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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The Associated Press July 3, 2005

Batteries may be for space weapons, experts say

By Christopher Smith

BOISE -- Defense analysts say the long-lasting, plutonium-powered batteries the Department of Energy wants to produce at a new $300 million facility in Idaho could eventually wind up in everything from space-based satellite killers to battlefield laptop computers.

That's contrary to how the agency says the batteries will be used. But because of the program's classified status, the Bush administration won't say specifically what types of national security programs the batteries are needed for, only what applications they won't be used in: nuclear weapons, non-nuclear weapons, missile defense systems and military satellites.

"The primary driver for us to start production is for national security requirements," said Tim Frazier, director of the energy department's radioisotope power systems program in Washington, D.C. "As to what those national security applications are, I would just prefer to say not in space."

But military and space policy analysts say the radioisotope thermoelectric generators -- sometimes called "space batteries" -- to be made from new supplies of plutonium-238 produced at the Idaho National Laboratory are a key component to future warfare systems, both in the heavens and on earth.

And since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, they argue there's no real distinction between national security and national defense.

"You have to ask, what is national security that is not military?" said John Pike, the former director of space policy for the Federation of American Scientists who now heads the Virginia-based think tank GlobalSecurity.org. "Our government is perfectly capable of lying in the sense that if this is for an unacknowledged stealth satellite system, they could not acknowledge that's what they are doing."

The White House is expected to soon release an updated version of the 1996 doctrine of U.S. military space policy which could relax some Clinton administration-era restrictions on research and budgeting for space weapons programs. And the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services committee is planning to hold hearings on weapons in space this summer. A Senate panel held similar hearings this spring.

"Few could dispute that our military capability depends on space control," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee. "We need to be investing in things that will allow us to continue to have that control and improve our capabilities."

Currently, components of space batteries for peaceful applications such as NASA's mission to Pluto next year are produced at Department of Energy sites in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Los Alamos, N.M., with final assembly in Idaho. The NASA batteries use plutonium-238 purchased from Russia, but that supply is considered unreliable and projected to be virtually depleted by 2010.

The use of Russian-made plutonium-238 in national security applications is banned by international agreements.

The plutonium-238 that is available for national security missions was last produced by the DOE in the 1980s in South Carolina and the remaining 55 pounds also is expected to be used up in five years.

The Bush administration wants to spend up to $300 million to consolidate all plutonium-238 production, space battery assembly and testing in a new "Space and Security Power Systems Facility" at the DOE's remote desert compound in eastern Idaho to reduce security risks and avoid interstate transportation of the highly radioactive material. The facility would make 11 pounds of plutonium-238 a year for both national security and space exploration needs.

Space batteries work by converting heat from the radioactive decay of plutonium-238 -- the sister to plutonium-239 used in nuclear weapons -- into electricity. The batteries are considered the best power source for unmanned space vehicles, producing hundreds of watts of electricity for decades. The plutonium batteries aboard the Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977, were still working at 80 percent capacity when it left the solar system in 2003.

James Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., said plutonium batteries could also be important to the U.S. military, where high-speed computer networks relay data to ground troops.

"It sounds silly, but when you have a very fast mobile force that is heavily dependent on electronic information, one of the military's biggest problems is how to get fresh batteries to the field," said Lewis. "If you found a way for this type of long-lasting battery to be small enough and safe enough for terrestrial use, you've solved a huge logistics problem."

But sending batteries so potentially dangerous -- plutonium-238 is so radioactive even a speck is deadly -- into space or battle worries Peter Rickards. The Idaho podiatrist has rallied opposition to plans to consolidate plutonium-238 battery production in the state.

"Our state politicians are acting like we won a prize with this clustering of a terrorist target in Idaho," said Rickards. "Our next step is to educate as many people as possible that this deadly threat is coming soon to everyone's backyard."

Copyright 2005, The Associated Press