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NASA Restarts Plutonium Production 139

Posted by timothy
from the yeah-but-now-it's-non-planetary dept.
Celarent Darii writes "In what looks like good news for the American Space program, NASA has restarted production of plutonium. According to the article, after the closure of Savannah Rivers reactor NASA purchased plutonium from Russia, but since 2010 this was no longer possible. The native production of plutonium is a step forward for the space program to achieve the energy density for long term space exploration."
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NASA Restarts Plutonium Production

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  • by Ukab the Great (87152) on Thursday March 14, 2013 @09:33AM (#43170281)

    Maybe if NASA is really good Santa will bring them some plutonium.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    And if space exploration doesn't work out anymore we can always get into arms dealing.

    • by rossdee (243626)

      You mean if Congress cuts off funding for space exploration, you can always sell the Pu and use the profits to pay for the rockets...
      I don't think there is much there in Ryan's budget for NASA

    • by mug funky (910186)

      sell it to north korea. the stuff that goes in RTGs will not work in a bomb.

    • The isotope of PU used by NASA is not the type you make bombs from. I guess you could freak people out by spreading some radioactive material with a 'dirty bomb' - but basically, dirty bombs are a psychological weapon more than an actual hazard - they get people to panic and hurt themselves. They don't do much or any direct damage.

      They type NASA uses won't fission (which is what you need for a nuclear mushroom-cloud, city destroying type explosion). It only decays, and as it decays, it produces a lot of hea

  • by Anonymous Coward

    It's so they can go back to 1955.

  • by mrchaotica (681592) * on Thursday March 14, 2013 @09:36AM (#43170319)

    My first thought upon reading the summary was that if the Savannah River Site is closed, where are they making the new plutonium?

    The answer, according to TFA, is the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

  • I'm sure they'll say if solar isn't good enough, we should use (solar) wind power :P

    • What they are not telling us, is the government knows the sun will go out soon. So we need non-solar based energy.

    • Can you tack in a solar wind?

      Without ripping your sail?

      • Yes, you do it by taking advantage of gravity.

        • That's not actually tacking, or sailing.

          • Using a solar sail is certainly sailing. You use light pressure instead of air pressure, and the construction of the sail is different as a result, but it is certainly sailing. And sailing into the direction that the light originates is tacking and can be done with a solar sail together with gravity. What's your problem with it?

            • Did you follow your own thread here?

              Using gravity is not tacking or sailing was my comment.

              Not sure how you got confused.

      • IIRC you can tack against light but not solar wind. Light reflects, solar wind sticks.

  • I wonder (Score:5, Funny)

    by Rosco P. Coltrane (209368) on Thursday March 14, 2013 @09:39AM (#43170341)

    if Iran will impose sanctions on the United States...

    • by Stickerboy (61554)

      Iran should feel free to. The US economy wouldnt even blink. In fact, Iran needs the US and other advanced manufacturing economies for the high strength materials needed for its missile and nuclear material enrichment programs.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      if Iran will impose sanctions on the United States...

      Perhaps Iran can sell Plutonium to NASA.

      • by tehcyder (746570)

        if Iran will impose sanctions on the United States...

        Perhaps Iran can sell Plutonium to NASA.

        Let the free market sort it out. Whose business is it where NASA gets its raw materials from?

  • UK Plutonium (Score:5, Informative)

    by prefect42 (141309) on Thursday March 14, 2013 @09:40AM (#43170345)

    Am I wrong in thinking the UK has a plutonium stockpile it really doesn't know what to do with? Simply not juicy enough?

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-21505271 [bbc.co.uk]

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Different isotope of plutonium.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plutonium-238 - Fun stuff for space travel.

      UK has a supply of a few different isotopes mixed together. Much less useful.

    • by dietdew7 (1171613)
      That comic raises some interesting points. It shows that fat is more energy dense than coal. Should we burn fat people for fuel? How will that affect CO2 in the atmosphere, are fat people a carbon sink? If I increase my belly rolls can I get carbon credits?
      • Keep in mind all the carbon expelled to produce foods especially foods that make us fat.

      • by lessthan (977374)

        I have a vision! The liposuction power plant! "Do you need to lose a few pounds? Is your electric bill out of control? Come down to Lipo-Electric, where we will suck out those pesky hard-to-lose pounds. We'll even pay you, in the form of electric credits! Lipo-Electric is not responsible for any missing family members."

