Wired Magazine’s alarmist article NASA’s Plutonium Problem Could End Deep-Space Exploration argues that virgin production of plutonium-238 in nuclear reactors is needed, or U.S. space exploration is dead. Instead the nation’s future Pu-238 needs should be met through accelerated nuclear weapons dismantlements and recycling/scrap recovery efforts.
Processing and encapsulation of Pu-238 currently takes place at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico. [Having said that, all plutonium operations at the Lab have been shut down since the end of June because of nuclear criticality safety issues, which is a story in and of itself]. A Pu-238 scrap recovery line capable of recovering 2-8 kilograms per year was slated to start in 2005, but apparently has never become fully operational. In fact, LANL claimed in a 2008 site-wide environmental impact statement that it was capable of recycling/recovering up to 18 kilograms of Pu-238 per year, far more than needed to take care of the nation’s needs.
LANL has a large existing inventory of Pu-238 scrap material. Moreover, the Pantex Plant was supposed to ship radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) from dismantled nuclear weapons to the Lab to harvest Pu-238. That hasn’t happened either, we conjecture because the LANL’s scrap recovery line hasn’t been properly working (or perhaps never really started in the Lab’s troubled Plutonium Facility-4). Indeed, the government estimated that approximately 3,200 RTGs would become available for recycling between 2009 and 2022 through nuclear weapons dismantlements. Significantly, increased dismantlements could also supply sufficient recycled tritium for existing nuclear weapons instead of current military production in civilian reactors, a big nonproliferation no-no. But unfortunately dismantlements at the Pantex Plant are substantially blocked by exorbitant “Life Extension Programs” that extend the service lives of existing nuclear weapons by three decades or more while giving them new military capabilities.
Before the U.S. resumes virgin Pu-238 production, the government should make LANL straighten out its Pu-238 recovery operations. Safely that is, because Pu-238 is a very energetic gamma emitter and therefore very dangerous to handle. But the nation’s future Pu-238 needs should be met through accelerated nuclear weapons dismantlements (instead of Life Extension Programs) and recycling/scrap recovery efforts, not new virgin production in nuclear reactors.