Our Dangerous National Shortage of Plutonium

A very brief history lesson:

During the Cold War, with the emphasis on nuclear weapons the USA and USSR both felt to be necessary to secure their nations, the USA constructed a vast network of national labs for the manufacture of nuclear and non-nuclear weapons components and the research required to produce those components. Those labs make up the backbone of the national labs of the US Department of Energy. At the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina near Augusta, Georgia plutonium was manufactured for these weapons. When the Soviet Union fell in the early 1990s and Russia transitioned to a government that promised to be friendly to the US and to embrace a free-market economy, we slowly set about trimming down our capacity to produce nuclear weapons, as a token of goodwill and a means of furthering treaties in the hope the Russians would also commit to fewer nukes. 

Now, in 2015, here's the situation: As the excellent article I linked to below at Nature explains, we're running out of plutonium isotopes and fast. Why do we need them? Well, for one thing, NASA uses Plutonium-238 in fueling long-range space probes, the type of unmanned spacecraft it sends on far-flung missions to explore planets like Jupiter. There are other peaceful, valid, research needs for plutonium also, to say nothing of the fact many of our retained nuclear warheads are reaching the limits of their service lives. Yet the Savannah River Site, which is the new name for the Savannah River Plant, has not only shut down but decommissioned its reactors capable of producing plutonium. Many of those reactors are being fully stripped of equipment and entombed in concrete so they can never be reactivated. As this article in Nature notes, Oak Ridge Labs has the ability to refine plutonium if it indeed can find any to refine, but even then only a handful of technicians and engineers know how to do this because most people trained in the complex task have retired. To train the current folks doing the job, they had to ask retired guys to come in and teach them. No one had thought about even keeping the know-how to refine plutonium around. This isn't blacksmithing, this isn't some obscure craft from the 1300s, it's technology once vital to our nation that got thrown out with the bath-water in the 1990s. And now, a few decades later, we find we lack any ability to do what we need to do to even give NASA the small amount of Plutonium-238 they require. 

As I noted, Oak Ridge can refine plutonium (probably, as long as they have a few guys who know how) if they have any to refine. So, if we cannot make it in South Carolina any more, where's it coming from? Russia. What plutonium Oak Ridge in recent years has refined for NASA's use has come from Russia. We bought it from Russia, because Russia, though they in fact have reduced their nuclear arsenal just as we have, retained their nuclear labs that produced key materials. They retained those facilities because they saw the need for medical isotopes and research isotopes. They retained those facilities in fully compact with the treaties for nuclear reduction they signed. It was possible to do so, but the USA just didn't see the need. So now we buy plutonium from our former enemy for peaceful purposes. 

This isn't some right-wing crackpot theory. The article I link to below is from Nature, which is one of the most-respected academic journals of biological science in the world. This reality can be proven and the DOE and NRC will readily admit we lack the core capacity to produce not only plutonium but most research and medical isotopes in America. We get the medical isotopes now mainly from Canada. 

My primary career as a journalist is writing about political and economic issues in the former Soviet Union. I speak and read Russian and I follow their press. It's widely-known in the West that Russia's President Vladimir Putin has some degree of contempt for his American counterparts, especially for President Obama. This is why: Putin was a colonel in the KGB before going into politics. When he entered politics, he was a security issues advisor—he only got into the higher levels of politics much later and because Boris Yeltsin encouraged him. He was much like Condi Rice, a policy person, not a professional office-winner. He saw the need to retain research and production facilities germane to nuclear weapons and technology for the security of his nation. And he understandably in contrast has little respect for American leaders who failed to do the same, especially when they're knocking on his door to buy plutonium now. There is much I do not like about Putin, but he got this one right. No nation should be dependent on another, possible rival, nation for core national security materials. That should be so easy for anyone to understand. 

Very few politicians give a second thought to the Savannah River Site now. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) being from South Carolina and having served an impressive 33-year career in the Air Force, retiring recently with the rank of colonel, is the only major political figure who even talks about the SRS. It's doubtful unless Sen. Graham himself raises the issue that our lack of plutonium production capacity will surface in the 2016 presidential debates. 

Let's recap:

—The US currently has no dedicated and viable reactor capacity for general plutonium production.

—Use of non-dedicated reactors is possibly, but cumbersome. 

—Recovery of extant plutonium from sources in the US is difficult.

—Dedicated facilities for the processing and refinement of plutonium are few, and the technicians there who know how to undertake such processing also number few and many are approaching retirement age. 

 —The Savannah River Site now is focused mainly on nuclear waste storage, processing, and research germane to a number of national energy concerns. It no longer produces plutonium. The Idaho National Lab has theoretical capacity to produce plutonium, but that's not its core mission. However, if we needed plutonium—not refined, mind you, either—tomorrow in any decent amount, it would have to come from outside the US, unless there is some in reserve that no one is talking about. (Which is highly unlikely. People I have spoken with in government and industry alike conclude that after the Cold War, plutonium was seen as a horrible relic of our fears of a nuclear showdown with the Soviets, and was literally erased from our national focus.)

The aforementioned article at Nature is great, though it mainly focuses on NASA and Oak Ridge. It was published less than a year ago and nothing really has changed since its publication. It's very worth reading and very alarming for anyone who understands how long it takes to establish a supply line for something like Plutonium-238. We in essence have willingly dismantled our native ability to produce isotopes required for space exploration and national defense. And to me, thats' a disgrace. 

The article from Nature:


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