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GAO: DOE Faces Challenges in Plutonium Production for Future NASA Missions

A new report by the Government Accountability Office says the Energy Department is facing challenges in the production of new plutonium isotopes meant to power certain NASA space missions, Space News reported Tuesday.

The report said there is enough plutonium-238 in stockpiles for NASA missions scheduled through the mid-2020s, but technical issues hamper efforts to ramp up production of the isotope.

Shelby Oakley, GAO director of acquisition and sourcing management, said at a hearing of the House space subcommittee that DOE faces problems in personnel recruitment and training; refinement of chemical processing; and reactor availability.

Oakley added that DOE has yet to develop a long-term plan with milestones to show progress toward the department’s goal of creating 3.3 pounds of plutonium-238 annually beginning 2025.

She noted that DOE agreed with GAO’s recommendations to improve communications with NASA on the technical issues.

NASA and DOE launched an effort to restart plutonium-238 production in the U.S. in 2011, after it ended in the late 1980s.

Plutonium-238 is used in radioisotope thermoelectric generators that supply electrical power to space missions that cannot employ solar energy, including explorations into the outer solar system.

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