    • Re:UK Plutonium (Score:5, Informative)

      by DerekLyons (302214) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (retawriaf)> on Thursday March 14, 2013 @10:20AM (#43170705) Homepage

      Am I wrong in thinking the UK has a plutonium stockpile it really doesn't know what to do with? Simply not juicy enough?

      It's the wrong isotope - bombs and reactors use Pu-239, while RTGs use Pu-238. The key difference is half-life and thus the heat generated, as the heat drives the thermocouples in the RTG to produce power. Pu-239 has a half life of 24 kyears, which means it decays slowly and thus doesn't produce much heat (relatively speaking). Pu-238 has a half life of 87 years, which means it emits considerable heat.
       
      That short half life is also why NASA has been trying to figure out how to re-start production for some years now, since production was halted in 1988 a considerable quantity of the stockpiled fuel has essentially 'evaporated'. (And the stockpile wasn't that large to begin with.) Since the 'evaporated' fuel doesn't actually physically go anywhere, this means that you either have to use a bigger and heavier RTG or redesign the mission to use less power. (The first is obviously bad, and the second can paint you into a bit of a corner if the launch is delayed.) Processing the fuel to remove the decay products and restore energy density is... Very Expensive, so it's not an option (especially since it doesn't solve the problem of 'evaporation').

      • by Anonymous Coward

        It's the wrong isotope - bombs use Pu-239, while RTGs use Pu-238.

        There, fixed that for you. Reactors will readily burn Pu-239. They will also burn Pu-240, and Pul-238 and whatever other isotope. To fetch "usable" Pu from a reactor requires lots of effort, but to use it, not so much. You can just mix it with initial fuel and be done with it.

        Only bombs use Pu-239 only. And it takes nasty, expensive processing (and lots of it) to fetch Pu-239 and avoiding Pu-240. It is one of the reasons for those leaks at Hanford. Pu-240 contamination makes Pu nukes go "fuzz fuzz", like No

  • by FunkyLich (2533348) on Thursday March 14, 2013 @09:49AM (#43170441)

    .... make up your mind?
    You used to produce Plutonium and you saw it was good. But then man got greedy and raced upward to the skies and eat from the forbidden fruit. And complicated-gdp-involving-economy-formula was not happy and it convinced you that it was bad. And Plutonium was no more, Savannah Rivers dropped the Rivers and became a p0rn5tar and the fallen from grace NASA purchased plutonium from Russia. Now there is what looks like good news, the saviour will be born, the native plutonium-producer child of NASA. A step forward for the space program to achieve the energy density for long space exploration. After a jump backward, sort of.

    I wish we just got rid of the jumps backward.

  • We can just start reprocessing existing spent fuel and recover the material we need from that?

    We will actually kill multiple birds with this... First, you get the material you wanted. Second, you don't create any new nuclear waste in the process, though it will change forms some and get somewhat smaller. Third, you can create new fuel assemblies and actually use the remaining fuel that is just sitting in pools of water right now. Not to mention that it will actually do something about the used fuel asse

    • by saintory (944644)
      Slashdot will correct me if I'm wrong but if memory serves me correctly, part of the reason we don't recycle spent fuel rods is because of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (Treaties?) we signed in the 1970s. Apparently recycling old rods yields weapons-grade materials, even if their final purpose is not for weapons.
      • by MachineShedFred (621896) on Thursday March 14, 2013 @10:40AM (#43170889) Journal

        Commercial reactor waste has very little weapons-grade material in it, because in order to maximize production of weapons-grade Plutonium, you have to use a commercially inefficient fuel cycle to minimize the amount of spontaneously fissioning Plutonium isotopes being created through continued neutrox flux.

        More succinctly: the more time U238 spends being bombarded in a reactor (thus, the more energy you create from the same fuel assembly), the more likely it is going to pass the "sweet spot" of Pu-239 into the undesireable Pu-240 or Pu-241 which poisons a prompt supercriticality which is created during a nuclear detonation. The reactors at Hanford that made the vast majority of weapons-bound Plutonium for the US weapons stockpile used somewhere around 6-month fuel cycles, where the average commercial reactor uses the fuel assembly for several years.

    • by thrich81 (1357561) on Thursday March 14, 2013 @10:08AM (#43170613)

      The Pu in the fuel rods is not the right isotope, it is almost all Pu239 (U238 + neutron = Pu239, [after a stage as Np239]). NASA needs Pu238. What Pu239 is in there would be a real bear to separate from the Pu239 (more difficult than the separation of U235 from U238 because the mass difference is less).

