ESA To Investigate The Production Of Nuclear Fuel For Space Missions
The European Space Agency (ESA) has just awarded a contract to Tractebel to evaluate the possibility of producing plutonium 238 (Pu-238), the nuclear fuel used for space exploration, on its soil.
The fuel powers nuclear batteries known as radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) and radioisotope heater units (RHUs) that are vital to providing spacecrafts and astronauts with electricity and heat where the sun does not shine.
It could be used for the European Lunar Lander to explore the moon. The lander is expected be launched by the end of the decade.
Together with its partners SCK CEN and ORANO, Tractebel will study the possibility of manufacturing Pu-238 by bombarding neptunium-237 from the La Hague recycling facility in France with the neutron flux of the BR2 research reactor in Mol, Belgium, operated by SCK CEN.
Nuclear batteries (RTGs and RHUs) are a proven technology for space exploration. However, producing plutonium 238 is complex and costly, and for the time being only the United States and Russia can do so. The companies will develop a roadmap for the creation of a Pu-238 production chain in Europe that will include a timeline and estimated production capacity and costs. They will also evaluate regulatory acceptance.
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