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NASA Space Science

NASA's Plutonium Supply Dwindling; ESA To Help 173

Posted by timothy
from the fire-up-x10-and-k25-again dept.
astroengine writes "NASA's stockpile of the plutonium isotope Pu-238 is at a critical level, causing concern that there won't be enough fuel for future deep space missions. Pellets of Pu-238 are used inside radioisotope thermoelectric generators (or RTGs) to generate electricity for space probes traveling beyond the orbit of Mars — solar energy is too weak for solar arrays at these distances. Blocked by a contract dispute with Russia to supply Pu-238 and the US Department of Energy that has not been granted funds to produce more of the isotope, NASA lacks enough of the radioisotope to fuel the future joint NASA-ESA mission to Europa. However, the head of the European Space Agency has announced that they have plans to commence a new nuclear energy program to alleviate the situation."
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NASA's Plutonium Supply Dwindling; ESA To Help

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  • Pardon my ignorance and possible first post - but couldn't NASA just recycle some retiring nuke warheads for plutonium?

    • Re:Recycle Nukes? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 09, 2010 @10:12PM (#32857708)

      Pardon my ignorance and possible first post - but couldn't NASA just recycle some retiring nuke warheads for plutonium?

      Oh, yes, any moron in Slashdot is a rocket scientist.

      No, they can't. Nukes have Pu-239 (the fissile isotope), and they need Pu-238 (the alpha emmiter).

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by JustOK (667959)

        Isn't there Pu around Uranus?

      • Re:Recycle Nukes? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 09, 2010 @11:20PM (#32857920)

        Pardon my ignorance and possible first post - but couldn't NASA just recycle some retiring nuke warheads for plutonium?

        Oh, yes, any moron in Slashdot is a rocket scientist.

        No, they can't. Nukes have Pu-239 (the fissile isotope), and they need Pu-238 (the alpha emmiter).

        Apparently actual Slashdot rocket scientists are also assholes.

        - Not GP, but a rocket scientist who thought it was a reasonable question.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        Pu-238 occurs as an unavoidable contaminant in breeder reactors. However, what would seem the most obvious technique to get it, enriching it straight out of the main Pu-239 product isotopically, U-235/U-238 style, is always going to be extremely difficult- what with the ridiculous centrifuges and mass spectrometry that prevent everyone with an axe to grind from becoming a nuclear power.

        Luckily another contaminant, U-236, is also formed when the small amount of contaminant U-235 present in the initial yel
    • Re:Recycle Nukes? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by digitalunity (19107) <digitalunityNO@SPAMyahoo.com> on Friday July 09, 2010 @10:25PM (#32857752) Homepage

      A more pressing question in my mind is why aren't there any private companies making it for NASA? Does the NRC prohibit private companies from producing it?

      I'm sure somewhere in the US exists a company with the technical expertise and equipment to make it. And when I'm pretty sure companies are still willing to cash government checks... I guess I don't understand "shortages" in synthesized isotopes. I heard a while back there is another isotope synthesized in Canada that we have to buy because there isn't enough in the US or something like that. I don't get it.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by darkpixel2k (623900)

        And when I'm pretty sure companies are still willing to cash government checks... I guess I don't understand "shortages" in synthesized isotopes. I heard a while back there is another isotope synthesized in Canada that we have to buy because there isn't enough in the US or something like that. I don't get it.

        There are several situations like that in the US. Sure, private companies could make synthesized isotopes. We have the brainpower and tools to do it. Unfortunately we have ming-numbingly huge government red tape that gets in the way. Fines, fees, inspections, reports, surveys, permits, clearences, investigations, and on and on and on. I mean--you don't really expect the government would just /let/ someone start manufacturing nuclear anything for any reason, do you?

      • Re:Recycle Nukes? (Score:5, Informative)

        by Wyatt Earp (1029) on Friday July 09, 2010 @10:39PM (#32857796)

        We only made it in the US at Hanford and Savannah River, both of those are shut down now.

        It's very toxic, very hard to work with and very flammable and very much controlled, so thats why no private companies are in the market to produce it.

        To produce Pu-238 you produce a ton of weapons grade plutonium, do we really need more of that crap churned out?

        http://www.fas.org/nuke/intro/nuke/plutonium.htm [fas.org]

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by WindBourne (631190)
          yes to all. At the least, we need more RD
        • by Ihmhi (1206036)

          Can the weapons-grade plutonium be refined into something safer or less... weapons-grade?

