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Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee Urges Restart of Pu-238 Production

Richard M. Jones
Number 117 - November 24, 2010  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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One of the many issues Congress must deal with when it returns to Washington next week is the FY 2011 request by the Obama Administration to restart the production of Pu-238, the fuel used in radioisotope thermoelectric generators in deep space probes.  After last year’s rejection by Congress of the request to fund the production of this isotope in the Department of Energy appropriations bill, the Administration has now proposed that the $30 million needed to start this process be equally divided between DOE and NASA. 

Although the details of the FY 2011 House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill are not yet known, it appears that the subcommittee drafting this measure included the requested $15 million in the DOE Nuclear Energy request.  Senate appropriators rejected the DOE funding request, stating in its committee report, “As NASA will be the only user of Pu-238, the Committee believes NASA should pay for the entire service through a similar work for others arrangement that DOE has with the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies.” 

On November 18, the Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee sent a letter regarding Pu-238 production to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chairman John Rockefeller (D-WV), House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN), Energy Undersecretary for Science Steven Koonin, Office of Science Director William Brinkman, and NASA Associate Administrator Edward Weiler.  Expressing concern that a further delay in Pu-238 production will hinder outer solar system planetary missions and future astrophysics missions, the letter urges “prompt action be taken and appropriate budgetary resources be identified through cooperative coordination between DOE, NASA, and, if applicable, other federal agencies (i.e., NNSA, Dept. Homeland Security), to enable the Pu-238 project production restart for deep space mission applications.”

The full text of the letter follows:

“Dear Mr. Bolden, Dr. Chu, Chairman Rockefeller, Chairman Gordon, Dr. Koonin, Dr. Brinkman, and Dr. Weiler:

“The Astronomy & Astrophysics Advisory Committee (AAAC) is charged in part to assess and make recommendations regarding the status of activities of the NSF, NASA, and DOE as they relate to cooperative national programmatic activities in astronomy and astrophysics and space exploration. At its 2010 October 7-8 meeting, the AAAC was briefed on the Pu-238 production restart project status, an activity involving NASA and DOE coordination.

“The manmade radioactive isotope Pu-238 can be used to generate electricity due to the heat emitted by its radioactive decay. Encapsulated in a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), this vital element is necessary for powering probes sent to the outer reaches of the solar system, a research area where the US can clearly claim significant international leadership.

“A National Academies Report, entitled “Radioisotope Power Systems: An Imperative for Maintaining U.S. Leadership in Space Exploration,” issued in 2009, articulated the critical need for this element to maintain US leadership in space exploration. Among the findings and recommendations made in this report were: a) immediate action is required to begin producing Pu-238 as it will take about 8 years from initiation to full production of the required 5 kg/year; and b) cooperation between the DOE and NASA, with support from the President and funding from Congress, would be required to fulfill this vital need.

“The AAAC is concerned that delays in the restart of this production effort hinder not only the ability for the US to conduct NASA planetary missions to the outer solar system, but may well impede development and implementation of future astrophysics missions requiring significant power resources operating in deep space beyond Earth orbit. Delay of restart adds increased cost and schedule delays to the development of NASA planetary science missions. Reliance on Pu-238 from international sources, such as the Russians, is challenging. The AAAC is concerned that resumption of domestic Pu-238 RTG production has not yet occurred and that the dialogue necessary to effect resumption has been inconclusive.

“The AAAC urges that, in consultation with Congress, prompt action be taken and appropriate budgetary resources be identified through cooperative coordination between DOE, NASA, and, if applicable, other federal agencies (i.e., NNSA, Dept. Homeland Security), to enable the Pu-238 project production restart for deep space mission applications.

“Sincerely yours, on behalf of the Committee,

Kim Griest,
Chair, Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee”

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095