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posted by martyb on Friday October 20 2017, @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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  • (Score: 5, Interesting) by RamiK on Friday October 20 2017, @04:35PM (3 children)

    by RamiK (1813) on Friday October 20 2017, @04:35PM (#585293)
    Starting Score:    1  point
    Moderation   +3  
       Insightful=1, Interesting=1, Informative=1, Total=3
    Extra 'Interesting' Modifier   0  
    Karma-Bonus Modifier   +1  

    Total Score:   5  
  • (Score: 2) by BananaPhone on Friday October 20 2017, @05:01PM

    by BananaPhone (2488) on Friday October 20 2017, @05:01PM (#585312)

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

     

  • (Score: 2) by edIII on Friday October 20 2017, @10:59PM

    by edIII (791) Subscriber Badge on Friday October 20 2017, @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 2017, @12:22PM

    by Aiwendil (531) on Saturday October 21 2017, @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)