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Glock27 (446276)

          To produce Pu-238 you produce a ton of weapons grade plutonium, do we really need more of that crap churned out?

          In a word, yes.

          The US is the only major nuclear power which can't produce new plutonium pits for nuclear weapons. Further, the breeder reactors that produce plutonium could also recycle spent fuel from conventional plants into new, useful fuel.

          At some point sanity will prevail and we'll vastly expand our use of nuclear energy for both power generation and space travel. At the moment though, we're stuck in enviro-Luddite hell.

          This November may mark a turning point towards rationality on a lot of levels.

      • Re:Recycle Nukes? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Charliemopps (1157495) on Friday July 09, 2010 @11:18PM (#32857914)
        It's fucking plutonium. You can't just make it. Hippies freak shit when we try to build an oil refinery, much less refine nuclear material. They'll start screaming about us irradiating space or some shit and no one will make a damned thing.
        • Re:Recycle Nukes? (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Macrat (638047) on Saturday July 10, 2010 @12:20AM (#32858162)

          It's fucking plutonium. You can't just make it. Hippies freak shit when we try to build an oil refinery, much less refine nuclear material.

          But for some reason they don't mind turning on the lights in their home with electricity provided by coal fired generators that put more radioactive particulates in the air than any nuclear plant could.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by couchslug (175151)

            The coal plants are far away, like the coal which powers them. Coal-fired power plants have no place in the popular imagination (any more), so public awareness is low.

            They don't bother the hippies any more than mountaintop removal mining, which only displaces Red State hicks they despise anyway.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by unkiereamus (1061340)
        At a guess, what you're talking about is Molybdenum-99, which is a parent isotope of Technetium-99, which is a beta emitter used extensively in radiopharmaceuticals. While it is mined in the US, Canada has much bigger deposits (as do a few other places).
      • A more pressing question in my mind is why aren't there any private companies making it for NASA?

        Maybe the Boy Scouts can help out . . . ? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Hahn [wikipedia.org]

        I mean, they help old ladies over the street, and good stuff like that . . . maybe there is a merit badge for producing Pu-238 for NASA . . . ?

      • You can't buy it on the private market because there is no market for it. This shit's only useful when you don't risk poisoning anyone, and when you can't use solar panels or any form of fossil fuel. In other words, it's only useful when you're as far away as Mars, and there isn't much commercing done about there.

    • by Yehooti (816574)

      Pu-238 is the isotope used for RTGs. 239 is the isotope used for weapons. Different type, so that wouldn't work, as much as it would be neat if it would.

    • by couchslug (175151)

      Your ignorance is pardonable. Your failure to Google and remedy it is not. :)

  • by Saeed al-Sahaf (665390) on Friday July 09, 2010 @10:10PM (#32857702) Homepage
    I have a chili recipe that produces a - er - "slurry" so radioactively hot, it could be used to power spacecraft...
  • Actually... (Score:5, Informative)

    by sznupi (719324) on Friday July 09, 2010 @10:12PM (#32857704) Homepage

    NASA is launching quite soon a spacecraft to Jupiter [wikipedia.org] relying on solar panels. And the ESA spacecraft part of mentioned joint mission will also rely on solar panels [wikipedia.org]. Seems they have improved quite a bit / I wouldn't be too surprised at seeing, eventually, some mission to Saturn relying on them.

    Not saying that we don't need RTGs, we do of course (for further missions or more complex ones; using solar panels whenever possible saves RTGs for those...), but part of the premises of TFS is not terribly accurate.

    • Re:Actually... (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 09, 2010 @10:30PM (#32857764)

      Even on Mars, the MER rovers use RHUs (radioactive heating units) to keep the electronics warm during the Martian night and winter. Ditto for most any mission going beyond the Earth's orbit, especially for landers (which see night).

      An orbiter can conceivably be pointed to the sun, but the solar constant is pretty low. Jupiter is 5 AU away from the sun, so the solar constant is 1/25th of Earth: a monster 40 Watts/square meter. Compare this to radiation cooling to cold sky which is about 100W/square meter. Better have pretty good insulation, which takes volume and mass, both in short supply on a spacecraft.

