Canada explores use of isotopes used in space exploration

10 January 2024

Nuclear Innovation company Nuclear Promise X (NPX) and the Canadian Nuclear Isotope Council (CNIC) are collaborating to explore the feasibility of producing isotopes for possible use in deep space exploration applications. NPX and CNIC will undertake a study for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to determine whether Canadian nuclear reactors and research reactors can be used to produce isotopes to power devices used in space exploration.

Radioisotopes support space exploration in a number of ways, and are used to power some of NASA’s spacecraft and devices. These Radioisotope Power Systems (RPSs) have been flown by NASA since the 1960’s to provide reliable power and heat. Most spacecraft and devices use solar panels to generate power, but these have limitations for exploring the distant reaches of the solar system or for long-lived missions on other planets. Plutonium-238 (Pu-238), a non-weapons-grade radioactive material that generates large amounts of heat in its radioactive decay, offers another solution and source of power for complex space missions.

This study will explore how nuclear reactors in Canada can be used to irradiate Neptunium-237 (Np-237) into Pu-238 and all costs associated with production, shipment, and extraction of the energy source. The goal is to understand if it is economically feasible for reactors in Canada to add Pu-238 to their existing fleet of isotope production, leveraging the already in-place infrastructure used for medical isotope production.

“NPX always looks to operate in the intersection of Nuclear Energy and Innovation,” said Bharath Nangia, CEO of NPX. “This is going to be a rewarding and creative project, that has the potential to add a lot of value”.

James Scongack, Chair of the CNIC Board noted that Canada is a “Tier 1 nuclear nation, and its isotope supply chain is one of the most profound in the world”. He added: “This feasibility study is aligned with our Isotopes for Hope Campaign launched in 2023 to assert Canada’s global leadership role in the use of isotopes to tackle our great challenges. Together our companies working with NPX hope to demonstrate another example of why radioisotopes are so important to modern society.”

In this study, CNIC members will help evaluate the feasibility of production and level of capability, with NPX providing the overall Project Management and Engineering function.

The US Department of Energy restarted production of Pu-238 in 2015 after a lapse of some 30 years. With the closure of the K-reactor at Savannah River Site in the late 1980s, the US lost its ability to produce plutonium-238 for space exploration. However, NASA and DOE agreed to re-establish a robust domestic supply chain of plutonium-238 in 2015 to ensure a reliable source of fuel for future missions.

In the interim, plutonium-238 was supplied to the US directly from Russia. At a cost of some $2.5m per kilogram. However, this trade ended due to the restructuring of the Russian nuclear industry in 2009. Nevertheless, the stockpiled Russian plutonium-238 was enough to equip most American spacecraft for some time. DOE in 2013 set a target of starting production of its own product in quantities of at least 1.5 kg a year. Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 2015 produced the first US-produced Pu-238 in nearly three decades. The first NASA mission to use new plutonium-238 produced by DOE was NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars in 2021 and continues to explore the surface of the planet today.

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