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posted by martyb on Friday October 20, @04:09PM   Printer-friendly
from the non-glowing-assessment dept.

A Government Accountability Office report has found that the U.S. is unlikely to produce enough Plutonium-238 for NASA missions about a decade from now. The isotope has been used in radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) on missions such as Voyager, Cassini, and the Mars Science Laboratory:

Another GAO report notes: "[...], DOE currently maintains about 35 kilograms (kg) [77 pounds] of Pu-238 isotope designated for NASA missions, about half of which meets power specifications for spaceflight. However, given NASA's current plans for solar system exploration, this supply could be exhausted within the next decade."

[...] To address the plutonium problem, in 2011 NASA provided funding to the Department of Energy (DOE) to restart domestic production of the substance. The program is called the Pu-238 Supply Project. So far, the Project has produced ∼3.5 ounces (100 grams) of Pu-238. DOE identified an interim goal of producing 10 to 17.5 ounces (300 to 500 grams) of new Pu-238 per year by 2019. The goal is to produce 1.5 kilograms of new Pu-238 per year—considered full production—by 2023, at the earliest.

GAO is questioning the Supply Project's ability to meet its goal of producing 1.5 kilograms of new Pu-238 per year by 2026. For one thing, the oversight agency's interviews with DOE officials revealed that the agency hasn't perfected the chemical processing required to extract new Pu-238 from irradiated targets to meet production goals.

Only one DOE reactor is currently qualified to make Pu-238:

NASA's plutonium will be produced at two of these reactors, but only one of them is currently qualified to make Pu-238. GAO reported that initial samples of the new Pu-238 did not meet spaceflight specifications because of impurities. However, according to DOE, the samples can be blended and used with existing Pu-238.


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A Return to Pluto and Other Solar System Targets 10 comments

Astronomers are still hoping for another mission to Pluto, or perhaps another Kuiper belt object:

A grassroots movement seeks to build momentum for a second NASA mission to the outer solar system, a generation after a similar effort helped give rise to the first one. That first mission, of course, was New Horizons, which in July 2015 performed the first-ever flyby of Pluto and is currently cruising toward a January 2019 close encounter with a small object known as 2014 MU69.

[...] Nearly three dozen scientists have drafted letters in support of a potential return mission to Pluto or to another destination in the Kuiper Belt, the ring of icy bodies beyond Neptune's orbit, Singer told Space.com. These letters have been sent to NASA planetary science chief Jim Green, as well as to the chairs of several committees that advise the agency, she added. "We need the community to realize that people are interested," Singer said. "We need the community to realize that there are important, unmet goals. And we need the community to realize that this should have a spot somewhere in the Decadal Survey." That would be the Planetary Science Decadal Survey, a report published by the National Academy of Sciences that lays out the nation's top exploration priorities for the coming decade.

New Horizons 2 was already cancelled due to a shortage of plutonium-238, which still reportedly persists. One proposed target was 47171 Lempo, a trinary system. The trans-Neptunian dwarf planets Eris, Haumea, Sedna, Orcus, Salacia, Makemake, and 2007 OR10 (the largest known body in the solar system without a name - with an estimated 1,535 km diameter) have all been discovered since 2002. Several of these TNOs have moons and Haumea was recently found to have a ring system.

Now that Cassini is dead, most new NASA missions are focused on Mars and Jupiter, leaving the solar system's "ice giants" relatively unstudied:

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  • (Score: 5, Interesting) by RamiK on Friday October 20, @04:35PM (3 children)

    by RamiK (1813) on Friday October 20, @04:35PM (#585293)
    • (Score: 2) by BananaPhone on Friday October 20, @05:01PM

      by BananaPhone (2488) on Friday October 20, @05:01PM (#585312)

      Gotta love them rules that prevent LFTRs from existing in the US.

       

    • (Score: 2) by edIII on Friday October 20, @10:59PM

      by edIII (791) Subscriber Badge on Friday October 20, @10:59PM (#585464)

      Those are extremely interesting and informative links. Thank you.

      What struck me was that we could use these reactors to produce contaminants, that while undesirable and costly to deal with on Earth, are extremely practical and relatively safe for use in space operations. You read the last page of the p238 link, and it's like a goose laying a diamond, jewel encrusted, egg made from a mix of all the precious metals, that literally allow us to escape Earth and explore space.

      We just keep shooting ourselves in the foot over using nuclear energy versus fossil fuels.

