On the Disposal of Plutonium

by Kyu C. Kim

The ideas presented in this editorial are the author's and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Los Alamos National Laboratory, the University of California, the Department of Energy, or the U.S. Government.

Looking forward to the dawn of a new century and the second millenium, the Actinide Research Quarterly (ARQ) requested and was granted an audience with Dr. Actinide to talk on the subject of plutonium, the "element of this century."

ARQ: For over 50 years the nuclear nations of this world were engaged in the race to produce plutonium for their nuclear weapons stockpile, which, we are told, helped maintain world peace based on the insane dogma of mutually assured destruction (MAD). With the end of the Cold War we are now rushing toward finding ways of disposing of what's called "excess plutonium" from retired nuclear weapons. What are your thoughts on this element that you are all too familiar with in the universal element chart (our discovery number 94)?

Dr. Actinide: A quite natural sequence of events although on occasions I was quite concerned about the madness that prevailed among some of you living through the dawn of your nuclear age.

ARQ: In addition to this urgent desire to dispose of plutonium, the following concerns seem to be of paramount importance: preventing theft and proliferation of nuclear weapons, protecting the public and environment from contamination, and if economically feasible, using plutonium as a viable energy source to fuel further progress.

Dr. Actinide: Admirable concerns for the human species and the world's citizens, indeed.

ARQ: But the problem of disposing of plutonium is compounded because plutonium now appears mixed in many different things. Besides, plutonium present in our environment now presents a contamination hazard.

Dr. Actinide: The dispersion of plutonium is as natural as can be. Contamination is in the eyes and minds of humans. Undo the mixing if that's what you wish to do. However, I would expect that you should not spread plutonium any more than you've done already by such silly activities as exploding it in the atmosphere or dumping it in your ocean.

ARQ: The most commonly suggested solutions to plutonium disposal fall in one of the following categories: burying it, glass-logging it, burning it, mixing it, and storing it.

Dr. Actinide: Such a cacophony of nonsense. You introduced it into the world; now that you have it, learn to live with it.

ARQ: One of the important concerns we have associated with any of these disposal scenarios is waste generation. More so than with any other human activity, the handling of radioactive materials inevitably increases waste.

Dr. Actinide: Remember all elements are radioactive on the Creator's time scale, some more so than others. It is nature's law that the total energy of the universe is conserved. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed. An element such as plutonium, a form of this energy, cannot be destroyed at will. Some of you may argue that an element undesirable to human species can be transformed to a more desirable form. But remember also that you do not control the outcome of such transformation of the elemental stuff.

ARQ: Yes, we know that we live in an environment of natural radioactivity and, therefore, it is unnatural to think of a "radiation-free" environment. For example, the world oceans contain, although diluted, the largest amount of uranium, another element of your superb expertise. We never hear anyone suggesting that we should clean up the ocean of its radioactivity. There's also cosmic radiation and radiation in the buildings we work in and live in, the food we eat, the air we breathe.

Dr. Actinide: That's right. You are a product of the earth, this wonderful place we live in. Plutonium also is here to stay with you and your children. The prudent thing for you to do is to manage and safeguard it properly so that you can draw from it more benefit than harm.

ARQ: Dr. Actinide, you'll grant that's easier said than done....

Dr. Actinide: Almost everything is. Among all things created, ironically for humankind, plutonium may turn out to be one of those elemental magnets that makes human beings all come together and cooperate to find a lasting solution to this uniquely human problem. That's the challenge.

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