The Bush administration is planning to resume the country's production of plutonium 238 for " national security" reasons, The New York Times reported on Monday.
The report quoted US officials as saying that the program would produce a total of 330 pounds of plutonium 238 over 30 years at the Idaho National Laboratory for a total cost of nearly 1.5 billion dollars.
Project managers declined to disclose any details about the program but said that most if not all of the new plutonium is intended for secret missions. Timothy Frazier, who heads radioisotope power systems at the US Energy Department, told The New York Times that the real reason for the planned resumption of production is for national security.
Plutonium 238 has no central role in nuclear weapons but was regularly used by the United States to make nuclear batteries that can work for years or decades to power satellites, planetary probes and spy devices.
The material, however, is hundreds of times more radioactive than plutonium 239 used in nuclear arms and could lead to environmental disasters in case of accidents.
According to the report, the United States stopped made plutonium 238 in the 1980s and instead relies on aging stockpiles or imports from Russia. But by agreement with Russia, Washington cannot use the imported material for military purposes.
With its domestic stockpile running low, Washington now wants to restart production by 2012 and have the first plutonium 238 available by 2013, the report quoted Frazier as saying. But in order to proceed with the plan, the Bush administration still have to acquire congressional approval.
According to the report, US experts unconnected to the project said the new plutonium would probably power devices for conducting espionage on land and under the sea.
Even if no formal plans now exist to use the plutonium in space for military purposes, the material could be used by the US military to power compact spy satellites that would be hard for adversaries to track, evade or destroy, experts said.