NASA Issues New Nuclear Policy: NPR 8715.26

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Policies and Procedure

Current NFS Activities

Training: The NFS program is developing online training that will provide an overview of NFS. The course will provide better awareness of the NFS program and thereby improve the program’s effectiveness by having better-informed stakeholders. It will be a part of the Level 4 Safety and Mission Assurance (SMA) Technical Leadership curriculum of the SMA Technical Excellence Program but is also encouraged for anyone interested in learning more about OSMA’s NFS program.

Small Group Opportunities: The NFS program is participating in a series of small group opportunities to discuss recent policy changes, including the Chief SMA Officer Summit and a briefing to the Science Mission Directorate program executives.

The Office of Safety and Mission Assurance (OSMA) recently released NPR 8715.26, Nuclear Flight Safety, effective Feb. 3, 2022. The new NASA Procedural Requirements (NPR) follows the 2019 National Security Presidential Memorandum (NSPM)-20 overhaul of the federal process for nuclear launch authorization of space nuclear systems and the 2020 release of  Space Policy Directive-6 (SPD-6), which established a national strategy to ensure the development and use of space nuclear power and propulsion systems, “when appropriate to enable and achieve the scientific, exploration, national security, and commercial objectives of the United States.” The NPR also brings NASA policy into alignment with present day practices:

“The new NPR is more consistent with how NASA does business today, versus in 2006 when it last received a major overhaul,” explains Don Helton, Nuclear Flight Safety (NFS) officer. “This includes an acknowledgement of space commercialization and changes in the policies and directives of related SMA disciplines.”

The updates in NSPM-20 and SPD-6 

  • Risk-informed the safety analysis and launch authorization process for launch of space nuclear systems
  • Added more specificity to the safety analysis and safety review process
  • Made the previously existing ad hoc review panel a new standing board
  • Defined “how safe is safe enough?” via new safety guidelines

NPR 8715.26 reflects these guiding policies that further risk inform the agency’s safety posture and activities, such as having the NASA administrator as the authorizing official on some missions that would previously have required authorization by the Executive Office of the President.

In addition, the NPR provides greater predictability and repeatability in the launch authorization process, by virtue of the added detail in the safety analysis and review process and in the new safety guidelines. It also

  • Clarifies the separation of OSMA responsibilities between the NASA NFS responsibilities and, when applicable, the interagency nuclear safety review responsibilities
  • Updates the treatment of other items explicitly affected by the federal policy changes, such as the use of updated International Atomic Energy Agency guidance and the NASA reporting requirements
  • Updates the treatment of items implicitly affected by the federal policy changes, such as the availability of documentation and use of the “Agency Views” process
  • Clarifies the relationship of some NFS activities with the NPR 7120.5, NASA Space Flight Program and Project Management Requirements life cycle
  • Makes some minor changes to improve compatibility with Department of Defense and Federal Aviation Administration guidance
  • Implements an objectives-driven approach for radiological contingency planning that promotes flexibility and innovation during the development of these complex plans and activities, while also ensuring that all relevant stakeholders remain involved and that the plans and activities include the right key considerations

Finally, for missions flying small quantities of radioactive materials, the NPR introduces a new “categorical relief” concept, which will allow some of these missions to proceed with a notification-only posture rather than requiring explicit OSMA concurrence for each and every mission.

“Overall, this policy brings us to where we need to be with regard to the federal policy, but we’re not done yet,” said Helton. “We have a separate, but closely related, working group working on a companion document to the NPR. This Handbook will provide the next level of detail in supporting Nuclear Flight Safety implementation at NASA. We’re also developing a number of interagency activities to provide better clarity in the ‘whole-of-government’ approach to Nuclear Flight Safety. We will continue to adapt and are here to help the agency’s programs and projects achieve success.”

Questions about the NPR or OSMA’s NFS program can be directed to Helton.