The timing of Russia’s demand to renegotiate its contract with the U.S. Department of Energy to provide plutonium-238 fuel for NASA’s deep space missions is interesting, to say the least. Russia’s Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation informed the department that it would not keep its end of the bargain in mid-September — after it became clear that Congress likely would deny funding sought by U.S. President Barack Obama to begin laying the groundwork to resume domestic production of the isotope.

Plutonium-238 is the key ingredient in radioisotope power systems, which convert heat from the radioactive material’s decay into electricity for probes operating too far from the sun to draw upon its energy. Although it is possible to explore planets beyond the orbit of Mars without nuclear batteries, this severely limits the science that can be accomplished. For any sustained and detailed exploration of the outer planets — and for some of the more ambitious missions to the red planet, such as NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory — there simply is no alternative to plutonium-238.

Russia knows this. The U.S. Congress — or more precisely, the House and Senate committees that oversee the Department of Energy’s annual expenditures — either doesn’t know or doesn’t care all that much.

The U.S. National Research Council (NRC) warned back in May that NASA would have difficulty planning for deep space exploration beyond 2020 due to dwindling stockpiles of plutonium-238, which also is used for undisclosed U.S. national security purposes. This situation stems from a shortsighted U.S. government decision in the late 1980s to stop producing the isotope and rely on Russia to supply the fuel for NASA missions. But Russia also has stopped producing the material, and its own supplies are limited.

The NRC report urged the U.S. government to immediately begin developing the tools necessary to resume domestic production, a six- to seven-year process expected to cost around $150 million; the Obama administration responded with a $30 million request for 2010 to do just that. But lawmakers balked, telling the White House to come back next time around — in other words, when it submits its 2011 budget request — with more details, to include a plan for reimbursing the Energy Department for its investment.

House and Senate appropriators did not finalize the Energy and Water Development Bill for 2010 until the last day of September, by which time Rosatom had already said it would neither make a scheduled shipment of 5 kilograms of plutonium-238 in 2010 nor accept another 5-kilogram order for delivery in 2011. But the handwriting was already on the wall: The initial House and Senate versions of the funding bill, both of which passed in July, provided $10 million and no funding, respectively, for plutonium-238 production.

It could be that other factors led Rosatom to renege on its deal; Russia has experienced severe inflation in recent years that has driven up the cost and disrupted supply chains of other products, notably rocket components. But Russian companies, which in the defense and aerospace sector are typically controlled if not owned outright by the government, also have been known over the years to seek more favorable terms on supposedly done deals when they find themselves in position to do so. A prime example is the international space station program, where the government-owned Rocket and Space Corporation Energia repeatedly delayed delivery of a key building block for the orbital outpost while demanding additional cash from NASA.

The plutonium-238 situation raises new questions about Russia’s dependability as a partner on space projects. This bodes particularly poorly given NASA’s plan to rely solely on Russian Soyuz vehicles to ferry crews to and from the space station in the years immediately following the retirement of the space shuttle — now planned for the end of 2010.

For Congress, it is a lesson in the perils of legislative myopia. As U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), whose district includes NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, noted, approving at least some funding to resume plutonium-238 production would have greatly improved the United States’ negotiating position with Rosatom.

It is possible that a new deal will be struck in time to resume plutonium-238 deliveries — albeit at a much higher price — in 2011, which would allow NASA to keep its current slate of deep space missions on track. But any further delay could affect missions  such as a probe tentatively slated to launch in 2020 toward Europa, Jupiter’s intriguing ice-covered moon, while making it all but impossible for NASA to plan for future exploration of distant planetary systems.

The Department of Energy must be given the funding needed to gear up for plutonium-238 production as soon as possible. A reprogramming of 2010 funds for that purpose would send a message to Rosatom that the United States is serious about domestic production. This likely would lead to better terms in the renegotiated deal, while getting the Energy Department started on a capability that the nation needs under any circumstances.

As Ralph McNutt, planetary scientist and co-author of the NRC report, so succinctly put it: “If you don’t do it we are done. We are out of business.”