Emily LakdawallaJun 14, 2011

URGENT: Call Appropriations Committee members to support Pu-238 production

I just got the following email from the American Geophysical Union (AGU), requesting anyone whose Congressperson sits on the Appropriations Committee to place a phone call to support the production of Plutonium-238, the isotope of plutonium that powers spacecraft that cannot run on solar power. We're basically out of the stuff, and no one is making more, which dims future prospects for the exploration of the outer planets and other distant stuff, as well as non-sunny places like shadowed regions on Mercury or the Moon or the surface of Venus. If you live or work in any of those Committee members' districts, please make the call. Even just a few phone calls can really make a difference.

Dear Emily Lakdawalla ,

The future of planetary sciences needs your help today. As you know, re-starting production of Plutonium-238 (Pu-238) is critical if planetary scientists, like you, are to explore space in regions where solar panels will not provide enough electrical power. The President's Fiscal Year 2012 (FY12) budget request asks for $10 million for NASA and $10 million for the Department of Energy (DOE) to restart production of Pu-238. However, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water, which oversees the DOE budget, has refused to allocate the money in their FY12 spending bill. But, there is still hope.

Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA-29th) will offer an amendment to the House Energy and Water spending bill tomorrow (15 June), when the full Appropriations Committee will have the chance to amend the subcommittee's spending bill. Congressman Schiff's amendment will propose the Energy and Water bill include the President's request for $10 million at DOE to restart production of Pu-238.

f you live in Congressman Schiff's district, please call his office at (202) 225-4176 and thank him for offering this amendment. If you do not live in Congressman Schiff's district, you are receiving this email because you live in a district represented by someone else who sits on the Appropriations Committee. Please call your Representative and ask them to support Congressman Schiff's amendment.
Making the Call:

  • Look up your Representative's phone number for their Washington, D.C., office at www.house.gov.
  • When you make the call, a staff assistant or intern will answer. Tell them your name and affiliation.
  • Ask to speak with the legislative assistant who handles DOE appropriations. Tell them you would like to talk about a proposed Pu-238 amendment in tomorrow's Energy and Water full-committee mark up.
  • If they are unavailable, leave a message and follow up with an email. Their email address is [email protected].

Talking Points:

  • Explain who you are, what you do, and why your work is important from a local perspective. This should be done in "lay terms" and technical jargon should be avoided. Remember to always be polite.
  • I ask that you support Congressman Schiff's amendment that will be submitted during tomorrow's full-committee markup of the Energy and Water appropriations bill to provide $10 million at DOE for restart production of Pu-238.
  • There is no viable alternative to Pu-238.
  • Pu-238 cannot be made commercially; it must be made by DOE.
  • We are currently 100% dependent on Russia for the Pu-238 our space program desperately needs. However, there is no current agreement with Russia to continue to purchase Pu-238. Even if there were an agreement, we don't know just how much Pu-238 Russia has or what that price would be.
  • Many of the flagship planetary missions called out in the National Academy of Sciences' decadal survey, "Vision and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013-2022," are in jeopardy.
  • If Pu-238 production starts immediately, there will still be a five-year delay before enough Pu-238 is produced to power a spacecraft, pushing back many proposed planetary space missions. A delay could cause missions to reach prohibitively high costs which, in turn, could cause job losses, diminish the United States' leadership role in planetary science, and prevent us from expanding human knowledge of the universe.
  • While NASA is the primary user, they are not the only user. DOE and the Department of Defense also use Pu-238. However, the applications and quantities they use and need are classified information.
  • Relatively, this is not a large amount of money, and I hope you will recognize the important role Pu-238 plays not only for American space exploration, but also for our national identity as a leader in the scientific community.

If You Are a Federal Employee:

Calling your Representative allowed. However, it is not permissible to discuss specific funding levels. Instead, discuss your research and its local impact on the district, implying that you would like their support on this issue.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Kaitlin Chell
Public Affairs Coordinator
American Geophysical Union
2000 Florida Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20009 USA

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