[Federal Register: September 26, 2006 (Volume 71, Number 186)]
[Page 56181-56183]



[Notice (06-075)]

National Environmental Policy Act; Advanced Radioisotope Power

AGENCY: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

ACTION: Notice of Availability of Final Programmatic Environmental
Impact Statement (FPEIS) for the Development of Advanced Radioisotope
Power Systems.


SUMMARY: Pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, as
amended (NEPA) (42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.), the Council on Environmental
Quality Regulations for Implementing the Procedural Provisions of NEPA
(40 CFR parts 1500-1508), and NASA policy and procedures (14 CFR part
1216 subpart 1216.3), NASA has prepared and issued an FPEIS for the
proposed development of two new types of advanced Radioisotope Power
Systems (RPSs), the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator
(MMRTG) and the Stirling Radioisotope Generator (SRG).
    The purpose of this Proposed Action is to develop advanced power
systems, specifically the MMRTG and the SRG, that would be able to
function in the environments encountered in space and on the surfaces
of planets, moons, and other solar system bodies that have an
atmosphere thus enabling a broad range of long-term space exploration
missions. Included in this Proposed Action are NASA's long-term
research and development (R&D) activities focused on alternative
radioisotope power systems and power conversion technologies. The long-
term R&D activities could include, but not necessarily be limited to,
improvements to further increase the versatility of future RPS designs,
expanding their capability and the environments in which they can
    The long-term R&D activities are also expected to include
activities to develop RPS designs with smaller electrical outputs and
efforts to reduce the mass of power conversion systems to further
improve specific power (watts of electrical power per unit of mass).
Such long-term R&D activities do not involve the use of radioactive
    The only alternative to the Proposed Action considered in detail is
the No Action Alternative, where NASA would discontinue development
efforts for the production of the MMRTG and the SRG and would continue
to consider the use of currently available RPSs, such as the General
Purpose Heat Source--Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (GPHS-RTG),
for future exploration missions. As with the Proposed Action, NASA's
long-term R&D activities on alternative radioisotope power systems and
power conversion technologies would continue. The Proposed Action is
NASA's preferred alternative.

DATES: NASA will take no final action on the proposed development of
advanced RPSs on or before October 30, 2006, or 30 days from the date
of publication in the Federal Register of the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) notice of availability (NOA) of the FPEIS for
the Development of Advanced Radioisotope Power Systems, whichever is

ADDRESSES: The FPEIS may be viewed at the following locations:
    (a) NASA Headquarters, Library, Room 1J20, 300 E Street, SW.,
Washington, DC 20546.
    (b) NASA, NASA Information Center, Glenn Research Center, 21000
Brookpark Road, Cleveland, OH 44135 after contacting the Freedom of
Information Officer (866-404-3642).
    (c) Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Visitors Lobby, Building 249, 4800
Oak Grove Drive, Pasadena, CA 91109.
    In addition, hard copies of the FPEIS may be examined at other NASA
    Limited hard copies of the FPEIS are available for distribution by
contacting Mr. David Lavery at the address, telephone number, or
electronic mail address indicated below. The FPEIS also is available in
Acrobat[supreg] portable document format at
NASA's Record of Decision (ROD)

will also be placed on that Web site when it is issued.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Mr. David Lavery, Planetary Science
Division, Science Mission Directorate, Mail Suite 3T82, NASA
Headquarters, 300 E Street SW., Washington, DC 20546-0001, telephone
202-358-4800, or electronic mail rpseis@nasa.gov.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: NASA, in cooperation with the U.S.
Department of Energy (DOE), proposes to:
    (1) Develop in the near-term and qualify for flight two advanced
RPSs, the MMRTG and the SRG. The MMRTG and the SRG would be able to
satisfy a broader range of future space exploration missions than are
currently possible with existing radioisotope power technologies
specifically, the GPHS-RTG used on the Galileo, Ulysses, Cassini, and
New Horizons missions. The GPHS-RTG generates

