San Diego Business Journal

General Atomics sees a future in its namesake technology.

“Nuclear power is going to be important in space,” said Christina Back, vice president of GA’s Nuclear Technologies and Materials business.

The San Diego corporation said in a recent statement that it is exploring the concept of using nuclear thermal propulsion in upcoming space programs. Aside from propulsion, spacecraft might be able to run on nuclear power. Spacecraft need power, and uranium has a high energy density, Back said.

In addition, GA continues to develop advanced nuclear power technology for use on Earth.

Organizational Shift

GA’s leaders announced an organizational shift on May 20. They moved the company’s Nuclear Technologies and Materials unit under the umbrella of GA’s Electromagnetic Systems unit, which already sells a number of technologies to the federal government. The shift in the organizational chart is to better meet upcoming opportunities, Back said.

Electromagnetic Systems, under the direction of Scott Forney, already builds satellites and has proven space system technologies. In a statement, Forney said there are growing opportunities with the U.S. Department of Defense and to NASA to provide in-space propulsion and power systems.

In February, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine mentioned nuclear propulsion as a possible way to get to Mars. President Trump’s 2021 budget proposal includes some $1.5 billion for the Artemis program, the follow-up to the 1960s-era Apollo program. One of several new technologies under Artemis is nuclear propulsion.

Under a nuclear propulsion scenario, traditional chemical rockets would power a spacecraft’s initial trip from Earth into space, Back said. Nuclear thermal propulsion would be deployed once in space.

Standing Up to Heat

Back, who holds a doctorate in plasma physics from the University of Florida, said she won’t see much change in her job as she moves under the umbrella of Electromagnetic Systems. “I am largely working on all the same things,” she said.

Her projects include development of a composite material called SiGA for nuclear fuel rods. SiGA is a ceramic material which can withstand intense heat better than metal — the industry standard for fuel rods. Metal can soften at 800 degrees Celsius (1,472 degrees Fahrenheit). A ceramic such as SiGA breaks down at 2,080 degrees Celsius (3,776 degrees Fahrenheit).

GA is an industry partner in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Accident Tolerant Fuel program. The SiGA project is part of that initiative.

Another of Back’s projects is the EM² reactor; the initials stand for Energy Multiplier Module. GA envisions its reactor as a small, modular design — smaller than the plant at San Onofre. Reactor components could be mass-produced in a factory and then taken to their sites on the bed of a truck.

In a 2018 interview, Back estimated it would take $1.8 billion to produce the first EM² reactor, which might have a demonstration run by 2030.

Whether in space and on Earth, nuclear technology needs to withstand harsh environments, Back said. In space, it needs to be lightweight and must stand up to extreme temperatures. On Earth, materials used in nuclear power plants need to resist heat and be leak-tight for a higher safety margin.

Aircraft Carrier Tech

In other news, GA’s Electromagnetic Systems unit on June 3 released more details about its new-style aircraft catapults and arresting gear, which it builds for the U.S. Navy’s Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers.

The equipment on the Ford passed a milestone of 3,000 launches and recoveries. On May 19, the ship set a one-day record of 167 successful launches and recoveries, surpassing the previous record of 135.

According to GA, the Navy plans to reach 8,000 launches and arrestments while the Ford is at sea this year. The moves will get the carrier ready for its first deployment, which is still years away.

GA’s aircraft launch catapult, called EMALS, uses a linear electric motor rather than the old standby, which is steam. EMALS stands for Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System.

General Atomics is privately held and does not disclose revenue.