    • (Score: 2) by Aiwendil on Saturday October 21, @12:22PM

      by Aiwendil (531) on Saturday October 21, @12:22PM (#585643) Journal

      Would that be legal?

      Even doing civilian deals with India in the nuclear sector required an exemption (with running afoul of the NPT and its ilk) so it would be interesting to see the legal issues of shipping a useful bomb-material to a nuclear weapons state not recognized by the NPT and if it matters that you would get another bomb-material back (both nations has enough Pu239 to make the entire issue moot in practice - but treaties care little for such things)

      And if it is legal to export bomb-materials to countries not recognized as weapons states by the NPT, then why not just ask Canada if they are willing to irradiate a couple of Np237 targets instead.
      (Or just take the easy way out and ask the russians for a quote)

  • (Score: 2) by tizan on Friday October 20, @04:42PM (5 children)

    by tizan (3245) on Friday October 20, @04:42PM (#585295)

    Very cheap i hear...
    May become a good business partner too.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 20, @04:59PM (2 children)

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 20, @04:59PM (#585310)

      Wouldn't NK get theirs from Russia, the US stuff that the Clintons sold?

      • (Score: 2, Informative) by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 20, @07:18PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 20, @07:18PM (#585385)

        Oh boy ....everything bad is because of Clintons and Obama...everything correct is what Fox News say is correct ?
        sigh ...
        anyways

        From wikipedia

          A newer nuclear reactor with a capacity of 5MWe. This gas-graphite moderated Magnox type reactor is North Korea's main reactor, where practically all of its plutonium has been produced. A full core consists of 8,000 fuel rods and can yield a maximum of 27–29 kg of plutonium if left in the reactor for optimal burnup.[126]

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Korea_and_weapons_of_mass_destruction [wikipedia.org]

      • (Score: 2, Interesting) by realDonaldTrump on Friday October 20, @07:29PM

        by realDonaldTrump (6614) Subscriber Badge on Friday October 20, @07:29PM (#585387) Homepage Journal

        Uranium is a big subject. If the mainstream media would cover the uranium scandal, and that Russia has 20 percent of the uranium, for whatever reason, and a lot of people understand what those reasons may be, I think that’s your Russia story. That’s your real Russia story, not a story where they talk about collusion, and there was none. It was a hoax. Your real Russia story is uranium, and how they got all of that uranium, a vast percentage of what we have. That is to me one of the big stories of the decade. Not just now, of the decade. The problem is that the mainstream media does not want to cover that story, because that affects people that they protect, so they don't like covering that story. But the big story is uranium and how Russia got 20 percent of our uranium. It’s a disgrace, and it’s a disgrace that the #FakeNews won’t cover it. It’s so sad.

    • (Score: 5, Informative) by Beryllium Sphere (r) on Friday October 20, @11:24PM (1 child)

      by Beryllium Sphere (r) (5062) on Friday October 20, @11:24PM (#585473)

      Chalk and cheese. There's all the difference in the world between Pu-238 and PU-239.

      Pu-238 can't sustain a chain reaction and spends its activity making alpha particles which even very light shielding will stop. So it just sits there generating heat.

      • (Score: 1) by redneckmother on Sunday October 22, @08:17PM

        by redneckmother (3597) on Sunday October 22, @08:17PM (#586040)

        So it just sits there generating heat.

        And, when inhaled, cancer.

        --
        Pitchforks? Check. Torches? Check. Lampposts? Check. Rope? Oh crap, Colorado smoked all the Hemp!
  • (Score: 2) by bob_super on Friday October 20, @05:09PM

    by bob_super (1357) on Friday October 20, @05:09PM (#585316)

    There are lots of savings for the Pentagon if the Pu producer you bomb happens to be domestic.

  • (Score: 5, Interesting) by khallow on Friday October 20, @05:16PM (17 children)

    by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Friday October 20, @05:16PM (#585319) Journal
    NASA has a long history of neglecting important details when it suits them. For example, they still have no replacement for the unique Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). And they're still planning to integrate (attach to the Space Launch System vehicle) solid fuel rocket motors in the VAB (lighting one of those by accident is one such way to destroy the VAB). Similarly, they still haven't gotten around to making a replacement for the Shuttle (the SLS is still years from launch) despite three decades of effort.

    The scarcity of PU-238 was a known problem for as long as NASA has been using it in spacecraft (since 1961 [wikipedia.org]). But the current absence of production is due to the shutdown of the old systems in 1988, thirty years ago.