[[Page 56182]]

heat from the radioactive decay of plutonium-238 dioxide, a non-weapons
isotope of plutonium, for conversion to electricity. The advanced RPSs
would be capable of providing long-term, reliable electrical power to
spacecraft and function in the environments encountered in space and on
the surfaces of planets, moons and other solar system bodies that have
an atmosphere (e.g., Mars, Venus, Pluto, and two moons of Saturn (Titan
and Enceladus)). The advanced RPS designs would generate power from the
heat given off by an enhanced version of the GPHS module used for the
    (2) Continue NASA's long-term R&D of alternative radioisotope power
systems and power converter technologies. The above efforts
collectively constitute the Proposed Action, which is NASA's preferred
alternative. The long-term R&D efforts are addressed under both the
Proposed Action and the No Action Alternative since these efforts will
continue irrespective of the alternative selected by NASA. Such R&D
activities will not involve use of radioactive material.
    The MMRTG would build upon spaceflight-proven passive
thermoelectric power conversion technology while incorporating
improvements to allow extended operation on solar system bodies that
have an atmosphere. Both the MMRTG and the SRG configurations, as
proposed, would consist of three basic elements: the enhanced GPHS heat
source, a converter, and an outer case with a heat radiator. The
converter thermocouple that would be employed in the MMRTG has a
history of use in diverse environments. The converter thermocouple
design is based on the Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power (SNAP)-19
RTG, which was used successfully on the Viking Mars Landers and the
Pioneer spacecraft in the 1970's. For the SRG, NASA, in cooperation
with DOE, would develop a new dynamic power conversion system based on
the Stirling engine. The Stirling conversion system would convert the
heat from the decay of plutonium into electrical power much more
efficiently than the MMRTG and therefore use considerably less
plutonium dioxide to generate comparable amounts of electrical power.
Because the SRG would use less plutonium dioxide than the MMRTG, the
SRG would generate less waste (excess) heat. Therefore, an SRG also may
be beneficial for missions where excess heat would adversely impact
spacecraft operation, but perhaps undesirable for missions where excess
heat from the RPS is needed for warming spacecraft components.
    First used in space by the U.S. in 1961, RPSs have consistently
demonstrated unique capabilities over other types of space power
systems for certain applications requiring up to several hundred watts
of electric power. Radioisotopes can also serve as a versatile energy
source for heating and maintaining the temperature of sensitive
electronics in space. A key advantage of using RPSs is their ability to
operate continuously, both further away from and closer to the Sun than
other existing space power technologies, such as batteries, solar
arrays, and fuel cells. RPSs are long-lived, rugged, compact, highly
reliable, and relatively insensitive to radiation and other
environmental effects. The GPHS-RTG, used on the ongoing Cassini
mission to Saturn and New Horizons mission to Pluto, is an RPS that is
capable of operating in the vacuum of space; however, it has limited
capabilities for operating on surface missions where an atmosphere is
present. The GPHS-RTG, which was designed to operate unsealed in space
vacuum, degrades in most atmospheres and does not provide the long-term
operating capabilities desired for surface missions. With the
appropriate design, such as the SNAP-19 RTG for the Viking missions, an
