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Nuclear waste set to power spacecraft


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Nuclear waste set to power spacecraft

Britain’s nuclear waste could be used to power spacecraft as part of government attempts to offset the huge cost of the atomic clean-up by finding commercial uses for the world’s largest stock of civil plutonium.

A £1m pilot programme by the European Space Agency has shown that nuclear batteries for use on deep space missions could be made from an isotope found in decaying plutonium at the Sellafield waste storage site in Cumbria.

Britain’s National Nuclear Laboratory has harvested americium-241 from the plutonium, produced from reprocessing fuel.

The ESA believes this could replace plutonium-238, only available from Russia and the US, and provide an independent source of energy for planned deep space missions to Jupiter and other distant planets.

Tim Tinsley, who manages the programme for the NNL, said the space battery was an unforeseen benefit of past inaction, which has left 100 tonnes of plutonium in ponds at Sellafield.

“It is available due to a twist of fate,” he said. “We have been able to extract that americium and prove that it works.”

Full-scale battery production would be “worth hundreds of millions of euros” and provide skilled jobs in west Cumbria, an area of high unemployment, he said.

Nuclear batteries – each containing about 5kg of nuclear material – have been around since the 1950s and are used in Nasa’s Cassini and Voyager probes as well as Curiosity, which landed on Mars in August.

As the isotope decays, it gives off heat for several decades. This can either be used to keep instruments warm in the cold of deep space or converted to electricity for power. Once spacecraft fly beyond Mars, out of the sun’s rays, solar power is not available.

Mr Tinsley said: “The ESA would be able to go to places and do things they currently can’t do.”

Carla Signorini, ESA head of electrical engineering, said Sellafield was one of few places where the work could be done and that progress was “excellent”.

The department for energy said the programme could generate “considerable income”.

Other possible uses for the batteries would be in sea buoys or underwater equipment for the oil and gas industry.

“There are export opportunities,” added Mr Tinsley. “A lot of countries such as China and India have interests in space.”

The US may also need a fresh supply. Plutonium-238 can be made only in reactors dedicated to weapons, now shut down, and Nasa’s stocks could run out in 2018, according to the US National Research Council.

“It is a win-win,” said Graham Fairhall, chief scientist at NNL. “You are reducing a liability by getting external funding in. You have this material you have to find a way of treating, so why not use it for potential benefit?”

The programme’s future depends on how much money the government allocates to the UK Space Agency, which funds it via the ESA. The agency said it would like to press ahead but the batteries were lower priority than a new telecommunications platform and weather satellite.

The clean-up costs of Britain’s nuclear programme are estimated at up to £100bn, with £3bn spent annually, while the plutonium alone is a £4bn liability.

NNL, a government agency run under contract, has joined Systems Engineering & Assessment, a specialist engineering group active in the space sector, and the University of Leicester, which has a large space department, to run the programme.


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