    Let us also note that AM-241 is a possible replacement for PU-238. It has a quarter the power density, but about a factor of five greater half life. It also is considerably cheaper to obtain ($1.5 million [wikipedia.org] per kg versus $8 million [oregonstate.edu] per kg for PU-238).
    • (Score: 2) by realDonaldTrump on Friday October 20, @05:45PM

      by realDonaldTrump (6614) Subscriber Badge on Friday October 20, @05:45PM (#585340) Homepage Journal

      My Generals tell me the X-37 can put up spy satellites without putting my brave astronauts in danger. Fabulous! It can't capture enemy satellites and bring them back. But we don't need to do that. They tell me we don't need to do that, so we don't need the shuttle. 🇺🇸

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 20, @06:50PM (1 child)

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 20, @06:50PM (#585365)
      Ah but they are going to send humans to Mars!
    • (Score: 5, Insightful) by frojack on Friday October 20, @07:33PM (6 children)

      by frojack (1554) Subscriber Badge on Friday October 20, @07:33PM (#585389) Journal

      While you are pointing out NASA's faults, lets not forget that NASA is completely at the mercy of the DOE for things nuclear.

      And decades of hysteria about all things nuclear had that agency keeping a low profile.

      --
      No, you are mistaken. I've always had this sig.
      • (Score: 1) by khallow on Friday October 20, @07:46PM (4 children)

        by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Friday October 20, @07:46PM (#585395) Journal
        Three decades is a long time to work out that problem.
        • (Score: 3, Insightful) by JoeMerchant on Friday October 20, @09:21PM (3 children)

          by JoeMerchant (3937) on Friday October 20, @09:21PM (#585437)

          Plutonium238 has a half life of 88 years, if the stockpile is sufficient to support the next round of funding why make a fuss?

          • (Score: 1) by khallow on Friday October 20, @11:24PM (2 children)

            by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Friday October 20, @11:24PM (#585474) Journal
            Depends if you're thinking about the future or not, doesn't it?
            • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Saturday October 21, @01:27AM

              by JoeMerchant (3937) on Saturday October 21, @01:27AM (#585515)

              NASA is a big organization, somewhere in that organization are lots of people who do think about the future.

              At the top of that organization are political appointees, and the big calls, like this one, are in their hands.

              I think this whole story is basically a difference of opinion between the people who think about the future and the people at the top who think first about securing the next round of funding.

            • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 21, @06:37AM

              by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 21, @06:37AM (#585583)

              Depends if you're thinking about the future or not, doesn't it?

              Yes, of course. Like: put that plutonium in a long term account and watch the compound interest in action.
              After 88 year, the compound interest will get you with... half of your deposit.

      • (Score: 4, Interesting) by JoeMerchant on Friday October 20, @09:17PM

        by JoeMerchant (3937) on Friday October 20, @09:17PM (#585436)

        I worked with a company that had isotope issues 10 years ago... at that time, Canada was one potential answer, and it looks like they might be a Plutonium source too:

        http://ottawacitizen.com/news/national/covert-mission-plutonium-source-might-be-canada [ottawacitizen.com]

    • (Score: 5, Interesting) by PinkyGigglebrain on Friday October 20, @08:31PM (6 children)

      by PinkyGigglebrain (4458) on Friday October 20, @08:31PM (#585415)

      I think its more of a problem of NASA not having the budget to do anything. Every problem you cite can be traced back to not having enough money to solve the problem. And the fear that if something goes wrong with a current mission their budget will get cut next year. You would be risk averse too if every time you failed your paycheck got cut.

      Consider that NASA's 2017 budget is US$19.5 Billion. That has to cover everything, payroll, contracts to maintain current equipment, controlling/monitoring current missions, keeping the ISS up there, etc., and that budget is subject to the whims of Congress. Consider that in 2011 NASA was given US$18.4 Billion, in 6 years their budget only went up by just ~US$1.1 Billion. They don't have a lot of extra money to spend on actually developing new tech/missions.

      NASA actually had a working fission reactor design for deep space missions back in the 1960's, the program got axed because of budget, and the whole "OMG!! its nuclear!! It must be stopped" public mindset.

      The original Apollo missions, all of them, was about US$110 Billion (adjusted for inflation). NASA made it to the Moon 6 times with just US$110 Billion, effectively from scratch. That was with a dedicated national effort to get to the Moon.

