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NASA Running Out of Plutonium 264

Posted by Soulskill
from the so-am-i dept.
PRB_Ohio takes us to Space.com for a story about NASA's plutonium shortage, and how it may affect future missions to the far reaches of the solar system. The U.S. hasn't produced plutonium since 1988, instead preferring to purchase it from Russia. We discussed the U.S. government's plans to resume production in 2005, but those plans ended up being shelved. If NASA is unable to find an additional source, it could limit missions that take spacecraft too far from the Sun. Quoting: "Alan Stern, NASA associate administrator for science, ... said he believed the United States had sufficient plutonium-238 on hand or on order to fuel next year's Mars Science Lab, an outer planets flagship mission targeted for 2017 and a Discovery-class mission slated to fly a couple years earlier to test a more efficient radioisotope power system NASA and the Energy Department have in development. To help ensure there is enough plutonium-238 for those missions, NASA notified scientists in January that its next New Frontiers solicitation, due out in June, will seek only missions that do not require a nuclear power source."
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NASA Running Out of Plutonium

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  • WTF? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Scrameustache (459504) on Friday March 07, 2008 @02:50PM (#22678574) Homepage Journal

    The U.S. hasn't produced plutonium since 1988, instead preferring to purchase it from Russia.
    Whaaaaaa?
    • Re:WTF? (Score:5, Funny)

      by eln (21727) on Friday March 07, 2008 @02:58PM (#22678700) Homepage
      Give them a little credit, buying it from Russia was plan B. Our first source of plutonium was from Libyan nationalists. See, they would ask us to build them a bomb, we would take the plutonium, and then give them a shiny bomb casing full of used pinball machine parts. Unfortunately, the Libyans eventually found out and tried to kill us with RPGs. I swear, if Reagan hadn't managed to get up to 88 mph before he hit that photo kiosk, I don't know what we would have done.
    • Re:WTF? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by AKAImBatman (238306) <akaimbatman @ g m a i l . c om> on Friday March 07, 2008 @03:01PM (#22678738) Homepage Journal
      The official position of the US Government is that breeder reactors are a potential threat. Bad Guys(TM) might get ahold of fissible materials bound for reprocessing, and THEN where would we be, hmm?

      Never mind the fact that it's about 1000x simpler to create a gun-type bomb with Uranium rather than creating an uber-complex implosion device. All terrorists obviously have access to the advanced nuclear engineering and simulation capabilities necessary to create a plutonium implosion device.

      ...

      Despite the fact that they can't refine Uranium...
      • Re:WTF? (Score:5, Informative)

        by NeverVotedBush (1041088) on Friday March 07, 2008 @04:19PM (#22680088)
        Hey all - there is a very important concept to this discussion that most don't seem to be aware of.

        Pu239 is the isotope of plutonium that is used in weapons. It has a very long half life (~24,000 years) and works great in nuclear weapons since it releases neutrons when the nucleus breaks apart and those neutrons cause other nuclei to break apart as well in a massive chain reaction that releases huge amounts of energy. (Normal decay path is through alpha particle emission (helium nuclei))

        Pu238 is the isotope used in thermoelectric energy generators. It has a relatively short half live of ~88 years. Because of the shorter half life, it is a lot more radioactive than Pu239. The nucleus spontaneously undergoes alpha decay and releases enough energy frequently enough that chunks of this isotope glow red from the heat.

        The plutonium used in warheads cannot be used in thermoelectric generators and vice versa.
        • Re:WTF? (Score:5, Interesting)

          by AKAImBatman (238306) <akaimbatman @ g m a i l . c om> on Friday March 07, 2008 @04:27PM (#22680210) Homepage Journal
          The catch-22 is that they come from the same type of breeder reactor and have to separated by processing. Ergo, lack of breeder reactors == lack of PU-238. You follow?
          • Re:WTF? (Score:5, Interesting)

            by NeverVotedBush (1041088) on Friday March 07, 2008 @04:44PM (#22680478)
            Not entirely true. You operate the reactors and process the fuel rods differently, and I would assume load the fuel rods differently, depending on the isotope you want to make.

            If you read the Global Security link I added, you will see. If you want to make predominately Pu239, you go with short run cycles so you don't get buildup of other, more radioactive isotopes, that make handling the fuel rods more problematic. You also want to use more U238 in the rods.

            I would guess (as I don't know) that based on the Global Security article, if you want to make Pu238, you would start with more U235 in the rods and maybe run longer between reprocessing cycles.

