Budget Impasse Stalls U.S. Effort to Revive Plutonium-238 Production


WASHINGTON — For planetary scientists and astrophysicists hoping to re-establish domestic production of plutonium-238 (Pu-238) in an effort to power future U.S. deep space missions, 2011 could be another wasted year.

In 2009, the U.S. Congress denied the $30 million President Barack Obama called for in his 2010 budget request to restart the Pu-238 production process, saying the administration needed a more detailed startup plan specifying NASA’s contributions to an effort expected to take six to seven years and to cost $150 million or more.

In Obama’s 2011 budget request, the White House proposed that NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) split the cost of restarting production of the nuclear material for both NASA deep space missions and national security applications. A joint report NASA and the DoE delivered to Congress last June  laid out a plan to evenly split the $30 million needed this year to initiate  production restart activities.

But with lawmakers still deliberating a 2011 spending package, NASA, DOE and other federal agencies are left operating at last year’s spending levels under temporary spending authority, known as a continuing resolution, that prohibits funding new programs until a 2011 appropriation is adopted.

“Plutonium restart is a new start, so we need to be careful of that,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division, during a public meeting of the NASA Advisory Council planetary science subcommittee here Jan. 26.

Green said the U.S. Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee (AAAC), a federal advisory group comprised of scientists and other experts, expressed concern that delaying restart of Pu-238 not only would hinder the nation’s ability to conduct NASA planetary missions to the outer solar system “but may well impede development of future astrophysics missions,” he said.

In a Nov. 18 letter to lawmakers and senior NASA and DoE officials, AAAC Chairman Kim Griest urged prompt action be taken to enable Pu-238 production restart.

“The AAAC urges that, in consultation with Congress, prompt action be taken and appropriate budgetary resources be identified through cooperative coordination between DOE, NASA, and, if applicable, other federal agencies … to enable the Pu-238 project production restart for deep space mission applications,” the letter states.

In response, Peter Lyons, DoE assistant secretary for nuclear energy, said NASA and DoE are working jointly to re-establish a Pu-238 production capability in order to preserve the nation’s capability to conduct vital space science and exploration missions. In a Jan. 20 letter to Griest, Lyons noted that the two agencies had hammered out a plan to equally split the $30 million needed in 2011 to initiate restart. He noted that Congress “has not yet completed its work on the 2011 budget, so this effort is not yet funded,” but said “DoE and NASA are confident that the project can be managed effectively, regardless of which agency receives the funding.”

Green said that the continuing resolution under which the agency currently operates is forcing his division and others to spend money at last year’s levels, which he said is about $115 million less than proposed in Obama’s 2011 budget request for planetary science programs in 2011. As a result, even if NASA could initiate a new Pu-238 production program, he said, no funding would be available to pay for it.

Ralph McNutt, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory who co-chaired a National Research Council panel that in 2009 called for re-establishing domestic Pu-238 production, agreed that the lack of funding to restart production is unhelpful, and that it means the United States could be unable to respond to another “Sputnik moment” should one arise in the future.

“There will be continuing technical threats to missions (rather than programmatic threats alone) that will continue to move them to later launch dates,” McNutt said in a Feb. 2 e-mail. “In the meantime, our infrastructure and knowledge base for doing deep space missions — something that NASA and the U.S. currently has clear world leadership in — will continue to erode.”

McNutt said the impact is the potential for continued erosion of the U.S. leadership in space exploration.

“If we really want to abandon the high ground we have fought so hard to obtain, then many of us believe that should be done in at least a thoughtful manner, and not by default of circumstances,” he said.



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