Author Topic: Good news on the Plutonium production issue  (Read 45734 times)

Offline Blackstar

  • Veteran
  • Senior Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 10990
  • Liked: 2459
  • Likes Given: 1
Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« on: 10/27/2012 01:25 AM »
We've had some discussions about the Pu-238 supply issue in the past:

http://forum.nasaspaceflight.com/index.php?topic=26900.0

http://forum.nasaspaceflight.com/index.php?topic=16912.0

There is now good news on this front. After six years of effort by NASA officials, and 20+ years since the last American Pu-238 production, in August the Department of Energy inserted some Neptunium targets into a reactor in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, irradiated them, and removed them in September. They are now in the process of refining those targets to extract minute amounts of Pu-238, which has been used in the past to power numerous American spacecraft and currently powers the Curiosity rover on Mars.

This is NOT production of Pu-238. Instead, this is essentially an initial test run so that DoE can determine if their processes and handling procedures and production models for Pu-238 are correct. As a NASA official told me, the last time that DoE ever handled this stuff in this form was over two decades ago--the only thing they have been doing since then is handling the essentially finished product, not the production, and there's a lot that they need to re-learn about doing that.

I was also told that NASA no longer expects the Russians to offer their remaining Pu-238 for sale, and NASA is not interested in purchasing it. Instead of giving NASA money to the Russians, NASA would rather spend that money on indigenous production.

I did not find out when they expect to actually start producing Pu-238 again, but my guess is that they'll do that in the next 1-2 years.

Offline go4mars

  • Senior Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 3745
  • Earth
  • Liked: 146
  • Likes Given: 3040
Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #1 on: 10/27/2012 01:38 AM »
Wonderful!  Is this driven by decadal survey expectations?  Or just because it is wise in general?  Are there specific missions in mind for this?
« Last Edit: 10/27/2012 01:41 AM by go4mars »
Elasmotherium; hurlyburly Doggerlandic Jentilak steeds insouciantly gallop in viridescent taiga, eluding deluginal Burckle's abyssal excavation.

Offline kevin-rf

  • Elite Veteran
  • Senior Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 8526
  • Overlooking the path Mary's little Lamb took..
  • Liked: 1028
  • Likes Given: 235
Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #2 on: 10/27/2012 01:59 AM »
Duplicate thread, I should report you to Chris for that good bit of news ;)
If you're happy and you know it,
It's your med's!

Offline Blackstar

  • Veteran
  • Senior Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 10990
  • Liked: 2459
  • Likes Given: 1
Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #3 on: 10/27/2012 02:36 AM »
1-Is this driven by decadal survey expectations? 

2-Or just because it is wise in general? 

3-Are there specific missions in mind for this?

1-Not really. It is driven by several things, including:

-NASA and DoE efforts for the past several years to restart production
-essential agreement within first the Bush and later Obama administrations as well as Congress that production should be restarted
-an NRC report (that I worked on, and has been cited in other threads) that made the case that the situation was dire

Note that this was then held up by a really weird dispute between Congress and the administration over which government agency was responsible for paying for the production.

2-It is wise in general. For lots of reasons. One of the problems was the the U.S. had gotten itself into a self-fulfilling prophecy where, because there wasn't much plutonium left, mission planners did not propose missions that required it, thus leading some people to claim that there was no need for it.

Also, the fact that the United States was not producing any more encouraged the Russians to cancel an existing contract. They had us over a barrel and knew it.

3-There are no specific missions planned for it. But it takes something like 5-7 years to ramp up to production (figure that we've already gone through a year or so of that) and so you need to start early in order to have it available late in this decade.

There were a couple of possible Discovery class missions that lost out in the last Discovery round: a Titan lake boat and a comet hopping mission. Both would have used ASRG generators. There is apparently already sufficient Pu-238 to power one of those, but restarting production means that ASRGs could be regularly offered for small missions, as well as New Frontiers class missions, in the 2020s.

Online edkyle99

  • Expert
  • Senior Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 12850
    • Space Launch Report
  • Liked: 3608
  • Likes Given: 618
Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #4 on: 10/27/2012 02:46 AM »
They are now in the process of refining those targets to extract minute amounts of Pu-238, ...

Any idea where this refining will take place?  They're tearing down buildings in Paducah where Oak Ridge's gaseous diffusion took place during the later years of the Cold War.  A bit of a mess there, as in many similar places like Hanford or Rocky Flats, with nasty clean up and former worker cancers, etc.

