Production of 50 grams of plutonium-238 represents first end-to-end demonstration of a plutonium-238 production capability in the United States since the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina ceased production of the material in the late 1980s.
Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory are behind the production. The researchers have opened the path for the US to provide power for NASA and other missions. Upon decaying, plutonium-238 produces heat and can be used in systems that power spacecraft instruments. The newly produced sample is in the same form that is used to make heat sources for power systems.
Though it is great news, there is a lot more work pending for research. They have to first assess the sample for chemical purity and plutonium-238 content. They also need to check production efficiency models and find out whether there is any need of adjustments before starting the process.
Project head for the lab's Nuclear Security and Isotope Technology Division, Bob Wham said, “Once we automate and scale up the process, the nation will have a long-range capability to produce radioisotope power systems such as those used by NASA for deep space exploration”.
Wham said that the success has come two years after NASA started funding the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy by providing around $15 million per year to revive the department’s ability to produce plutonium-238.
Production will take place at National Laboratory and will ship the plutonium-238 as needed to ORNL. The researchers said that the plutonium product will be converted into an oxide and shipped to Los Alamos National Laboratory and there the material will be stored until needed for a mission.
For now, only 35 kilograms of plutonium 238 has been kept aside for NASA missions which is not even half required to power specifications. The amount would be sufficient for two to three proposed NASA missions. But the additional material will be produced at ORNL.
“With this initial production of plutonium-238 oxide, we have demonstrated that our process works and we are ready to move on to the next phase of the mission”, affirmed Wham. The next mission is to use a radioisotope thermoelectric generator in the Mars 2020 rover.