Updated 4 August 2020
Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTG), also called Radioisotope Power Systems (RTS), commonly use non-weapons grade Plutonium 238 (Pu-238) to generate electric power and heat for National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) spacecraft when solar energy and batteries are not adequate for the intended mission.
Approximately 300 kg (661 lb) of Pu-238 was produced by the Department of Energy (DOE) at the Savannah River Site between 1959 – 1988. After U.S production stopped, the U.S. purchased Pu-238 from Russia until that source of supply ended in 2010.
Limited production of new Pu-238 in the U.S re-started in 2013 using the process shown below. This effort is partially funded by NASA. Eventually, production capacity will be about 1.5 kg (3.3 lb) Pu-238 per year. The roles of the DOE national laboratories involved in this production process are as follows:
- Idaho National Engineering Lab (INEL):
- Store the Neptunium dioxide (NpO2) feed stock
- Deliver feed stock as needed to ORNL
- Irradiate targets provided by ORNL in the Advanced Test Reactor (ATR)
- Return irradiated targets to ORNL for processing
- Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL):
- Manufacture targets
- Ship some targets to INEL for irradiation
- Irradiate the remaining targets in the High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR)
- Process all irradiated targets to recover and purify Pu-238
- Convert Pu-238 to oxide and deliver as needed to LANL
- Los Alamos National Lab (LANL):
- Manufacture the Pu-238 fuel pellets for use in RTGs
Diagram source: Ralph L McNutt, Jr, Johns Hopkins University APL, 2014
The U.S. has an existing inventory of about 35 kg (77 lb) of Pu-238 of various ages. About half is young enough to meet the power specifications of planned NASA spacecraft. The remaining stock is more than 20 years old, has decayed significantly since it was produced, and does not meet specifications. The existing inventory will be blended with newly produced Pu-238 to extend the usable inventory. To get the energy density needed for space missions while extending the supply of Pu-238, DOE and NASA plan to blend “old” Pu-238 with newly produced Pu-238 in 2:1 proportions.
NASA slowly has been developing an Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator (ASRG), which should be capable of producing about four times the power of older RTGs per unit of Pu-238. However, the ASRG produces less waste heat, which can be used productively to warm electronics in the interior of a spacecraft, such as the Mars rover Curiosity. The ASRG may not be available in time for the next space mission requiring an RTG power source, in which case an existing RTG design will be used.
Read a history of RTGs and more information on current U.S. Pu-238 production status in a 2014 presentation by Ralph L McNutt, Jr, at the following link:
9 February 2016 Update
On 22 December 2015, DOE reported production of 50 grams of new Pu-238.
DOE reported that it plans to set an initial production target of 300 – 400 grams (about 12 ounces) of Pu-238 per year. After implementing greater automation and scaling up the process, ORNL expects to reach the the production target of 1.5 kg (3.3 lb) Pu-238 per year.
The next NASA mission that will use an RTG is the Mars 2020 rover, which will use the same Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) as used on NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity. MMRTG can provide about 110 watts of electrical power to a spacecraft and its science instruments at the beginning of a mission.
You can read the ORNL announcement of initial Pu-238 production at the following link:
3 January 2019 Update:
In the past three years, ORNL has made scant progress in producing Pu-238. In a 13 December 2018 article, “NASA Doesn’t Have Enough Nuclear Fuel For Its Deep Space Missions,”author Ethan Siegel reports: “Although current production (at ORNL) yields only a few hundred grams per year (less than a pound), the laboratory has the eventual goal of ramping up to 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds) per year by 2023, at the earliest. Ontario Power Generation in Canada has also begun producing Pu-238, with the goal of using it as a supplemental source for NASA.” You can read the complete article on the Forbes website at the following link:
The Canadian plans for becoming a source of Pu-238 was announced on 1 March 2017: “Ontario Power Generation (OPG) and its venture arm, Canadian Nuclear Partners, are participating in a project to produce isotopes in support of deep space exploration. Under the agreement, OPG would help create isotopes at the Darlington nuclear station east of Toronto that will help power space probes.” You can read the complete OPG press release here:
Also see the OPG public relations piece, “OPG looks to the stars,” here:
4 August 2020 Update:
The new NASA Mars rover, Perseverance, was launched from Cape Canaveral on 30 July 2020, with an expected landing date of 18 February 2021 in the Jezero crater on Mars. Once on the surface, Perseverance will be powered by an MMRTG, which contains 10.6 pounds (4.8 kg) of Pu-238. You’ll find a NASA fact sheet on the MMRTG at the following link:
The Pu-238 and some other special materials for the Perseverence MMRTG were produced in the U.S. at ORNL, as described in the following short (2:03 minutes) video, “ORNL-produced tech fuels NASA’s Perseverance mission to Mars”:
In a 20 July 2020 news release, ORNL provided more information on the U.S. production process for Pu-238 and reported that, “the lab has been consistently increasing its Pu-238 production capabilities, aiming to produce 1.5 kilograms per year by 2026.” You can read this ORNL press release here:
At the planned U.S. production rate for Pu-238, NASA should be able to conduct an MMRTG mission at about four-year intervals. If NASA MMRTG missions will be more frequent than this, the U.S. will need to purchase additional Pu-238 from another source, perhaps Canada.