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“The Day of Reckoning Has Arrived”: Appropriators to Decide on Key Isotope For Space Probes

Richard M. Jones
Number 107 - October 22, 2010  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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When Congress returns to Washington later this month appropriators must make a critical decision about the future of U.S. planetary robotic missions.  The Obama Administration has requested –for the second time - $30 million to initiate the production of Plutonium-238 (Pu-238) which has been used in radioisotope power systems on 26 space missions.  U.S. production of this essential isotope ceased in 1988, and the sale of this material from Russia has been halted.   While it appears that House appropriators have approved the $15 million that the Department of Energy requested for FY2011, Senate appropriators included no money for the reestablishment of a U.S. production program in its DOE funding bill.

This is the second time that the Obama Administration has encountered congressional opposition to the domestic production of Pu-238.  In 2009, DOE requested $30 million through its Radiological Facility Management program, telling Congress that “the Pu-238 project is expected to be implemented over a 7 year period, ultimately providing a national production capability of 5kg of Pu-238 per year to support space exploration and national security applications.”

Senate appropriators refused this request.  In July 2009, the Senate Appropriations Committee released a report accompanying its FY 2010 Energy and Water Development bill stating:

“Pu-238 Production Restart Project- The Committee recommends no funding for this program at this time. The Committee understands the importance of this mission and the capability provided to other Federal agencies. However, the Department's proposed plutonium reprocessing program is poorly defined and lacks an overall mission justification as well as a credible project cost estimate. Sustaining the plutonium mission is a costly but an important responsibility. The Committee expects the Department to work with other Federal agency customers to develop an equitable and appropriate cost-sharing strategy to sustain this mission into the future.”

A few days later, the House Appropriations Committee issued its own report, explaining its recommendation that only one-third of the $30 million request be funded as follows:

“Plutonium-238 Production Restart.--While the Committee supports the re-start of Pu-238 for space missions and national security user applications, the Department has not provided a clear plan for how the $30,000,000 request will be utilized. The Committee is also concerned that the Department's request does not address how major users of Pu-238, like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, are partnering and contributing to this effort. The Committee recommends $10,000,000 for Pu-238 production start-up and directs the Department to provide its start-up plan, including the role and contribution of users, within 90 days of enactment of this Act."

Differences in the two versions of the FY 2010 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill were resolved in October, with the appropriators deciding to provide no funding.  They explained their reasoning as follows:

“Pu-238 Production Restart Project- The conference agreement provides no funding for the Pu-238 Restart Project. The conferees agree with language proposed by the House regarding a start-up plan which shall include the role and contribution of major users of Pu-238, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and shall be submitted with the fiscal year 2011 budget submission.”

In February of this year, the Department of Energy sent its new FY 2011 budget request to Congress.  Under the section for Radiological Facilities Management, DOE outlined a new cost sharing approach:

“The Radiological Facilities Management program ($66.8 million) maintains important DOE nuclear technology facilities in a safe, secure, environmentally compliant and cost-effective manner. This includes $15 million, as part of a 50/50 cost share project with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to begin reestablishing domestic capability to produce Plutonium (Pu)-238 for use in radioisotope power systems for NASA missions and national security applications. NASA uses Pu-238-based power systems where other power sources, such as batteries, fuel cells, and solar technologies, are not economical or technologically viable.”

In June 2010, DOE sent the requested report to key House and Senate appropriators that was entitled “Start-up Plan for Plutonium-238 Production for Radioisotope Power Systems” describing the “funding and agency roles” of DOE and NASA.  The report explained that Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s High Flux Isotope Reactor and Idaho National Laboratory’s Advanced Test Reactor would be capable of producing up to two kilograms of Pu-238 every year.  NASA estimates 1.5 kilograms will be needed for its future missions.  If the production process was reestablished this year, no Pu-238 would be available before 2015.  In discussing the need for this production, the report stated:

“The urgency to restart domestic production of Pu‐238 remains extremely high. As noted by the National Research Council, NASA’s ability to plan for future missions has already been adversely affected by the uncertainty surrounding long‐term supplies of Pu‐238. NASA requires at least six to eight years advance notice of adequate Pu‐238 supplies to properly plan for future planetary missions that are enabled or enhanced by radioisotope power systems. The amount of power available to a spacecraft and its science instruments is a fundamental design consideration and must be resolved early in the mission planning process in order to avoid costly overruns and to ensure the scientific return of these proposed missions.”