            It's interesting stuff.
          • Re:WTF? (Score:4, Interesting)

            by NeverVotedBush (1041088) on Friday March 07, 2008 @04:57PM (#22680668)
            Also, though a breeder may be more efficient at making them (I don't know), it isn't required. Plutonium was first made in the X-10 graphite reactor at Oak Ridge. All rectors that use uranium as fuel will produce plutonium. If you read the Wikipedia articles on breeder reactors, all light water reactors gradually transition from predominately burning their starting fuel to predominately burning the new isotopes that get bred into the fuel rods.

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breeder_reactor [wikipedia.org]
        • by NeverVotedBush (1041088) on Friday March 07, 2008 @04:35PM (#22680340)
          If you want to read an excellent discussion of reactor vs. weapons grade plutonium (though there isn't much information on Pu238 for thermoelectric generators) go here: http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/intro/pu-isotope.htm [globalsecurity.org]

          Methods used to make the two isotopes (weapons grade Pu239 vs. thermoelectric generator Pu238) are quite different.

          Pu239 is produced from U238 when it absorbs a neutron and decays to Pu239.

          Pu238 is produced with U235 through a chain of neutron absorptions and decays.

          U238 is the more common form of uranium and is not the kind used for uranium weapons. Relatively pure U235 is what is frequently called highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and is the kind used for weapons.
    • Re:WTF? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by ISoldat53 (977164) on Friday March 07, 2008 @03:04PM (#22678798)
      The West has been buying Russian plutonium from old weapons and from surplus stockpiles under the idea that it's better to use it as fuel in a power plant than in a weapon.
      • The West has been buying Russian plutonium from old weapons and from surplus stockpiles under the idea that it's better to use it as fuel in a power plant than in a weapon.
        Ahhhh! Thanks for the info, I was thoroughly bemused :)
      • Re:WTF? (Score:4, Informative)

        by TubeSteak (669689) on Friday March 07, 2008 @03:45PM (#22679530) Journal

        The West has been buying Russian plutonium from old weapons and from surplus stockpiles under the idea that it's better to use it as fuel in a power plant than in a weapon.
        Huh?

        The Russians do not want to use it in a weapon. The Russians have been pushing for accelerated nuclear disarmament because they literally can't afford to protect & maintain all their nuclear warheads. The U.S. has been filling the gap by helping to cover the security costs (including stuff like rusting submarines sitting at the dock), but Russia still has serious security issues.

        Read this to get a picture of the state of Russian nuclear storage [blogspot.com]
        Keep in mind that Russia has many nuclear dump sites spread around the country & I doubt anything has changed since that article was written last year.
        • Re:WTF? (Score:5, Informative)

          by Junior J. Junior III (192702) on Friday March 07, 2008 @05:04PM (#22680782) Homepage
          Right, the Russians want to dismantle the weapons and not have to maintain them or protect them. Problem is, what do they do with the Pu once the weapons have been dismantled? Answer: sell it. But to who? Unsavory guys who'll make it into weapons, or US Science Guys who promise not to? The Russians and US both think it's better for the Pu not to be made into weapons, so we have the arrangement. If we didn't take it, someone would need to do something with it, and who knows what that would be -- probably not something the US would like.
        • by TopSpin (753) *

          The Russians do not want to use it in a weapon

          The parent didn't claim they did. The assertion was "a weapon." Please return your fur to its normal non-puffy configuration; no one is suggesting Russia would use the plutonium to attack, if not for the fact that they sold it.

          People with the ability think beyond the end of their highly sensitive and reactionary nose observe that neglected, valueless plutonium will likely end up being smuggled/sold by some corruptible low/unpaid caretaker to an aggressor. The US insures the best price is a lucrative abo

    • by nizo (81281) *
      Luckily we have plenty stockpiled in handy ICBM storage containers.
    • All your nukes are belong to us!
      Yours sincerely, comrade Medvedev.
    • Well... (Score:3, Interesting)

      by jd (1658)
      ....they COULD have bought plutonium easily enough from the British (their reprocessing plant produces a fair amount of extractable plutonium) and probably from the French. Possibly even from the Israelis. Buying from Russia makes no real sense, due to the security issues in the region, politics and the problems of safe transport. The British would seem to be the best bet, as they probably generate the most, have extensive experience in transporting nuclear material, and have a special relationship with the
      • ....they COULD have bought plutonium easily enough from the British (their reprocessing plant produces a fair amount of extractable plutonium) and probably from the French. Possibly even from the Israelis. Buying from Russia makes no real sense
        As someone else explained, it seems they're doing it to take the plutonium away from the Russians.
        And I bet the Russians love that sweet, sweet money.
  • Two words (Score:5, Funny)

    by Lucas123 (935744) on Friday March 07, 2008 @02:51PM (#22678584) Homepage
    dilithium crystals
  • by Jeremiah Cornelius (137) * on Friday March 07, 2008 @02:51PM (#22678588) Homepage Journal
    Ooops. That's Illudium Q-36 - Not Plutonium - for the Explosive Space Modulator. [everything2.com]