RPS would have the capability to function in a wider range of surface
conditions than the GPHS-RTG.
    The GPHS-RTG provides power in the upper 200's watts of electricity
(We). NASA envisions the need for lower levels of electric
power (approximately 100 We), and physically smaller power
systems, enabling NASA to more efficiently fly smaller missions that
require less power than that provided by the GPHS-RTG. The advanced RPS
designs are considered modular units. Thus more than one of these
devices could be fitted to a spacecraft for a mission requiring higher
levels of electric power.
    The advanced RPSs would enable missions with substantial longevity,
flexibility, and greater scientific exploration capability. Some
possibilities are:
    (1) Comprehensive and detailed planetary investigations creating
comparative data sets of the outer planets--Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus,
Neptune and Pluto and their moons. The knowledge gained from these data
sets would be vital to understanding other recently discovered
planetary systems and general principles of planetary formation.
    (2) Comprehensive exploration of the surfaces and interiors of
comets, possibly including returning samples to Earth to better
understand the building blocks of our solar system and ingredients
contributing to the origin of life.
    (3) Expanded capabilities for surface and on-orbit exploration, and
potential sample return missions to Mars and other planetary bodies to
greatly improve our understanding of planetary processes, particularly
those affecting the potential for life.
    NASA's long-term R&D efforts involving alternative radioisotope
power systems and power converter technologies are on-going activities.
These ongoing R&D activities focus on longer-term improvements to RPSs
that are less technologically developed than the MMRTG and SRG.
Included are technologies that increase specific power (electrical
power output per unit mass); increase efficiencies for power conversion
technologies; improve modularity; increase reliability, lifetime, and
operability; and provide improved capability to operate in harsh
environments. These advancements would provide for greater power system
flexibility enabling use in more places in space and on certain solar
system bodies. The R&D efforts directed at power conversion
technologies have applicability to both radioisotope and non-
radioisotope power systems. The results of this R&D could be applied to
improve the MMRTG or SRG design, to facilitate evolutionary RPS designs
including designs with smaller electrical outputs using GPHSs or
radioisotope heater units, and to improve non-radiological power
systems. Final decisions to fabricate fueled RPSs (i.e., qualification
units (used to demonstrate the readiness of a design for flight
applications) and flight units)) stemming from this long-term R&D would
be preceded by future NEPA documentation. The long-term R&D activities
are addressed under both the Proposed Action and the No Action
Alternative, as these efforts would continue independent of the
alternative selected by NASA. In addition, NASA will continue to
evaluate power systems developed independently by other organizations
for their viability in space-based applications.
    It is anticipated that development and test activities involving
the use of radioisotopes would be performed at existing DOE sites that
routinely perform similar activities. DOE currently imports plutonium
dioxide needed to support NASA activities from Russia. Radioisotope
fuel processing and fabrication would likely occur at existing
facilities at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos,

