Plutonium: Problem or Solution?

Did you know that the worlds stockpile of Plutonium stands at around 500 Tonnes? (incidentally the UK owns about 20% of that) Wikipedia Link Here

Theoretically, a technically competent country could build around 250,000 fission nuclear bombs out of that 500 Tonnes. Each bomb would be around 10KT – about the size that destroyed Hiroshima.

Of course, a technically competent country would actually be capable of using the Plutonium for detonators inside much larger fusion weapons (Hydrogen Bombs).

A less technically competent nation would have more difficulties and may only be capable of producing around 100,000 fission nuclear bombs from the 500 Tonnes.

By any reasonable evaluation the bomb potential from 500 Tonnes of Plutonium on a global scale is effectively limitless.

Clearly safe control and disposal of Plutonium (other than by building bombs out of it) would be a good idea.

So how about burying it?

Plutonium has a half life of 24,000 years. So in 24,000 years time todays stockpile of 500 Tonnes would only build a mere 125,000 bombs. Or for a less technically competent nation a mere 50,000.

So burying it is hardly a solution.

There are a number of cunning plans to “poison” the Plutonium to make it extremely difficult to separate. But you can always guarantee that somewhere, somehow, there will another cunning plan which could be used to purify it.

Even if you successfully poison it what do you do with it then?

There is only one way that I know of that can reduce the Plutonium stockpile - short of blowing people up with it.

That is by using it as fuel in an Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). The by-product of using the Plutonium is a huge supply of electricity. So you dispose of the Plutonium and produce a massive benefit to society at the same time.

Another and less productive use of IFR reactors is to poison the Plutonium in a short time scale, but using it for power production would seem a better idea.

An IFR not only solves the Proliferation issue it also solves the issues surrounding air pollution and carbon emissions from burning coal. An IFR in power mode can consume almost all of its fuel and it produces very small amounts of short lived radioactive waste. It is the ultimate win-win solution to an otherwise intractable problem.

IFR technology is by the way, old proven technology, even though the anti-nuclear lobby will try and bluster you otherwise.

The technology dates back at least four decades. The USA had a working IFR in the 1980's. It was cancelled as a political sop to the anti-nuclear movement. The American IFR was a victim of broad brush ignorance. It remains a victim to this day. (Wikipedia - Argonne Reactor Here)

Ironically the project was killed off just two weeks after a test proved the IFR would safely shut itself down after suffering a total loss of cooling and control. That is why it is often referred to as an intrinsically safe design.

Even the UK had a similar (though not quite the same) project based a Dunraey in Scotland in 1970's While the Dunraey reactors had a number of design issues they did show the feasibility of the IFR concept was sound. (Wikipedia Dunraey Reactor Here)

Today Russia operates two commercial IFR's. India is building one and I believe China has just commissioned its first. So this is no pie in the sky unproven dream world technology. (World Nuc. News - Existing & Future IFR's Here)

GE-Hitachi have a design for a 600MW reactor based on the original USA design from the 1980's. It is the current front runner in the UK to deal with the Plutonium issue. It is called the PRISM reactor. 

But there is a problem.

The problem is with people who would rather bury their heads in the sand than seek a solution to the Plutonium stockpile problem.

Feckless politicians are likely to sit on their hands rather than risk the wrath of Green groups. Even though these anti nuclear groups have no solution to the plutonium stockpile themselves.

If you have a magic solution to the Plutonium stockpile other than by using PRISM reactors please tell me – I'd love to know what it is.

But without a magic solution (or PRISM reactors) the Plutonium stockpile is not going anywhere soon. As far as I can see the only way to put the Plutonium Genie back in the bottle is to constructively use it for the benefit of mankind in PRISM reactors.

So what is your solution? What do you do with 500 tonnes of Plutonium?

If you have some magic plan other than PRISM what is it?

Tell me.
(Post posting note! It has been correctly pointed out on twitter that PRISM reactors are not the only constructive nuclear technology that can use the Plutonium. There are other promising avenues of development, such as Molten Salt Reactors and Sub Critical reactors to name just two. I had no intention of dissing these promising avenues of development but at the moment in the UK the front runner (by a long margin) is the PRISM reactor.


