Plutonium, space exploration program. People need to understand

Plutonium, Our Country’s Only Feasible SolutionShould we begin to manufacture one of the most destructive and infamoussubstances on the face on the Earth once again? The engineers say yes, butthe public says no. The United States stopped making this element with theban on manufacturing nuclear weapons.

But with the continuing problem withour ever diminishing energy sources, some want us to begin using morenuclear energy and less energy from natural resources. This paper is goingto discuss what plutonium is, the advantages and disadvantages of its use,and why we should think about restarting our production of this usefulAfter the United States dropped “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” on Japan endingWorld War II, the public has had some type of understanding about thepower of plutonium and its devastating properties, but that is all anyoneAfter WWII, Americans started to think about what the atomic bomb could doto the U.S.

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and its people. When anyone mentioned plutonium or the word”nuclear” the idea of Hiroshima or Nagasaki being destroyed was the firstthing people thought about. No one could even ponder the idea that itcould be used for other more constructive things like sources of energy orto kept a person’s heart beating.

Then we started to build more reactorsand produce more of the substance but mostly for our nuclear weaponsAlong with reactors, sometimes comes a meltdown which can produce harmfuleffects if it isn’t controlled quickly enough. After such instances as theHanford, Washington reactor meltdown and the accident in the U.S.S.R. atthe Chernobyl site, no one wanted to hear about the use of plutonium. TheUnited States government banned nuclear testing and also ended theproduction of plutonium.

(Ref. 5) Now we are in a dilemma.We are in need of future sources of energy to power our nation. We arerunning out of coal and oil to run our power plants.(Ref. 7) We also needit to further our space exploration program.

People need to understand theadvantages to using plutonium and that the disadvantages are not ascatastrophic as they seem. With the turn of the century on its way, thereemergence of plutonium production will need to be a reality for us toIn 1941, a scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, discoveredsomething 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 unstableelements on the earth.

It is formed when Uranium 235, another highlyunstable element, absorbs a neutron. Plutonium is a silvery-white metalthat has a very high density of 19.816 g/cm3.

(ref. 10 ) It has beenrarely found in the earth’s crust but the majority of the substance has tobe produced in the cores of nuclear reactors. Plutonium can be found fifteen different forms, or isotopes and their massnumber can range from 232-246.(ref. 13) Radionuclide batteries used inpacemakers use Pu-238, while Pu-239 is used in reactors and for Nuclearweapons.(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 usedfor several purposes. The three major advantages to using this element arefor an energy source, power for nuclear propulsion in space explorationand thermo-electric generators in cardiac pacemakers. The first use for plutonium, nuclear power, is obviously the mostbeneficial use.

Plutonium 239 can be used to power nuclear reactors. Theaverage nuclear reactor contains about 325 kilograms of plutonium withinits uranium fuel.(ref. 7) This complements the uranium fission process.With the continually decreasing supply of coal and oil to power ournation, we need a substitute to complement our energy needs and right nowthe best replacement is that of nuclear energy.(ref.

7) At the momentthere are one hundred and ten nuclear power plants in the United Statesand they produce one-fifth of the nations electricity. Nuclear energy hasbeen proven to be the cheapest, safest, cleanest and probably the mostNuclear power plants do not use as much fuel as the plants burning coaloil. One ton of uranium produces more energy than several million tons ofcoal 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 weneed is more pollution to worsen the greenhouse effect. Nuclear power plants cannot contaminate the environment because they donot release any type of pollution.(ref. 2) Plutonium can also be recycledby using a enrichment process.

This will produce even more energy. Coalis left by their uses is what has been contaminating our atmosphere sinceYou might ask how exactly is plutonium converted into an energy source?Well it is obviously quite complicated to explain. Basically, power comesfrom the fission process of an atom of the element and produces over tenmillion times the energy produced by an atom of carbon from coal. Onekilogram of plutonium consumed for three years in a reactor can produceheat to give ten million kilowatt-hours of electricity. This amount isenough to power over one-thousand Australian households.(ref. 7) Presented with this information, it is only common sense that we shouldnot depend upon fossil fuels to take us into the 21st century.

It isobvious that our future lies in the hands of nuclear reactors and the useThe second major use for plutonium is for space exploration with itspower nuclear propulsion. Nuclear electric propulsion is using energy fromplutonium to power space vehicles.(ref. 3) One of the major goals of NASAspace program is to, one day, get to Mars, and it looks like the only wayit is going to happen in our current fiscal condition, is if we useplutonium, instead of chemical fuel, to power our explorations. Nuclearelectric propulsion can be defined as using small plutonium based bricks,to power space vehicles for interplanetary trips. Nuclear electric systemsprovide very low thrust levels and use only very small amounts of fuelduring the voyage.(ref.

3,4) Using electric propulsion also allows the useof less fuel making the spacecrafts launch weight much lower than it wouldThe last beneficial use for plutonium is for cardiac pacemakers. Thethermo-electric generator which is powered by radionuclide batteries thatOne of the obvious uses of plutonium, whether is an advantage ordisadvantage, is for weaponry. It is an advantage if we need to use itagainst a foe, but it is disadvantageous is our foes use it against theNow that we are at the hands of the Non-proliferation Treaty and the TestBan Treaty, we no longer can make and/or test nuclear weapons.(ref.

