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The Energy Department is Full of Hugely Wasteful Spending, But Can't Afford to Make Plutonium for NASA

Congressional Energy Committees Should Focus More On Waste, Less on Making NASA Pay

Posted by Casey Dreier

13-09-2013 11:49 CDT

Topics: Plutonium-238, Explaining Policy

The Department of Energy's National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA), which manages all nuclear materials for the United States, faces numerous cost overruns, lax insight, and is rife with wasteful spending:

Virtually every major project under the National Nuclear Security Administration’s oversight is behind schedule and over budget — the result, watchdogs and government auditors say, of years of lax accountability and nearly automatic annual budget increases for the agency responsible for maintaining the nation’s nuclear stockpile.

The NNSA has racked up $16 billion in cost overruns on 10 major projects that are a combined 38 years behind schedule, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reports. Other projects have been canceled or suspended, despite hundreds of millions of dollars already spent, because they grew too bloated.

This is the same Department of Energy who was forbidden by congressional committees to spend a mere $15 million on restarting Plutonium-238 (Pu-238) production for NASA. Plutonium-238 is used to provide electricity for spacecraft and is in critically short supply – no plutonium-238 has been generated in the U.S. since 1988. If no new plutonium is created soon, NASA spacecraft will lose access to large swaths of the solar system.

NASA is currently paying 100% of the cost to enable the Energy Department to generate about 1kg of Pu-238 per year by 2019.

Plutonium-238 Fuel Pellet

Department of Energy

Plutonium-238 Fuel Pellet
A ceramic fuel pellet of Plutonium-238 oxide glows orange from its radioactive decay. These pellets are used inside Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) to provide heat that is converted into electricity on spacecraft.

Additionally, the White House recently proposed that NASA reimburse the Energy Department for all costs related to managing and storing Plutonium-238, estimated at $50 million per year. This is entirely separate than creating new Pu-238 and entirely unprecedented in the history of the Department.

That the DOE's NNSA is rife with waste and lax oversight may be why NASA's Planetary Science Division initiated a zero-base review of all DOE plutonium-238 management processes in an attempt to reduce the cost to the cash-strapped solar system exploration program. There may be plenty of fat to trim.

One hopes that the congressional appropriations committees responsible for the Energy Department's budget will focus a little more on the "gigantic self-licking ice cream cone for contractors" and less on preventing the production and maintenance of crucial plutonium fuel sources for space exploration.

See other posts from September 2013


Or read more blog entries about: Plutonium-238, Explaining Policy


Quantum Mechanic: 09/14/2013 04:23 CDT

So NASA can't get them to spend $15M for Pu238, but NASA is supposed to pay them $50M for the privilege of not getting it? This sounds like a protection racket.

Casey Dreier: 09/14/2013 06:27 CDT

Quantum: Ha, yes, kinda sounds like it on the surface! I should be clear that the DOE *was* ready to pay for its role in creating new Plutonium-238 for NASA. Over multiple years it requested permission from Congress for the funding. Each year, the Energy Appropriations Committees denied the DOE that money, seemingly fixated on the fact that since NASA was the only agency using Pu-238, NASA should pay for it (of course, there's only one agency that uses nuclear weapons, and they're totally fine to not be reimbursed for those, etc.) The other issue with NASA now having to pay to simply maintain the DOE's processing and handling capabilities for Pu-238 is new, and hasn't been talked about much (even from me). Expect more in the near future on this topic.

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