      Juno has enormous solar panels, which raise all sorts of practical problems.

      You've got to decide whether you want to burn your mass allocation on solar panels or on science instruments.

      • I'd actually be interested in testing laser transmission of power to remote spacecraft. Need to test it anyway for powering motors on a space elevator, no? Might as well start on the harder part first (huge distances, targeting, etc).
        • Re:Actually... (Score:5, Informative)

          by Chris Burke (6130) on Friday July 09, 2010 @11:10PM (#32857886) Homepage

          It'd have to be one damn beefy laser, since at the distances we're talking, even a very tightly focused laser beam has diverged to a huge diameter. A ridiculously harder problem than hitting a space elevator climber. Tens of thousands of kilometers, vs about 600 million kilometers at the closest. I don't think it's practical at this time to beam power from earth to Jupiter. Solar power would be way stronger than anything we could provide.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by sznupi (719324)

        Uhm, yeah, nobody said about missions which have to survive nights (or even all orbital ones)

        Your comparison of received and radiated energy glances over the fact that body of spacecraft is quite compact vs. solar panels being secondary structures outside of it. Juno most likely still has radiators to get rid of waste heat.
        The decision to use solar panels was a practical one - you shouldn't use at will RTGs which are in very short supply, if there's alternative available for given science objectives (one th

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Jon Abbott (723)

        Still, it is important to point out that Juno [wikimedia.org] is the first attempt at traveling to Jupiter using solar panels instead of RTGs... That is quite an engineering feat in and of itself. The story poster's statement of solar energy being too weak for solar arrays beyond the orbit of Mars will likely be disproved by Juno in the coming years.

    • Not saying that we don't need RTGs, we do of course (for further missions or more complex ones; using solar panels whenever possible saves RTGs for those...), but part of the premises of TFS is not terribly accurate.

      Well, yes they are. Juno (the NASA probe) could settle for solar panels and a somewhat reduced science mission precisely because solar cells have improved - but it still takes a large and heavy array and makes considerable impact on operations. They'd much prefer to use RTGs, but the fuel simp

  • by OSDever (792851) on Friday July 09, 2010 @10:21PM (#32857738)
    They just need to construct additional pylons. Problem solved.
    • lol I love that suddenly references to slashdot are popping up all over again, now that SCII is coming out
    • by Jesus_666 (702802)
      Unfortunately, that does nothing to help the fact that NASA is also running out of Vespene gas.
  • by Slack0ff (590042)
    Seems like the US is passing on, or simply overlooking an opportunity to create a new small industry, making what is sure to be a product with increasing demand.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by bsDaemon (87307)

      NASA is just holding out until they can buy what they need from Iran.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Wyatt Earp (1029)

      The US was in on the industry, remember the entire Nuclear Weapon Complex the US had/has from Savannah River to Oak Ridge to Pantex to Rocky Flats to Los Alamos to Hanford?

      Plutonium is a pain to produce, clean up and deal with.

      • by TooMuchToDo (882796) on Friday July 09, 2010 @10:52PM (#32857834)
        Also, at the time they were producing Plutonium, it was taking almost 10% of the power the country was generating at the time.
        • by modecx (130548) on Saturday July 10, 2010 @12:48AM (#32858270)

          That in itself doesn't say very much, does it?

          Have you ever seen a typical home that hasn't been touched since the late 40's-50's? It had a refrigerator, a radio everyone huddled around, a single light bulb and one outlet in each room (there being very few rooms to begin with), if you were fortunate--two outlets if you're very lucky. They didn't have central air, or big screens TVs and computers humming along all day, burning through thousands upon thousands of kWh.

          I see that 10% number float around from time to time. Don't know where it comes from, or if it's remotely accurate at all--but if I had to guess: should we undertake *ALL* of that energy research and weapon building today, it would be dwarfed compared to the country's power bill for A/C alone.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by confused one (671304)

            I'm living in one of those houses, built in 1950. I still need to do a bit of upgrading. Two ungrounded outlets in each room on opposite walls. Contains the following branch circuits in original fuse box:

            1. stove
            2. a small water heater
            3. kitchen (refrigerator + appliances like coffee maker)
            4. front half house
            5. back half house

            The house was heated with an oil burner that circulated hot air by convection. The power usage expectations are so low that basically the whole house is powered off of two 15Amp circuits and the

            • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

              by modecx (130548)

              Oh, I've seen all that before, and worse. My house was actually built in 1919 (it was a very fancy house for the age), and although it was planned infinitely better than most 50's houses I have worked on, the electrical is basically completely backwards. Every switch was switching the neutral. Every polarized outlet was wired opposite the way it should be done. I've yet to figure out how this one three-way circuit actually managed to work (4 pole switches?!).

