Power of Plutonium

I believe that we should we begin to manufacture one of the most destructive and powerful elements on the planet again? Nuclear chemists and engineers say yes, but the public says no. The United States stopped making this element with the United Nations ban on manufacturing nuclear weapons. But, with the continuing problem with our thinning energy resources, some want us to begin using more nuclear energy and less energy from natural resources. This paper is going to discuss what plutonium is, the advantages and disadvantages of its use, and why we should think about restarting our production of this useful element.

during World War two United States dropped two nuclear bombs, “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” on Japan ending the war, the public has had some type of understanding about the power of plutonium and its devastating properties, but that is all anyone heard. After WWII, Americans started to think about what the atomic bomb could do to the people of the United States. When the U.S. started to build more reactors and produce more of the substance but mostly for our nuclear weapons programs.

But some times this reaction can get out of hand, this is called a melt down. this can produce harmful effects if it isn’t controlled quickly enough. After such instances as the Hanford, Washington reactor meltdown and the accident in the U.S.S.R. at Chernobyl. The United States government banned nuclear testing and also ended the production of plutonium.(Ref. 5) Now we have a problem. We are in need of future sources of energy to power our nation. We are running out of coal and oil to run our power plants.(Ref. 7) We also need it to further our space exploration program. People need to understand the advantages to using plutonium and that the disadvantages are not as catastrophic as they seem. With the turn of the century on its way, the reemergence of plutonium production will need to be a reality for us to continue our way of life. In 1941, a scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, discovered something that would change our planet forever. Glenn T. Seaborg, is credited for the discovery of the element plutonium.(ref. 10) Plutonium, or Pu #94 on the periodic table, is one of the most unstable elements on the earth.

Plutonium is made when Uranium 235, absorbs a neutron. Plutonium is a silver metal that has a very high density of 19.816 g/cm3.(ref. 10 ) It is rarely found in the earth’s crust but the majority of the substance has to be produced by man at the core of nuclear reactors. Plutonium can be found fifteen different forms, or isotopes and their mass number can range from 232-246.(ref. 13) Radionuclide batteries used in pacemakers use Pu-238, while Pu-239 is used in reactors and for Nuclear weapons.(ref. 13) This paper will focus on the isotopes Pu-238 and Pu-239. Plutonium can be very helpful to the United States. there are many reasons for its use. The three major advantages to using this element are for an energy source, power for nuclear propulsion in space exploration and thermo-electric generators in cardiac pacemakers. The first use for plutonium, nuclear power, is obviously the most beneficial use. Plutonium 239 can be used to power nuclear reactors. The average nuclear reactor contains about 325 kilograms of plutonium within its uranium fuel.(ref. 7) This complements the uranium fission process. With the continually decreasing supply of coal and oil to power our nation, we need a substitute to complement our energy needs and right now the best replacement is that of nuclear energy.(ref. 7) At the moment there are one hundred and ten nuclear power plants in the United States and they produce one-fifth of the nations electricity. Nuclear energy has been proven to be the cheapest, safest, cleanest and probably the most efficient source of energy.(ref. 7)

Nuclear power plants do not use as much fuel as the plants burning coal and oil. One ton of uranium produces more energy than several million tons of coal and plutonium can produce much more energy than uranium.(ref. 12) Also the burning of coal and oil pollute our air and the last thing we need is more pollution to worsen the greenhouse effect. Nuclear power plants cannot contaminate the environment because they do not release any type of pollution.(ref. 2) Plutonium can also be recycled by using a enrichment process. This will produce even more energy. Coal and oil can not be recycled. What is left by their uses is what has been contaminating our atmosphere since the 1800’s. You might ask how exactly is plutonium converted into an energy source? Well it is obviously quite complicated to explain. Basically, power comes from the fission process of an atom of the element and produces over ten million times the energy produced by an atom of carbon from coal. One kilogram of plutonium consumed for three years in a reactor can produce heat to give ten million kilowatt-hours of electricity. This amount is enough to power over one-thousand Australian households.(ref. 7) Presented with this information, it is only common sense that we should not depend upon fossil fuels to take us into the 21st century. It is obvious that our future lies in the hands of nuclear reactors and the use of plutonium. The second major use for plutonium is for space exploration with its ability to power nuclear propulsion. Nuclear electric propulsion is using energy from plutonium to power space vehicles.(ref. 3) One of the major goals of NASA space program is to, one day, get to Mars, and it looks like the only way it is going to happen in our current fiscal condition, is if we use plutonium, instead of chemical fuel, to power our explorations.

Nuclear electric propulsion can be defined as using small plutonium based bricks, to power space vehicles for interplanetary trips. Nuclear electric systems provide very low thrust levels and use only very small amounts of fuel during the voyage.(ref. 3,4) Using electric propulsion also allows the use of less fuel making the spacecrafts launch weight much lower than it would be with chemical fuel.(ref. 3) The last beneficial use for plutonium is for cardiac pacemakers. The thermo-electric generator, which is powered by radionuclide batteries, that powers the pacemaker uses Pu-238. One of the obvious uses of plutonium, whether is an advantage or disadvantage, is for weaponry. It is an advantage if we need to use it against a foe, but it is disadvantageous is our foes use it against the United States. Now that we are at the hands of the Non-proliferation Treaty and the Test Ban Treaty, we no longer can make and/or test nuclear weapons. (Ref. 5) This should help end ideas about nuclear war and other disadvantages to having plutonium in other country’s’ supplies. Now that we have recognized three important uses for Plutonium and that the threat of nuclear war is no longer as feasible as before, we should recognize the disadvantages of this great energy source. They mostly have to do with excess waste and health effects from the use of nuclear energy. In 1986, a reactor located in Russia at the Chernobyl power plant had a meltdown and radiation escaped from the plant.(ref. 8) Several dozen died from this incident. Nuclear explosions produce radiation. When it comes within human contact, radiation hurts cells, which can sicken people. The cause of the Chernobyl meltdown was mostly because of human error. They tried to perform an experiment at a time when they shouldn’t have, and many people paid for their incompetence. There are waste disposal problems that occur with the use of nuclear reactors. Waste also produces radiation, which can be lethal. Since waste can hurt and kill people who come in contact with the substance, it cannot be thrown away in a dumpster like other garbage. Waste has to be put in cooling pools or storage tanks at the site of the reactors.

