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.”