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Plutonium Our Country

Plutonium, Our Country’s Only Feasible Solution Essay, Research Paper
Should we begin to manufacture one of the most destructive and infamous
substances on the face on the Earth once again? The engineers say yes, but
the public says no. The United States stopped making this element with the
ban on manufacturing nuclear weapons. But with the continuing problem with
our ever diminishing energy sources, 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
After the United States dropped “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” on Japan ending
World War II, the public has had some type of understanding about the
power of plutonium and its devastating properties, but that is all anyone
After WWII, Americans started to think about what the atomic bomb could do
to the U.S. and its people. When anyone mentioned plutonium or the word
“nuclear” the idea of Hiroshima or Nagasaki being destroyed was the first
thing people thought about. No one could even ponder the idea that it
could be used for other more constructive things like sources of energy or
to kept a person’s heart beating. Then we started to build more reactors
and produce more of the substance but mostly for our nuclear weapons
Along with reactors, sometimes comes a meltdown which 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
the Chernobyl site, no one wanted to hear about the use of plutonium. The
United States government banned nuclear testing and also ended the
production of plutonium.(Ref. 5) Now we are in a dilemma.
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. The man’s name, Glenn T.
Seaborg, and what did he discover?, the element plutonium.(ref. 10)
Plutonium, or Pu #94 on the periodic table, is one of the most unstable
elements on the earth. It is formed when Uranium 235, another highly
unstable element, absorbs a neutron. Plutonium is a silvery-white metal
that has a very high density of 19.816 g/cm3.(ref. 10 ) It has been
rarely found in the earth’s crust but the majority of the substance has to
be produced in the cores 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 advantageous for the United States. It can be used
for several purposes. 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
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 countrys’ 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
mucous flow from the throat and bronchial system and released as with
ingestion. However, 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
radionuclides 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. Everyone who lives in homes, works in offices or goes to
school, can be affected by the gas. 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 life time?
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
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. ans.neep.wise.edu/~ans/point_source/AEI/may95/plutonium_eff.html
(AEI: May 1995, How Deadly is Plutonium)
2. laplace.ee.latrobe.edu.au:8080/~kh…statements/perspectives
(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.
( 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
13. www.uic.com.au/nip18.htm (Plutonium)

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