Flaxen Saxon said...

I'm a fan of plutonium. I'm also a fan of ricin and DDT, but that is another matter. Anyway, where I live in Nuzzyland we have no plutonium. We have hydroelectric power. Which is great unless our population increases (currently: 4.5 million) and of course we receive abundant rain. There is a drought at the moment in the South Island- guess where the hydro plants are situated? Shame our short sighted politicians can't embrace plutoniun. I wish most of them would. It would rid the country of a few twats. Perhaps we could encourage the Maoris to embrace it too. Just tell them it's free KFC. In that way we can cure most of New Zealand's ills in one large radioactive fest. Now if only we can get the greenies to embrace the concept/plutonium........

Anonymous said...

I'm another NZer. Working on where the anti nuc started. Need check who funded activists unknowingly Greenpeace was funded by Oil & Gas industries until 2007 when they discovered it. Now O&G pay WWF and they pay anything Green naive enough not to quiz it. Gerald Henseley's book Friendly Fire he advisor to PM's & Lange was pro Nuc 1st. He changed with pressure from activists one of his main voting blocks. I think Maori like Pakeha want protect what we enjoy. Lovelock says NZ will be one of 4 that will get rain as have warming sea currents creating clouds & mountains to precipitate if. Trouble is right now hot land is holding clouds aloft - drought in Nth Island serious too...Continents will become deserts...its happening and fast.

BilloTheWisp said...

Thanks to Flaxen Saxon and Diana for the comments from New Zealand.

I was in beautiful New Zealand only recently. A great place. With the exception of two arsehole bus drivers (one European one Maori) everyone I met (including many, many other bus drivers!) was fantastic. Maori, European and Asian were all kind, entertaining and helpful to a fault. I had a fantastic time. I hope to return one day.

So I really would not want to poison anyone in New Zealand (even the two stroppy bus drivers). Flaxen Saxon though should note that, if I did want to "do in" the two irksome bus drivers, using Plutonium as a poison would be a poor choice. It's toxicity is greatly exaggerated.

Once upon a time in 1957 at the formal opening of Calder Hall nuclear power station in the UK, the Queen was handed a small slab of Plutonium in a plastic bag so she could feel its natural warmth. She is still here, and while you may reasonably think Prince Charles presents a good example of radiation damage, he was actually born before the Queens Calder Hall experience.

During the 1950's scientists and engineers in the USA regularly used to transport quantities of Plutonium from one lab to another in their pockets. In the UK, in the 1950's Plutonium was shipped between sites in wooden boxes in a Morris 1000. Once it broke down. Luckily though UK security were ahead of the curve and had provided another Morris 1000 as back-up. The boxes were transferred and all was well. James Bond eat your heart out.

While these activities may well be somewhat out of order today, they do show that as toxicity goes, using Plutonium as some devilish poison is a non starter.

The main problem with Plutonium though is that if 2Kg is configured "correctly" it can do a hell of a lot of damage.

New Zealand is lucky to be energy rich with huge amounts of pollution free hydro and geothermal as well coal gas and probably oil. NZ may not need nuclear. Even so energy rich NZ might still find new nuclear useful in its energy mix. That is your choice and decision.

But without doubt New Zealanders should still be interested in how the world's stockpile of Plutonium is dealt with. After all, a 10KT bomb detonating over Wellington in 5, 50 or 500 years time would make just as much mess as it did in Hiroshima.

As I stated in the post. If Flaxen Saxon (or anyone else) has any better ideas about using up the 500 Tonnes of Plutonium other than using it in PRISM reactors for the good of mankind I would like to know.

Over to you.

Flaxen Saxon said...

As I live in wonderful, but windy, Wellington the prospect of a 10kt nuclear bomb going off would be unwelcome. Although if it went off in the centre I would probably be spared the blast effects as I live in the northern suburbs. The radiation would be blown clean away and probably settle in Palmerston North. I suspect the radiation damage would go un-noted due to the large number of genetic defects residing there. Anyway, ricin is certainly more toxic than plutonium. One molecule kills one cell. I remember, when working at Bath Uni, many years ago, there was a bottle of the stuff sitting innocuously on the lab shelf for every one to ignore. Should have nicked it.