Author Topic: Good news on the Plutonium production issue  (Read 51855 times)

Offline manboy

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Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #20 on: 10/28/2012 02:10 PM »
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.
Glad to hear progress is being made.
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Offline manboy

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Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #21 on: 10/28/2012 02:22 PM »
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
Last I read was that the Advanced Test Reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory and the High Flux Isotope Reactor at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory were the top potential producers.
« Last Edit: 10/28/2012 02:52 PM by manboy »
"Cheese has been sent into space before. But the same cheese has never been sent into space twice." - StephenB

Online Blackstar

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Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #22 on: 10/28/2012 05:00 PM »
Last I read was that the Advanced Test Reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory and the High Flux Isotope Reactor at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory were the top potential producers.

I've forgotten this stuff, but it might be in the NRC report from a few years back:

http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=12653&page=R1

Essentially, the Idaho reactor has something like nine different test positions where targets can be inserted to get bombarded with radiation (they generically refer to it as "flux"). Some positions are closer, others farther, meaning more radiation vs. less radiation, and also possibly affecting quality. Something like seven of these positions are used by the Navy for testing things like metal alloys that they would use in a reactor--they bombard them and then see how the materials react.

The other two positions can be used for other things, and there are other users who want to do research using those positions. If you want to make Pu-238, you use up those positions and they cannot be used for other things.

Depending upon how much Pu-238 you want to make per year and how fast, DoE would put the neptunium into one or more of these positions and possibly also at Oak Ridge (or vice versa). And because there are so many different aspects to this, you might get better material at Oak Ridge than Idaho, or vice versa, or it might depend upon what target position is available for use. Right now they're talking about pretty low-level production, so my guess is that they will only use one reactor or the other, and maybe only one target location rather than more than one. My colleague on our study got to go to Idaho, but I didn't. Wanted to, but was busy on other stuff. Plus, he's a former bubblehead so he would understand it all much better than me.

One of the concerns in the background for all of this is that some people (I dunno who) were a little worried that if the cost of production was put entirely on NASA, this would not give DoE any incentive to keep the cost down, and they would spend a lot of money because it was not their money. That's the kind of insider details that nobody really talks about on the record.
« Last Edit: 10/28/2012 05:01 PM by Blackstar »

Offline TrueBlueWitt

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Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #23 on: 03/19/2013 04:19 AM »
First time I've seen this get mentioned in the Public Media.

http://news.yahoo.com/u-restarts-plutonium-production-space-probes-013110181.html
« Last Edit: 03/19/2013 04:20 AM by TrueBlueWitt »

Offline robertross

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Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #24 on: 03/19/2013 11:47 PM »
First time I've seen this get mentioned in the Public Media.

http://news.yahoo.com/u-restarts-plutonium-production-space-probes-013110181.html


Beat me to it!

It's a good start forward.
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Online Herb Schaltegger

Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #25 on: 03/20/2013 12:42 AM »
Excellent to see this shortcoming being corrected. Even better (to me, anyway) to see it happening in my home state. :)
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Online Eric Hedman

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Online DarkenedOne

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Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #27 on: 03/21/2013 11:24 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.

More importantly it is the only way to have sustained operations on the surface of the Moon or Mars.  The only way other than a nuclear reactor.

Online DarkenedOne

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Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #28 on: 03/21/2013 11:45 AM »
The only problem I have is that I doubt their production rate of 1.5 kg per year will be enough to satisfy demand.  1.5 kg per year is only enough to supply an unmanned mission every 5 years. 

Manned missions to Mars or the Moon would require much more.

At the same time the DOD has expressed interest in using Pu-238 for some yet to be disclosed national security purpose.  Most likely the probably want it to be used in things like UAVs so that they may fly for years rather than days. 


Offline Jim

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Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #29 on: 03/21/2013 12:06 PM »
Most likely the probably want it to be used in things like UAVs so that they may fly for years rather than days. 


huh? Ah, no.  Too heavy.
« Last Edit: 03/21/2013 12:07 PM by Jim »

Online russianhalo117

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Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #30 on: 03/21/2013 01:16 PM »
The only problem I have is that I doubt their production rate of 1.5 kg per year will be enough to satisfy demand.  1.5 kg per year is only enough to supply an unmanned mission every 5 years. 

Manned missions to Mars or the Moon would require much more.

At the same time the DOD has expressed interest in using Pu-238 for some yet to be disclosed national security purpose.  Most likely the probably want it to be used in things like UAVs so that they may fly for years rather than days. 


AFAIK, DoD is referring mostly to satellites.
« Last Edit: 03/21/2013 01:41 PM by russianhalo117 »

Offline kevin-rf

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Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #31 on: 03/21/2013 01:23 PM »
AFAIK, DoD is referring mainly to satellites.
Are you sure, space is not the only remote hard to reach location that lacks a power outlet.
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Online russianhalo117

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Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #32 on: 03/21/2013 01:41 PM »
AFAIK, DoD is referring mainly to satellites.
Are you sure, space is not the only remote hard to reach location that lacks a power outlet.
I meant mostly not mainly.

