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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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  • (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).
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  • (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. 🇺🇸

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  • (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.

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    • (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.

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    • (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.

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      • (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.

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