Future spacecraft could be powered by nuclear waste

The British government is reportedly looking for ways to offset the cost of cleaning up nuclear waste by finding commercial uses for what may be the world’s largest stockpile of civil plutonium.

One possible use-case, researched by the European Space Agency (ESA), is for batteries powering deep space missions to be loaded with an isotope found in decaying plutonium.


According to the Financial Times, the British National Nuclear Laboratory has already managed to successfully harvest americium-241 from the decaying plutonium by reprocessing fuel.

As such, the space agency believes mericium-241 could be used to replace the plutonium-238 currently only available from Russia and the United States. Meaning, Britain would have an independent source of energy for planned the deep space missions to Jupiter and other planets.

As Tim Tinsley from the National Nuclear Laboratory notes, there’s a huge quantity of decaying plutonium at the Cumbria waste storage site and approximately 100 tons of plutonium in ponds at the Sellafield site.

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

Tinsley says that full-scale production of batteries for space travel using americium-241 would be a process worth hundreds of millions of euros. Construction of batteries using the material would also provide skilled jobs in West Cumbria where unemployment is very high.

Nuclear batteries contain about 5 kg of material and have been around since the 1950s. NASA has used them in both its Casini and Voyager probes as well as the Curiosity rover that recently landed on the surface of Mars.

Essentially, heat for at least several decades is given off by the nuclear battery as the isotope decays. That heat can be used on spacecraft to keep scientific instruments warm in the deep cold of space or converted to produce electricity.

Of course, space travel isn’t the only thing these nuclear batteries could be used for. They also have the potential to power in sea buoys and underwater equipment deployed by the oil and gas industry.

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