The Dangers of Plutonium
Plutonium is a radioactive material which is produced in atomic bombs and uranium enrichment plants. Besides the dangers of plutonium and its use in a weapon, it can also cause health risks. Here is some information on the hazards of this material.
Weapons-grade plutonium is a form of nuclear fissile material. It is composed of more than 90 percent of the isotope plutonium-239 and less than 7% of the isotope 240Pu. The United States uses about 70,000 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium.
There are two main sources of weapons-grade plutonium: commercial and military reactors. Commercial reactors use a mixture of isotopes to make plutonium. Some are high burn-up, which are suitable for use in nuclear explosive devices. Others are low burn-up, which are suitable for power reactors.
In the early 1980s, the United States produced nearly 100 metric tons of plutonium, including more than 70 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium. This plutonium is a mix of isotopes that includes at least 20% of the isotope uranium-235.
The United States has used weapons-grade plutonium in 70,000 nuclear weapons. It is a versatile material with many advantages over other forms of fissile material. However, the government is facing a dilemma: how to dispose of its surplus plutonium.
As part of the Cold War, the US government reclassified more than 50 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium as excess to its needs. Using the excess plutonium was cheaper than making new plutonium for production reactors.
Several states have invested large sums of money to acquire weapons-grade plutonium. In Texas, the Pantex weapons assembly plant produces thousands of pits of plutonium.
The United States Strategic Command oversees the nation’s nuclear weapon arsenal. The Energy Department is upgrading aging processes to produce new plutonium bomb triggers.
The United States has the capability to produce weapons-grade plutonium in a fast breeder reactor. However, these projects could reach a stalemate in the middle of the decade.
Russia has a program to produce thorium-uranium fuel. If it is successful, this could significantly alter China’s nuclear capabilities.
In addition, the Russians agreed to dispose of their weapons-grade plutonium by 2014. However, there is no information on the actual inventory of weapons-grade plutonium.
The USA is still struggling with the strategic mistake of producing too much fissile material. Despite the downsizing of the Cold War warhead stockpile in 1998, the US government is struggling to find ways to dispose of the remaining plutonium.
The United States has a substantial amount of defense legacy wastes. This includes excess plutonium and highly enriched uranium. In addition, the Energy Department is facing a daunting task of geological disposal of the nuclear material.
Safe geological disposal of plutonium is a key element of nuclear disarmament. It requires extensive infrastructure and a commitment from the US government. Ultimately, plutonium must be kept in a safe, sanitary place.
Plutonium is classified into three primary grades. These are: Weapons-grade, Reactor-grade, and Direct-use. Each grade of plutonium has its own basic properties. Depending on the initial enrichment, the properties can vary.
A weapons-grade plutonium contains 93 percent pure plutonium-239. When irradiated, it can produce high levels of radioactivity. Typically, it is used in nuclear weapons. But it is also produced in power reactors.
In the past, the United States has produced weapon-grade plutonium through special production reactors. However, these reactors also create plutonium-contaminated intermediate-level waste (ILW). ILW is a mixture of plutonium, uranium, and other elements. To separate this waste from the fissile material, the fuel rods are removed.
After this, the plutonium is separated from the fuel. It is then diluted with a secret adulterant. Eventually, the plutonium is sent to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where it is reshaped into new weapons.
During the Cold War, the United States accumulated a large stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium. Most of it is stored at the Pantex plant, in Amarillo, Texas.
After the Cold War, the Energy Department began reducing its Cold War warhead stockpile. It disposed of 48.2 metric tons of plutonium and ILW.
In 2015, the Energy Department explored a “dilute and dispose” option for plutonium storage. This plan would have cost only half as much as the MOX project. Moreover, it would eliminate the need to separate plutonium from the uranium.
There is a potential for civil plutonium to be stored at the Savannah River Site, South Carolina. Ideally, the plutonium would be diluted with a secret adulterant and stored in an underground repository. Alternatively, the plutonium could be vitrified and treated as spent fuel.
Reactor-grade Plutonium is an extremely dangerous material that is capable of generating highly destructive nuclear weapons. It has a lower yield than weapon grade plutonium, but it has a higher lethal area.
Although it is difficult to calculate the proliferation risk of this material, it poses a significant security threat. This concern has been mitigated through international safeguards arrangements. These arrangements ensure that countries have regular audits of their reactor-grade material.
Despite these safeguards, there are still concerns about the use of reactor-grade plutonium in nuclear weapons. There are also concerns about the environmental impact of the nuclear industry’s efforts to produce this material.
The primary concern about the production of reactor-grade plutonium is that it is highly radioactive. Hence, the production of this material will create occupational exposures to workers. Other concerns involve the long-term storage of the material, which needs to be protected from accidental criticality.
Similarly, the use of this material in a nuclear explosive device requires special equipment. Another problem with using reactor-grade plutonium is the fact that it is more complex to fabricate than weapon-grade plutonium.
Another concern is that its use in a weapon would increase its radioactivity. This increased radioactivity would make the material more dangerous for military personnel.
In addition, a high Pu-240 content will increase the probability of pre-initiation, which can cut short the chain reaction. Pre-initiation could make it harder to manufacture a weapon and reduce its yield.
Some states have considered acquiring this material for the purpose of making nuclear weapons. Some have even made large investments to acquire it. But this does not mean that it is viable.
A more reasonable approach would be to phase out the use of reactor-grade plutonium as a weapon-making material. Such a decision would reduce the proliferation risk of this material and the resulting radioactive contamination of the environment.
To ensure the safety of civilians, the use of this material must be banned. International safeguards arrangements should also be established to address the weapons proliferation potential of reactor-grade plutonium.
Aside from the obvious economic benefits of storing this material for energy purposes, this material also has the potential to increase the vulnerability of a nation to terrorist attacks. In addition, the possibility of a chemical attack must be taken into consideration.
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