Darlington power plant helps fuel NASA’s space exploration
Published Tuesday, February 28, 2017 6:21PM EST Last Updated Tuesday, February 28, 2017 7:14PM EST
A local nuclear plant is stepping up to ensure NASA’s ongoing exploration of deep space continues for years to come.
CTV News Toronto has learned that the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in Clarington, Ont. will produce and harvest Plutonium-238, a spacecraft fueling agent, for NASA.
Ontario Power Generation (OPG) and its venture arm, Canadian Nuclear Partners, have teamed up to fill the gap left after the United States stopped producing the glowing oxide pellet back in 1988.
Since then, their main source of Plutonium-238 dwindled and, aside from two remaining fuel packs, have practically dried up.
Now, NASA is teaming up with OPG’s nuclear facilities to replenish their inventory and fuel their existing (and future) fleet of space probes.
Plutonium-238 acts like a battery to space craft. By emitting steady heat through natural radioactive decay, it produces electricity aboard the craft to fuel it and keep scientific equipment warm enough to function in space.
Space probes like the illustrious Voyager 1 -- which left Earth more than 40 years ago to explore Jupiter and Saturn and now floats beyond Pluto -- requires Plutonium-238 for power.
With more than 19 billion kilometers between Voyager 1 and the sun, it can take hours for the craft's signals to reach the station on Earth.
Without the spacecraft’s Plutonium-238 batteries, none of this would be possible.
"Spacecraft's usually use the sun to provide electricity to solar panels but that only works in the inner solar system," Randy Attwood, of the Royal Astronomical Society, told CTV News Toronto.
"Once we send spacecrafts out beyond Jupiter, there's not enough sunlight out there to provide enough electricity to allow the spacecraft to work."
A source tells CTV News Toronto that the proposed plan would have rods produced by Pacific Northwest National Laboratories (PNNL) in Washington State and shipped to Darlington where they would be inserted into the “reactor core” to produce the Plutonium-238.
The next time the rods need to be refueled, the new partly-Canadian made space batteries would be inserted.
The collaboration with PNNL is expected to be “more efficient” both for costs and timing than alternative routes.
Unlike Plutonium-239, the 238 isotope is not weapons grade, thus practically impossible to use for a nuclear bomb and safe to move when handled properly.
Though it will take several years before the process gets underway, one day, Ontarians will be able to look up into the night sky and know that local technology played a role in the exploration of space.
With files from Paul Bliss.