Russia seeks to use Pu-238 as spacecraft energy source

26 May 2020

BN-800 at Beloyarsk 4Russian nuclear scientists are preparing proposals for obtaining plutonium-238 from the fast-neutron reactors at the Beloyarsk nuclear plant, as an energy source for spacecraft and various remote autonomous installations, according to state nuclear corporation Rosatom’s procurement website.

Specialists at Russia's AI Leipunsky Institute of Physics and Power Engineering (IPPE) Obninsk have been tasked by the management company of the scientific division of nuclear state corporation Science and Innovation to prepare the terms of reference for development of large-scale technology for this purpose.

Pu-238 has applications in radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) which could be used in interplanetary research missions. Plutonium-238 has a relatively long half-life (of the order of 88 years) and therefore is capable of generating heat for a long time.

Plutonium-238 is formed by irradiating in a nuclear reactor the neptunium-237 isotope obtained in the reprocessing of used nuclear fuel. At present, Pu-238 is being produced in small volumes at the Rosatom’s industrial reactors at the Mayak Production Association in Ozersk. However, the fast neutron reactors at the Beloyarsk have could produce up to 100 kilograms a year of technical Pu-238 at a competitive price, according to the terms of reference for the current work.

The objective of the project is to assess the capabilities and technical feasibility of large-scale production of plutonium-238 from neptunium-237 in the BN-600 and BN-800 reactors, Beloyarsk 3&4, respectively. IPPE is the scientific project manager of these reactors.

Photo: BN-800 reactor Beloyarsk 4 could be used to produce plutonium-238 from neptunium-237 (Photo: Rosenergoatom)

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