      • by thrich81 (1357561)

        Correcting myself (again), to be more accurate. As MachineShedFred pointed out above, there is also a significant amount of Pu240 in used nuclear fuel rods, which doesn't help NASA any with their Pu238 requirement, either.

    • repost to correct typo:
      The Pu in the fuel rods is not the right isotope, it is almost all Pu239 (U238 + neutron = Pu239, [after a stage as Np239]). NASA needs Pu238. What Pu238 is in there would be a real bear to separate from the Pu239 (more difficult than the separation of U235 from U238 because the mass difference is less).

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      We can just start reprocessing existing spent fuel and recover the material we need from that?

      We can't. The path to Pu-238 (the isotope used in RTGs) is Np-237 -(n)-> Np-238 -(beta-decay)-> Pu-238. Np-237 is a byproduct of neutron irradiation of U-238, but it must be separated and fabricated into target pins before further irradiation, otherwise your Pu-238 will be drowned in a mass of Pu-239 and higher isotopes, and there is no practical way to separate it. (Separating U-235 from U-238, three atomic units of difference, is difficult enough; Pu-238 and Pu-239 are a single atomic unit apart.)

    • by oodaloop (1229816) on Thursday March 14, 2013 @10:51AM (#43171005)
      If you want to kill multiple birds, then wind turbines are the answer.

      /ducks
  • "I'm sure that in 1985, plutonium is available in every corner drugstore, but in 1955, it's a little hard to come by."
  • by CDS (143158)
    At least we won't have to buy it from the Libyans any more. It's tough to get enough plutonium to reach 1.21 Jiggawatts at 88mph!
  • is Plutonium still considered an atom?

  • Plutonium 238 (Score:5, Informative)

    by AbrasiveCat (999190) on Thursday March 14, 2013 @10:35AM (#43170821)
    For the folks who don't know, we are talking about plutonium 238. This has a half live of 88 years so decays rapidly and produces a fair amount of heat. Using thermocouples this can be used to generate power with no moving parts. The decay route is alpha particles which are fairly easy to shield against. Your favorite bomb material plutonium 239 has a half life of 24000 years which leaves it safer to handle but not useful for thermoelectric generation
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 14, 2013 @10:37AM (#43170835)

    We didn't stop producing plutonium just because it wasn't economically feasible (when did that stop the government from doing anything) -- the history of plutonium in the United States has been littered with accidents and costly, multi-decade cleanup projects that cost billions of dollars. See Rocky Flats, [wikipedia.org] et al.

    • We didn't stop producing plutonium just because it wasn't economically feasible (when did that stop the government from doing anything) -- the history of plutonium in the United States has been littered with accidents and costly, multi-decade cleanup projects that cost billions of dollars. See Rocky Flats, [wikipedia.org] et al.

      If it's any consolation, we have what not to do down pat.

    • by cusco (717999)
      Prior to this the history of plutonium production in the US was almost exclusively military, NASA just got the Pentagon's leftovers. You're looking at an order of magnitude difference in engineering competence, project management abilities and environmental conscientiousness.
  • Sorry, just had to get that out of my system.

  • https://www.google.ca/search?q=lftr+Plutonium-238 [google.ca]

    But US laws exists to prevent developing the technology created in the 70s in the US.

  • I had heard they had less than 30 Kgs left and it took at least 5 kgs to run the older style RTGs. The newer Stirling RTGs increase efficiency some.

    Plus the cost at $4M a kilo was becoming significant.
    • by mk1004 (2488060)
      The Stirling RTG uses moving parts which are not required with a standard RTG. Seems like, for decades-long missions like Voyager, additional moving parts just add another potential failure point.
  • NASA didn't produce plutonium. DoE's Oak Ridge, TN facility did. NASA just issued the press release. NASA is good at that.

  • So first we hear about funding problems [slashdot.org] at NASA.

    Now we hear about NASA producing plutonium. So how are they planning on funding this plutonium operation? Hopefully it isn't by selling it on the internet*** to raise money ;^)

    ** Yes, you can actually buy radioactive isotopes on the internet. For example, from these guys here [unitednuclear.com]. Of course these guys don't sell plutonium, so NASA would be able to have a monopoly on that ;^)

  • If I were a certain show off in Iran, I would openly communicate to the Satin's of the West; that Iranian Plutonium is not some mickey mouse pop off. And that Iran offers better rates than NASA can get from any other Satin selling the stuff. Just a thought...

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