    It still obstructs my view of Venus!
  • by longacre (1090157) * on Friday March 07, 2008 @02:52PM (#22678600) Homepage
    Pluto isn't a planet anymore, it shouldn't have an element named after it.
  • Plan B (Score:5, Funny)

    by OglinTatas (710589) on Friday March 07, 2008 @02:53PM (#22678608)
    Maybe they can arrange to purchase some from Iran. Everybody wins!
    • by stox (131684)
      Iran has highly enriched Uranium, no plutonium.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by edwardpickman (965122)
      In all seriousness N Korea would probably be thrilled to trade us Plutonium for wheat. That is a deal where everyone wins.
  • by WK2 (1072560) on Friday March 07, 2008 @02:53PM (#22678618) Homepage
    Simple solution. They can go back in time and steal plutonium from themselves.
  • I hear Iran might have a nice supply shortly.

    (Its a freakin JOKE!)
  • Marty! (Score:5, Funny)

    by amccaf1 (813772) on Friday March 07, 2008 @02:57PM (#22678680)
    "I'm sure in 1985 plutonium is available at every corner drugstore, but in 1955 it's a little hard to come by!"
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by dkleinsc (563838)
      According to Philo of UHF [wikipedia.org], it is possible to create plutonium from common household items.
  • You mean the USSR? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by wandazulu (265281) on Friday March 07, 2008 @02:58PM (#22678696)
    If I recall correctly, the Soviet Union finally dissolved in 1991. So at some point, circa 1988, somebody in either Reagan or Bush's administration decided it'd be easier to get Plutonium from the Soviet Union? You know, the sworn enemy, evil empire, etc. etc.? And even weirder, the Soviet Union agreed?

    I know, it was for NASA, not the Minuteman missile, but still...
    • by Vellmont (569020) on Friday March 07, 2008 @03:18PM (#22679056)

      So at some point, circa 1988, somebody in either Reagan or Bush's administration decided it'd be easier to get Plutonium from the Soviet Union?

      I'd say this is unlikely. The summary says we haven't PRODUCED plutonium since 1988, it says nothing about when we decided to purchase from Russia.

      It could very well be the case that we had sufficient stockpiles in 1988 to last us several years until after the collapase of the Soviet Union.
    • If I recall correctly, the Soviet Union finally dissolved in 1991. So at some point, circa 1988, somebody in either Reagan or Bush's administration decided it'd be easier to get Plutonium from the Soviet Union? You know, the sworn enemy, evil empire, etc. etc.? And even weirder, the Soviet Union agreed?

      I know, it was for NASA, not the Minuteman missile, but still...

      Quite understandable actually - because PU238 isn't used in weapons, PU239 is.

      AIUI/IIRC in the US most 238 came as a by product

    • by CompMD (522020) on Friday March 07, 2008 @03:53PM (#22679658)
      In Soviet Russia, plutonium enriches YOU!
    • It was my understanding that we were buying the stuff that was coming out of their decommissioned nuclear weapons. I believe the theory was that us buying it was better than it going to the highest anonymous bidder.
  • by Coward Anonymous (110649) on Friday March 07, 2008 @03:01PM (#22678744)
    First, kudos to the U.S. for buying plutonium from the Russians. What better way to get it off their hands?
    Second, many people should rejoice, this is a golden opportunity to decommission a warhead or two for the plutonium in it.
    • Second, many people should rejoice, this is a golden opportunity to decommission a warhead or two for the plutonium in it.

      Um, no. PU239 is used in weapons, PU238 in nuclear batteries.
    • by Vellmont (569020) on Friday March 07, 2008 @03:24PM (#22679162)

      Second, many people should rejoice, this is a golden opportunity to decommission a warhead or two for the plutonium in it.

      No dice.

      Nasa uses Plutonium-238 in it's RTGs because it's a strong alpha-emitter, and has a short half-life on 87 years. I also believe it's non-fissile (meaning it can't be used for an nuclear weapon).

      Plutonium-239 is the stuff they use in nuclear weapons, and it's fairly useless as an RTG generator.
      • Pu-238 vs. Sr-90 (Score:3, Informative)

        by Dr. Cody (554864)
        I've heard a bit about these NASA and pacemaker RTG's which use plutonium-238. On the other hand, the much more widely-produced Soviet power RTG's (like the Beta-M) use strontium-90.

