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NASA’s Plutonium Problem Could End Deep-Space Exploration

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posted on Sep, 19 2013 @ 12:05 PM
Found this to be a rather interesting read this morning.


“We’ve got enough to last to the end of this decade. That’s it,” said Steve Johnson, a nuclear chemist at Idaho National Laboratory. And it’s not just the U.S. reserves that are in jeopardy. The entire planet’s stores are nearly depleted.

he country’s scientific stockpile has dwindled to around 36 pounds. To put that in perspective, the battery that powers NASA’s Curiosity rover, which is currently studying the surface of Mars, contains roughly 10 pounds of plutonium, and what’s left has already been spoken for and then some. The implications for space exploration are dire: No more plutonium-238 means not exploring perhaps 99 percent of the solar system. In effect, much of NASA’s $1.5 billion-a-year (and shrinking) planetary science program is running out of time. The nuclear crisis is so bad that affected researchers know it simply as “The Problem.”

By 1988, with the Iron Curtain full of holes, the U.S. and Russia began to dismantle wartime nuclear facilities. Hanford and Savannah River no longer produced any plutonium-238. But Russia continued to harvest the material by processing nuclear reactor fuel at a nuclear industrial complex called Mayak. The Russians sold their first batch, weighing 36 pounds, to the U.S. in 1993 for more than $45,000 per ounce. Russia had become the planet’s sole supplier, but it soon fell behind on orders. In 2009, it reneged on a deal to sell 22 pounds to the U.S.

Whether or not Russia has any material left or can still create some is uncertain. “What we do know is that they’re not willing to sell it anymore,” said Alan Newhouse, a retired nuclear space consultant who spearheaded the first purchase of Russian plutonium-238. “One story I’ve heard … is that they don’t have anything left to sell.”

posted on Sep, 19 2013 @ 12:08 PM
Watch, some "fantastic new technological energy breakthrough" will be announced to replace it. We more than likely have all kinds of advanced tech, but "they" have to leak it out slowly. Only when there is a need for advanced tech does it seem to magically become available.

posted on Sep, 19 2013 @ 12:17 PM
reply to post by atsmediapro

This is ridiculous and untrue. I have always been suspicious of wired.

Plutonium is made in nuclear reactors, it is not a naturally occurring atom. We have plenty of uranium to fuel those reactors. There are something like 17,000 nuclear weapons containing approximately 500,000 lbs of plutonium in the world's offensive weapons stockpiles alone. Much of that stockpile is scheduled to be decommissioned.

We have too much plutonium as a matter of fact, what the heck are they talking about?

The question here is, what is the purpose of such misinformation being disseminated by Wired?

posted on Sep, 19 2013 @ 12:30 PM

So NASA and the DOE have been working together on a Pu-238 restart, which officials from both agencies have estimated will cost between $75 million and $90 million over five years.

This effort has made significant progress. NASA officials announced last month that researchers at the DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee had irradiated targets of neptunium-237 with neutrons, successfully generating small amounts of plutonium-238 — the nation's first in 25 years.

Scaling up from these early test activities shouldn't be too much of a chore, officials said.

"By optimizing the production process, it is estimated that 1.5 to 2 kilograms [3.3 to 4.4 pounds] per year will be produced by 2018. This amount will be enough to meet NASA's projected needs for future planetary missions. The Science budget request fully funds this requirement," NASA officials wrote in the agency's 650-page explanation of its 2014 budget request.

NASA making plutonium

According to NASA, we can make our own plutonium. I think that wired article is wrong.

posted on Sep, 19 2013 @ 12:39 PM
reply to post by ZeroReady

uh, on the second page of the article Dave Mosher writes about the production of Plutonium and using a more efficient engine.

Neptunium, a direct neighbor to plutonium on the periodic table and a stable byproduct of Cold War-era nuclear reactors, is the material from which plutonium-238 is most easily made. In Johnson’s arrangement, engineers pack tubes with neptunium-237 and slip them into the reactor core. Every so often an atom of neptunium-237 absorbs a neutron emitted by the core’s decaying uranium, later shedding an electron to become plutonium-238. A year or two later — after harmful isotopes vanish — technicians could dissolve the tubes in acid, remove the plutonium, and recycle the neptunium into new targets.

The inescapable pace of radioactive decay and limited reactor space mean it may take five to seven years to create 3.3 pounds of battery-ready plutonium. Even if full production reaches that rate, NASA needs to squeeze every last watt out of what will inevitably always be a rather small stockpile.

Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator.

For more than forty years, Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) have provided safe, reliable electric power for National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) missions where solar power is not feasible. Although RTGs have performed with exceptional reliability over very long mission durations, they are limited by the low conversion efficiency of thermoelectric materials, with system efficiencies typically ranging from about 5-7 percent. Since Plutonium-238 (Pu 238) is a limited resource, the Department of Energy (DOE) and NASA are pursuing higher-efficiency systems such as the Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator (ASRG) that would reduce the amount of Pu-238 required for a given electric power output.

edit on 19-9-2013 by atsmediapro because: (no reason given)

posted on Sep, 19 2013 @ 12:43 PM

reply to post by atsmediapro

Plutonium is made in nuclear reactors.

The question here is, what is the purpose of such misinformation being disseminated by Wired?

hehe It's counter fukushima propaganda no? We need to keep nuclear reactors running and make new ones to harvest more plutonium! Otherwise we can't explore space anymore, and all is lost.

posted on Sep, 19 2013 @ 12:48 PM

We didnt want to use nuclear energy anyway. Its pretty dangerous apparently.

Hopefully more pressure on natural and alternative energy's like cold fusion with inert elements their isotopes.

posted on Sep, 19 2013 @ 01:04 PM
the shortage is of plutonium 238 - NOT weapons grade plutonium .

posted on Sep, 19 2013 @ 01:23 PM
If only this country took Energy research as seriously as it does war.

There are options, Plutonium was just the easiest.

Apparently its like Fossil fuels, we aren't going to take alternatives seriously until its almost gone.

IF only there was a huge supply of H3 sitting in plain sight of everyone...

posted on Sep, 19 2013 @ 01:31 PM

the shortage is of plutonium 238 - NOT weapons grade plutonium .

ahhh ok.

That makes this all make sense.

posted on Sep, 19 2013 @ 02:13 PM

the shortage is of plutonium 238 - NOT weapons grade plutonium .

True, PU239 decays to U235, I was thinking incorrectly. Though there are lots of ways to use PU239 in reactors (mixed oxide fuel), none of those solutions is as compact, simple and reliable as the decay heat power supplies incorporated into spacecraft using PU238. Almost 300 times more efficient in fact, doh.

Still, we can make it but, in specialized reactors and it only has an eighty-eight year half-life (sneaks away before ridicule ensues).

Quantitative ignorance denied foul - greencmp

Minus .5 ATS points


Learn something new every day!

Plus 1 knowledge point!

edit on 19-9-2013 by greencmp because: (no reason given)

posted on Sep, 19 2013 @ 04:41 PM
So why for years have they been stopping the use of nuclear reactors?
like japan. they will not let them have any. or they blow them up.

posted on Sep, 19 2013 @ 05:08 PM

edit on 9/19/2013 by Restricted because: (no reason given)

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