Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Welcome to the new!

If you have questions, feedback, or encounter issues as you explore, please fill out our Feedback Form.

NASA Tests Mini Nuclear Reactor In Nevada


If humans ever make it to Mars, we're going to need a way to plug in our iPhones.

Just kidding.

But NASA is working on new ways to power space exploration, and they may have a solution — it's a small nuclear fission reactor that's about a tall as a person and as thick as a rolled up towel.

It’s being tested right here in Southern Nevada, and if it works it will provide power to astronauts as they explore other planets. 

Lee Mason is the principal technologist for power and energy storage for NASA. He said the reactor would produce between 1 and 10 kilowatts of electrical power in extreme environments. 

He said 1 kilowatt of power is enough to power a toaster, which doesn't seem like much but in space, it would be enough to power several instruments. 

And 100 kilowatts is enough to power three or four houses on earth, which would allow scientists to eventually establish a human presence somewhere.

In addition to powering places for humans to live, the reactors would be used to get spacecraft home.

“On Mars, it would be used to take the Co2 atmosphere and break it down into oxygen that would be liquefied for a propellant,” Mason said.

Pat McClure is the Kilopower project leader for NASA, stationed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. He told KNPR's State of Nevada that the agency had been working on fission reactor projects for several years; however, all of the projects were too expensive and took too long to establish.

“We as a team tried to rethink the whole process,” he said.

So, they simplified the process and the materials. They also simplified the testing process, which is why came to Nevada.

The Nevada National Security Site — or as most people in the state still refer to it, the Nevada Test Site — was already set up for full testing of a nuclear reactor, which is known as "going critical."

Mark Martinez is the president of the Mission Support and Test Services at NNSS. He said they already had an ongoing program to study what is known as criticality.

“Criticality is this balancing act you have to go through in order to sustain that energy," he said.

He said NASA scientists could come in and work on equipment that was already set up and already had the level of safety and security needed.

The goal of the tests being formed in Nevada is to get good data on what the team thinks it already knows about how the reactor will work.

“The goal of that test was to show that we understand the components of the reactor, we understand its physics, we can predict it, and that we can show the performance we expected in terms of how it behaves and the amount of electricity that it produces are what they said they were going to be,” McClure said.

The reactor, however, is just one of the first steps in a long process to improve space exploration, but McClure said it is a critical step.

“If we want to take those next big leaps on human exploration or robotic exploration, we are going to need more power,” he said.

Mark Martinez, president, Mission Support and Test Services;  Lee Mason, principal technologist for power and energy storage, NASA;  Pat McClure, Kilopower project lead, NASA 


Stay Connected
Kristy Totten is a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada. Previously she was a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly, and has covered technology, education and economic development for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. She's a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.