Nuclear Energy, Plutonium and Radioactive Power Part 2 Problems and Plutonium

About the problems with nuclear power including the poisonous plutonium, a look at nuclear energy, plutonium and radioactive materials.

Leave On the Lights, but Turn Off the Plutonium

The most serious problems with fission result from the fact that a single large fission plant produces as much long-lived radioactivity as the explosion of 1,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs. And it is thought that exposing people to radiation increases their risk of cancer, genetic injuries, heart disease, and many other ailments. In unborn children, radiation apparently increases the risks of birth defects and mental retardation. Yet despite this, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) has announced plans to license 1,000 fission plants within the next 25 years. At the end of that period, a total of 2,000 reactors may exist throughout the world (New York Times, July 14, 1974), producing staggering amounts of radioactivity.

The most poisonous radioactive pollutant of the many which reactors produce is plutonium. This man-made substance, which does not otherwise occur on earth, is the explosive ingredient in nuclear weapons. It is so deadly that just 3 tablespoons contain enough radioactivity to induce cancers in over half a billion people, according to Dr. John W. Gofman, M.D., Ph.D., codiscoverer of uranium-233, and now a professor of Medical Physics at the University of California. It is probably the world's most toxic substance, he says, and an infinitesimal speck--smaller than a grain of pollen--is almost certain to cause cancer if inhaled from the air or swallowed in water. Yet the operation of 2,000 reactors will produce more than 800,000 lbs. of the stuff every year--wastes for which no disposal system exists. Instead, the plutonium must be guarded in storage sites with flawless vigilance for at least a quarter of a million years, over 125 times the length of the entire Christian era, unless a new breakthrough is made in waste technology.

The plutonium must also be kept from thieves who might divert it for terrorist purposes. Only a few lbs. of plutonium are needed to make a bomb that could obliterate cities such as San Francisco, New York, or Moscow. This destruction can be wrought with shocking ease. A secret AEC study showed that 2 physicists just out of graduate school, using literature available to the public, were able to design an atomic bomb. The supervision of plutonium is so lax currently that thousands of lbs. of plutonium and enriched uranium already are unaccounted for. The AEC presumes this stuff has been lost in the industrial process, but they don't know for sure. Equally unsettling are the results of a study done for the AEC and released in April, 1974, by Senator Abraham A. Ribicoff (Dem.-Conn.). The study termed current regulations to be "entirely inadequate" to protect weapons-grade materials. Yet, think how much more difficult preventing theft will become toward the end of this century when a million kilograms of plutonium are to be shipped annually among 2,000 plants throughout the world (New York Times, July 14, 1974).

We live in a time when virtually any country or interest group with a few trained scientists can become a nuclear power, creating an awesome risk of nuclear war or accident. Were these the only dangers of fission power, they would be grounds for abandoning it. Other problems are the unavailability of safe storage techniques for high-level nuclear wastes, the possibility of accidental catastrophic releases of radioactivity from nuclear plants, and routine radioactive emissions.

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