              The main (well, only) branch circuit looked like

              • Yep, what I describe is a pretty typical post WWII house and what you describe is fairly common for turn of the century (although the wiring to two parallel fuses is interesting...). In your case, if you didn't have bare conductor on ceramic insulator, you were lucky.

                Switching neutrals in near turn of the century wiring wouldn't surprise me. Some of what you found were updates done by people who didn't know what they were doing -- the polarized plugs, for example, aren't original. Previous owners of my

    • by compro01 (777531)

      There are a couple problems with that.

      1. The only efficient manner in which to make useful quantities of Pu-238 is by irradiating Neptunium-237, which is found in "spent" reactor fuel in low quantities (~0.7%). This process takes quite awhile. If we started irradiating the Neptunium right now, we wouldn't see any usable amounts of Pu-238 for at least 5 years.

      2. Creating Pu-238 also results in greater quantities of Pu-239, which is the type you'd use in a nuclear weapon. This is a security concern for obv

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Slack0ff (590042)
        All that could be true enough, I'm no expert. However, looking at it from outside I see that there is a demand for the product. Until we find another viable method of powering these missions there will be a continuing demand. Wouldn't it make sense to produce it in country under our regulations rather than importing it? Would importing it be any cheaper/safer?
  • Civ IV (Score:5, Funny)

    by Aeonite (263338) on Friday July 09, 2010 @10:52PM (#32857832) Homepage

    Cultural Victory? Nope.
    Diplomatic Victory? Nope.
    Space Race Victory? Nope.

    That leaves Domination Victory and Conquest Victory.

    Decisions, decisions.

    • No cultural victory? Really? You can't walk down the street in Mumbai without seeing bootleg DVDs of Hollywood movies, TV shows and American pop music.

      Obama might be a popular fellow, but Lady Gaga probably commands twice his worldwide audience.

  • by PinkyGigglebrain (730753) on Friday July 09, 2010 @11:35PM (#32857976)
    Maybe they could use a Radioisotope Photoelectric Generator [google.com] instead, at least for power, and save the Pu238 just for heating. From my understanding of it, limited since the only article (from 1981) I've ever read about it was the one I linked to, a RPG can use any gamma ray emitting isotope and will have full power for a period equal the half-life of the isotope used. And IIRC there are still several reactors in the US that can generate isotopes.

    Never heard anything more about it, anyone else know more?
    • by compro01 (777531) on Saturday July 10, 2010 @12:09AM (#32858118)

      Using a gamma emitter (rather than an alpha emitter like Pu-238) means you need A LOT more shielding (and thus more weight and volume) to prevent it from screwing with the electronics and instruments.

      • by PinkyGigglebrain (730753) on Saturday July 10, 2010 @01:23AM (#32858388)
        Good point, but considering that the electronics are alerady radiation hardened against gamma ray, alpha particles and cosmic rays of much higher power I would really be surprised if much extra shielding would be needed. From another article I came across after posting it mentions that by selecting the right isotope its possible to get useful power and only need a .5cm lead shield for it to be safe around people. Since it would be in space you might be able to just shield the probe side of the RPG.

        I'm sure that given some thought a workable solution could be found. I'd still like to know if anyone has heard of any work being done or did it get buried for some reason?
        • by khallow (566160) on Saturday July 10, 2010 @01:36AM (#32858442)

          Good point, but considering that the electronics are alerady radiation hardened against gamma ray, alpha particles and cosmic rays of much higher power I would really be surprised if much extra shielding would be needed.

          That depends on how much the RPG contributes to the radiation environment of the spacecraft. Keep in mind that it is a nearby source that will be irradiating the rest of the spacecraft for the life of the mission.

    • Why? They became comfortable with designing a system around something specific. If they were to have to use another gamma emitter like Uranium, Cesium or any number of any things, it would mean that they would have to do some work.

