The Great Plutonium Problem
By James Donahue
I was attending a public meeting of a local city council when a representative of the electric company
asked for a resolution supporting the plan to make Yucca Mountain, Nevada, the national depository for nuclear waste.
I suspect my mouth dropped open in disbelief as I listened to this man's spiel. I suspect it was
memorized from a company promotional sheet. It was clear that he was not thinking about what he was saying.
"The material will be sealed in lead canisters and placed in a vault 1,000 feet underground, and
surrounded by lava rock," the man said.
After politely listening to the presentation, members of the council responded like robots, someone
making a motion to approve the resolution, and another one seconding the motion. Before it came to a vote, however, I asked
"Did you hear what this man just said," I asked. "He told you that radioactive plutonium from nuclear
power plants all over the United States is going to be stored in lava rock. That means it is being placed in the heart
of a sleeping volcano. Is that what you really want to do?
"Do you know what would happen if that volcano suddenly erupted again after sleeping for a few thousand
years? There would be a nuclear meltdown such as the world has never seen. And since Yucca Mountain is in the southwest part
of the United States, the westerly trade winds would blow radioactive materials all over us. The United States could be turned
into a wasteland overnight. Is this what you really want?" I asked.
There was silence in the room. Then one voting member of the board suggested that they still pass
the resolution, but remove the paragraph that named Yucca Mountain as the depository. That way they would follow the letter
of the resolution which, basically, said, you can store nuclear waste, just not in our back yard.
(By the way, Yucca Mountain was recently hit by a magnitude 5.6 earthquake.)
While traces of plutonium can be found in nature, it is generally not a natural substance. It is
made by bombarding uranium to create neptunium-238, which then decays into plutonium. We bombard uranium in our power plants
to generate heat.
The disposal of plutonium, a waste product from using uranium to heat nuclear electric plants and
run our Navy's ships has been a serious problem. It is a deadly waste product that remains hot for a very long time.
The Russians tried dumping plutonium into the ocean and of course, that was a very bad idea. Some
people have suggested shooting the stuff into space, but do we really want all that plutonium floating around as space junk?
Certainly putting it in Yucca Mountain is not the solution.
To date, science has only found two ways to use plutonium; to make nuclear bombs and to provide
electricity for certain space probes that will travel for indefinite periods and leave the solar system. We successfully used
Plutonium-238 to send both the Gassini and Galileo probes into deep space.
Other than this, we have no other use for the tons of plutonium being generated by our power plants
so the stuff has to be stored someplace where (1.) it will not be stolen and turned into weapons by terrorists, (2.) humans
cannot accidentally come in contact with it, and (3.) it will not affect our environment.
The reason we need to take these precautions is because plutonium is radioactive, and it remains "hot"
for thousands of years. Plutonium-244, for example, has a half-life of about 82,000,000 years. Once we make it, it takes a
very long time for this stuff to go away.
My suggestion for what it is worth, is to:
(1.) Stop using nuclear power plants and stop making plutonium immediately.
(2.) Find the most unpopulated, isolated and uninhabitable piece of land anywhere on this planet;
possibly in the heart of a desert. There we should build a giant concrete, lead and steel encased bunker that not only sinks
into the earth, but protrudes well above the ground for everybody to recognize. All of the world's nuclear waste should then
be sealed in this thing, and it should be clearly marked as highly radioactive, deadly, and off limits to everybody. Then
we place legions of solders at the site to guard it from human contact forever.