GAO finds issues in management of DOE space nuclear fuel program

A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report has found that though the Department of Energy has made good progress in re-establishing a domestic capability for providing NASA with Plutonium-238 as a nuclear power source for its deep space missions, the management of the program has continuing problems.

The report’s [pdf] introduction described the issues so vaguely I was left somewhat baffled. Here’s just part of it:

Moreover, while DOE has adopted a new approach for managing the Supply Project and RPS production—based on a constant production approach—the agency has not developed an implementation plan that identifies milestones and interim steps that can be used to demonstrate progress in meeting production goals and addressing previously identified challenges. GAO’s prior work shows that plans that include milestones and interim steps help an agency to set priorities, use resources efficiently, and monitor progress in achieving agency goals. By developing a plan with milestones and interim steps for DOE’s approach to managing Pu-238 and RPS production, DOE can show progress in implementing its approach and make adjustments when necessary. Lastly, DOE’s new approach to managing the Supply Project does not improve its ability to assess the potential long-term effects of challenges DOE identified, such as chemical processing and reactor availability, or to communicate these effects to NASA.

It sounds like DOE has taken a very lax approach to getting this done, and the GAO is noting this, but doing so in as gentle a way as possible.

U.S. production of plutonium-238 resumes

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.