      Where did the balls in America go? A challenge like this used to be trivial. Don't have a certain kind of gamma emitter? No problem! Build a better mousetrap!

    • by mcrbids (148650) on Saturday July 10, 2010 @12:40AM (#32858234) Journal

      At the beginning, where Isaac describes the slowly decaying Galactic civilization; that's what the United States reads like more and more.

      The signs are everywhere: Leadership that's seriously out of touch with the people; infrastructure that's still good but getting worse; dwindling education, increasing racial tension and population segregation; etc.

      We remember the good old days, and the good old days WERE brighter. Technology overall still advances, but what's not advancing is our position in it. Thanks to a distinctly anti-intellectual culture and an increasing distrust of "da gubbmint" combined with a ridiculous war, our economy is in a shambles, our regulations are a mess, and our population often seems more interested in "being heard" than listening long enough to identify the problems.

      I find it sad to see our nation on the decline.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        Didn't like the "wrap up" in "Foundation and Empire" much but the original books are great, and it did all tie together well.

        I noticed the signs back in the 80's, I could see the US was near its peak and have been watching its slow glide down. Just like every "Great Nation" since earliest history, Aztec, Inca, Greek, Nubia, Mesopotamia, Babylon, etc., etc..
  • by Reed Solomon (897367) on Friday July 09, 2010 @11:36PM (#32857982) Homepage

    We've got 5 more years, someone at NASA better be working on Mister Fusion. And hovercars.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by nebaz (453974)

      What happened? I remember in 1985, Plutonium was available in every corner drug store, but in 2010, it's a little hard to come by.

  • I'm sure N. Korea or Iran would be happy to sell us some.

  • Reactors (Score:3, Insightful)

    by rossdee (243626) on Saturday July 10, 2010 @12:04AM (#32858086)

    Shouldn't we be building breeder reactors that make Plutonium? It might help with global warming by retiring some caol fired power plants.

    • The last one that was designed in 1968 and shut down about three years ago was an incredibly expensive French white elephant built with the idea that Uranium was going to run out quickly. There are better ways to make the stuff, as seen by what the military use to make it and by what ambitious developing nations use to make it (eg. Egypt, Indonesia and a long list of others with CANDU reactors).
      I don't know why NASA doesn't just buy some left over stuff from the UK, France, South Africa, Israel, Egypt, hal
      • by quokkaZ (1780340)

        You are quite wrong. The Russian BN-600 sodium cooled fast breeder has been in operation since 1980. The larger BN-800 is being built in Russia and a joint venture has been established to build two in China.

        India plans to bring it's first domestically designed fast breeder reactor on line in 2011. With plans for 4 more by 2020.

        There are a number of projects in the US to develop small modular fast reactors - US Dept of Energy SSTAR being one of them.

        Breeder reactors (fast uranium or possibly thermal mo

        • The Indian plant is accelerated thorium which is a vastly differerent sort of plant to a plutonium fast breeder - so much so that it actually has a viable future.
          I suppose people can always pretend I've given the wrong answer by changing the question, but I'll assume it wasn't deliberate because that would be extremely childish.
          • by quokkaZ (1780340)

            I don't know what your point is, but for example EBR-II and its derived Integral Fast Reactor can burn uranium and/or plutonium and breed plutonium from fertile uranium. GE Hitachi have a commercial design called the SPRISM.

            Your claims about no new breeder reactors of the with a uranium/plutonium fuel cycle since 1968 are just plain wrong.

            • by dbIII (701233) on Saturday July 10, 2010 @11:23AM (#32860566)
              I didn't think I could make more clear than putting it in the subject line.
              New plutonium? Please also note that EBR-II is a late 1950's design that went live in 1965 and ACTUALLY RAN ON URANIUM.
              If you are going to try to correct people please learn about your subject matter.
              Liquid sodium reactors are a dead end technology until somebody solves the problem of liquid metal embrittlement in areas with a lot of voiding from neutron damage. If you have an answer to that, then sure go ahead and push that wheelbarrow - but for everyone else the lessons from the 1970s were very clear that it's either a roadblock to overcome before any more reactors of that type are built or a dead end.
              I really wish nuclear advocates would learn about the new and interesting stuff instead of the dreams of the 1950s.
  • Yea you've fucked us over for years and we've found something the international community will protect us against you on.