Online Blackstar

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Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #33 on: 03/21/2013 02:02 PM »
1-The only problem I have is that I doubt their production rate of 1.5 kg per year will be enough to satisfy demand.  1.5 kg per year is only enough to supply an unmanned mission every 5 years. 

2-Manned missions to Mars or the Moon would require much more.

3-At the same time the DOD has expressed interest in using Pu-238 for some yet to be disclosed national security purpose.  Most likely the probably want it to be used in things like UAVs so that they may fly for years rather than days. 

1-Right now the "demand" is only 1.5 kg per year.

2-That is true. However, they are not approved and funded, so they pose no demand. If they get approved and funded, and if they determine that they require Pu-238, then they (the human spaceflight program) will be expected to pay for it and the supply will be increased.

We actually considered this issue during our study back in 2008 or so. Somewhere I probably even have NASA's briefing chart on this. If I remember correctly, the human spaceflight stated requirement was something like twice the robotic/science requirement. At that time the Constellation program was considering using RTGs/ASRGs to provide backup emergency power for a lunar outpost. It was a legitimate use, assuming that NASA actually developed a lunar outpost. However, at the time we looked at this, we all realized that either Constellation was going to get scaled back or canceled, and that their requirement was not going to emerge until the 2020s or 2030s at the earliest. So the committee instead focused upon the much more near-term requirement for the science program. And to be totally honest, the most important thing was simply restarting production, not how much actually gets produced. That's because the restart cost is the greatest cost. You have to fund people, new equipment, and processes (and things like lab space for doing the processing). Once you've done that, then you can worry about increasing production later.

And although you won't understand this because it's obscure Washington policy-wonky stuff, the key issue is getting the bureaucracy to MOVE. The easiest thing in the world is doing nothing. What was most important was to get production started so that everybody was comfortable with that and willing to keep producing Pu-238 and wasn't going to stop. The bizarre thing about this is that NASA and DoE were in agreement on restarting Pu-238 production. The White House was in favor of it. And nobody was opposed to it from an anti-nuke standpoint. And yet it took SIX YEARS simply to get the go-ahead. That's because of weird inside government issues.

3-More on this later.

Online Blackstar

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Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #34 on: 03/21/2013 02:22 PM »
Let me amplify something I mentioned in response to #2 above. I wrote:

"If they get approved and funded, and if they determine that they require Pu-238, then they (the human spaceflight program) will be expected to pay for it and the supply will be increased."

Something that people on the outside of the field don't generally understand is that there is no single entity known as "NASA." NASA is a collection of people, centers, programs, offices, and budgets. They are not one single collective. They have specific budgets for their work and they seek to protect their budgets. If somebody from another program, particularly outside of their directorate (NASA has four directorates), or even outside of their division comes to them and says "I want you to do X for me," the first response they will get is "Do you have the money in your budget to pay me to do that?" If the answer is "no," then they will be shown the door. Maybe they then go appeal to their boss, or the Big Boss, but even if the Big Boss is involved he may not agree that somebody in another directorate or division should levy requirements on somebody else without bringing the cash.

This is something that the Science Mission Directorate is always wary about. They are concerned that the human spaceflight part of NASA is going to come along and say "We want you to build X or Y for us, and even though it is not part of your program, we want you to pay for it with your money." If SMD allows that to happen without a fight, very quickly they will find that their own carefully crafted program can get messed up.

So to take the example that was raised here, if the human spaceflight program decides that it requires a lot of Pu-238 to do something like operate backup generators for a lunar outpost, they will be expected to provide the money for that production out of their budget. (And if their requirement for the material is significantly greater than SMD's requirement, then they may also be required to foot some of the bill for the capability, not simply the manufacture of more material. After all, it's only fair that if you are using 66% of the material, you should cover a fair share of the overhead costs too.)

Now the much more common example is where the human spaceflight program decides that it wants some science to come along with its projects, and then doesn't provide the money to do any of that science. NASA was about to encounter some of these problems with Constellation. To be honest, the science community has some interest in lunar science, but not a lot of interest in lunar science. But Constellation was going to send humans to the Moon, and among the things they would do there would be science, and there was a risk to the science program that it would be forced to do a lot more lunar science that didn't interest the science community as much as other things (like Mars, Europa, etc.). So NASA was going to face some internal negotiations and perhaps some squabbles over how much the Science Mission Directorate should pay for science that it didn't really want to do.

But if you want something, and you bring money to pay for it, then everybody is happy.
« Last Edit: 03/21/2013 02:24 PM by Blackstar »

Offline MP99

Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #35 on: 03/21/2013 06:44 PM »
NASA is a collection of people, centers, programs, offices, and budgets. They are not one single collective. They have specific budgets for their work and they seek to protect their budgets. If somebody from another program, particularly outside of their directorate (NASA has four directorates), or even outside of their division comes to them and says "I want you to do X for me," the first response they will get is "Do you have the money in your budget to pay me to do that?" If the answer is "no," then they will be shown the door.