A later section of the DOE start-up plan described funding requirements, calculated in a preliminary estimate as $75-90 million, as follows:

“As outlined in the FY 2011 President’s Budget, DOE and NASA will share in equal amounts the full project cost of reestablishing a production capability. Although NASA is expected to be a primary user of Pu‐238 produced in the near future, this capability will also be available to support future national security applications, if such needs emerge. This proposed funding allocation properly acknowledges the Department’s mission to maintain a national capability for a range of Federal users and its responsibility to manage efforts related to the safe and secure production of special nuclear material. Considering DOE’s role in this project, the fact that the production capability will be entirely DOE owned, the uncertainty in future user needs, and other factors, the Administration believes the proposed cost sharing arrangement between DOE and NASA is the most appropriate scenario.”

The National Research Council report cited by DOE was prepared in response to a request made by House appropriators in July 2007.  The result was a 68-page report issued in 2009 entitled “Radioisotope Power Systems: An Imperative for Maintaining U.S. Leadership in Space Exploration” that was prepared by the Radioisotope Power Systems Committee, of the Space Studies Board and the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board of the National Research Council.   The committee stated:

“It has long been recognized that the United States would need to restart domestic production of 238Pu in order to continue producing RPSs and to maintain U.S. leadership in the exploration of the solar system. The problem is that the United States has delayed taking action to the point that the situation has become critical. Continued inaction will exacerbate the magnitude and the  impact of future 238Pu shortfalls, and it will force NASA to make additional, difficult decisions that will reduce the science return of some missions and postpone or eliminate other missions until a source of 238Pu is available.

“The schedule for reestablishing 238Pu production will have to take into account many factors, such as construction of DOE facilities, compliance with safety and environmental procedures, and basic physics. This schedule cannot be easily or substantially accelerated, even if much larger appropriations are made available in future years in an attempt to overcome the effects of ongoing delays. The need is real, and there is no substitute for immediate action.”

On July 15, the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee approved its version of the FY 2011 DOE funding bill.  The full committee has not acted on the bill, and so a committee report has not been released.  It is known that DOE’s full $824 million Nuclear Energy request was included in the bill, although no program details are known.

On July 22, the Senate Appropriations Committee released its report on its version of the FY 2011 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill.  Again, Senate appropriators provided no funding.  The Senate report states:

“Pu-238 Production Restart Project.--The Committee provides no funding for Pu-238 production capabilities. The Committee understands that the United States no longer has the capability to produce plutonium-238, which is a critical source of power for NASA space missions, and that a shortage of this radioisotope may affect future NASA missions. However, Pu-238 is not needed for any DOE or NNSA missions, including national security applications. As NASA will be the only user of Pu-238, the Committee believes NASA should pay for the entire service through a similar work for others arrangement that DOE has with the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies.”

The NASA Authorization Act signed into law on October 11 contains a pertinent section, described in the accompanying report language below.  Note that this bill provides program direction, but no funding:

“Section 806. On-going restoration of radioisotope thermoelectric generator material production.

“This section would require the Administrator to coordinate with the Secretary of Energy to restart and sustain domestic production of radioisotope thermoelectric generator material for deep space and other science and exploration missions. This section also would provide that funds authorized by this Act for NASA would be available under a reimbursable agreement with the Department of Energy for the purpose of this section. A report would be required within 120 days after enactment to Congress regarding the plan and schedule for this production.”

The $35 billion FY 2011 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill is one of the twelve bills that must be passed by Congress to fund the operations of the federal government for the remainder of this fiscal year.  There is a high likelihood that these bills will be merged into a single omnibus spending bill which will provide about $1.11 trillion for discretionary programs.  The extent to which the $15 million request for PU-238 production in DOE’s Radiological Facilities Management program will be discussed during these closed-door negotiations on the final bill is unknown.  What is known is what the NRC committee concluded in its report:

“Reestablishing domestic production of 238Pu will be expensive . . . . Previous proposals to make this investment have not been enacted, and cost seems to be the major impediment. However, regardless of why these proposals have been rejected, the day of reckoning has arrived.”

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics