Canadian collaboration to explore isotope production for space exploration

05 January 2024

The Canadian Nuclear Isotope Council (CNIC) and nuclear innovation company Nuclear Promise X (NPX) will explore the feasibility of using Canadian nuclear reactors to produce plutonium-238 (Pu-238) for use in deep space exploration.

An image from the Martian surface captured by NASA's Perseverance rover - which uses a radioisotope thermoelectric generator fuelled by Pu-238 - in March 2021 (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The study for the Canadian Space Agency will look at how Canada's existing reactors can be used to irradiate neptunium-237 to produce Pu-238, and all costs associated with production, shipment, and extraction of the energy source. The goal will be to understand if it is economically feasible for Canada's reactors to add Pu-238 to their existing isotope production portfolio, leveraging the medical isotope production infrastructure which is already in place.

CNIC members will evaluate the feasibility of production and level of capability, with NPX providing overall project management and engineering.

NPX CEO Bharath Nangia said the company looks to operate "in the intersection" of nuclear energy and innovation. "This is going to be a rewarding and creative project, that has the potential to add a lot of value," he said.

Radioisotope power systems fuelled with Pu-238 have been used in space missions since the early 1960s, using the heat from the radioactive decay of the isotope to provide power and heat continuously over long, deep space missions. Such systems have been used in missions including the Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft, as well as the Perseverance rover. However, supplies of Pu-238 are limited. The US Department of Energy restarted production of the isotope in 2015 after a gap of some 30 years, but Russia - which had previously also supplied the isotope - ceased production in 2009. The European Space Agency is considering the use of americium-241 derived from civil plutonium stockpiles as an alternative.

The CNIC is an independent organisation of representatives from the Canadian health sector, nuclear industry and research bodies, which was established in 2018 to advocate for Canada's role in the production of the world's radioisotope supply. CNIC Chair James Scongack said the study aligns with the organisation's Isotopes for Hope Campaign, launched in 2023. "Together our companies working with NPX hope to demonstrate another example of why radioisotopes are so important to modern society," he said.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News