Senate DOE Appropriators Say No Again to Pu-238

Senate DOE Appropriators Say No Again to Pu-238

The Obama Administration’s strategy to have NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE) share the costs of restarting plutonium-238 (Pu-238) production hit another roadblock this week. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved its version of the FY2012 Energy-Water Appropriations bill zeroing the requested DOE funds for the project.

The Senate committee action mirrors action in the House. This is the third year DOE’s appropriators have said no. The first time, the Obama Administration proposed that DOE fully fund the costs of restarting Pu-238 production. Historically, DOE had borne those costs since it is the only federal agency authorized to have nuclear materials. In these constrained budget times, however, Congress has been looking to see who benefits from the expenditures of funds. Those in charge of DOE’s budget feel that since NASA is the agency that needs the Pu-238, then NASA should pay for it. Last year and this year, the Administration proposed that the agencies split the costs, but the DOE appropriators’ stance has not changed — NASA should pay for it. The Senate committee report says simply that it provides no funding for it.

NASA needs Pu-238 to provide electrical power for its lunar and planetary probes that cannot rely on solar energy because of their destinations. The U.S. supply of Pu-238 is depleted and NASA has been purchasing it from Russia. Russia’s stores also are running dry.

A 2009 National Research Council report called the need for restarting Pu-238 production “imperative.” NASA’s lunar and planetary exploration plans have changed significantly since then with the redirection of the human spaceflight program and overall NASA budget constraints, however. Whether or not it remains imperative is unclear.

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