      The US military on the other hand gets US$1.5 TRILLION just for the unneeded F-35 program. Give NASA that kind of money, and the solid commitment not to cut their budget for 10 years, and watch what happens. With that kind of money NASA could afford to take risks. Like another probe to Pluto with nothing but experimental technologies just to see what works. A LFTR powering an Ion engine could make it to Pluto ORBIT in just a couple years flight time.

      --
      "Beware those who would deny you Knowledge, For in their hearts they dream themselves your Master."
      • (Score: 3, Interesting) by khallow on Friday October 20, @11:22PM

        by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Friday October 20, @11:22PM (#585472) Journal

        I think its more of a problem of NASA not having the budget to do anything. Every problem you cite can be traced back to not having enough money to solve the problem. And the fear that if something goes wrong with a current mission their budget will get cut next year. You would be risk averse too if every time you failed your paycheck got cut.

        NASA has vastly more than enough to pay for a PU-238 manufacture program presently. And while their budget has varied [wikipedia.org] over the decades, it hasn't been much more or much less than it is now for over 40 years (from 1970 to present min has been a bit over $14 billion per year in 2014 dollars, max a bit over $24 billion). They don't experience significant budget cuts when they experience failure. Lowest budget years had nothing to do with failure, but rather a huge drop in activity following the end of the Apollo program before Space Shuttle had started up. And following the biggest failures of NASA during this period, the destruction of two space shuttles in accidents 15 years apart, NASA actually saw mild increases in funding following each accident.

        Consider that NASA's 2017 budget is US$19.5 Billion. That has to cover everything, payroll, contracts to maintain current equipment, controlling/monitoring current missions, keeping the ISS up there, etc., and that budget is subject to the whims of Congress. Consider that in 2011 NASA was given US$18.4 Billion, in 6 years their budget only went up by just ~US$1.1 Billion. They don't have a lot of extra money to spend on actually developing new tech/missions.

        To the contrary, most of their budget [nasa.gov] is devoted to tech development and new missions. They just happen to go about that in a poor and very inefficient way.

      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 20, @11:41PM (2 children)

        by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 20, @11:41PM (#585478)

        There's reason for caution. 238Pu is an alpha emitter with a half-life of about 88 years. That's slow enough that if it became dispersed in the environment, it could make its way into people's bodies before much of it had decayed. But it's fast enough that, should the plutonium remain in someone's body, much of it would decay during the person's lifetime. It has a much greater activity than an identical amount of 239Pu. Alpha particles emitted within someone's body travel a very short distance before they are absorbed, hence essentially all of their energy is deposited in neighboring cells.

        Robert Park, who should know, told me ~20 years ago that NASA's RTGs are designed to survive a launch failure without dispersing their plutonium (he was talking about the ones used in the Apollo program). I have no idea whether that's changed for the worse. Even if it has, it's small potatoes compared to having ICBMs on alert or having several damaged reactors at Fukushima.

        • (Score: 2) by takyon on Saturday October 21, @01:43AM

          by takyon (881) <takyonNO@SPAMsoylentnews.org> on Saturday October 21, @01:43AM (#585519) Journal

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassini%E2%80%93Huygens#Plutonium_power_source [wikipedia.org]

          Had there been any malfunction causing the probe to collide with the Earth, NASA's complete environmental impact study estimated that, in the worst case (with an acute angle of entry in which Cassini would gradually burn up), a significant fraction of the 33 kg of plutonium-238 inside the RTGs would have been dispersed into the Earth's atmosphere so that up to five billion people (i.e. almost the entire terrestrial population) could have been exposed, causing up to an estimated 5,000 additional cancer deaths over the subsequent decades (0.0005 per cent, i.e. a fraction 0.000005, of a billion cancer deaths expected anyway from other causes; the product is incorrectly calculated elsewhere as 500,000 deaths). However, the chance of this happening were estimated to be less than one in one million.

          --
          [SIG] 10/28/2017: Soylent Upgrade v14 [soylentnews.org]
        • (Score: 2) by c0lo on Saturday October 21, @06:50AM

          by c0lo (156) Subscriber Badge on Saturday October 21, @06:50AM (#585587)

          should the plutonium remain in someone's body, much of it would decay during the person's lifetime.

          I doubt it, that person's life will be much shorter.

          Alpha particles emitted within someone's body travel a very short distance before they are absorbed, hence essentially all of their energy is deposited in neighboring cells.

          Deposited is the wrong term to use. Destruction by radiolysis [wikipedia.org] it's what actually happens.
          As an example of the effects, see Alexander Litvinenko [wikipedia.org].
          The high majority of Polonium isotopes [wikipedia.org] decays on α and β channels.

