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Report: It’s space travel power versus pits at Los Alamos

SANTA FE – At Los Alamos National Laboratory, a mandate to produce more of the plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons is bumping up against goals to produce power systems for NASA’s “long duration space missions.”

The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that lab officials say that plutonium work for NASA systems “must compete with other priorities for facility space” at the LANL’s plutonium facility, specifically production of nuclear weapons “pits.”

The problem could significantly effect a key step in production of “radioisotope power systems” (RPS) and delay delivery of the systems for NASA’s missions, says the GAO report.

RPS produce power by converting heat from decay of plutonium-238 into electricity and can operate where solar panels or batteries would be ineffective and can operate for more than a decade, according to the report.

An RPS is currently used to power the roving Mars Science Laboratory, known as Curiosity, that has been exploring the Red Planet since 2012. Other missions in the coming years are slated to use the power systems, including another rover, Mars 2020.

The GAO was asked to review the situation in part because the National Academy of Sciences has expressed concern about future NASA missions because of a diminishing supply of plutonium-238. Until 2015, it hadn’t been made in the U.S. for more than 25 years. Various laboratories within the Department of Energy are involved. The GAO report says LANL maintains capability for producing Pu-238 and its work involves Pu-238 storage, chemical processing, analysis, fuel processing and encapsulation of Pu-238.

The GAO concluded that the DOE could improve “planning and communication” within the Pu-238/RPS project. DOE “has not developed an implementation plan that identifies milestones and interim steps that can be used to demonstrate progress in meeting production goals and addressing previously identified challenges,” says the report.

LANL is also under orders to produce as many as 80 plutonium pits by 2030, as part of an expansive update of the nation’s nuclear arsenal. None have been made for several years.

The GAO report says the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous agency within DOE that includes LANL and the rest of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, is currently “focused primarily” on making pits and has not coordinated with the Pu-238 program in connection with potential modifications of the Los Alamos plutonium facility.

The GAO notes that May 2015 Congressional Research Service report suggested moving Pu-238 work out of the facility to free up floor space for pit production. But LANL officials told the GAO that such a move was unlikely “because of clean-up costs and difficulties in transporting contaminated equipment.”

While DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy said pit-making shouldn’t impact RPS production, other DOE officials said there has been discussion of moving Pu-238 capabilities to another DOE site. But “a move of this nature would likely be an expensive, disruptive and time-consuming effort,” GAO said.

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