        Any reason why we don't just use strontium--everybody makes that stuff. On the same note, why didn't the USSR use Pu-238?
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        All isotopes of plutonium are fissile, it's just that some of them are such strong neutron emitters that it's hard to make much of a bomb from them without predetonation sapping the yield, unless you've got a really good fusion boosted design. Some isotopes also give out a huge amount of heat due to spontaneous fission, making them unsuitable for bomb designs but great for RTGs, which is the real reason why NASA uses it: According to the Nuclear Weapons FAQ ( http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/Nwfaq/Nfaq6.htm [nuclearweaponarchive.org]
    • by DesScorp (410532)
      "First, kudos to the U.S. for buying plutonium from the Russians. What better way to get it off their hands?
      Second, many people should rejoice, this is a golden opportunity to decommission a warhead or two for the plutonium in it.
      "

      IIRC, half of all current new fuel rods going into US nuclear plants are coming from decommissioned Russian nuclear weapons.

      But with Putin's Russia resurgent, this can't last very long. We'll need to dig for more of our supply soon. Supply isn't the problem. We have plenty. We jus
      • Just a slight correction, the reprocessing and stocking (only relatively short half-lives) is done in La Hague. Le Havre is a port in a different region.
        It not only reprocesses all of France spent fuel, but about half of the world's, according to Wikipedia [wikipedia.org]
    • by no-body (127863)
      Second, many people should rejoice, this is a golden opportunity

      Just imagine how more joyful they would become when finding out the worst case scenario of distributing > 50 kg of plutonium dust in the planets atmosphere if something goes kaboom.

      I actually find it great that they are running out of this stuff; they should start looking for other means of propulsion.
      • by clonan (64380)
        #1 Why would it be dust? Most explosions don't pulverize anything....your 50 KG of Pu will fall to earth as chunks...

        #2 your 50KG of plutonium dust would cause no appreciable increase in the background radiation levels.

        Can you suggest a different power means? The only three options availible right now are solar, chemical or nuclear....you pick
  • by bugs2squash (1132591) on Friday March 07, 2008 @03:04PM (#22678802)
    They were planning to send it all to America for free at one point.
  • by clem (5683) on Friday March 07, 2008 @03:09PM (#22678902) Homepage
    1. Find a group of Libyan nationalists that want you to build a bomb.
    2. Take their plutonium.
    3. Give them a shiny bomb-casing full of used pinball machine parts.

    Just make sure you keep the DeLorean's engine running for step 3.
    • Ah hasn't the world changed. I'm quite sentimental for the 80s where terrorists drove around in VW buses, spoke broken English and were bumbling and incompetent. I hate these 21st century terrorists always hiding in my internet pipe trying turn my computer into a bomb and what have you.
  • by extract (889530) on Friday March 07, 2008 @03:11PM (#22678934)
    There are currently 2 ways for US to obtain Plutonium-238 for space flights without buying it from abroad: 1. Use nuclear waste. Laser Isotope Seperation (LIS) is needed to seperate the Pu-238 from the other isotopes. 2. Breed on Neptunium-237. It is also found in nuclear waste, however it is easily separated from the rest. It can be bred into Pu-238 in a breeder blanket in a reactor.
  • What happened to the plutonium glut? [nytimes.com] According to the World Nuclear Association, the US has 38 tons of surplus plutonium [world-nuclear.org] as of 2007. The USSR had even more, because they kept their production plant going even when there was no demand. The UK has surplus plutonium. What's NASA's problem?

  • NASA is weak (Score:4, Interesting)

    by CopaceticOpus (965603) on Friday March 07, 2008 @03:24PM (#22679156)
    NASA states that for their next mission they will only consider missions without a nuclear power source. This is a sad thing to hear, because it shows just how short-sighted and unambitious they have become. I've had enough with sending tiny robots to various places to look for traces of water. Some of those missions have been awesome, but we're now reaching the point that they're not going to teach us much more or help us to move forward.

    The greatest promise for truly advancing space exploration is nuclear power. We're not even willing to produce plutonium for providing a little power to deep space missions. We're nowhere near actively considering the use of nuclear reactors for propulsion. Nuclear has the potential to increase by one or two orders of magnitude the size and weight we can send into space, which would radically change what we can do in space. However, it would require a huge investment in R&D as well as a big change of mindset, and the United States is not willing. Here's hoping another country will pick up the slack.
    • NASA states that for their next mission they will only consider missions without a nuclear power source. This is a sad thing to hear, because it shows just how short-sighted and unambitious they have become.