 - Ed Kyle

Offline EE Scott

  • Full Member
  • ****
  • Posts: 1145
  • Liked: 39
  • Likes Given: 101
Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #5 on: 10/27/2012 02:55 AM »
This is some of the best exploration news I've heard in years.  Literally.  Sweet!
Scott

Offline simonbp

Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #6 on: 10/27/2012 03:12 AM »
The staff at the RTG booth at DPS last week sounded very upbeat. Also, Jim Green confirmed at NASA night that they will go ahead and build the two stirling generators that would have been used if Insight had not been selected and then put them in storage. The next Discovery round will be allow to propose to use them, but that won't be until 2016 with the current budget cuts to the planetary program.

Offline TheFallen

  • Full Member
  • ****
  • Posts: 773
  • Liked: 47
  • Likes Given: 101
Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #7 on: 10/27/2012 03:15 AM »
There were a couple of possible Discovery class missions that lost out in the last Discovery round: a Titan lake boat and a comet hopping mission.

Still disappointed over TIME losing out...but still, great news indeed!

Offline spectre9

  • Senior Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 2403
  • Australia
  • Liked: 35
  • Likes Given: 66
Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #8 on: 10/27/2012 05:05 AM »
Great news  ;D

Potential for getting big science from small missions.

Still going to be a long wait.

Solar panels for Jupiter are yuk.  :P

Offline Blackstar

  • Veteran
  • Senior Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 10990
  • Liked: 2459
  • Likes Given: 1
Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #9 on: 10/27/2012 11:08 AM »
The staff at the RTG booth at DPS last week sounded very upbeat. Also, Jim Green confirmed at NASA night that they will go ahead and build the two stirling generators that would have been used if Insight had not been selected and then put them in storage. The next Discovery round will be allow to propose to use them, but that won't be until 2016 with the current budget cuts to the planetary program.

Makes sense. After all, the money to build at least one of the ASRGs was presumably already allocated in case one of the ASRG missions had won in Discovery.

I presume--I don't know--that they are also doing full life tests on their ASRG designs. That was something we recommended to them years ago. The problem that we saw was that they would build an engineering ASRG and test it a little. Then they would modify the design and build another one and test it a little and repeat the process. But although this helped them refine the design and do things like increase efficiency, it never gave them confidence that if they stuck an ASRG in space it would operate properly for 5 years as designed. Our group essentially said "stop changing the design, pick a single design, and test that for a full lifetime to get confidence that it will work." (Actually, I think they tend to build several of them and run them for a substantial percentage of a lifetime, and then they might do something like keep one running until failure but tear down the other one to examine it. But I'm guessing there.)
« Last Edit: 10/27/2012 11:26 AM by Blackstar »

Offline Blackstar

  • Veteran
  • Senior Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 10990
  • Liked: 2459
  • Likes Given: 1
Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #10 on: 10/27/2012 11:20 AM »
Any idea where this refining will take place?  They're tearing down buildings in Paducah where Oak Ridge's gaseous diffusion took place during the later years of the Cold War.  A bit of a mess there, as in many similar places like Hanford or Rocky Flats, with nasty clean up and former worker cancers, etc.

I don't. But I presume that it will be at Oak Ridge. I cannot remember exactly how this all was explained to me, but what has happened so far has essentially been to gain experience required to start production.

The person who told me put it sorta like this: nobody has handled this stuff in two decades; they have handled processed Pu-238, but they have not actually processed it themselves. And they have not handled all the other materials that are generated with it. And what they are doing is "exposing" humans to a dangerous material for the first time in decades and they need to make sure that their safety procedures are correct. There are other things involved. For instance, they have models that predict how much Pu-238 they expect to get when they put the targets into the reactor. But they actually have to do it and see if what they get out is what their models say they are supposed to. That's what they're doing with this test batch. They'll use the experience they gain from doing this to figure out exactly how to restart production.

When I worked the RPS study (and I've forgotten most of that stuff) I think we were given a rough timeline for production. It was something like 1 year of study (which included things like designing some of the equipment), 1 year of testing and planning, and 5 years of irradiating targets to start producing materials, leading to about 7 years from a go-decision to finally getting useful material at the end. I think we're about two years into that overall schedule.

