The problem with nuclear energy has always been the radioactive waste that it produces. However the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory has decided to take a large store of waste plutonium at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site and use it to crate nuclear batteries to power the European Space Agency‘s spacecraft.

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Nuclear batteries are already in use on the Mars Curiosity Rover. The new NNL project was funded by the ESA in 2009 as way to examine the cost and practicality of establishing a European source of material for Radioactive Power Sources (RPS). These RPSs are essentially ultra-long life batteries that the ESA will use in their deep space program to keep instruments running over several decades.

Speaking to BBC News, Tim Tinsley, programme manager for NNL, said: “We’re more than half way through the £1m pilot proving the viability of being able to extract the isotope [chemical element] 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.”

The plutonium that the NNL is using is an isotope called plutonium-238, which is only available from Russia and America where it is used in military reactors. However it is estimated that supplies could run out in about 2018, meaning that the isotope being extracted at Sellafield – called americium-241 – could also be exported to other countries that currently rely on plutonium-238.

“Technically, there are no barriers to the success of the project, it would be down to funding and politics within Europe and they are already tightly constrained,” added Mr Tinsley. “ESA needs this fuel source for their space ‘road-map’ – they cannot do it without it and we at NNL are doing everything we can to make that a success.”

+ National Nuclear Laboratory

Via BBC News

Images: ESA and