Another problem is that the reactors can last for a maximum of fifty years. Even though plutonium is chemically hazardous and produces harmful radiation, it isn’t close to being the most toxic substance on the planet. Such substances as caffeine or radiation from smoke detectors, that have the same amount of mass as plutonium, can have a greater toxicity. (Ref. 2) There are basically three ways plutonium can hurt humans. The first is ingestion. Ingestion, though not totally safe, it is not as bad as we think. The fact is, plutonium passes through the stomach and intestines and cannot be absorbed and therefore, is released with other waste we produce.(ref. 1) The second route plutonium can take to be hazardous is through open wounds. This form of contact is very rare and basically cannot happen if the element is handled correctly with protective measures such as correct clothing and health monitor procedures.(ref. 1) The last, main threat to our society comes from inhalation. If inhaled, plutonium is exhaled on the next breath or gotten rid off through the spit flow from the throat and bronchial system and released as with ingestion. But if some could get trapped and put into the blood stream or lymph nodes.(ref. 1) This has the possibility to cause cancer in the future. This might sound frightening, but what we need to realize is that inhaling this type of substance is part of some of our daily lives. The problem of inhaling Pu-239 isn’t much different than inhaling such radio nuclides like decaying particles from radon. Radon is a radioactive gas that can cause cancer. (Ref. 6) It comes from the decay of uranium in soil, rock and water. Inhaling this substance can damage your lungs and lead to cancer over a lifetime. The gas can affect everyone, no matter where you live, work or go to school. If you live in a brick house, you could be taking a serious risk if you don’t get the radon level tested. A 1990 National Safety Council report showed that radon causes, on the average, approximately 14,000 deaths a year and can go as high as 30,000 deaths a year.(ref. 6) After learning about what radon gas can do to humans, shouldn’t we be more concerned about what a naturally occurring substance can do rather than worrying about what plutonium, and its rare contamination might do. Also, how many American citizens will actually have a chance to come in contact with any plutonium isotope in their lifetime? As you can see, if we start to produce plutonium once again, we will benefit greatly from its use. We can use it to help power nuclear reactors, which can power our nation. It can also be recycled and used once again which is one thing fossil fuels cannot do. Nuclear electric propulsion and its use of plutonium will help power space exploration into the next century and maybe even get us to Mars. Pu-238 is also helpful in powering cardiac pacemakers, one of the great biomedical inventions of the1900’s. With these constructive and productive uses, we shouldn’t even debate on the fact that we need plutonium for the future. You may think that by producing plutonium, it will automatically go toward our nuclear weapons program. With non-proliferation and testing banned, this, obviously, is no longer an option. What about nuclear waste and radiation exposure?

Well, unless an individual does not use safety precautions and other preventive measures when and if he handles the substance, he or she shouldn’t expect anything less of radiation poisoning and contamination. If you’re still concerned about exposure to nuclear radiation, you’re in for a big surprise when you find out you can’t avoid it. There is more of a chance you will die from radon gas than there is from plutonium.(ref. 6) After considering all these factors, whether they are advantages or disadvantages, it is obvious that the use of plutonium is, in fact, feasible and the disadvantages are highly unlikely to affect your health and well being. You probably should be more worried about dying in an automobile accident or a plane crash.


1.) http://world-nuclear.org/reference/pdf/uoc-study.pdf

2.) laplace.ee.latrobe.edu.au:8080/~kh…statements/perspectives -on-plutonium.html (A Perspective on the Dangers of Plutonium)

3.) letrs.nasa.gov/cgi-bin/LeTRS/browse.pl?1994/E-8242.html (Nuclear Electric Propulsion)

4.) spacelink.msfc.nasa.gov/NASA. Proje…icles/Proposes.Sysytems/Nuclear.Propulsion ( NASA fact sheet, Dec. 1991)

5.) tqd.advanced.org/3471.nuclear_politics_body.html (Nuclear Politics)

6.) www.epa.gov/docs?RadonPubs/citquide.txt.html (Citizen’s Guide to Radon)

7.)www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/progress/nuclear-faq.html (Questions about Nuclear Energy)

8.) www.ieer.org/ieer/fctsheet/fm_hlth.html (IEER: Fissile Materials Health & Environmental Dangers)

9.) www.nucmet.com/CompOver.html (NMI Company Overview)

10.) www.teleport.com/~aaugiee/plu.htm (Background on Pu-238/239)

11.) www.uilondon.org/nfc.html (The Nuclear Fuel Cycle)

12.) www.uilondon.org/ci3_plu.html (Core Issues no.3, The Uranium Institute 1995)

13.) www.uic.com.au/nip18.htm (Plutonium)

C/ENS Zack Beecher
Bn Public Affairs Officer
Capt. Armed Regulation DT