Casey DreierSep 13, 2013

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

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
Plutonium-238 Fuel Pellet A ceramic fuel pellet of Plutonium-238 glows orange from heat produced by its radioactive decay. These pellets are used inside Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) to provide heat that is converted into electricity on spacecraft. It is about 5cm across and 10cm tall.Image: Department of Energy

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.

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