bate, the CEO of the UK Space Agency, to its flagship Central Laboratory at Sellafield and Hot Robotics facilities at Workington this month – both in West Cumbria. Paul was able to see the range of work that NNL delivers, including the specialist plutonium handling capability and the development of robotic systems for harsh environments.

Dr Paul Bate speaking about the visit:

The UK has been leading the work for the European Space Agency on the development of novel radioisotope power systems for future space missions since 2009. As a partner within this programme supported by the UK Space Agency, NNL has been developing the unique nuclear fuel that would supply the systems being developed by the University of Leicester. The used nuclear fuel from UK reactors has been reprocessed at Sellafield for many years and the plutonium which comes from this process has been stored for potential future use in nuclear reactors.

When the plutonium is stored over many years, some of it decays to form another radioisotope – americium 241. NNL has developed a process to extract the pure americium 241 from the plutonium and to repurpose it as a fuel in spacecraft, providing the vital heat and power needed for long duration missions outside of the reaches of solar power. Advancing this UK capability allows us to leverage our industrial and nuclear heritage, stimulate jobs and growth and help cement the UK’s position as a scientific superpower.

Paul was able to meet the team and see the capabilities in the NNL Central Laboratory that has been delivering this work over the last 13 years. He was also able to see how this work was moving forward towards the delivery of a first flight unit later this decade with the expansion of capability to provide the first fuel load.

At Workington, Paul visited the NNL Hot Robotics facilities, a National Nuclear User Facility (NNUF) that comprises of equipment and flexible floorspace to develop, test, and demonstrate robotic solutions for the nuclear industry. Paul was able to see in action the robotic systems that are being developed to increase efficiency, safety and security within future operations, and to appreciate the opportunity for collaboration between the nuclear and space sector in the development of robotic systems for challenging environments.

Professor Tim Tinsley, Account Director at NNL, said “Provision of americium-based radioisotope power systems to future mission would be a unique and highly valued contribution by the UK to international programmes. 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 to support future space exploration could be worth many £100s of millions to the UK and support high value long term jobs across the UK including Copeland in Cumbria.”