Nuclear Power on the Moon? Russia, China Working on a Plan

The head of Russia’s space agency said his country and China have been working on a program to build a nuclear power plant on the moon, with an eye toward producing electricity that would allow settlements on the lunar surface.

Yuri Borisov, who leads Russia’s Roscosmos space group, on March 5 said the agency was “seriously considering” installing a nuclear reactor “jointly with our Chinese partners,” according to a report from the Russian state-run news agency Tass. Borisov, a former deputy defense minister, said the project would be completed sometime between 2033 and 2035. Borisov also reportedly said the project likely would need to be built “without the presence of humans.”

“Today we are seriously considering a project … somewhere at the turn of 2033-2035 … to deliver and install a power unit on the lunar surface together with our Chinese colleagues,” Borisov said, adding that technology that would support the plant’s construction is almost ready to deploy. Borisov, general director of Roscosmos, said nuclear energy would be needed on the moon to support “future lunar settlements” because solar panels would not be able to produce enough electricity.

Nuclear power on the moon has previously been discussed by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and NASA. The DOE in 2022 said contracts had been finalized with three groups that would develop the project with the U.S. space agency. That project talked about a nuclear power plant on the moon at some point early in the next decade.

NASA officials also have discussed lunar settlements, outlining the Artemis Base Camp concept in 2020.

Nuclear-Powered Cargo Ship

Russian officials have talked about a variety of plans involving space and lunar exploration. There have been discussions about mining on the moon; Russia has said it plans more launches to the lunar surface, and officials have discussed a joint China-Russia mission that could result in a lunar base.

Borisov on Tuesday talked about Russia’s plans to build a nuclear-powered cargo spaceship. He said technical concerns about the project have been resolved, except for finding a way to cool the nuclear reactor. Borisov, according to media reports, said, “We are indeed working on a space tugboat. This huge, cyclopean structure that would be able, thanks to a nuclear reactor and a high-power turbines … to transport large cargoes from one orbit to another, collect space debris and engage in many other applications.”

Borisov called building a nuclear power plant on the moon “a very serious challenge,” adding that “it should be done in automatic mode, without the presence of humans.”

Crash Landing

Russia’s space program sustained a setback last year, when its first mission to the moon since 1976 failed. The Luna-25 spacecraft crash-landed into the moon on Aug. 19, 2023. Officials with Roscosmos at the time said the crash occurred when the Luna-25’s engines fired for 127 seconds during a burn maneuver; the engines were supposed to burn for just 84 seconds.

Global concerns were raised in February of this year when reports surfaced that Russia planned to put nuclear weapons in space. Russian President Vladimir Putin said those reports were false. Borisov on Tuesday echoed Putin, and said “space should be free of nuclear weapons.”

Tass reported that Roscosmos and the China National Space Administration have been cooperating on building a research station on the moon that could be completed by year-end 2035. The news agency said the station stems from an agreement signed in 2021. Tass said the project includes development of several lunar landers, along with a jumping robot and smart mini-rovers that would be designed to study the moon’s surface.

The news agency said the joint mission also would be used to set up communications and power systems on the moon. China has said that under the project’s timeline, it would support three missions to the lunar surface, including the Chang’e 6 project, a planned robotic mission expected to launch in May.

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

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