That doesn't sound much different than a big commercial organisation. Especially when belts are being tightened.

cheers, Martin


Offline Jim

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Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #36 on: 03/21/2013 07:11 PM »
AFAIK, DoD is referring mainly to satellites.


Are you sure, space is not the only remote hard to reach location that lacks a power outlet.
I meant mostly not mainly.

Neither.  The DOD has not used it on spacecraft since LES and Transit. DOD use is either underwater or remote terrestrial
« Last Edit: 03/21/2013 10:57 PM by Jim »

Online DarkenedOne

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Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #37 on: 03/21/2013 10:26 PM »
1-The only problem I have is that I doubt their production rate of 1.5 kg per year will be enough to satisfy demand.  1.5 kg per year is only enough to supply an unmanned mission every 5 years. 

2-Manned missions to Mars or the Moon would require much more.

3-At the same time the DOD has expressed interest in using Pu-238 for some yet to be disclosed national security purpose.  Most likely the probably want it to be used in things like UAVs so that they may fly for years rather than days. 

1-Right now the "demand" is only 1.5 kg per year.

The fact that we have enough Pu-238 for our current mission line up is due to fact that mission planners simply reject missions that use Pu-238 we do not already possess.  Since there is no reliable supply of Pu-238, mission proposals cannot assume that supply will meet their demand.  Thus the number of missions that use Pu-238 would likely be greater if Pu-238 supply was not constrained.

Also I would like to point out that they are planning to use both the new supply as well as their stockpiled supply, thus more Pu-238 will still be used than is produced. 

NASA has already reported that they have deferred a plutonium-powered robotic mission to Europa for this reason.

2-That is true. However, they are not approved and funded, so they pose no demand. If they get approved and funded, and if they determine that they require Pu-238, then they (the human spaceflight program) will be expected to pay for it and the supply will be increased.

If our unmanned systems cannot rely on a steady supply of Pu-238 to meet their demand than what makes you think that a manned program does not when it requires much more.  Fact of the matter is that it is not a matter of money.  Only the department of energy has the legal right to produce nuclear material in the US government. 

We actually considered this issue during our study back in 2008 or so. Somewhere I probably even have NASA's briefing chart on this. If I remember correctly, the human spaceflight stated requirement was something like twice the robotic/science requirement. At that time the Constellation program was considering using RTGs/ASRGs to provide backup emergency power for a lunar outpost. It was a legitimate use, assuming that NASA actually developed a lunar outpost. However, at the time we looked at this, we all realized that either Constellation was going to get scaled back or canceled, and that their requirement was not going to emerge until the 2020s or 2030s at the earliest. So the committee instead focused upon the much more near-term requirement for the science program. And to be totally honest, the most important thing was simply restarting production, not how much actually gets produced. That's because the restart cost is the greatest cost. You have to fund people, new equipment, and processes (and things like lab space for doing the processing). Once you've done that, then you can worry about increasing production later.

The people, equipment, and processes are not blockers.


And although you won't understand this because it's obscure Washington policy-wonky stuff, the key issue is getting the bureaucracy to MOVE. The easiest thing in the world is doing nothing. What was most important was to get production started so that everybody was comfortable with that and willing to keep producing Pu-238 and wasn't going to stop. The bizarre thing about this is that NASA and DoE were in agreement on restarting Pu-238 production. The White House was in favor of it. And nobody was opposed to it from an anti-nuke standpoint. And yet it took SIX YEARS simply to get the go-ahead. That's because of weird inside government issues.

First of all Congress only approved of $15 million of the $30 million that was asked for.  NASA requested $15 million and the DOE requested $15 million.  The DOE $15 million did not get appropriated. 


Fact of the matter is that the system is clearly disfunctional and unreliable.  Too unreliable for mission planners of a human spaceflight mission to make plans and assume supply will meet their demand.  I do not see anything changing until either NASA is given the right to produce its own Pu-238 or a commercial operation is able to supply it.

Offline Jim

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Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #38 on: 03/21/2013 10:59 PM »
I do not see anything changing until either NASA is given the right to produce its own Pu-238

Huh?  NASA doesn't desire, the manpower, facilities nor expertise to do it.  Also, it is a bad idea. 

Online Eric Hedman

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Re: Good news on the Plutonium production issue
« Reply #39 on: 03/21/2013 11:20 PM »
I have a question for people in the know based on the following from the article:

“We’re expecting reports from (the DOE) later this year on a complete schedule that would then put plutonium on track to be generated at about 3.3 pounds a year, so it’s going quite well,” Green said.

The fresh plutonium has the added benefit of reviving NASA's small and decaying supply of older plutonium still in storage.

“It fairly old -- more than 20 years,” Green said, “When we add newly generated plutonium through this process to the older plutonium in a mixture of one new-to-two old units, we can actually revive that and get he energy density we need. So for every 1 kilogram [2.2 pounds], we really revive 2 other kilograms of the older plutonium by mixing it.”

If they can revive old Plutonium stock with the newly produced Plutonium,  how much old stock do they have to use to boost the yearly total?

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