After a 30 year hiatus, the Department of Energy has produced the first plutonium-238 in the United States since the late 1980s.
Plutonium-238 is the fuel of choice for deep-space exploration. But for nearly 30 years, nobody in the United States was making it.
On Tuesday, that all changed. The Department of Energy announced that 50 grams of the stuff had been made by researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Fifty grams isn’t much, but this is the first time the substance has been made in the country since the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina stopped making it in the late 1980s.
What this does is provide NASA and the U.S. the ability to fly unmanned deep space missions for many more years. Without this plutonium-238, there would be no practical way to power spacecraft traveling out beyond Mars orbit.
And why did the U.S. stop making plutonium-238 in the late 1980s? The story is of course complicated, but one of the big factors is that at that time nuclear power had become politically incorrect after the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear power plant failures, and thus politicians fell over themselves to be the first to ban any such production, even if it was harmless and incredibly beneficial.