Source: Space News | Dan Leone | August 26, 2015

The U.S. Energy Department  plans to produce new plutonium-238  for the first time in 27 years. Credit: DOE

The U.S. Energy Department plans to produce new plutonium-238 for the first time in 27 years. Credit: DOE

The U.S. Department of Energy will start producing new plutonium-238 for deep space missions around 2019, but production will ramp up slowly, and NASA still has not committed to setting aside any of the isotope for small missions.

Early next year, the refinery at DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee will restart for the first time in 27 years to produce a test-batch of the isotope, which powers nuclear batteries needed for space missions that cannot rely on solar arrays, a DOE official told the NASA-chartered Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG) here Aug. 25.

If the sample tests cleanly, Oak Ridge will start pumping out bigger batches, beginning with 400 grams in 2019, Rebecca Onuschak, program director for infrastructure capabilities in DOE’s Office of Space and Defense Power Systems, said in a presentation to OPAG. That amount is less than a third of the annual output NASA and the Energy Department were shooting for after Congress transferred the budget for critical parts of DOE’s plutonium-handling infrastructure to the space agency in 2012.