Milestone: Oak Ridge National Lab produces plutonium-238

Plutonium-238 oxide pellet glowing from its own heat

With the production of 50 grams of plutonium-238, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory have restored a U.S. capability dormant for nearly 30 years and set the course to provide power for NASA and other missions.

Plutonium-238 produces heat as it decays and can be used in systems that power spacecraft instruments. The new sample, which is in the same oxide powder form used to manufacture heat sources for power systems, represents the 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…

❝“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,” said Bob Wham, who leads the project…

There are currently only 35 kilograms, or about 77 pounds, of plutonium-238 set aside for NASA missions, and only about half of this supply meets power specifications. This is only sufficient to power two to three proposed NASA missions through the middle of the 2020s. Fortunately, the additional material that will be produced at ORNL can be blended with the existing portion that doesn’t meet specifications to extend the usable inventory…

The next NASA mission planning to use a radioisotope thermoelectric generator is the Mars 2020 rover, due to be launched in July 2020. The mission seeks signs of life on Mars and will test technology for human exploration and gather samples of rocks and soil that could be returned to Earth.

RTFA for details of the processes involved in reviving this project.

BTW – NASA has been buying this from Russia for the past 22 years. Their own stash is diminishing. They’ve stopped selling it.

6 thoughts on “Milestone: Oak Ridge National Lab produces plutonium-238

    • morey says:

      Sorry you don’t know much about science, how electricity has often been generated in space vehicles for decades. Tossing off a one-liner about North Korea is a world-class non sequitur.

      • List of X says:

        I don’t see why would anybody need a PhD in rocket science to follow the logical sequence of “We have not been making plutonium for decades; We are making it now; North Korea has been making plutonium; ergo, we’re catching up”.

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