A plutonium-238 pellet at
the US Department of Energy labs being readied for space missions
The U.S. push for nukes in space continues.
Thanks to the sharp eyes of Linda Pentz Gunter of Beyond Nuclear
comes the news that the appropriately named U.S. Senator
Mike Crapo of Idaho has slipped this passage into the “Energy
Policy Modernization Act” (S 2012)
“i) Using expertise from the
private sector, institutions of higher education, and National
Laboratories to develop computational software and capabilities
that prospective users may access to accelerate research and
development of advanced fission reactor systems, nuclear fusion
systems, and reactor systems for space exploration.”
What is now Idaho National
Laboratory has a long history involving the use of nuclear power
in space, including plutonium systems. This has been going on
despite accidents involving the use of nuclear power overhead.
Knoxville News Sentinel
reported in late 2015 that Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in
Tennessee has achieved production of 50 grams of plutonium-238.
That's roughly the mass of a golf ball, but it's considered a
milestone in re-establishing a U.S. stockpile of Pu-238 for use as
a power source on deep-space missions. ORNL has been developing
the capability over the past couple of years with funding that
NASA provided via the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear
Pu-238, a different isotope from
the plutonium-239 used in nuclear weapons, is used as fuel in
space power systems known as radioisotope thermoelectric
generators or RTGs. The radioactive material produces heat as it
decays, and that heat is converted to electricity for vital tasks
on spacecraft. ORNL said the infrastructure is now in place to
provide a steady and growing supply of plutonium-238 for future
According to NASA, the next space
mission with plans for using an RTG is the Mars 2020 Rover, which
is tentatively scheduled for launch in July 2020.
Not only are we concerned about a
launch accident with deadly plutonium onboard - but the entire
space nuclear production process at the Department of Energy
string of labs around the country has a very bad track record.
Before the 1997 launch of the
Cassini space probe (with 72 pounds of plutonium-238) at Cape
Canaveral it was reported that previously at the Los Alamos lab in
New Mexico, where the plutonium generators for that mission were
fabricated, there were 244 cases of worker contamination. The
nuclear labs have a long history of contaminating local water
systems with these highly-toxic substances as well.