UK National Nuclear Laboratory turns waste plutonium into spacecraft batteries

“Waste not, want not” also applies to nuclear waste. So the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) in the United Kingdom is converting a large stockpile of waste plutonium at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site and into nuclear batteries for European Space Agency (ESA) deep space craft.

The ESA funded the new NNL project back in 2009 to find out if establishing a European source of material for Radioactive Power Sources (RPS) would be cost-effective and practical.

RPSs are ultra-long life batteries that can power spacecraft instruments for several decades. NASA’s recently-deployed Mars Curiosity Rover uses similar batteries. The European Space Agency has plans for several deep space probes that will be powered by similar reprocessed nuclear batteries.

Tim Tinsley, programme manager for NNL, informed BBC News that the waste plutonium recovery project has already passed the halfway mark of the £1m pilot. He added that the NNL has proven it is viable to extract the isotope from the civil plutonium stockpiles.

“We have a quantity of this plutonium at our labs at the Sellafield site and a team of highly experienced chemists are ‘proving’ the chemical flow-sheet for the process,” Mr. Tinsley said.

The NNL is using an plutonium isotope called plutonium-238, which is used in military nuclear reactors in Russia and America. The isotope extracted at Sellafield is called americium-231.

The limited supplies of plutonium-238 are expected to be depleted by the time 2018 rolls in. Sellafield’s americium-241 is considered to be a possible export product for plutonium-238 users.

Mr. Tinsley went on to inform the BBC that there are no technical barriers to the NNL’s waste plutonium conversion project. Europe, however, has to provide funding and political support, as the nuclear batteries are important for ESA’s deep space ‘road map’ project.

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