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Division Director Discusses Plutonium Future part 1


"and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore." Isaiah 2:4

Conversion of weapons plutonium into mixed uranium-plutonium oxide fuel for energy production in civilian power reactors could make the old prophet's vision come true. In fact, technologists at Technical Area-55 made the first step in that direction last year when they disassembled a pit, separated the plutonium by the hydride-dehydride process, oxidized the plutonium, blended the PuO2 with UO2, and pressed and sintered a MOX fuel pellet. It was a simply symbolic but truly significant piece of technology demonstration. The use of nuclear materials has always had two sides: peaceful energy for civil electrical power-and weapons of mass destruction. This dichotomy has always been carefully separated in the minds of policy makers, grudgingly accepted by scientists and engineers, but closely connected in the minds of the public.

Today, fission energy produces about 20% of the world's electrical power, but less than 1% of the energy value of the uranium fuel material is extracted. On the other hand, the United States and the Former Soviet Union produced tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, numbers that are substantially beyond any reasonable requirement for defense or any conceivable act of aggression. Why military development of fission energy has been carried beyond rational need, while peaceful development has been suppressed in this country is beyond understanding. But indeed that has been the political position; current U.S. policy, established by the Carter Administration and executed by the Clinton Administration, discourages the use of plutonium for civil purposes. European countries, Japan, India, and Russia are increasing or planning to start the recycling of plutonium in light-water and breeder reactors, while in this country, reprocessing, recycling, and breeding are nearly extinct technologies. While the rest of the world is developing greater reliance on nuclear power, the U.S. is on a path to foreclose on that option, which many feel will be essential for electrical power, economic growth, and protection of the environment in the next century. Nevertheless, the U.S. is getting about 7% of its electricity from plutonium created by in situ fission in the cores of light- water reactors.

More plutonium has been synthesized than any other man-made element, and because of its high energy content and radioactive properties, plutonium is both attractive and hazardous at the same time.

Plutonium: the most toxic substance known to man.

Plutonium: the enabler of world peace.

Plutonium: enough to kill everyone the world many times over.

Plutonium: enough energy to power world's economy for centuries.

The extremes are as varied as the people with opinions. So where is the truth and what should we do with the plutonium? The fact is that there is a glut of plutonium in the world today. First isolated and identified in 1941 by Glenn Seaborg, plutonium has proliferated from micrograms to hundreds of tons. In the U.S. alone there are 99.5 metric tons left over from the nuclear weapons buildup during the Cold War. An equal or greater amount exists in Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China, the other declared nuclear weapons states. A recent DOE study has identified 26 metric tons of plutonium wastes in various forms of solids, compounds, residues, and solutions that are unsuitable for long-term storage. This "legacy plutonium," left over from the production campaigns during the Cold War nuclear weapons buildup, is currently stored at various sites in the weapons complex. Los Alamos has 2.6 tons of plutonium; about 95% of this plutonium resides here at TA-55.

Tens of thousands of nuclear warheads containing plutonium pits were produced during the Cold War. Fortunately, because of worldwide political events and activities initiated by the Bush Administration and continued by the Clinton Administration, these worldwide nuclear stockpiles are being reduced, as planned by presidential directives and international treaties. In 1991 the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Treaty on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (START I), and both countries are dismantling nuclear weapons, reducing stockpiles to 8,000 to 9,000 each. The START II treaty, which is still under negotiation, could reduce strategic warheads to less than 3,500 each. In addition, the legacy wastes in the U.S. are being stabilized and prepared for long-term storage.

These international issues are defining the future of TA-55 technologies. The goal of the Stockpile Surveillance Program is to ensure the reliability and safety of the enduring stockpile, the Advanced Recovery and Integrated Extraction System will demonstrate an automated process for dismantling plutonium pits, the Pit Rebuild Program will maintain the de minimis capability for manufacturing plutonium components, the Enhanced Surveillance Program will determine the effects of plutonium property changes on the reliability of aging weapons, and the 94-1 Residue Reduction Projects are aimed at stabilizing, separating, and storing legacy plutonium wastes.

The reduction of nuclear weapons and the stabilization of nuclear wastes is the correct thing to do; however, the activities have raised new concerns over safety, security, and final disposition of the plutonium. In the next Actinide Research Quarterly, I will discuss this approach and its implications for the nation and TA-55.

Bruce Matthews

The ideas in this editorial are not original; they are a synthesis from many national and international studies, reports, and publications and from conversations with today's prophets. The recommendations, however, are mine; they do not necessarily represent the opinion of Los Alamos National Laboratory, the University of California, the Department of Energy, or the U.S. Government.

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