NASA’s plutonium reserves are running low – plan causes production
Berger 8 (Brian, Space News Staff Writer, Mar 6, [www.space.com/5054-plutonium-shortage-thwart-future-nasa-missions-outer-planets.html] AD: 7-8-11, jam)
NASA’s Pluto-bound New Horizons spacecraft, for example, is powered by a radioisotope power system fueled by Russian plutonium, as will be the system that powers the Mars Science Laboratory. Though Griffin did not mention it, the U.S. Department of Energy over the winter quietly shelved long-standing plans to resume domestic production of plutonium-238. In 2005, the Department of Energy (DOE) gave public notice of its intent to consolidate the nation’s radioisotope power system activities at Idaho National Laboratory and start producing plutonium-238 there by 2011. Restarting production was projected at the time to cost $250 million and take five years. Griffin said during the hearing that the DOE’s latest estimate is that a restart would take seven years. Angela Hill, an Energy Department spokeswoman, told Space News in an e-mail that those plans are now on hold. “DOE did not request funding in 2009 for [Plutonium-238] production, since NASA has been directed to fund any new production capabilities,” Hill wrote. “Production may or may not resume based on NASA’s decision. Based on current mission plans, DOE will only continue to provide new Radioisotope Power Systems until 2015.” NASA’s 2009 budget request includes no money for re-establishing the Department of Energy’s long dormant plutonium-238 production capability. Meanwhile, how much of the plutonium-238 the United States has at its disposal was not immediately clear. DOE reported in 2005 that its inventory stood at 39.5 kilograms, with U.S. national security customers and NASA expected to consume all but 6.5 kilograms by 2010. The same report said an additional 20 kilograms of weakened plutonium-238 could be harvested by 2011 from milliwatt power systems aboard old nuclear missiles slated to be decommissioned. However, the reclaimed material would have to be mixed with fresher stock to be useable. U.S. industry sources said they had been told that theUnited States has a total of just over 11 kilograms on order to meet NASA’s projected demand through the middle of the next decade. Hill said only that the United States has received an additional 5 kilograms of plutonium-238 from Russia since 2005 and has another 4.9 kilograms on order for delivery this year. Alan Stern, NASA associate administrator for science, testifying before the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee alongside Griffin, said he believed theUnited States had sufficient plutonium-238 on hand or on order to fuel next year’sMars Science Lab, an outer planets flagship mission targeted for 2017 and a Discovery-class mission slated to fly a couple years earlier to test a more efficient radioisotope power system that NASA and the Energy Department have in development. To help ensure there is enough plutonium-238 for those missions, NASA notified scientists in January that its next New Frontiers solicitation, due out in June, will seek only missions that do not require a nuclear power source. Industry sources said that limitation will put scientists wishing to propose outer-planet destinations including Jupiter and Saturn for the 2016 New Frontiers flight opportunity at a decided disadvantage. We’ll have enough plutonium now but supply is short
NASA's worries about running out of plutonium by the middle of the next decade are premature, according to a senior U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) official. The U.S. space agency has three missions planned between 2009 and 2017 that call for long-lasting spacecraft batteries that convert heat from decaying plutonium-238 into electricity that is used to power instruments and other electronics. The batteries, known as radioisotope power systems, are considered critical for space missions bound for the outer planets of the solar system where sunlight is insufficient for solar arrays to provide a spacecraft with sufficient power. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee in March that theUnited States could find its outer planets program hamstrung by the middle of the next decadeunless theDepartment of Energy resumes production of plutonium-238. "Looking ahead, plutonium is in short supply," he said. Dennis Miotla, DOE deputy assistant secretary for nuclear power development, does not dispute that there is only so much plutonium to go around. But he said in a March 27 interview that theUnited States could wait until as late as 2012 to begin bringing a plutonium-238 production capability back on line and still be able to meet NASA's projected future demand for the material. "I don't think it an imminent danger that we will run out in their time frame," Miotla said. "They're looking at their most optimistic budget projections and their most optimistic mission deployment timelines.