As a scientist whose career includes the management of a plutonium laboratory, I am keenly aware of the many attributes of plutonium. Over the years I have also learned that advice from nuclear critics about plutonium is consistently unreliable. The critics are again offering unreliable information to the Secretary of Energy about the disposition of 50 tons of plutonium from the weapons programs.
The energy contained in 50 tons of Pu is equivalent to that contained in several hundred million barrels of oil. Based on this alone, it would be unwise national energy policy to not extract the useful energy from an otherwise “waste” material. This is not a waste material to be buried. Additionally, the environmental impacts of this fissioning process are vastly superior to those of the fossil fuel and “alternative energy” options.
The proliferation issue is an old issue, but a non-issue. There are nearly 30 nations now who have nuclear technology. Many are advanced beyond those of the United States. Others such as mainland China are unknown but presumed to be advanced, too. Many of these foreign experts have been educated in the U.S. Plutonium is or can be made available to these experts from existing production reactors such as the RBMKs now in Russia and those in China. So can the weapons designs themselves. To the critics I say, get over it. It’s out there. In fact, over the years the critics have helped publicize plutonium inventories and weapons design information.
Fissioning of this excess material irreversibly destroys the plutonium, in sharp contrast to vitrification of the material. Vitrification does not destroy the Pu, it only changes its chemical form to a glass matrix. Only money and glass chemistry is needed to extract the Pu for future uses.
The other nations know this too. Thus, vitrification of the Pu is an empty promise to the rest of the world. The rather easy process of fissioning the weapons material in existing reactors, is the only promise to the rest of the world which provides complete destruction of the material. That is a promise of which we can all be proud.
Mike Fox has 30 years of experience in the nuclear waste industry. He holds a B.S. in Mathematics and a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry (1965 University of Washington). He has expertise in nuclear waste management, plutonium research, geologic disposal, health effects of radiation, energy supply and demand, environmental regulations, and science communications. He recently retired from the United States Department of Energy after 30 years of service.