Plutonium is vile, nasty stuff. It’s poisonous, highly radioactive, spontaneously combusts and some isotopes have a half-life of 12,400 years. Which means it will decay to something harmless only on geologic time scales. It’s literally unnatural: it doesn’t occur in nature. Essentially all of the plutonium on the planet was made by mankind. And, of course, it’s the core of one kind of nuclear bomb.
The United States, in its Cold War zealotry, manufactured about 34 more tons of the stuff than was needed. That’s right, after making enough nuclear weapons to sterilize the planet a dozen times over, there was still 34 tons of plutonium sitting on the shelf.1
What to do with 34 tonnes of arguably the most dangerous stuff on the globe?
Congress had the idea of mixing it with Uranium and other stuff in Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel rods for nuclear power plants. It’s been done in Europe. Conceptually, the idea is dubious, because plutonium only makes up about 5 percent of a MOX fuel rod. Disposing of 34 tonnes of plutonium would require manufacture of a staggering number of fuel rods, at a time when nuclear energy is contracting. Who would use these special MOX fuel rods? And because the MOX rods would contain plutonium, there would have to be modifications to existing plants to deal with the additional radiation before MOX fuel rods could be used in most existing reactors.
But Congress went ahead anyway, because Jobs. The projected cost of the MOX fuel rod manufacturing facility in South Carolina was $5 billion. Some folks say that the total cost would be more like $50 billion, what with cost overruns, replacement of shoddy work done so far and design flaws.
The Obama Administration unsuccessfully tried to cancel boondoggle. Now the Trump Administration has joined the call mix the plutonium with inert stuff and bury it somewhere safe. That would cost a projected $20 billion. Before the obligatory cost overruns, of course.
Even Secretary of Energy Rick “Box o’ Rocks” Perry recognizes MOX fuel rides and the boondoggle at Savannah River are not a solution. When the best outcome of a decision tree is piles and piles of unused and unusable, highly radioactive fuel rods you haven’t solved any problems. You’ve just used billions of dollars to exchange one problem for another.2
Burying the stuff seems to be the only practical answer at this point. Dilute it, bind it to stuff that makes it impossible to separate it out again and then bury it, bury it deep.
- Hanford Atomic Works, in Washington, where the plutonium was made, and Rocky Flats, in Colorado, where it was shaped into bomb components, are massive Superfund sites, sinkholes for epic amounts of taxpayer monies. Some, like the central part of Rocky Mountain Flats, will be dangerously radioactive for millennia. ↩
- This hasn’t stopped the Governor of South Carolina from shrieking with dismay at the suggestion the boondoggle be stopped. WC to South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster: visit Rocky Flats, Colorado and speak to the cancer victims there. Then spend some time studying the sunk cost fallacy. Then get back to WC. ↩