Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) offered an amendment to the Energy and Water Appropriations bill, which funds the Department of Energy (DOE), to include investments necessary to restart energy production that would provide dependable power in locations where no other source of power is available, such as in deep space and underwater.
"This project will make an incredible impact on our ability to do the kind of space exploration that cannot be done by any other nation in the world," Rep. Schiff said.
For the last 50 years, DOE has created Radioisotope Thermal Generators (RTGs) for NASA and the Department of Defense (DOD). These small devices use the heat naturally generated by radioactive plutonium-238 isotopes to provide dependable power. Unfortunately, in the early "90s, the U.S. shut down Pu-238 production, and since then, the DOE has been using stockpiled material and material purchased from Russia to build these devices. Recently, Russia refused to continue that relationship, and our supply of Pu-238 is almost exhausted. Because of the time it takes to restart the fabrication facilities and produce these materials, the amount of Pu-238 needed to build an RTG will only be available 5 or 6 years after the decision to restart production.
Schiff's amendment would provide the $10 million of funding requested by DOE and included in the President's budget request for restarting Pu-238 production, within the Nuclear Energy account. NASA, as the biggest customer for the RTGs, has requested the same level of funding, pursuant to a 50/50 split agreed to by the agencies. NASA has traditionally reimbursed DOE for any RTGs produced for NASA, and the 50/50 split of this start-up money is consistent with that division, in which DOE handles the infrastructure costs and NASA pays for the special nuclear materials produced for U.S. government purposes.
"With no other viable ways to provide this power, the U.S. must restart production now to generate the facilities and produce the materials necessary for deep space, deep sea and other national security uses to continue. We do not have the time and cannot afford to put off this important initiative."
Schiff's amendment is supported by the American Physical Society, the American Institute for Physics, the American Geophysical Union and the American Astronomical Society.