FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

AIP Supports Resumption of Pu-238 Production

Richard M. Jones
Number 81 - July 5, 2011  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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The American Institute of Physics joined three of its Member Societies – the American Astronomical Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Physical Society - in urging House appropriators to support the Obama Administration’s request to resume production of Pu-238.  Pu-238 is used to fuel NASA’s deep space probes.  The Administration requested that appropriators provide both the Department of Energy and NASA with $10 million in their FY 2012 funding bills to support this production.  House appropriators did not include this funding in the Department of Energy section in their version of the FY 2012 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill. 

The House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee, which provides funding for NASA, will mark up its bill on Thursday.  The full House may start its consideration of the FY 2012 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill toward the end of this week.

The AIP letter to the Chairman and Ranking Democratic Member of the House Appropriations Committee follows:

Dear Chairman Rogers and Ranking Member Dicks:

I am writing to express strong support for restarting domestic production of Plutonium-238 (Pu-238) by fully funding it at the President’s FY12 requested level at both the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). I am sending this letter on behalf of the American Institute of Physics (AIP), its ten Member Societies, and the more than 135,000 scientists we represent - including the American Astronomical Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Physical Society who have each written you on this topic.

Specifically, I urge you to support the proposed $10 million for Pu-238 production at the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy Radiological Facilities Management program, and $10 million at NASA’s Planetary Science Technology program.

Pu-238 is a non-weapons grade form of plutonium needed to provide power to spacecraft in areas of space where solar energy is not sufficient. Pu-238 has been the enabling technology for robotic space exploration for two generations, and has led to truly transformative discoveries by such notable satellite missions as Voyager (grand tour from Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune), Viking (Mars surface landers in the 1970s), and Galileo (Jupiter), Casinni (Saturn), and New Horizons (Pluto and the Kuiper Belt).

There is no viable alternative to power deep space missions, and no U.S. source is currently available. Since U.S. production ceased, our diminishing stockpile of plutonium-238 has largely been purchased from Russia, but any additional purchase is currently being held up in ongoing negotiations.

Without Pu-238, NASA cannot carry out future deep space planetary missions. Pu-238 permits the U.S. to envision and then pursue space exploration objectives that would not otherwise be possible. The possibility to study, plan, and pursue such objectives will keep our country on the cutting edge of solar system exploration. Without Pu-238, the creativity of U.S. researchers will be seriously constrained as they study future robotic exploration. And even if Pu-238 production starts immediately, there will still be a five-year delay to have enough Pu-238 for a spacecraft; this delay will push back at least twelve proposed planetary space missions that require Pu-238. A delay could cause missions to reach prohibitively high costs, which could cause job losses – including a lost generation of young U.S. planetary scientists and engineers, diminish U.S. leadership in planetary science, and prevent us from expanding knowledge of the universe.

For several years the scientific community has been calling for the restart of production of Pu-238 and now time is running out. The 2009 National Academies report, ‘Radioisotope Power Systems: An Imperative for Maintaining U.S. Leadership in Space Exploration,’ stated that there is an immediate need to fund activities to restart domestic production of Pu-238. Furthermore, the 2011 planetary sciences decadal survey, a community consensus report on priorities for federal support, reaffirmed, “Without a restart of Pu-238 production, it will be impossible for the United States, or any other country, to conduct certain important types of planetary missions after this decade.”

For the past two years, the President's budget request has included this program with funding evenly split between NASA and DOE. Cost sharing is a productive avenue that enables both agencies to be invested in timely and efficient production. In this time of fiscal austerity, I understand that you have many difficult decisions to make; I urge you to recognize the critical importance of these missions and allocate the necessary funding. Thank you again for your attention to this issue and your service to America.


H. Frederick Dylla
Executive Director and CEO

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics