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No Go: House Appropriators Reject FY 2012 DOE Funding Request for Pu-238 Production

Richard M. Jones
Number 76 - June 27, 2011  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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No Go: House Appropriators Reject FY 2012 DOE Funding Request for Pu-238 Production

For the third year in a row, appropriators have rejected an Administration request for Department of Energy funding to restart the production of Pu-238.  With this action, the future of NASA’s deep space probes program remains highly uncertain.

Both the Bush and Obama Administrations have sent budget requests to Congress proposing that the Department of Energy and NASA split the cost of Pu-238 production.  Pu-238 is used to fuel deep space probes, and its availability is almost exhausted as the U.S. stockpile dwindles and with the Russian announcement that it will no longer sell this isotope.

For FY 2012, the Obama Administration requested $20 million for a restart program, evenly divided between NASA and the Department of Energy.  A DOE budget document explains:

“The Radiological Facilities Management program ($64.9 million) maintains important DOE nuclear technology facilities in a safe, secure, environmentally compliant and cost-effective manner. This includes $10 million, as part of a 50/50 cost share project with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reestablishing domestic capability to produce Plutonium (Pu)-238 for use in radioisotope power systems for NASA missions and national security applications. NASA uses Pu-238-based power systems where other power sources, such as batteries, fuel cells, and solar technologies, are not economical or technologically viable.”

This cost-sharing plan was supported by the President of the American Astronomical Society (an AIP Member Society) in congressional testimony this year.  Debra Elmegreen told House appropriators:

“Restart of Pu-238 production is of critical importance to the development of planetary science missions. There is no viable alternative way to power deep space missions, as solar panels cannot produce enough electricity far from the Sun. If Pu-238 production starts immediately, there will still be a 5-year delay to have enough Pu-238 for a spacecraft. Full scale Pu-238 production is unlikely until 2018, which is too late to meet all of NASA’s needs. The delay will push back the 12 proposed planetary space missions that require Pu-238. The delay could cause missions to reach prohibitively high costs, which in turn could bring about job losses, diminish the United States leadership role in planetary science, and prevent us from expanding human knowledge of the universe. Given the magnitude of the funds necessary to regain our production capability, I strongly urge you to fund this request fully at the President’s requested level.”

While the total FY 2012 funding request was $10 million less than the $30 million sought in previous years, House appropriators with jurisdiction over the DOE budget were not persuaded.  The FY 2012 House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill did not provide any funding through the Department of Energy for the restart of Pu-238 production.  The report accompanying this bill stated:

“Plutonium–238 Production Restart Project.—The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) uses the vast majority of plutonium–238 (Pu–238) produced or procured by the federal government. 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 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.”

On June 15, the full House Appropriations Committee met to consider the subcommittee’s draft bill.  During the three hour markup, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) offered an amendment to allocate $10 million to restart the Pu-238 production process.  This money would be drawn from the $733 million the bill allocated for nuclear research activities.  In brief remarks, Schiff outlined the history of the decades-long cooperative radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) program and its importance to NASA’s space exploration program.  Under this program, NASA paid DOE for each RTG that was produced, and DOE paid the infrastructure costs.  Schiff estimated the total five year cost of the program to be between $75 and $90 million.  “In the context of the nuclear energy budget this is a small thing” he said, “but it would have an outsized influence on our ability to do the space exploration that the U.S. is known for around the world.”

Opposing the amendment were the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee’s top Republican and Democratic members.  Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) argued that by directing this $10 million, funding would be reduced for other nuclear energy research programs such as advanced reactor concepts, fuel cycle development, and small modular reactors.  “The vast majority of this material would be used by NASA for in-space power supplies and only a small fraction used by the Department of Energy,” he said.  Frelinghuysen charged that the Administration had not addressed or acknowledged the appropriators’ previous stated concerns, calling the FY 2012 request a “funding scheme” that “simply doesn’t make sense.”  He called for the development of a more equitable plan.  Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-IN) “reluctantly” opposed Schiff’s amendment, remarking “I believe the chair [Frelinghuysen] has stated the proposition correctly.” 

Rising in support of the Schiff amendment was Rep. Chaka Fattah (PA), the Ranking Democrat on the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee (which has jurisdiction over NASA funding.)  He called opposition to the amendment “unnecessarily adversarial to the general interests of the nation,” and stressed that the funding request should not be viewed as a battle between the Administration and Congress.  Looking ahead, Fattah spoke of working to find a way to provide the necessary funding “between now and the [House] floor [vote].” 

Having the last word, Schiff told his colleagues that no one would argue that deep space exploration should not be supported, telling them “this has got to get done.”  He urged appropriators not to quibble about what agency would provide the necessary funding.  Addressing DOE’s role and its budget request, Schiff said “Why is that?  It is because DOE has always done this.  They have the infrastructure to do it.”

A voice vote was called.  While there were many voting “aye,” there were more voting “no” and the amendment failed.

Attention now turns to the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee.  Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA), Ranking Member Fattah, and their colleagues will mark up their bill on July 7.   The subcommittee will have $50,237 million to spend on the measure.

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics