Congress, Lobbying

Another push for Pu-238 funding

Plutonium 238 (Pu-238), the radioactive isotope used in the radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), is essential to a number of spacecraft missions, particularly those bound for the outer solar system. However, getting the relatively modest funding (no more than a few tens of millions of dollars a year) needed to restart Pu-238 production in the US to ensure that a supply of the isotope is available for future missions has been difficult in recent years. The latest push is taking place this week. The Obama Administration included $10 million each for NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE) to restart Pu-238 production, but a draft version of the Energy and Water appropriations bill in the House does not include that funding. The full House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to markup the bill in a hearing today.

Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society reported yesterday that the American Geophysical Union (AGU) is making a last-minute push to get the money added to the appropriations bill. In an email, the AGU said that Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), whose district includes JPL, plans to introduce an amendment to the bill to include the Pu-238 funding. (The AGU alert is not included in its list of “Science Policy Alerts” on its web site; it apparently went out to AGU members whose representatives are on the committee.) The AGU asked its members to contact their congressmen and ask them to support the Schiff amendment, providing a variety of talking points to use in those calls.

Getting that amendment through may be tough, however. In the report accompanying the draft appropriations bill, the committee criticized the administration’s plan to split the Pu-238 costs between NASA and DOE. “The Committee remains concerned that the Administration continues to request equal funding from NASA and the Department of Energy for a project that primarily benefits NASA,” the report states at the top of page 98. “The Committee provides no funds for this project, and encourages the Administration to devise a plan for this project that more closely aligns the costs paid by federal agencies with the benefits they receive.”

16 comments to Another push for Pu-238 funding

  • This is one of those space issues that everyone supports. And for that reason it is doomed to obscurity.

  • Doug Lassiter

    Since the Pu-238 we will need will have to come from Russia, we will have conceded (at least in the near term) not just capability for human access to LEO to the Russians, but also capability for exploration of much of the solar system.

  • amightywind

    I am all for this. RTG’s are incredibly useful space technology, and Stirling Cycle devices derived from them are even more promising. Furthermore, with rogue states pursuing nuclear weapons, enabled by Russia and China, we cannot have enough of this material for our own weapons stockpiles.

  • name

    The Houston Chronicle (6/15, Powell, 342K) “Texas on the Potomac” blog reports, “Two Houston-area Republicans known as vigorous advocates for NASA’s Johnson Space Center are demanding that NASA administrator Charles Bolden comply with congressional instructions to build a post-shuttle spacecraft capable of delivering US astronauts to the orbiting space station by 2016.” Reps. Pete Olson and John Culberson are part of a group that is “accusing the Obama administration of ‘purposely circumventing the will of Congress’ by ‘not making NASA’s human spaceflight program a priority in its budget requests to Congress.’” In a letter, the legislators “told Bolden…to ‘stop studying and re-studying’ NASA’s plans for a post-shuttle spacecraft and immediately report to Congress on the roadmap ahead.”

  • Rhyolite

    Sigh…the paper clip budget on Ares/Orion/MPCV/SLS would cover Pu-238 production and the missions that it would support would provide more exploration value that all of the billions wasted on pork launchers and capsules combined.

  • Egad

    > we cannot have enough of this material for our own weapons stockpiles.

    Just have to figure out how to get another neutron into it…

    (Pu-238 is not as favored for weapons use as is Pu-239.)

  • John Malkin

    @Rhyolite: It’s not the first and it won’t be the last.

    Is there any movement on a space fission reactor greater than 100kWt?

  • Egad

    > In a letter, the legislators

    The letter’s on Pete Olson’s website, http://olson.house.gov/index.html . The seven signatory legislators are, who could have guessed it, from TX, UT, AL, FL.

  • A_M_Swallow

    OK give NASA $20 million and let it acquire the Plutonium 238 in a competitive contract. If the US Department of Energy is not interested see if the British company Amersham International is interested.

  • Byeman

    US Department of Energy is not a contractor and would not bid on such contract. Anyways, NASA does not procure Plutonium 238, it is DOE’s job. So the post is typical nonsense.

  • Major Tom

    “In a letter, the legislators ‘told Bolden…to ‘stop studying and re-studying’ NASA’s plans for a post-shuttle spacecraft and immediately report to Congress on the roadmap ahead.’”

    A letter from Sen. Shelby to Bolden argues the exact opposite:

    “Where competitive concepts can be brought to bear without impacting mission schedules or compromising system performance, it is incumbent upon NASA to explore them… Designing a Space Launch System for heavy lift that relies on existing Shuttle boosters ties NASA, once again, to the high fixed costs associated with segmented solids… I strongly encourage you to initiate a competition for the Space Launch System booster. I believe it will ultimately result in a more efficient SLS development effort at lower cost to the taxpayer… I look forward to your reply outlining NASA’s plans for the SLS booster, as well as more detail on the overall SLS architecture.”

    http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewnews.html?id=1540

    Congress doesn’t know what it wants on SLS.

    FWIW…

  • Bennett

    Byeman wrote @ 7:37 pm

    Why do you think that “the post is typical nonsense.”, seriously?

  • Space Cadet

    @ Doug Lassiter

    I thought we already bought all of the Russian Pu-238?

  • GClark

    All that they’re willing to sell.

  • A_M_Swallow

    Byeman wrote @ June 15th, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    US Department of Energy is not a contractor and would not bid on such contract. Anyways, NASA does not procure Plutonium 238, it is DOE’s job. So the post is typical nonsense.

    The US DOE already has bid on supplying the Plutonium 238, it previously has asked for a lot more money. So not including the request in the bill shows they do not want to either make or buy the metal.

    When dealing with an unreliable supplier you replace them. When the supplier is protected by a legal monopoly get the law changed.

  • Doug Lassiter

    I believe that is correct. The Russians are telling us that they have no more to sell us. Some have interpreted that to mean that they aren’t making it anymore. But I don’t believe that’s specifically what they’re telling us. In any case, the existing contract for such purchases is running out, and I suspect that a new contract, at significantly higher prices, would make more available, perhaps by restarting production capability.

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