[[Page 56183]]

New Mexico, which are currently used for the fabrication of the fuel
for the GPHS modules. The advanced RPS assembly and testing would
likely be performed at Idaho National Laboratory, west of Idaho Falls,
Idaho. Any required additional safety testing (using a non-radioactive
fuel substitute to simulate the mechanical properties of the plutonium
dioxide fuel) of an advanced RPS could be performed at one or more of
several existing facilities; including DOE facilities such as LANL and
Sandia National Laboratory (SNL) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, or U.S.
Army facilities at Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG) in Aberdeen, Maryland.
Currently, DOE is considering plans to consolidate operations for the
domestic production of plutonium at its INL facility; the NEPA process
for this action is on-going (70 FR 38132). NASA holds no stake in the
decision ultimately taken by DOE related to consolidation of its long-
term production of plutonium-238. NASA's Proposed Action or
implementation of the No Action Alternative is independent of the DOE
decision that will be made by DOE after its NEPA process is completed.
    Activities not requiring the use of radioisotopes and associated
with the development, testing, and verification of the power conversion
systems could be performed at several existing facilities including
NASA facilities (such as the Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field,
Cleveland, Ohio and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena,
California) and several commercial facilities (Pratt & Whitney
Rocketdyne, Canoga Park, California; Teledyne Energy Systems, Hunt
Valley, Maryland; and Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Denver,
Colorado, and King of Prussia, Pennsylvania).
    The only alternative to the Proposed Action considered in detail,
the No Action Alternative, is to discontinue MMRTG and SRG development
efforts. NASA would continue to consider the use of available RPSs,
such as the GPHS-RTG, for future solar system exploration missions.
While well suited to use in space, the GPHS-RTG would have
substantially limited application on missions to the surface of solar
system bodies where an atmosphere is present. In addition, DOE's GPHS-
RTG production line is no longer operative, including the Silicon/
Germanium thermocouple manufacturing operations. It may be possible to
construct a limited number of GPHS-RTGs (one or two) from existing
parts inventories, but longer term reliance on this technology would
require the reactivation of these production capabilities, including
reestablishing vendors for GPHS-RTG components, which could involve a
substantial financial investment.
    The principal near and mid-term activities associated with the
Proposed Action and potential environmental impacts include:
development of 100 We capable MMRTG and SRG units and demonstration of
performance in flight qualified, fueled systems. Development of these
systems requires component and integrated systems testing of unfueled
units, acquisition of plutonium dioxide, fabrication of fuel, assembly
of fueled test RPSs and safety and acceptance testing of that fueled
RPS. Impacts from similar past activities associated with the GPHS-RTG
used for the Galileo, Ulysses, Cassini, and New Horizons mission to
Pluto are well understood and have been documented in past NEPA
documents. Potential environmental impacts associated with development
of the flight-qualified MMRTG and the SRG would be similar to those
associated with the GPHS-RTG and are expected to be within the envelope
of previously-prepared DOE NEPA documentation for the facilities that
are involved in this effort.
    NASA's ongoing long-term R&D activities for alternative power
systems and advanced power conversion technologies are small-scale,
laboratory activities. No radioisotopes are involved and only small
quantities of hazardous materials might be involved. The potential for
impacts on worker health, public health, and the environment from these
R&D activities is small.
    Actual use of an MMRTG or SRG on a specific spacecraft proposed for
launch from any U.S. launch site (e.g., Kennedy Space Center /Cape
Canaveral Air Force Station, Vandenberg Air Force Station) would be
subject to mission-specific NEPA documentation. Potential integrated
system development (i.e., full system development requiring the
integration of the RPS converter with a radioisotope fuel source) and
production of any new generation of space-qualified RPSs (beyond the
MMRTG and SRG) that result from the related long-term R&D technologies
(e.g., more efficient systems or systems producing smaller electrical
power output), are beyond the scope of this FPEIS, and would be subject
to separate NEPA documentation.
    The FPEIS may be examined at the following NASA locations by
contacting the pertinent Freedom of Information Act Office:
    (a) NASA, Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA 94035 (650-604-
    (b) NASA, Dryden Flight Research Center, P.O. Box 273, Edwards, CA
93523 (661-276-2704).
    (c) NASA, Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt Road, Greenbelt,
MD 20771 (301-286-4721).
    (d) NASA, Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX 77058 (281-483-8612).
    (e) NASA, Kennedy Space Center, FL 32899 (321-867-9280).
    (f) NASA, Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA 23681 (757-864-
    (g) NASA, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL 35812 (256-
    (h) NASA, Stennis Space Center, MS 39529 (228-688-2118).
    NASA formally released the Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact
Statement (DPEIS) for the Development of Advanced Radioisotope Power
Systems for public review via publication of the EPA NOA in the Federal
Register on January 6, 2006 (71 FR 928) and NASA's NOA in the Federal
Register on January 5, 2006 (71 FR 625). The DPEIS was distributed in
hardcopy and also made available electronically via the Worldwide Web
at the address noted in the NASA NOA of the DPEIS. The DPEIS was made
available to interested agencies, organizations, and individuals for
review and comment. NASA received 52 written comment submissions, both
in hard copy and electronic form, during the comment period ending on
February 21, 2006. The comments are addressed in the FPEIS.
    Any person, organization, or governmental body or agency interested
in receiving a hard copy of NASA's ROD after it is rendered should so
indicate by mail or electronic mail to Mr. Lavery at the addresses
provided above.

Olga M. Dominguez,
Assistant Administrator for Infrastructure and Administration.
[FR Doc. E6-15764 Filed 9-25-06; 8:45 am]