Congress, Lobbying, NASA

Astronomers push for more Pu-238 funding

Last month, NASA officials offered a bit of good news about plans to restart production of plutonium-238 (Pu-238), the isotope used in radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) that power some NASA deep space missions, including the recently-launched Mars Science Laboratory. In a hearing about the future of NASA’s planetary exploration program, NASA’s Jim Green said the agency was moving ahead with plans to restart production in cooperation with the Department of Energy (DOE), using $10 million allocated in the final FY12 appropriations bill for that purpose.

The original intent was to split the costs of Pu-238 production evenly between NASA and DOE, but Congress has failed to provide any money for that purpose in the separate DOE funding bill, saying that DOE funds should not be used for a program that primarily benefits NASA. This week, as House and Senate conferees work on an omnibus spending bill for various government agencies, including DOE, the American Astronomical Society (AAS) is making one final push to win DOE funding for Pu-238 production. In an “action alert” issued earlier this week, AAS asked its members to contact Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the chair and ranking member, respectively, of the energy and water appropriations subcommittee, and ask them to add Pu-238 funding. The AAS notes than even if production is restarted immediately, there will be a five-year gap in Pu-238 supplies. Any additional delay, the organization warns, “will push back the proposed planetary space missions that would require Pu-238. We cannot afford to delay production any longer.”

8 comments to Astronomers push for more Pu-238 funding

  • amightywind

    If the country wants an outer solar system exploration program, and I believe we do, congress will fund Pu-238 production with all haste. It is time to tune out the the impotent greens and drop our silly, reflexive opposition to all things nuclear.

  • vv

    In any case there will be a few years gap in american planetary space program, given the current funding. The lack of Pu is just a minor problem in this situation.

  • GeeSpace

    It’s good to see that there is one group pushing for the re=starting of Pu 238 production. The lack of available Pu 238 should not be the limiting factor for any space exploration mission.

  • Gary Anderson

    Actually, The Tea Party in Space has been pushing re-starting Pu-238 production since it organized in April 2011.

    3. Technology Development

    Plank – NASA shall partner with the Department of Energy (DOE) and immediately resume production of plutonium ( 238 Pu) to be utilized in outer solar system exploration.

    Gary Anderson
    TPIS New England Coordinator
    PS we continue to contact individual representatives and senators in this regard.

  • vulture4

    The DOE recently restarted tritium production for industrial and scientific use, which had also been stopped due to the lack of need for nuclear bombs. Plutonium production could be integrated into the fuel cycle of an existing reactor.

  • GeeSpace

    vulture4 wrote @ December 8th, 2011 at 10:58 pm stated
    The DOE recently restarted tritium production for industrial and scientific use, which had also been stopped due to the lack of need for nuclear bombs.

    Not really, vulture4. Nuvlear bombs use PU239. There are many differences between Pu 239 and Pu 238.

    A lot a people dpm’t know the differences or are really against using Pu 238 for long distance space missions

  • There is no abundant fast neutron location to transmute the neptunium targets. The Fast Flux Test Facility was to have been the choice. Sec Richardson/Pres Clinton decision deactivated the needed infrastructure. Without an domestic fast reactor R&D program … put in an order with China or India, or continue the Russian purchases.

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