Britain to use nuclear waste to power spacecraft

Featured - September 10th, 2012

The European Space Agency plans to use nuclear waste to power spacecraft in an attempt to curb Britain’s huge atomic cleanup bills, the Financial Times reports.

The 1 million euro programme seeks to make the most out of the stock of civil plutonium in Britain, the world’s largest. ESA believes that the isotope americium-241, found in plutonium, could replace plutonium-238 and can be used as an independent source of energy to power spacecrafts on deep space missions. Plutonium-238 is only available from Russia and US.

Britain’s National Nuclear Laboratory harvested americium-241 from decaying plutonium at the Sellafield waste storage in Cumbria, north-west England. Tim Tinsley, manager of the programme for NNL, told the FT “It is available due to a twist of fate,” claiming that “past inaction” left 100 tonnes of plutonium at Sellafield. Mr. Tinsley added the battery production would create jobs in west Cumbria where unemployment is high and mentioned “export opportunities” to the US. NNL Chief scientist Graham Fairfall described the situation as a “win-win”, saying that “you are reducing a liability by getting external funding in”.