Costs of plutonium-238 fuel production, which recently resumed after a quarter-century pause, had previously been split between NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy, which was the actual producer of the fuel, SPACE.com reported Wednesday.
However, the White House's federal budget request for 2014, introduced this month, alters that arrangement because NASA is the only projected customer for plutonium-238.
"Since the (Obama) administration has a 'user pays' philosophy, we are now in a position to pay for basically the entire enterprise, including the base infrastructure at DOE," NASA Chief Financial Officer Beth Robinson said. "We'll be partnering with DOE in the next couple of months to figure out how to best do this, and how to streamline the program to produce plutonium-238."
Plutonium-238 cannot be used to make nuclear weapons but its radioactivity creates heat that can be converted to electricity to power spacecraft, including NASA probes to destinations in deep space where sunlight is too weak and dispersed to be a source of solar power.
U.S. production of plutonium-238 was halted in 1988, pushing NASA to source the fuel from Russia.
But with dwindling supplies, NASA and the Department of Energy have been cooperating to restart production in the United States, in a program estimated to cost between $75 million and $90 million over five years.