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.



(AEI: May 1995, How Deadly is Plutonium)



(A Perspective on the Dangers of Plutonium)


(Nuclear Electric Propulsion)



( NASA fact sheet, Dec. 1991)

5. (Nuclear Politics)

6. (Citizen’s Guide to Radon)


(Questions about Nuclear Energy)


(IEER: Fissile Materials Health & Environmental Dangers)

9. (NMI Company Overview)

10. (Background on Pu-238/239)

11. (The Nuclear Fuel Cycle)

12. (Core Issues no.3, The Uranium Institute


13. (Plutonium)

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