PLUTONIUM is a man-made element — the result of fissioning uranium in a nuclear reactor. It is a long-lived, radioactive, heavy metal named after the Roman god of the underworld and is hellishly toxic if the plutonium oxide powder is inhaled.
With less than 15 pounds of plutonium and plans that can be found on the internet, virtually anyone can make a nuclear bomb the size of that which ravaged the city of Nagasaki, Japan, at the end of World War II. There are 100s of tons of plutonium on Earth, in nuclear weapons and in storage. Over 90 tons was made by the United States. It is a huge security challenge to keep plutonium under lock and key for its hazardous and fissionable life-span. Plutonium, thermonuclear weapons, nuclear energy, and radioactive wastes present our society with challenges that lie far outside previous human experience.
Plutonium for nuclear weapons was manufactured in five reactors at Savannah River Site (SRS) in Aiken, S.C., and also at Hanford in Washington State. Plutonium was separated out of the irradiated nuclear reactor fuel by chopping the hot radioactive spent fuel into little pieces and then dissolving it in industrial solvents. The separated plutonium was transported to nuclear weapons labs and manufacturing sites all over the country.
Left behind at SRS were 35,000,000 gallons of liquid hazardous wastes which are still being kept in underground tanks 20 years after plutonium production stopped. The liquid wastes are contaminated with lethal, highly radioactive elements such as cesium 137 and cobalt 60. The 50-year-old tanks are beginning to leak and threaten to contaminate the largest freshwater aquifer recharge area in North America.
Graphite-like plutonium oxide powder was transported to Rocky Flats in Denver, Colorado, to be alloyed into metal and made into nuclear warhead triggers, called plutonium pits. The FBI and EPA raided Rocky Flats in 1989 and permanently shut the national U.S. plutonium trigger factory after an investigation and trial which resulted in jailed jurors and millions of dollars in fines paid by contractor Rockwell International. As part of Rocky Flats "clean-up," several tons of leftover scrap plutonium were transported across the country to SRS despite the South Carolina governor's legal efforts to keep it out of his state.
Grapefruit-sized plutonium pits made at Rocky Flats were sent to Pantex in Amarillo, Texas, to be placed into nuclear warheads at the assembly factory there. Many thousands of plutonium triggers are deployed in U.S. nuclear weapons on Trident submarines and at various missile silos and depots. More than 20 tons of "surplus" plutonium pits, enough to arm literally thousands of nuclear warheads, sit on warehouse shelves at Pantex and pose a long-term security risk.
Plutonium does not occur in nature and there is no "natural" state to which we can return it. Plutonium is extremely toxic and bonds with lung tissue if inhaled, eventually causing lung cancer. Plutonium can catch fire when exposed to air.
Plutonium has an unimaginably long half-life — 24,600 years — and its hazardous life is 10 times as long. Humans have only been recording history for around 5,000 years — how will we secure this breathtakingly dangerous weaponized heavy metal, a human-created Frankenstein monster born less than one human lifetime ago?
Despite plutonium's toxicity and thermonuclear explosive capacity, plutonium is not very radioactive and therein lies its vulnerability to theft. That is why, to secure the plutonium from being used in weapons for a long, long time, it is desirable to make it "self-protecting" by emplacing it in a highly radioactive medium such as that proposed with PLUTONIUM IMMOBILIZATION or the controversial MOX plutonium reactor fuel program at SRS.
Every nuclear reactor makes plutonium when it is operating including commercial reactors which make electricity. Irradiated commercial reactor fuel is notoriously radioactive which is why the 1984 Nuclear Waste Policy Act requires that it be isolated from the environment forever in a deep geologic repository. Yucca Mountain was the controversial candidate to host the nation's waste repository but funding for it has been cancelled and its license application is being withdrawn.
The failure of Yucca Mountain has emboldened the flagging nuclear industry to propose once again a dangerous practice called nuclear waste "reprocessing." Reprocessing uses the process outlined above which has already stranded millions of gallons of radioactive waste at SRS, and would likewise produce more radioactive waste in addition to plutonium, the essential ingredient in nuclear bombs.
In the reprocessing scheme of things, a new type of reactor fuel, called MOX, would be made from the plutonium. Reactors which are only conceptual at the present time would be required to use the plutonium fuel (which would then require deep geologic disposal once irradiated). The ambitious reprocessing scheme would take 20 years and untold billions of tax dollars to achieve, and would greatly worsen the quandaries already presented by both plutonium security and radioactive waste management. Human experience with reprocessing has been disastrous for the environment in every instance and yet it is under serious discussion and SRS is the favored host site.
Radioactive waste from commercial nuclear reactors is truly a dilemma for which there is no satisfactory solution. It should be studied with the intensity brought to the discovery of plutonium and designing and manufacturing nuclear reactors and weapons. Until a permanent repository is created, environmentalists advocate keeping radioactive waste at the generating site.
“Plutonium is a physicist’s dream but an engineer’s nightmare. With little provocation, the metal changes its density by as much as 25 percent. It can be brittle as glass or as malleable as aluminum; it expands when it solidifies, much like water freezing to ice ... it is highly reactive in air ... plutonium damages materials on contact and is therefore difficult to handle, store, or transport. Only physicists would ever dream of making and using such a material. And they did make it — in order to take advantage of the extraordinary nuclear properties of plutonium-239.”
Plutonium, An Element at
Odds with Itself. Los Alamos Science. 2000.
excerpted also from PLUTONIUM: THE LAST FIVE YEARS by Don Moniak.
Both the planet Pluto and the element plutonium are named for the ancient god Pluto, ruler of the underworld
and the dead. In mythology, Pluto was an unwelcome visitor to Earth and to the ancient abode
of the gods Olympus, because of his unpitying and inflexible nature. Pluto was King of the Dead, but not Death itself; terrible, but not evil.
Year plutonium was discovered by Glenn Seaborg and others
Minimum amount of plutonium required for bomb
1 kilogram (2.2 pounds)
Amount of plutonium used in Nagasaki bomb
Average amount of plutonium used in modern atom bomb
Estimated amount of U.S. weapons-grade plutonium
85,000 kilograms (93.5 tons)
Estimated amount of Russian weapons-grade plutonium
160,000 kilograms (176 tons)
Hazards associated with plutonium
Radiation, fire, inhalation, ingestion, criticality, reactivity, decay
Length of time that
plutonium 239 (weapons-grade) remains hazardous
(Ten 24,000-year half-lives)
Form of plutonium most hazardous to life
Plutonium oxide powder
What happens to plutonium metal when exposed to air
Gradually turns to
plutonium oxide powder
Lethal amount of plutonium oxide powder (inhaled)
Lethal amount of plutonium oxide powder (ingested)
Amount of sugar substitute in average 1 gram package
Excerpted from Stop Plutonium Fuel: Plutonium Index, compiled by Don Moniak. Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, www.bredl.org