House Rejects Amendment to Allocate $10 Million in DOE Funding Bill for Pu-238 Production

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Publication date: 
13 July 2011

By a vote of 257 “no” to 167 “yes” votes,  the House of Representatives rejected an amendment offered by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) to allocate $10 million in  the FY 2012 appropriations bill for the Department of Energy to produce  Pu-238.  This isotope is used to fuel  NASA’s deep space probes.  The Obama  Administration requested $10 million in both the FY 2012 Department of Energy  and NASA budget requests for this cooperative program.

The initial version of the FY 2012 bill drafted by  the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee did not include  the requested $10 million for DOE.  An  attempt by Schiff to allocate $10 million for the restart of PU-238 production  failed when the bill came before the full House Appropriations Committee on  June 15.   Schiff’s move to amend the bill when it was considered on the House  floor was also defeated by yesterday’s vote.   The bill will now be considered by the Senate Energy and Water  Development Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

The following exchange took place on the House floor  between Schiff, Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee  Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), Subcommittee Ranking Member Peter  Visclosky (D-IN), and Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) when the amendment was discussed on  July 11 (floor procedures have been deleted):

Rep Schiff:

“My amendment is very simple. Of the $733 million  appropriated in this bill for nuclear energy research at the Department of  Energy, it separates out $10 million to spend on a cooperative effort with NASA  to restart the production of plutonium-238.

“Advancing the state of nuclear energy technology  was the initial mission of the DOE, and it was hugely successful, developing  technologies now used in power plants, submarines and deep space missions. This  last focus is now one of the smallest: DOE spends about $40 million a year  building plutonium-238 radioisotope thermal generators, RTGs, for NASA and for  national security purposes. This program began in the fifties. RTGs flew on all  of the Apollo missions and many times since. In deep space, RTGs are often the  only possible source of power.

“Unfortunately, in the early nineties, the U.S. shut  down plutonium-238 production, and since then, the Department of Energy has  been using stockpiled material and material purchased from Russia to build  these devices. Recently, though, Russia refused to continue that relationship,  and our supply of plutonium-238 is almost exhausted. There are no other viable  ways to provide this power, so the U.S. must restart production to allow any  deep space or national security uses to continue.

“This project has been requested in the last three  budget requests, under the Bush and Obama administrations. Over the course of 5  years, the total cost of the project is estimated at $75-$90 million. By  agreement between the agencies, the project would be equally funded by NASA and  the DOE as NASA has the largest need for the power and the DOE has the  expertise and would build and maintain the facility. The $10 million requested  this year in the NASA budget was included in the CJS [Commerce, Justice,  Science] billing making its way through the Appropriations Committee. This  50/50 cost share is consistent with the decades-long history of the RTG program  in which NASA has paid for each RTG produced for its purposes and the DOE has  paid for the infrastructure required.

“In the context of the nuclear energy research  budget, which, in fact, receives a modest increase in this bill, this is a very  small project, but it would have an outsized influence on our ability to do the  kind of space exploration that no one else in the world can. It may also  provide an opportunity for national security agencies to pursue important  projects that would otherwise not be available.

“I hope that every Member can support this amendment  so that we can continue the long history of space exploration for which this  Nation is known around the world.”

Subcommittee Chairman Frelinghuysen:

“I rise in opposition to the gentleman's amendment,  but let me thank him for his historical perspective of the department and of  its initial responsibility and for his own deep knowledge, which he shared with  many of us in the House, of its necessity in terms of space exploration.

“The gentleman's amendment increases funding for the  plutonium-238 production restart project, as it's called. To do so, funding for  other valuable nuclear energy activities would have to be cut, including the  advanced reactor concept research, fuel cycle development, and promising  avenues like small modular reactors licensing and research.

“The administration has proposed this new project  for several years in order to increase domestic supplies of plutonium-238. The  vast majority of this material, as Mr. Schiff has said, would be used by NASA  for in-space power supplies, and only a small fraction would be used by the  Department of Energy. Unfortunately, after the committee repeatedly expressed  concerns since fiscal year 2010, the administration once again proposed in the  2012 budget request for the Department of Energy to share a full half of the  project's financial cost. The administration has neither altered its stance nor  addressed or even acknowledged the committee's concerns about this  disproportionate sharing.

“The funding plans in the budget request and the  amendment simply don't make sense, particularly given the other critical  priorities in this bill. As we have expressed for 2 years, the administration  must develop a more sensible plan. Therefore, I oppose the amendment, and urge  Members to do likewise.”

Rep. Holt:  

“I would like to make a brief comment in support of  the gentleman's amendment.

“As he said and as I would like to reiterate, there  is a class of space exploration that cannot be carried out without these RTGs.  Our domestic supply is unreliable at best, essentially nonexistent, and it  takes a while to regenerate that.

“I strongly support the gentleman's move to restart  that program so that we could have a reliable domestic program for deep space  exploration that cannot be conducted in any way with other energy sources. I  think it is a reasonable amendment and is not overstated, and I would urge its  adoption.”

Subcommittee Ranking Member Visclosky:

“I rise in opposition to the gentleman's amendment.

“I certainly  appreciate, again, the gentleman's seriousness in offering it. I appreciate  what he wants to accomplish, but the history of this issue has been discussed  by a number of speakers.

“The fact is there have been Presidents of both  parties who have made this recommendation over the last 3 years, and there has  been directive language by this committee under the direction of both political  parties over the last 3 years. The point is there is a benefit to another  agency in the government outside the Department of Energy picking up a  reasonable cost, and there ought to be an agreement. Until that is done, I  would, with all due respect, rise to oppose the gentleman's amendment.”

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