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Plutonium 238 Production: An Ongoing Issue for Washington

Informational Email 2010-12

Bethany Johns, John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow, bethany.johns at aas.org

Subject: Plutonium 238 Production: An Ongoing Issue for Washington

It is not often that a $30M issue in an appropriations bill gets a lot of attention. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear Senate staff state that they have $100M round off errors, but recent language in Congressional legislation appropriating funds of this magnitude can have a direct, negative impact on the long-term success of US planetary science and, potentially, creative approaches to power generation for future astrophysics missions, earth observation missions and other research activities in space.

The current language in the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill for 2011 (S. 3635) states,

"The Committee provides no funding for Plutonium-238 production capabilities. The Committee understands that the United States no longer has the capability to produce plutonium-238, which is a critical source of power for NASA space missions, and that a shortage of this radioisotope may affect future NASA missions. However, Pu-238 is not needed for any [Department of Energy] DOE or [National Nuclear Security Administration] NNSA missions, including national security applications. As NASA will be the only user of Pu-238, the Committee believes NASA should pay for the entire service."

In the United States, only the DOE is authorized to own space nuclear power systems. NASA and DOE must work together to manufacture, launch, and operate radioactive power sources.

Language in the 2011 NASA Reauthorization bill offers a modest solution for getting NASA and DOE to work together,

"The [NASA] Administrator shall, in coordination with the Secretary of Energy, pursue a joint approach beginning in fiscal year 2011 towards restarting and sustaining the domestic production of radioisotope thermoelectric generator material for deep space and other science and exploration missions"

A joint report from the NASA Administrator and the Secretary of Energy is due 120 after the enactment of the Act, which was signed into law on Oct. 11, 2010. The report should therefore be delivered no later than Feb. 8, 2010. In a perfect world, it would be best to have the report before the House considers the appropriations for Energy and Water in order to change the language and fund the restart of Pu-238 in FY2011, but it is uncertain at this time if this will be accomplished.

In the National Academies report, "Radioisotope Power Systems: An Imperative for Maintaining U.S. Leadership in Space Exploration," as of April 2008, NASA’s total demand for the next 12 missions requiring Pu-238 is over 100 kilograms and the steady-state annual demand is over 5 kg. Even if the DOE restarts Pu-238 immediately, there will be a 5-year delay or longer to produce enough Pu-238 to power a spacecraft. With the current supply, including the remaining purchase from Russia, NASA is able to power only 3 new spacecraft, Discovery 12, International Lunar Network, and the Jupiter Europa Orbiter.

The President's request is $30 million in 2010 to initiate the restart. The National Academy report says that the restart could cost $150 million over 5 to 7 years. Unless production is restarted NASA will not be able to continue exploring the outer solar system.

The AAS is working with a coalition of other societies to help motivate the inclusion of the restart funds in the likely 2011 omnibus appropriations bill. If grassroots support for this effort becomes clearly beneficial, we will issue an Action Alert to our members asking for their direct support. Until then, we will keep you informed through the AAS Policy Blog (http://blog.aas.org/) and Newsletter.


[Mailed from aas.org 28 October 2010]

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