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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: 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.

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