NASA Faces Challenge of Plutonium Shortages


NASA is, perhaps, one of the most iconic government organizations on the face of the Earth. The work at Nasa done over the past fifty years has put the United States of America on the map as the foremost space program in the world — at least for a time. Now, NASA is facing a very serious shortage of plutonium which could create a huge challenge for the organization going forward. Plutonium, as it turns out, is an integral material in getting United States technology out into space and now it seems like there might be a problem in acquiring <a href=””>enough of the stuff going forward.</a>

The news of this plutonium shortage came on October 4th in a report released by the Government Accountability Office. The report was attached to a hearing with a House space subcommittee and it focused largely on plutonium. The report opined that there was enough plutonium-238 in storage to carry NASA through their missions into the 2025 or so. However, once NASA approached that timeline they would begin to start running into real issues. the solution to this problem, according to the report, was a suggestion to start ‘scaling up’ their production of the isotope — however this brought on its whole new set of problems.

Shelby Oakley works as the Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management at the Government Accountability Office. Oakley said, “DOE is making progress towards producing new plutonium-238.” Oakley went on to point out that there were still some challenges that were going to need to be faced in the near future. Oakley also said, “Perfecting and scaling up chemical processing and ensuring the availability of reactors that must be addressed or its ability to meet NASA’s needs could be jeopardized.” Oakley would go on to subtly rip the DEO for its lack of long-term planning in regards to the goal of producing enough plutonium-238 for their 2025 cut-off date.

For those unaware Plutoniom-238, Plutonium-238, often shortened to Pu-238, has been used by NASA for their radioisotope thermoelectric generators for a long time now. These generators convert heat into electrical power. These RTGs are primarily used on missions where ships cannot access solar power such as trips to the outer solar system. Right now The United States has roughly 35KG of Pu-238 sitting in their stockpile reserves. If NASA and the DOE don’t come up with a solution soon then these reserves could end up burned through quickly.


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