More Plutonium Woes for NASA

More Plutonium Woes for NASA

The plutonium-238 (Pu-238) needed to power spacecraft that travel to the distant reaches of the solar system is in scarce supply, and Russia reportedly is taking advantage of the situation. Earlier this year, Congress refused to provide $30 million requested by the Department of Energy (DOE) to restart production of the fuel as recommended by the National Research Council (NRC). Now Russia is withholding Pu-238 it promised to sell DOE, asking for a new deal. Space News reports the story in this morning’s edition.

Jim Green, Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, broke the news to scientists at a November 16 meeting of the steering committee for the NRC’s Planetary Science Decadal Survey (his presentation is available on’s NRC page). The requirement for more Pu-238 for Radioisotope Power Systems (RPSs) needed to carry out NASA’s lunar and planetary exploration plans was highlighted by an earlier NRC report “Radioisotope Power Systems: An Imperative for Maintaining U.S. Leadership in Space Exploration.”

Pu-238 has been used since the earliest days of the space program to provide power for spacecraft systems and instruments on probes traveling too far from the Sun to rely on solar power or that will be on the Moon on planetary surfaces where extended periods without solar energy would imperil the mission. Five of the six Apollo missions that landed on the Moon left scientific packages powered by Pu-238, for example, and NASA plans to use it for future lunar landers as well.

DOE is the only federal agency authorized to produce or own nuclear fuel and provides Pu-238 to NASA. DOE signed an agreement with Russia to obtain Pu-238, but Green’s presentation to the Decadal Survey committee revealed the the Russian government is now seeking a new government-to-government level agreement and delivery of the fuel may slip beyond 2011. Space News quotes Green as saying that NASA is proceeding with its current plans expecting that DOE will resolve the situation in a timely manner. A one-year delay reportedly would not be a problem, but “If the first delivery is delayed much beyond 2011 … mission schedules could suffer….”

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.