Plutonium

Background - June 27, 2006
Plutonium was discovered in the US in 1941 when scientists exposed uranium to neutron radiation in a laboratory. There is nothing natural about it, and has only been in the environment since the first atomic bomb was detonated in the US in 1945 in the Japanese city of Nagasaki and killed 50,000 people in August 1945. The bomb contained only 6.1 kilograms of plutonium.

Plutonium is the key ingredient for nuclear weapons - reprocessing generates more plutonium.

Inhalation of a single microgram of plutonium, smaller than a speck of dust, can cause fatal lung cancer. There is no safe dose of exposure for humans, and once it is inside the body, it will remain there for a very long time - longer than the average human life span.

Its primary purpose has always been for use in nuclear weapons. However, the nuclear industry has always dreamed of plutonium as a source of energy as well. Nuclear power does not have a long-term future since the economic supplies of natural uranium will have run out in the next few decades. Therefore, the nuclear industry is trying to sell plutonium as a reactor fuel.

In the early days of nuclear euphoria, reactors that used plutonium (called fast breeder reactors) were promoted as the solution to the world's energy problems. Not only do they use plutonium as a fuel, it was said, but they even produce ("breed") more of it during their operation.

Over the years, all fast breeder reactor programs have turned out to be costly technical failures, whether in France, US, Japan, UK, or Germany.

At the same time, the global stockpile of separated civilian use plutonium from reprocessing (link to nuclear fuel cycle) keeps growing and will soon exceed the military stockpile of plutonium. This poses a growing global security threat since all plutonium can be used in nuclear bombs.

Only about 5 kilograms of plutonium is needed to make a bomb. Such a device would explode with the power of 20 kilotons. To produce 12 kilograms of plutonium per year, only a relatively small reprocessing facility would be needed.

MOX

The nuclear industry's latest "solution" to the plutonium problem is the fabrication of plutonium into MOX (Mixed Oxide) fuel (a mixture of plutonium and uranium) for use in ordinary nuclear reactors.

MOX fuel becomes hotter and more radioactive than normal uranium fuel, thereby reducing the safety of the reactor and increasing the risk of nuclear accidents. This technology increases the risk of reactor accidents and health hazards to nuclear workers and the environment, and exacerbates the problems of trying to deal with the highly radioactive waste fuel.

Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and France have started to use MOX fuel in some of their nuclear reactors. Japan is the only other country with major plans to use plutonium MOX fuel. The reason these countries want to use MOX fuel is that they are desperately trying to be seen to be dealing with the plutonium from reprocessing.

The reality is that their stocks of separated plutonium from reprocessing continues to grow. The only way to stop the growing stockpiles of separated plutonium is to stop reprocessing.

Find out more:

Remember that renewables are the future!

Read about he Real Face of the IAEA's Multilateral Nuclear Approaches, the proliferation of nuclear weapon material & environmental contamination report.

Download our Nuclear Glossary.

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