While officials from dozens of nations met in Washington last week for a summit on nuclear security, astronomers were also getting riled up about nuclear issues, albeit of a very different kind. The American Astronomical Society (AAS) sent out an “Action Alert” to its members last Monday, asking them to contract Congress about restarting production of plutonium-238. This isotope of plutonium is used in radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) in deep-space missions, but the domestic supply of the isotope has been exhausted and access to Russian supplies of Pu-238 has become problematic. The 2011 budget proposals include $15 million each for NASA and the Department of Energy to restart Pu-238 production in the US; however, a similar effort last year in DoE was not funded by Congress.
The action alert includes a sample letter members can use to send to their members of Congress asking them to support the requested funding. The letter discusses the importance of Pu-238 for certain space missions, and that the isotope is not used for weapons. It concludes: “The future of American space exploration is at stake!”