By Donella Meadows
–June 16, 1988–
The element called plutonium did not exist on earth until 1941, when Glenn T. Seaborg made the first measurable amounts of it by bombarding uranium with neutrons. Soon the government was working feverishly to accumulate enough plutonium for an atomic bomb.
It took just 13 pounds of plutonium to level the city of Nagasaki.
Plutonium is deadly not only as bomb material, but as a toxin and carcinogen. John McPhee writes in his book The Curve of Binding Energy: “A thousandth of a gram of plutonium taken into the lungs as invisible specks of dust will kill anyone — a death from massive fibrosis of the lungs in a matter of hours, or at most a few days. Even a millionth of a gram is likely, eventually, to cause lung or bone cancer. Plutonium that enters the bloodstream follows the path of calcium. Seatttling in bones, it gives off short-range alpha particles … and these effectively destroy the ability of bone marrow to produce white blood cells.”
Since 1941 the U.S. government has accumulated 200,000 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium — enough, by Nagasaki standards, to destroy 15,000 cities. The Russians have about the same amount. Presuming that it will not be blown up in an Ultimate Explosion, that plutonium will have to be protected from human contact, from the environment, and from terrorists, for a long, long time. Its half-life (the time it takes for half of it to decay) is 24,360 years.
Some people, contemplating the grand sweep of history, would say that the creation and stockpiling of plutonium is the most dangerous and immoral activity ever undertaken by human beings. Others, who believe in deterrence through Mutually Assured Destruction, would say that plutonium is a necessary evil, but enough of it now exists for any conceivable strategic purpose. Then there is the Reagan administration, which is planning two new military reactors, costing from $10 to $24 billion, to make more plutonium. This project is being pushed hard to be well on track before the November elections.
The government’s plutonium-producing reactors at Hanford, Washington, and Savannah River, South Carolina, are over 25 years old. The Hanford reactor was mothballed in 1987, probably permanently. One reactor at Savannah River has been shut down because of a crack in its reactor vessel. The other was cut back to 50 percent power after the National Academy found it unsafe a year ago. It now produces about 1000 pounds of plutonium per year.
If that last reactor shuts down, would the national defense be weakened? Department of Energy Secretary John Herrington, who oversees these facilities, says no. “We’re awash in plutonium,” he told Congress last winter. “We have more plutonium than we need.” The retirement of intermediate-range weapons under the INF treaty will yield 4000 pounds of reclaimable plutonium. The USSR has expressed interest in a fissile material production cutoff. And if the 50 percent cut in strategic weapons discussed by Reagan and Gorbachev ever comes to pass, both superpowers will be faced with enormous plutonium surpluses.
Furthermore, billions of dollars are badly needed not for new reactors, but to clean up the old ones. The military has never been held to the standards of the civilian nuclear industry, and its gross mismanagement of hazardous materials is just coming to light. Hanford is considered the most contaminated site in the non-Soviet world. The Environmental Policy Institute calls Savannah River a 300-square mile “national sacrifice area”, where soil and water will remain toxic for longer into the future than human beings have kept records of the past.
At Hanford radioactive water is routinely pumped into the ground. An underground plume of radioactivity stretches six miles to the Columbia River, a drinking water and irrigation source for two states. At Savannah River 33 million gallons of high-level nuclear wastes are stored in underground tanks that are leaking. The tanks drain into the Savannah River and sit above the Tuscaloosa aquifer that runs through South Carolina, Georgia, and parts of Alabama and Florida. Radioactive strontium-90 is being found in surface water in concentrations 43,000 times the safe standard for drinking.
The cost to clean up military nuclear wastes is estimated at $100 billion. Of that amount $1 billion is being sought this year — which promises a mighty slow cleanup.
Congress need be in no hurry to approve the new production reactors. First it should set up a secure funding mechanism to clean up existing contamination on a much more rapid schedule. Second, it should hold the military to at least the same standards civilian nuclear plants have to meet. Third, it should order the immediate cessation of all plutonium production until the current disarmament discussions are complete and until a need for more plutonium can be demonstrated. Finally, at its leisure, Congress can consider the possible need for new reactors to produce tritium, another radioactive bomb material with a half-life of only 12.3 years.
Eventually Congress and all the rest of us will have to turn our attention to the really difficult question — what to do with hundreds of thousands of pounds of deadly plutonium, which was created by this generation in fifty years of madness, and which future generations will have to safeguard or suffer from for tens of thousands of years of sorrow.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988