    But we're magnaminious, and we have the second largest supply in the world.

    And the moral high ground :P
  • by Animats (122034) on Saturday July 10, 2010 @01:52AM (#32858496) Homepage

    There's a real question as to whether the US still has working nuclear weapons. [defense.gov] Much of the production capability was shut down years ago. For over a decade, the US had lost the capacity to make nuclear "pits". They used to be made at Rocky Flats, which shut down in 1993. Los Alamos now has a limited production capability for new nuclear pits, but no pit made there has been tested in an actual detonation. The complete ban on nuclear testing, even underground, means there's some doubt about whether new physics packages actually work. Current practice is to build duplicates of designs from the 1970s.

    One of the non-radioactive materials for H-bombs is out of production, and attempts to make more of it have not been successful.

    There's also a tritium shortage. Tritium, with its short half-life, has to be replaced periodically. That's getting to be a problem.

    The second team is building these things today. Early atomic bombs were designed by Nobel prizewinners. Today, the people involved are far less qualified and not very motivated. Almost everybody who ever designed a bomb that went off has retired. There's a proposal to design a "dumber bomb" with a very long shelf life, but without testing, nobody really has confidence that would work.

    • by dbIII (701233)
      Of course there are, the previous government even put a lot more money into developing new weapon designs.
  • by Arancaytar (966377) <arancaytar.ilyaran@gmail.com> on Saturday July 10, 2010 @02:09AM (#32858566) Homepage

    NASA's stockpile of the plutonium isotope Pu-238 is at a critical level

    They've got a critical amount of Pu-238 and they want more?

  • by nojayuk (567177) on Saturday July 10, 2010 @06:05AM (#32859198)

    The US has been using up its existing stockpiles of Pu-238 to build RTGs for a mixture of civilian deep space projects and black intel operations such as non-solar-powered stealth spy satellites and seabed-emplaced submarine monitoring stations. The Russians agreed to sell the US some Pu-238 under a licence that prevented it being used for military functions but they shut that down when it became obvious the US was reallocating most if not all of its home-grown stockpile to the military side of things. Like oil Pu-238 is fungible and the Russian supply of Pu-238 was effectively enhancing US military capabilities.

  • No big deal... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by argStyopa (232550) on Saturday July 10, 2010 @07:09AM (#32859378) Journal

    ...you don't need Plutonium to make Muslims feel good about themselves, right?

    I mean, since this is possibly NASA's FOREMOST mission:
    "When I became the NASA administrator -- or before I became the NASA administrator -- (Obama) charged me with three things. One was he wanted me to help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math, he wanted me to expand our international relationships, and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science ... and math and engineering,"

    • Oh, I think 20 kg of high purity Pu-239 would make some individual Muslims feel very good. Specifically, Mr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. It's not HEU, but it'll sure do in a pinch.

      King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and a whole host of others might be less than thrilled by it, though.

  • by Dr La (1342733) on Saturday July 10, 2010 @07:32AM (#32859478) Homepage
    http://www.space.com/news/nasa_plutonium_020724.html [space.com] menioned in 2002

    Earl Wahlquist, associate director of the Department of Energys Space and Defense Power Systems Office, said July 23 [2002] that 7 kilograms of Plutonium 238 slightly more than half of the U.S. inventory is being reassigned for use by an undisclosed national security agency.

    The agency in question is probably the NRO. So basically, it has gone from NASA into the NRO black space project.

  • This is why it's risky to rely solely on single ouside suppliers for critical items. The funding for new Pu-238 production by DOE has been held up at least in part due to the availability of it for sale by the Russians.

    It's a good source and a reasonable solution, provided unforeseen problems like the contract trouble that's stopped us buying it don't come up. But, in world affairs, they sometimes do.

    Unfortunately, it would take several years to start producing it again even if funding were available now.

    Si

  • Remember, the US government cancelled the Constellation program and post-Shuttle manned spaceflight capabilities, with the hopes that they'd *buy seats* on Russian spacecraft.

    And now they can't even agree on buying some plutonium from Russians?

    How many people really think that buying those seats on Russian shuttles will happen without any problems?

    Face it, America gave away its manned spaceflight. Making deals with Russia can't be relied on -- even small things like plutonium can't be reliably obtained, let

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