The UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) chemists are planning to make batteries using waste plutonium from Sellafield, a nuclear processing site located in Cumbria, that could power the European Space Agency’s (ESA) spacecraft.

The project is expected to create up to 50 jobs at Sellafield, which could accrue significant UK multi-million pound exports.

NNL programme manager Tim Tinsley was quoted by the BBC as saying that his team is more than half way through the £1m pilot project, which is aimed at proving the viability of extracting the isotope from the civil plutonium stockpiles.

"We have a quantity of this plutonium at our labs at the Sellafield site and a team of highly experienced chemists are ‘proving’ the chemical flow-sheet for the process," Tinsley added.

The ESA currently uses plutonium-238 isotope for radioactive power sources (RPS) batteries that are only available from America and Russia and are expected to run out in around 2018.

"Technically, there are no barriers to the success of the project, it would be down to funding and politics within Europe and they are already tightly constrained," Tinsley said.

"ESA needs this fuel source for their space ‘road-map’ – they cannot do it without it and we at NNL are doing everything we can to make that a success."

The space agency will decide in November 2012 whether or not to continue the funding for this programme.

Image: The ESA currently uses plutonium-238 isotope for radioactive power sources. Credit: courtesy of ignis.