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AAS Action Alert 2011-02

[Corrected version 7 December 2011]

Restart Domestic Production of Plutonium-238 For Planetary Science

Bethany Johns
John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow
bjohns@aas.org

SUMMARY

Support planetary science by contacting Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Chair of the Energy & Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Ranking Member, to support the $10 million requested in the Energy & Water Appropriations Bill for FY2012 to restart domestic production of plutonium-238.

DETAILS

The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover launched successfully on November 26. The largest rover to yet explore the martian surface will carry multiple scientific instruments powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator converting the heat from the decay of 3.5 kilograms of plutonium-238 (Pu-238) into 2.5 kilowatts hours per day -- four times the power of the Mars Exploration Rovers’ 0.6 kilowatt hours per day.

The Curiosity Rover is using a large portion of the limited supply of Pu-238 left in the world. The United States stopped producing Pu-238 in 1988 and augmented the demand by purchasing the last remaining stock from Russia. However, Russia has recently reneged on the contract to supply the US.

Restart of Pu-238 is of critical importance to the development of planetary science missions. It is a non-weapons grade material and there is no viable alternative to fuel deep space missions. If Pu-238 production starts immediately, there will still be at least a five-year delay to have enough Pu-238 for a spacecraft. Full scale Pu-238 production is unlikely until 2018, which is too late to meet all of NASA’s needs. The delay will push back the proposed planetary space missions that would require Pu-238. The delay may cause missions to reach prohibitively high costs, diminish the United States leadership role in planetary science, and prevent us from expanding human knowledge of the universe.

The Vision and Voyages for Planetary Science Decadal Survey says that, “The committee is alarmed at the status of plutonium-238 availability for planetary exploration. Without a restart of plutonium-238 production, it will be impossible for the United States, or any other country, to conduct certain important types of planetary missions after this decade.”

The total amount of Pu-238 production funding requested for FY2012 is $20 million, to be split between NASA and Department of Energy (DOE). The cost sharing is a result of the recommendation given from the previous year Congressional budget report.

NASA has received its share of $10 million toward the restart of Pu-238 in the Commerce, Science, and Justice Appropriations for FY2012. Both Senator Feinstein and Senator Alexander voted in favor of that legislation.

Now, we are asking Congress to fund the DOE share of $10 million in the Energy & Water Appropriations Bill for FY2012. Typically, astrophysical research is funded through the DOE Office of Science. However, funding request of $10 million for Pu-238 is through the Office of Nuclear Energy to enable facilities to restart production.

ACTION ITEM

The House and Senate will soon conference to finalize the Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill, perhaps in concert with other appropriations bills. Senator Feinstein and Senator Alexander can include the restart funding during the conference process.

Please contact Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Chair of the Energy & Water Appropriations subcommittee and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Ranking Member, either by written letter or by phone. When calling the office, ask to speak to the staffer who is responsible for the restart of domestic production of plutonium-238 within the Department of Energy.

Senator Dianne Feinstein
United States Senate
331 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
Phone: (202) 224-3841
Fax: (202) 228-3954
TTY/TDD: (202) 224-2501

Senator Lamar Alexander
United States Senate
455 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Phone: (202) 224-4944
Fax: (202) 228-3398
TTY: (202) 224-1546

Sample Communication for either Senator Feinstein or Alexander:

Hello, my name is [your name]. I am from [location] and [EITHER a constituent of the Senator OR a research scientist interested in the restart of production of plutonium-238]. I am contacting you to express strong support for funding the $10 million requested for the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy to restart domestic production of plutonium-238 for planetary science missions in the Energy & Water Development appropriations bill during the upcoming conference process and to thank the Senator for their support of this effort by voting to provide NASA $10 million for this activity.

The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover, launched successfully on November 26, is using a large portion of the worlds limited supply of Pu-238. The funding will allow production to begin immediately. Once domestic production is restarted, there will still be at least a five-year delay to have enough Pu-238 for a spacecraft. Full scale Pu-238 production is unlikely until 2018, which is too late to meet all of NASA’s needs. The delay will push back the proposed planetary space missions that would require Pu-238. We cannot afford to delay production any longer.

The current Visions and Voyages Planetary Science Decadal Survey says that, “The committee is alarmed at the status of plutonium-238 availability for planetary exploration. Without a restart of plutonium-238 production, it will be impossible for the United States, or any other country, to conduct certain important types of planetary missions after this decade.”

Thank you for your support in maintaining the United States as the world leader in planetary science and expanding human knowledge of the universe.


Mailed 6 December 2011
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