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October 25, 2006 | South Carolina Headlines


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What's got SC all aglow?
Jonathan Pait
August 16, 2001

It’s shiny. It’s expensive. It’s rare. It’s warm. It melts at about 1186 degrees Fahrenheit. It boils at 5850 degrees. It has our state politics all aglow.

It’s plutonium, of course. What do we really know about this stuff? Sure, we know all about the political posturing, but what about the source of this controversy?

We’ve known about plutonium since around 1941 when a man named Seaborg (no, not cyborg) and his friends at UC Berkeley discovered it. It wasn’t that they were digging around someplace to find it. You see, plutonium doesn’t exist naturally—at least in significant quantities. You have to derive it from uranium. Yep, that stuff some folks in the Upstate have in their water.

We got our first nuclear reactor in 1944 at a Hanford, Washington location. They didn’t build it to power Seattle either. They were planning to build a bomb. They put uranium-238 (an isotope you probably won’t find in your drinking water) in the reactor. It absorbed neutrons, released a bunch of heat (which could have been used to create power for Seattle) and left plutonium. This nuclear “waste” was to be used for creating nuclear bombs.

Now days, it takes about 15 pounds of plutonium to create a bomb. With the Cold War coming to an end, there is a bunch of the stuff out there because the US and the former Soviet Union dismantled lots of bombs. At one point there was over 100 tons of weapons grade plutonium without a warhead to call home. Add that to the “waste” coming from nuclear generators and you’ve got plenty of shiny, expensive and warm heavy metal to take care of.

What to do? Well, believe it or not, you can recycle plutonium. No, it won’t be used to make soda cans. It can be used to generate power. “Hold it,” you say “I thought you said it was waste from nuclear power generators.” It is, but the plutonium can be treated, mixed with uranium and reused in a reactor. Countries such as Britain, France and Japan already use this process to get more bang for their buck—oops, I mean power for their buck.

The US has up to this point been slow to adopt this process. The reason is that you want to be careful just who has access to plutonium. If fifteen pounds a weapon makes, you don’t want just anyone handling the stuff. Also, plutonium may be shiny and pretty, but it is also deadly. The radiation from the metal is absorbed into your bones’ marrow and destroys all kinds of important blood cells. It would not have to be a terrorist interested in blowing things up to misuse the metal. They may decide to slowly contaminate the water supply of a major city.

The choice that the US has settled on for many years has been to treat the plutonium, encase it in graphite and bury it deep in the earth. However, recently the US has begun to look at both options. Some of the plutonium will be buried and some will be used to find the most efficient way to reuse it.

According to the Nuclear Control Institute, there are four sites under consideration for using plutonium to create power. The Savannah River Site is one of those sites. Duke Power’s Catawba Nuclear Power Plant would also like to have a part in the process. If the DOE timeline is accurate, we could see places like SRS converting what was meant to destroy, into clean power for our region within the next four to five years.

Of course, some don't see it that way and we have heard a lot from them. This article from The Upstate Common Voice is the beginning of our attempt to bring you "the rest of the story."

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