5)This should help end ideas about nuclear war and other disadvantages tohaving plutonium in other countrys’ supplies. Now that we have recognizedthree important uses for Plutonium and that the threat of nuclear war isno longer as feasible as before, we should recognize the disadvantages ofthis great energy source. They mostly have to do with excess waste andhealth effects from the use of nuclear energy. In 1986, a reactor located in Russia at the Chernobyl power plant had ameltdown and radiation escaped from the plant.

(ref. 8) Several dozen diedfrom this incident. Nuclear explosions produce radiation. When it comeswithin human contact, radiation hurts cells which can sicken people. Thecause of the Chernobyl meltdown was mostly because of human error. Theytried to perform an experiment at a time when they shouldn’t have, andmany people paid for their incompetence. There are waste disposal problems that occur with the use of nuclearreactors. Waste also produces radiation which can be lethal.

Since wastecan hurt and kill people who come in contact with the substance, it cannotbe thrown away in a dumpster like other garbage. Waste has to be put incooling pools or storage tanks at the site of the reactors. Anotherproblem is that the reactors can last for a maximum of fifty years. Eventhough plutonium is chemically hazardous and produces harmful radiation,it isn’t close to being the most toxic substance on the planet. Suchsubstances as caffeine or radiation from smoke detectors, that have thesame amount of mass as plutonium, can have a greater toxicity.(ref. 2)There are basically three ways plutonium can hurt humans. The first isingestion.

Ingestion, though not totally safe, it is not as bad as wethink. The fact is, plutonium passes through the stomach and intestinesand cannot be absorbed and therefore, is released with other waste weThe second route plutonium can take to be hazardous is through openwounds. This form of contact is very rare and basically cannot happen ifthe element is handled correctly with protective measures such as correctclothing 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 themucous flow from the throat and bronchial system and released as withingestion. However, some could get trapped and put into the blood streamor lymph nodes.

(ref. 1) This has the possibility to cause cancer in thefuture. This might sound frightening, but what we need to realize is thattype of substance is part of some of our daily lives. The problem of inhaling Pu-239 isn’t much different than inhaling suchradionuclides like decaying particles from radon. Radon is a radioactivecancer.(ref. 6) It comes from the decay of uranium in soil, rock andwater.

Inhaling this substance can damage your lungs and lead to cancerover a lifetime. Everyone who lives in homes, works in offices or goes toschool, can be affected by the gas. If you live in a brick house, youcould be taking a serious risk if you don’t get the radon level tested.

A1990 National Safety Council report showed that radon causes, on theaverage, approximately 14,000 deaths a year and can go as high as 30,000After learning about what radon gas can do to humans, shouldn’t we be moreconcerned about what a naturally occurring substance can do rather thanworrying about what plutonium, and its rare contamination might do. Also,how many American citizens will actually have a chance to come in contactwith any plutonium isotope in their life time?As you can see, if we start to produce plutonium once again, we willbenefit greatly from its use. We can use it to help power nuclear reactorswhich can power our nation.

It can also be recycled and used once againwhich is one thing fossil fuels cannot do. Nuclear electric propulsion andits use of plutonium will help power space exploration into the nextcentury and maybe even get us to Mars. Pu-238 is also helpful in poweringcardiac pacemakers, one of the great biomedical inventions of the1900’s.With these constructive and productive uses, we shouldn’t even debate onthe fact that we need plutonium for the future. You may think that byproducing plutonium, it will automatically go toward our nuclear weaponsprogram.

With non-proliferation and testing banned, this, obviously, is nolonger an option. What about nuclear waste and radiation exposure? Well,unless an individual does not use safety precautions and other preventivemeasures when and if he handles the substance, he or she shouldn’t expectless of radiation poisoning and contamination. If you’re still concerned about exposure to nuclear radiation, you’re infor a big surprise when you find out you can’t avoid it. There is more ofradon gas than there is from plutonium.(ref. 6) After considering allthese factors, whether they are advantages or disadvantages, it is obviousthat the use of plutonium is, in fact, feasible and the disadvantages arehighly unlikely to affect your health and well being.

You probably shouldbe more worried about dying in an automobile accident or a plane crash.Bibliography:1. ans.neep.wise.

edu/ans/point_source/AEI/may95/plutonium_eff.html (AEI: May 1995, How Deadly is Plutonium)2. laplace.…statements/perspectives-on-plutonium.

html(A Perspective on the Dangers of Plutonium)3. (Nuclear Electric Propulsion)4.…

icles/Proposes.Sysytems/Nuclear.Propulsion( NASA fact sheet, Dec. 1991)5. tqd. (Nuclear Politics)6. www.epa.

gov/docs?RadonPubs/citquide.txt.html (Citizen’s Guide to Radon)7.

html (Questions about Nuclear Energy)8. Fissile Materials Health & Environmental Dangers)9.

html (NMI Company Overview)10. www.teleport.

com/aaugiee/plu.htm (Background on Pu-238/239)11. www. (The Nuclear Fuel Cycle)12. www. (Core Issues no.3, The Uranium Institute1995)13. (Plutonium)


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