AIP Supports Resumption of Pu-238 Production

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Publication date: 
5 July 2011

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