NASA Plutonium Supplies Still in Jeopardy

NASA Plutonium Supplies Still in Jeopardy

The urgent need for the Department of Energy (DOE) to restart production of plutonium-238 (Pu-238) to fuel some of NASA’s planetary spacecraft missions was detailed in a 2009 report from the National Research Council. Congress, however, remains unconvinced, at least as to why DOE should pay for it.

Under the Atomic Energy Act, DOE is responsible for the nation’s nuclear materials and facilities, so last year the full request of \$30 million to restart Pu-238 production was included in the DOE budget request. Congress declined to provide the funding because the Administration had not demonstrated why DOE should pay for it instead of NASA.

For the FY2011 request, the Administration split the costs between the two agencies, but the Senate Appropriations Committee still is not convinced as to why DOE should have to pay any of the costs. In its report on the FY2011 Energy-Water appropriations bill (S. 3635, S. Rept. 111-228, pp. 92-93), the committee says the following:

“The Committee understands that the United States no longer has the capability to produce plutonium-238, which is a critical source of power for NASA space missions, and that a shortage of this radioisotope may affect future NASA missions. However, Pu-238 is not needed for any DOE or [National Nuclear Security Administration] missions, including national security applications. 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.”

The NASA funding appears to be intact in the Senate committee’s Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill (H.R. 3636, S. Rept. 111-229). The House Appropriations Energy-Water subcommittee and CJS subcommittee have marked up their versions of the bill, but they have not cleared full committee and the details are not known yet.