      Huh? Did you even TFA? NASA has ground ruled out that type of missions not because they lack vision - but because those types of missions are currently impossible to execute.
    • Re:NASA is weak (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Translation Error (1176675) on Friday March 07, 2008 @04:29PM (#22680256)
      How is this short sightedness on NASA's part? They're low on plutonium and have to conserve it for specific missions. Since they aren't able to produce their own plutonium, just what do you suggest they do instead?
  • by RandoX (828285) on Friday March 07, 2008 @03:26PM (#22679200)
    Think they ship that stuff DHL?
  • Dr. Emmett Brown: Shhhhhh. Of course. From a group of Libyan nationalists. They wanted me to build them a bomb, so I took their plutonium and in turn, gave them a shiny bomb-casing full of used pinball machine parts! Come on! Let's get you a radiation suit. We must prepare to reload. ...back in 1955...

    Dr. Emmett Brown: I'm sure in 1985 plutonium is available at every corner drugstore, but in 1955 it's a little hard to come by.

    It seems that in 2008, its still hard even for NASA.
  • by Ucklak (755284) on Friday March 07, 2008 @03:31PM (#22679284)
    First we're running out of helium [slashdot.org] and now we're running out of plutonium.
    Our manufacturing jobs are overseas and we're in debt. OK, so we're good there, we're not running out of debt.
    • by MacColossus (932054) on Friday March 07, 2008 @03:53PM (#22679654) Journal
      We have plenty of plutonium 238 in country. All the spent nuclear fuel rods sitting at power plants have plutonium 238. The states won't allow them to ship it to processing centers. So it sits in water or structures in storage at each individual power plant.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Jess (11386)
        Not to mention that there is no easily way to separate the Pu-238 from the remainder of the Pu. Someone earlier mentioned laser isotope separation. Some day perhaps this technology will be available.
  • Different Plutonium (Score:3, Informative)

    by Mollyg (1153045) on Friday March 07, 2008 @03:39PM (#22679410)
    The Plutonium used by NASA is Pu-238, which is quite different from the weapons usable Pu-239. Pu-238 would melt its self to a liquid by its own alpha decay heat before long before you get a critical mass, thus Pu-238 is not weapons usable.
  • by Oktober Sunset (838224) <sdpage103@NospAM.yahoo.co.uk> on Friday March 07, 2008 @04:02PM (#22679824)
    We have 100 tons of the damn stuff we want to get rid of over here in the UK. They were even thinking of building a new reactor to use it all up cos there's no where suitable to keep it all. I'm sure the US and UK could strike a good deal, and I'm sure all those grouchy old cold war rememberers would prefer buying from the UK than Russia.
  • by MSTCrow5429 (642744) on Friday March 07, 2008 @04:34PM (#22680332)
    Spent fuel rods are 95 percent U-238. Plutonium can be produced form U-238. If we recycled our spent fuel rods, there would be a ready supply of domestic plutonium available. Why aren't we recycling our fuel rods? In 1977, President Jimmy Carter outlawed nuclear recycling, out of fear foreign nations would somehow steal plutonium to make nuclear bombs. This fear never came to pass, and nations have simply produced plutonium from their own reactors, or enriched uranium, a la Iran. It is time to discard baseless fears about the dangers of nuclear recycling, and produce our own plutonium. Canada, Britain, France and Russia all recycle their nuclear fuel, and France, which produces 80% of its electricity from nuclear energy, stores all of its waste inside of a single room. Recycling our nuclear fuel would render Yucca Mountain obsolete, and vastly decrease the time, energy and space that would need to be spent to handle spent nuclear fuel.

    Source: http://www.hillsdale.edu/news/imprimis.asp [hillsdale.edu]

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Jess (11386)
      What NASA needs is pure Pu-238, not Pu-239+Pu-240+Pu-241+small amounts of Pu-238. The plutonium from recycled spent fuel rods does not contain pure Pu-238 and therefore is not suitable.
  • Isotopes, you may have heard of them.

    Please turn in your nerd card, and quietly exit the room.

  • Maybe the end of the current supply of Plutonium, could encourage better research into ion drives. Deep Space 1 already showed it was possible, not to increase the effectiveness:
      - http://nmp.nasa.gov/ds1/ [nasa.gov]
      - http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/releases/97/ioneng2.html [nasa.gov]
  • More efficient usage (Score:3, Interesting)

    by NMajik (935461) on Friday March 07, 2008 @05:21PM (#22681012)
    NASA has thus far used radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) to produce the electricity from the heat of the decaying plutonium. They are now moving forward with its plans to use Stirling engines to produce the electricity. Stirling engines are much more effective in this regard, requiring only one-fourth the amount of plutonium to produce and equivalent amount of power and have the added benefit of weighing about half as much as the current RTGs.

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