28 June 2003
Tenn. Eyed for Isotope Used As Space Fuel

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. (AP) -- A report citing the nation's dwindling supply of a plutonium isotope used to power deep-space probes has renewed plans to begin production at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

On spacecraft too far from the sun to use solar panels, radioisotope power systems fueled by plutonium-238 can generate small amounts of steady electric current for decades, powering instruments, cameras, transmitters and other devices.

The United States hasn't made plutonium-238, which has a half-life of 87 years, since production reactors at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina were shuttered in the 1980s.

Since 1992, the United States has relied on Russia to supply extra plutonium-238, a non-weapons variety of an element that can be used for bombs in other forms. However, under agreement, the Russian material can only be used for nonmilitary purposes.

But missions to Mars alone aren't driving the need, the Department of Energy's inspector general said in a report released this week. The power systems also have become more essential to defense programs since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the report said, though it did not elaborate on those uses.

Inspector General Gregory Friedman concluded in a letter dated June 19 that unless the Department of Energy accelerates its program to re-establish a plutonium-238 production capability, it risks being unable to meet future national security and NASA requirements.''

Bill Magwood, director of DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology, said Thursday that the department believes it still has enough time to get a plutonium-238 processing facility running before the supply runs out. ``We think we are OK,'' he said.

Gordon Michaels, nuclear technology program director at the Oak Ridge laboratory, was delighted by the inspector general's opinion. The lab has been pushing to become the plutonium-238 production site since 1999.

``It thought it was useful and helpful, too,'' he said. ``As always, we had no idea what the IG was going to say, and then they came out and said it needed to be given a higher priority.''

Magwood said DOE was prepared to give the plutonium-238 project heightened attention and will pursue funding in the fiscal 2005 budget that should be released in February.

A plutonium-238 production operation capable of making about 5 kilograms a year is expected to take to five to six years to set up and cost about $76 million.

Oak Ridge's expertise is in uranium. It has never made plutonium-238.

``But we have operating facilities that are on similar materials that are paid for, with some clean, never-before-used hot cells in them,'' Michaels said.


Global Network