      • (Score: 2) by bradley13 on Saturday October 21, @08:34AM (1 child)

        by bradley13 (3053) Subscriber Badge on Saturday October 21, @08:34AM (#585603) Homepage Journal

        You're right, of course, more money would solve many problems. So would keeping Congress out of the decision-making loop, since they keep changing their minds about what NASA ought to be doing.

        That said, NASA is just unbelievably inefficient. By some estimates, anything NASA does costs about 10x as much as if private industry were to do it (e.g. SpaceX or Blue Origin). NASA is a thoroughly entrenched bureaucracy, totally risk averse. Not what you really want to have in an exploratory space agency.

        --
        Everyone is somebody else's weirdo.
  • (Score: 2) by Phoenix666 on Friday October 20, @05:22PM (7 children)

    by Phoenix666 (552) Subscriber Badge on Friday October 20, @05:22PM (#585323) Journal

    Well, who should we invade to get more, Kazakhstan or Canada? I vote Canada, because they're closer and have better beer. Fermented mare's milk is disgusting.

    --
    Washington DC delenda est.
    • (Score: 2) by Osamabobama on Friday October 20, @06:20PM (1 child)

      by Osamabobama (5842) on Friday October 20, @06:20PM (#585355)

      Fermented mare's milk is disgusting.

      How do you know this? I mean, do you have personal experience, and, if so, where did you get it? Asking for a friend.

      --
      Appended to the end of comments you post. Max: 120 chars.
      • (Score: 3, Interesting) by Phoenix666 on Saturday October 21, @11:32AM

        by Phoenix666 (552) Subscriber Badge on Saturday October 21, @11:32AM (#585631) Journal

        Harbin, Manchuria, China. It's close to Inner Mongolia and ethnic Mongolians are around. They drink it.

        You wouldn't think it's possible to produce an alcoholic drink more disgusting than the erguotou the Chinese make from fermented sorghum, but it is. It is.

        --
        Washington DC delenda est.
    • (Score: 1, Funny) by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 20, @07:00PM (2 children)

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 20, @07:00PM (#585370)
      But beshbarmak is more interesting than poutine :).
      • (Score: 2) by Phoenix666 on Saturday October 21, @11:35AM (1 child)

        by Phoenix666 (552) Subscriber Badge on Saturday October 21, @11:35AM (#585633) Journal

        More interesting than poutine? That's just crazy talk. Nothing beats gravy and cheese curds on french fries.

        --
        Washington DC delenda est.
        • (Score: 3, Funny) by t-3 on Saturday October 21, @01:59PM

          by t-3 (4907) on Saturday October 21, @01:59PM (#585660)

          I'd take Detroit Coney-style chili cheese fries over that Canadian lard-and-potato soup any day.

    • (Score: 3, Funny) by mhajicek on Friday October 20, @07:44PM (1 child)

      by mhajicek (51) on Friday October 20, @07:44PM (#585392)
      • (Score: 2) by Osamabobama on Friday October 20, @08:20PM

        by Osamabobama (5842) on Friday October 20, @08:20PM (#585410)

        Linking to a Michael Moore film...but wait! It's not a documentary. That's so rare, it's probably a collectable.

        --
        Appended to the end of comments you post. Max: 120 chars.
  • (Score: 3, Insightful) by turgid on Friday October 20, @05:30PM (1 child)

    by turgid (4318) on Friday October 20, @05:30PM (#585328) Journal

    We've got decades worth of the stuff up at Sellafield. We've been making it on an industrial scale since about 1957. Also, what with Brexit, we're looking for new export markets. Now, about that special relationship...

    --
    Don't let Righty keep you down.
    • (Score: 3, Insightful) by khallow on Friday October 20, @07:01PM

      by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Friday October 20, @07:01PM (#585371) Journal

      We've got decades worth of the stuff up at Sellafield.

      Not in a form that NASA can use. It's extremely difficult to separate PU-238 from its fellow isotopes (particularly, PU-239).

  • (Score: 1, Funny) by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 20, @09:25PM (1 child)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 20, @09:25PM (#585438)

    Buy it from N Korea - Trump can drive a good bargain, he's got that that art of deal.

    In fact, buy up so much to dry out their pot so they won't have any left for their sorry excuse of missiles.

    Dang, I so smart.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 21, @06:41AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 21, @06:41AM (#585585)

      Dennis Rodman?

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