As it has also been explained to me, producing nuclear materials involves a lot of arcane chemistry. They have these little metal targets made of aluminum and neptunium, and they insert them into the reactor where they get bombarded with radiation (note that there are spots in the reactor that are very close to the core and other spots that are a little farther out, so not every target will necessarily get irradiated the same amount). When they remove the targets they have to dissolve them, separate out the materials, then do all kinds of other refining. This involves multiple steps, nasty chemicals, probably generates toxic fumes and maybe even radioactive gases, and you have to control all of that to make sure that nobody gets exposed to anything that can harm them, nothing leaks down the drain, etc. It's very elaborate and complex, and sometimes more of an art than a science. They're relearning all of that.

« Last Edit: 10/27/2012 11:22 AM by Blackstar »

Offline Star One

  • Senior Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 8260
  • UK
  • Liked: 1338
  • Likes Given: 168
Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #11 on: 10/27/2012 12:36 PM »
Any idea where this refining will take place?  They're tearing down buildings in Paducah where Oak Ridge's gaseous diffusion took place during the later years of the Cold War.  A bit of a mess there, as in many similar places like Hanford or Rocky Flats, with nasty clean up and former worker cancers, etc.

I don't. But I presume that it will be at Oak Ridge. I cannot remember exactly how this all was explained to me, but what has happened so far has essentially been to gain experience required to start production.

The person who told me put it sorta like this: nobody has handled this stuff in two decades; they have handled processed Pu-238, but they have not actually processed it themselves. And they have not handled all the other materials that are generated with it. And what they are doing is "exposing" humans to a dangerous material for the first time in decades and they need to make sure that their safety procedures are correct. There are other things involved. For instance, they have models that predict how much Pu-238 they expect to get when they put the targets into the reactor. But they actually have to do it and see if what they get out is what their models say they are supposed to. That's what they're doing with this test batch. They'll use the experience they gain from doing this to figure out exactly how to restart production.

When I worked the RPS study (and I've forgotten most of that stuff) I think we were given a rough timeline for production. It was something like 1 year of study (which included things like designing some of the equipment), 1 year of testing and planning, and 5 years of irradiating targets to start producing materials, leading to about 7 years from a go-decision to finally getting useful material at the end. I think we're about two years into that overall schedule.

As it has also been explained to me, producing nuclear materials involves a lot of arcane chemistry. They have these little metal targets made of aluminum and neptunium, and they insert them into the reactor where they get bombarded with radiation (note that there are spots in the reactor that are very close to the core and other spots that are a little farther out, so not every target will necessarily get irradiated the same amount). When they remove the targets they have to dissolve them, separate out the materials, then do all kinds of other refining. This involves multiple steps, nasty chemicals, probably generates toxic fumes and maybe even radioactive gases, and you have to control all of that to make sure that nobody gets exposed to anything that can harm them, nothing leaks down the drain, etc. It's very elaborate and complex, and sometimes more of an art than a science. They're relearning all of that.



I am sure I read an article in the New Scientist not long ago that they were looking at a different method of producing it than in the past to make the process more efficient?

Online robertross

  • Canadian Member
  • Senior Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 17774
  • Westphal, Nova Scotia
  • Liked: 442
  • Likes Given: 3372
Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #12 on: 10/27/2012 12:51 PM »
Thanks for passing on the great news Blackstar!

I really hope they can make this all work out again and have a domestic source of supply (in useful quantities as well).
Remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our rights & freedoms, and for those injured, visible or otherwise, in that fight.

Offline Blackstar

  • Veteran
  • Senior Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 10990
  • Liked: 2459
  • Likes Given: 1
Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #13 on: 10/27/2012 07:44 PM »
I really hope they can make this all work out again and have a domestic source of supply (in useful quantities as well).

Me too.

Very few people will get this, but the most significant aspect of this news is political. There is no technical challenge to producing the Pu-238. And there was never much of a funding challenge (the total amount of money required is relatively small, on the order of a few million per year--I forget the exact amount, but I think that it's about $10 million per year or so max).

The key problem was political. And it was not partisan political. It was political in the sense that the decision making apparatus (the White House, Congress, and the bureaucracies) had to make a decision, and that took a very long time.

Nuclear issues in the U.S. do not automatically split down left-right lines. Yeah, Republicans tend to be more hawkish, and beat the drum more about nuclear weapons stockpiles, but there was never any Democrat opposition to restarting production, and in fact the Bush administration favored restarting production and so did the Obama administration. Instead, it fell on weird policy lines, on obscure questions of which government agency should spend the money on the production and be responsible for it happening, etc. The fact that they seem to have gotten past that hurdle is a very big deal. Now they have a bit of momentum, because it was easier to prevent the start than it should be to stop the production once it happens.
« Last Edit: 10/27/2012 07:46 PM by Blackstar »

Offline simonbp

Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #14 on: 10/27/2012 10:13 PM »
I presume--I don't know--that they are also doing full life tests on their ASRG designs.

