No Go: House Appropriators Reject FY 2012 DOE Funding Request for Pu-238 Production

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Publication date: 
27 June 2011

No  Go: House Appropriators Reject FY 2012 DOE Funding Request for Pu-238  Production

For  the third year in a row, appropriators have rejected an Administration request  for Department of Energy funding to restart the production of Pu-238.  With this action, the future of NASA’s deep  space probes program remains highly uncertain.

Both  the Bush and Obama Administrations have sent budget requests   to Congress proposing that the Department of Energy and NASA split the cost of  Pu-238 production.  Pu-238 is used to  fuel deep space probes, and its availability is almost exhausted as the U.S. stockpile  dwindles and with the Russian announcement that it will no longer sell this  isotope.

For  FY 2012, the Obama Administration requested $20 million for a restart program,  evenly divided between NASA and the Department of Energy.  A DOE budget document explains:

“The  Radiological Facilities Management program ($64.9 million) maintains important  DOE nuclear technology facilities in a safe, secure, environmentally compliant  and cost-effective manner. This includes $10 million, as part of a 50/50 cost  share project with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)  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.”

This  cost-sharing plan was supported by the President of the American Astronomical  Society (an AIP Member Society) in congressional testimony  this year.  Debra Elmegreen told House appropriators:

“Restart  of Pu-238 production is of critical importance to the development of planetary  science missions. There is no viable alternative way to power deep space  missions, as solar panels cannot produce enough electricity far from the Sun.  If Pu-238 production starts immediately, there will still be a 5-year delay to  have enough Pu-238 for a spacecraft. Full scale Pu-238 production is unlikely  until 2018, which is too late to meet all of NASA’s needs. The delay will push  back the 12 proposed planetary space missions that require Pu-238. The delay  could cause missions to reach prohibitively high costs, which in turn could  bring about job losses, diminish the United States leadership role in planetary  science, and prevent us from expanding human knowledge of the universe. Given  the magnitude of the funds necessary to regain our production capability, I  strongly urge you to fund this request fully at the President’s requested  level.”

While  the total FY 2012 funding request was $10 million less than the $30 million sought  in previous years, House appropriators with jurisdiction over the DOE budget  were not persuaded.  The FY 2012 House  Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill did not provide any funding  through the Department of Energy for the restart of Pu-238 production.  The report  accompanying  this bill stated:

“Plutonium–238  Production Restart Project.—The National Aeronautics and Space Administration  (NASA) uses the vast majority of plutonium–238 (Pu–238) produced or procured by  the federal government. The Committee remains concerned that the Administration  continues to request equal funding from NASA and the Department of Energy for a  project that primarily benefits NASA. The Committee provides no funds for this  project, and encourages the Administration  to devise a plan for this project that more closely aligns the costs paid by  federal agencies with the benefits they receive.”

On  June 15, the full House Appropriations Committee met to consider the  subcommittee’s draft bill.  During the  three hour markup, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) offered an amendment to allocate $10  million to restart the Pu-238 production process.  This money would be drawn from the $733  million the bill allocated for nuclear research activities.  In brief remarks, Schiff outlined the history  of the decades-long cooperative radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) program  and its importance to NASA’s space exploration program.  Under this program, NASA paid DOE for each  RTG that was produced, and DOE paid the infrastructure costs.  Schiff estimated the total five year cost of  the program to be between $75 and $90 million.   “In the context of the nuclear energy budget this is a small thing” he  said, “but it would have an outsized influence on our ability to do the space  exploration that the U.S. is known for around the world.”

Opposing  the amendment were the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee’s  top Republican and Democratic members.  Chairman  Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) argued that by directing this $10 million, funding would  be reduced for other nuclear energy research programs such as advanced reactor  concepts, fuel cycle development, and small modular reactors.  “The vast majority of this material would be  used by NASA for in-space power supplies and only a small fraction used by the  Department of Energy,” he said.   Frelinghuysen charged that the Administration had not addressed or  acknowledged the appropriators’ previous stated concerns, calling the FY 2012 request  a “funding scheme” that “simply doesn’t make sense.”  He called for the development of a more  equitable plan.  Rep. Peter Visclosky  (D-IN) “reluctantly” opposed Schiff’s amendment, remarking “I believe the chair  [Frelinghuysen] has stated the proposition correctly.” 

Rising  in support of the Schiff amendment was Rep. Chaka Fattah (PA), the Ranking  Democrat on the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee (which  has jurisdiction over NASA funding.)  He  called opposition to the amendment “unnecessarily adversarial to the general interests  of the nation,” and stressed that the funding request should not be viewed as a  battle between the Administration and Congress.   Looking ahead, Fattah spoke of working to find a way to provide the  necessary funding “between now and the [House] floor [vote].” 

Having  the last word, Schiff told his colleagues that no one would argue that deep  space exploration should not be supported, telling them “this has got to get  done.”  He urged appropriators not to quibble  about what agency would provide the necessary funding.  Addressing DOE’s role and its budget request,  Schiff said “Why is that?  It is because  DOE has always done this.  They have the  infrastructure to do it.”

A  voice vote was called.  While there were  many voting “aye,” there were more voting “no” and the amendment failed.

Attention  now turns to the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee.  Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA), Ranking Member  Fattah, and their colleagues will mark up their bill on July 7.   The subcommittee will have $50,237 million to  spend on the measure.

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