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House Rejects Amendment to Allocate $10 Million in DOE Funding Bill for Pu-238 Production

Richard M. Jones
Number 86 - July 13, 2011  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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By a vote of 257 “no” to 167 “yes” votes, the House of Representatives rejected an amendment offered by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) to allocate $10 million in the FY 2012 appropriations bill for the Department of Energy to produce Pu-238.  This isotope is used to fuel NASA’s deep space probes.  The Obama Administration requested $10 million in both the FY 2012 Department of Energy and NASA budget requests for this cooperative program.

The initial version of the FY 2012 bill drafted by the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee did not include the requested $10 million for DOE.  An attempt by Schiff to allocate $10 million for the restart of PU-238 production failed when the bill came before the full House Appropriations Committee on June 15.  Schiff’s move to amend the bill when it was considered on the House floor was also defeated by yesterday’s vote.  The bill will now be considered by the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

The following exchange took place on the House floor between Schiff, Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), Subcommittee Ranking Member Peter Visclosky (D-IN), and Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) when the amendment was discussed on July 11 (floor procedures have been deleted):

Rep Schiff:

“My amendment is very simple. Of the $733 million appropriated in this bill for nuclear energy research at the Department of Energy, it separates out $10 million to spend on a cooperative effort with NASA to restart the production of plutonium-238.

“Advancing the state of nuclear energy technology was the initial mission of the DOE, and it was hugely successful, developing technologies now used in power plants, submarines and deep space missions. This last focus is now one of the smallest: DOE spends about $40 million a year building plutonium-238 radioisotope thermal generators, RTGs, for NASA and for national security purposes. This program began in the fifties. RTGs flew on all of the Apollo missions and many times since. In deep space, RTGs are often the only possible source of power.

“Unfortunately, in the early nineties, the U.S. shut down plutonium-238 production, and since then, the Department of Energy has been using stockpiled material and material purchased from Russia to build these devices. Recently, though, Russia refused to continue that relationship, and our supply of plutonium-238 is almost exhausted. There are no other viable ways to provide this power, so the U.S. must restart production to allow any deep space or national security uses to continue.

“This project has been requested in the last three budget requests, under the Bush and Obama administrations. Over the course of 5 years, the total cost of the project is estimated at $75-$90 million. By agreement between the agencies, the project would be equally funded by NASA and the DOE as NASA has the largest need for the power and the DOE has the expertise and would build and maintain the facility. The $10 million requested this year in the NASA budget was included in the CJS [Commerce, Justice, Science] billing making its way through the Appropriations Committee. This 50/50 cost share is consistent with the decades-long history of the RTG program in which NASA has paid for each RTG produced for its purposes and the DOE has paid for the infrastructure required.

“In the context of the nuclear energy research budget, which, in fact, receives a modest increase in this bill, this is a very small project, but it would have an outsized influence on our ability to do the kind of space exploration that no one else in the world can. It may also provide an opportunity for national security agencies to pursue important projects that would otherwise not be available.

“I hope that every Member can support this amendment so that we can continue the long history of space exploration for which this Nation is known around the world.”

Subcommittee Chairman Frelinghuysen:

“I rise in opposition to the gentleman's amendment, but let me thank him for his historical perspective of the department and of its initial responsibility and for his own deep knowledge, which he shared with many of us in the House, of its necessity in terms of space exploration.

“The gentleman's amendment increases funding for the plutonium-238 production restart project, as it's called. To do so, funding for other valuable nuclear energy activities would have to be cut, including the advanced reactor concept research, fuel cycle development, and promising avenues like small modular reactors licensing and research.

“The administration has proposed this new project for several years in order to increase domestic supplies of plutonium-238. The vast majority of this material, as Mr. Schiff has said, would be used by NASA for in-space power supplies, and only a small fraction would be used by the Department of Energy. Unfortunately, after the committee repeatedly expressed concerns since fiscal year 2010, the administration once again proposed in the 2012 budget request for the Department of Energy to share a full half of the project's financial cost. The administration has neither altered its stance nor addressed or even acknowledged the committee's concerns about this disproportionate sharing.

“The funding plans in the budget request and the amendment simply don't make sense, particularly given the other critical priorities in this bill. As we have expressed for 2 years, the administration must develop a more sensible plan. Therefore, I oppose the amendment, and urge Members to do likewise.”

Rep. Holt:  

“I would like to make a brief comment in support of the gentleman's amendment.

“As he said and as I would like to reiterate, there is a class of space exploration that cannot be carried out without these RTGs. Our domestic supply is unreliable at best, essentially nonexistent, and it takes a while to regenerate that.

“I strongly support the gentleman's move to restart that program so that we could have a reliable domestic program for deep space exploration that cannot be conducted in any way with other energy sources. I think it is a reasonable amendment and is not overstated, and I would urge its adoption.”

Subcommittee Ranking Member Visclosky:

“I rise in opposition to the gentleman's amendment.

 “I certainly appreciate, again, the gentleman's seriousness in offering it. I appreciate what he wants to accomplish, but the history of this issue has been discussed by a number of speakers.

“The fact is there have been Presidents of both parties who have made this recommendation over the last 3 years, and there has been directive language by this committee under the direction of both political parties over the last 3 years. The point is there is a benefit to another agency in the government outside the Department of Energy picking up a reasonable cost, and there ought to be an agreement. Until that is done, I would, with all due respect, rise to oppose the gentleman's amendment.”

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics