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

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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.”