Yesterday, when Wired.com published my feature about the worldwide shortage of plutonium-238, I expected to receive a lot of negative feedback. The issue of NASA’s future is contentious, and the production of nuclear materials even more mired. I was a little shocked see much of it was positive, especially from the top three or four sources I interviewed for the piece over the course of two years.
Last night, however, I received an observant and candid criticism from a member of the National Research Council. I’ve decided to keep this person anonymous for now. Suffice it to say they contributed to the conclusive 2009 report to Congress on NASA’s plutonium-238 shortage. If you haven’t read it or heard of it: This is a study written by more than 60 scientists and engineers across a menagerie of brainy institutions. Their collective expertise is astounding, and their study concludes that plutonium-238 is the only suitable power source for deep-space exploration. The study also says restarting production of plutonium here in the U.S. is the only reliable means to get some.
So, I read this email carefully and did not discount it (unlike bullshit “NASA SHOULD USE FREE ENERGY!!” arguments that have choked my inbox). I’ve decided to share the NRC person’s letter — and my inline responses — in this post because it’s a wonderful way to highlight the dizzying, shadowy complexity that envelopes matters relating to plutonium-238.
A few orders of business in preface: Depending on who you are, what you care about, and what your security clearance is, the perspectives and information vary wildly on “The Problem.” I spent more time than I care to admit making the decisions that I did in my story. It was an extraordinary amount of work, and I knew some of my sources would not agree with the presentation of the facts. But they are the facts, and I needed to address my audience with and provide an honest interpretation of that information. Wired’s audience? People who care deeply about space exploration.
That’s what guided me throughout my reporting. It’s easy to derail a clear picture of a situation with caveats and segues and extraneous information that does not effectively change much. I wanted to, had to make sure my audience left with a basic understanding of the issue.
With that in mind, here we go.