Peak plutonium and a fuel shortage in space


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I’m more worried about our cavorite stockpiles. They’ve been depressingly low as long as I can remember.


And making more would take helium, which is becoming scarce too. It’s uless

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We can just mine the moon…
I guess that if we are out of cavorite, then it will be hard to get to the moon.

What’s the problem? It’s not like there are plutonium mines that China’s blocking our access to. We get new plutonium the same we got old plutonium: making it.


Hydrogen balloons! We shall sail through the stars in the Edwardian fashion!


The DOE believes a relatively modest $10 to 20 million in funding each year through 2020 could yield an operation capable of making between 3.3 and 11 pounds of plutonium-238 annually — plenty to keep a steady stream of spacecraft in business.

FFS, someone sell a yacht.
I mean, if you’ve got one spare, step up to the plate and get some space vehicles named after you and your kids.

Edit: They’re going to try and find life on Europa! Just think of it:
“And it is Confirmed, life has been discovered on Europa by the instruments aboard the ‘Richard Richardson’!”

I shall bring a smoke jacket.

The “Richard Richardson” ain’t bad. But my fear is that we’d end up with the “Verizon moon lander” or “Frit-o-Lay Venusian orbiter”.

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Someone needs to invent a rocket powered by amirite. The internets are full of the stuff.

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I’d cheer for the ‘Wall Mart McLander’ if it found life on Europa!

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We need synergy… KY Penetrator; Windows Explorer; Preparation H Uranus Probe; Orbitz Orbiter


Heard recently on Fraser Cain’s Weekly Space Hangout on G+ that they had restarted production. In the article’s comments someone posted a link to wikipedia that seems to back up this statement. Source article for the wiki statement

still wondering about the question at the end of this post , particularly after learning that we recently sent up ten pounds of plutonium for Curiosity.

I think that they just did some trial runs to check that their Np-237 target works as planned and to verify their models for how long the target needs to remain in the reactor at a given neutron flux. Also probably to validate their chemistry for processing the targets after irradiation. This is a “new” way of getting the Pu-238 – the old stuff was just separated from fuel rods (usually during weapons development).

Here are some links:
Relatively technical overview of what they are doing (lots-o-acronyms)
Studies of Plutonium-238 Production at the High Flux Isotope Reactor - Pub33780.pdf

Couple of articles from a fellow that reports on Oak Ridge Lab:
$20M plutonium project at ORNL to support space program » Knoxville News Sentinel
Update on plutonium project at ORNL | Frank Munger’s Atomic City Underground |

Launch failure?
Modern US RTGs are designed to survive re-entry intact (and have done so a couple times). Even if the encapsulation failed, the ceramic Pu elements should be non-dispersible/non-soluble, so there should be little risk of contamination.

to which i naïvely reply: can we not also encapsulate the waste by the same method?

10 lbs of Pu-238 in a ceramic form is probably just a bit larger than a soda-pop can – pretty easy to encapsulate really well. The radiation from Pu-238 is mostly shielded by the Pu-238 itself.
/start handwaving calc
Just one fuel rod bundle from a reactor is 4-5 meters long and probably weighs ~1000 lbs – a bit more daunting task to encapsulate… One of the more robust ways to encapsulate the bundles would be a spent fuel transport cask which can handle ~4 of the bundles that I mentioned, however the cask is only designed to survive a 9 meter fall and a short time at elevated temperatures. The loaded cask would likely weight ~30,000 lb, which [I think] is the upper capacity of most current heavy launch vehicles to deliver an item to geosynchronous orbit. So, spent fuel encapsulated well enough to survive a worse-case-scenario would probably be limited to ~1 bundle per launch – given that there can be ~200 bundles in a reactor, it would take a long time and a lot of $$ (and a fair amount of risk) just to get rid of 1 reactor core.
end handwaving calc/

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awesome response! thank you. ah well, at least I admitted it was a naïve question, right?

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I’m sure that in 1980 you can buy plutonium in any corner store, but here in 1958 it’s a little harder to come by!