I didn't think to ask. They had some videos of tests and a nice detailed model, but I don't know how old those were.

On the other hand, though, if TiME or the CHopper had won, they'd have to have finalized the design pretty soon anyway to start Phase B, so it had to be close to final. I bet Jim Green decided to just keep the same deadline so that they could both runs those tests and run out the funding they had already allocated, so startup won't be as bad when an ASRG mission finally get selected.

On a semi-related note, the current JPL reference design for the Europa Clipper had a separate power module which could be either a few ASRGs (3 or 4? can't remember) or solar arrays. Solar is slightly heavier, but could still do the science baseline.

And the guys in the Boeing booth were saying that their FAST concentrator solar arrays should work right out to Saturn...

Offline Blackstar

  • Veteran
  • Senior Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 10990
  • Liked: 2459
  • Likes Given: 1
Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #15 on: 10/28/2012 12:49 AM »
I presume--I don't know--that they are also doing full life tests on their ASRG designs.

1-I didn't think to ask. They had some videos of tests and a nice detailed model, but I don't know how old those were.

SNIP

2-On a semi-related note, the current JPL reference design for the Europa Clipper had a separate power module which could be either a few ASRGs (3 or 4? can't remember) or solar arrays. Solar is slightly heavier, but could still do the science baseline.

3-And the guys in the Boeing booth were saying that their FAST concentrator solar arrays should work right out to Saturn...

1-I can ask. The news on this was so good (even though the planetary budget cuts are discouraging), and I was busy with a conference, that I didn't ask detailed questions. I'm thinking of suggesting that the NRC's Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science get a detailed briefing on this stuff in the future.

2-Yeah, see the Europa discussion in the science section of this board. The latest iteration of the Europa Clipper suggests that they can do solar, but they need to study it some more. I was also told that the JPL Europa team is nervous about the ASRGs because they are unproven. Put another way, if we had a mission flying the ASRG, they might be willing to go with those and not risk solar. There are risks to both approaches.

3-My guess is that sorta depends upon your definition of "work." They might be able to provide sufficient power at that distance, but they might have other drawbacks. One of the problems with big solar panels is that it becomes hard to turn the spacecraft. That can limit orbits and science operations.

It's great to have options, but I've heard enough from these guys that every option comes with limitations, risks and costs, and that only very detailed engineering analysis will say if the option is a good one.

Online JohnFornaro

  • Not an expert
  • Senior Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 9163
  • Delta-t is the salient metric.
  • Planet Eaarth
    • Design / Program Associates
  • Liked: 610
  • Likes Given: 316
Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #16 on: 10/28/2012 12:55 AM »
...stop changing the design, pick a single design...

Just pick a 70 ton LV, and quit changing the design.  But I digress.
Sometimes I just flat out don't get it.

Offline kevin-rf

  • Elite Veteran
  • Senior Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 8526
  • Overlooking the path Mary's little Lamb took..
  • Liked: 1028
  • Likes Given: 235
Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #17 on: 10/28/2012 03:32 AM »
Blackstar, he's just pulling down you being over the moon with this news, I don't even think if we filled your pockets with all the Pu-238 ever produced we could pull you off of cloud 9 and back down to earth ;)

Short of someone developing a tabletop fusion device, this is the only way we are ever going to explore the outer solar system. It is great to see the US re-taking it's lead.
If you're happy and you know it,
It's your med's!

Offline Blackstar

  • Veteran
  • Senior Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 10990
  • Liked: 2459
  • Likes Given: 1
Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #18 on: 10/28/2012 12:28 PM »
Yeah, well, he's not somebody who I take seriously. One of those people who won't let facts get in the way of his strongly held opinions.

Offline HappyMartian

  • Senior Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 2715
  • Tap the Moon's water!
  • Asia
  • Liked: 14
  • Likes Given: 2
Re: Good news on the oPlutonium productin issue
« Reply #19 on: 10/28/2012 12:52 PM »
Thank you for the update Blackstar! "It's great to have options" for possible Lunar polar robotic rover missions, too!


Cheers!
"The Moon is the most accessible destination for realizing commercial, exploration and scientific objectives beyond low Earth orbit." - LEAG

Tags: