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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Quick, pass the plutonium

The situation with plutonium from disassembled nuclear weapons in the United States is almost too horrifying to contemplate. —
The situation with plutonium from disassembled nuclear weapons in the United States is almost too horrifying to contemplate. — 123RF Stock Photo

So, writing columns is a fine way to make a living, but what about the world of the near-apocalyptic thriller?

Try this one on for size.

The year is 2019, the location, the United States of America.

Partial nuclear disarmament in the 1990s has left a curious legacy for several U.S. states: they’re playing “hot potato” with radioactively hot plutonium — tons and tons of extremely hazardous plutonium.

Much of it is in the form of what are called “pits” — pits are the central core of disassembled nuclear weapons, the triggering device that sets off the big boom, and there are thousands of them.

The plutonium sometimes moves back and forth from different locations in different states, as the U.S. government tries to find ways to safely dispose of the material, which it has committed in arms treaties to get rid of. The U.S. has tried several ways: one method is to encapsulate the plutonium in ceramic or glass beads, while another is to oxidize the plutonium, enabling it to be combined with uranium and used in fuel for commercial nuclear power plants in the U.S.

But ballooning budgets and slow time lines mean only a fraction of the plutonium has been dealt with, despite 22 years of effort. Early plans grew from US$1.7 billion (with completion of facilities in 2019) to a price tag of US$17.2 billion, and completion in 2048. The complete costs, including operating expenses, jumped from US$19.6 billion to US$49.4 billion before the plug was pulled in 2018.

Tight budgets, court cases and technological challenges keep slowing things down. The U.S. government settled on a plan to dilute and dispose of the plutonium, but doesn’t yet have a secure underground facility to hold the waste.

There’s 57.2 metric tonnes of plutonium waiting for disposal, the majority of it pits from dismantled weapons.

And it only takes 4.5 pounds of plutonium to building a working nuclear bomb.

It’s only a matter of time before something goes wrong …

(Interjection from Russell’s editors: “We don’t pay you to write fiction, Russell, not even near-apocalyptic fiction. So get back to work.”)

It only takes 4.5 pounds of plutonium to build a working nuclear bomb.

But, see, that’s the best part of my thriller.

It isn’t fiction at all.

A recent U.S. government report by the General Accounting Office — titled “Surplus Plutonium Disposition: NNSA’s Long-Term Plutonium Oxide Production Plans Are Uncertain,” — took a detailed look at the unsuccessful efforts and was pretty blunt about the dangers of the 57.2 metric tonnes of plutonium that the U.S. is actively trying to dispose of, much of it weapons-grade: “The threat of state or non-state actors, such as terrorists, developing nuclear or radiological weapons by obtaining some of this plutonium poses one of the greatest challenges to U.S. and international security, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration.”

And, like I said, it only takes 4.5 pounds.

Couple that with a recent U.S. Army War College report on climate change and the U.S. Army. The report points out that the U.S. power grid is critically weak and old and notes, “Department of Defense installations are 99 per cent reliant on the U.S. power grid for electrical power generation due to the decommissioning of autonomous power generation capability for budgetary cost saving measures over the last two decades.”

In other words, an attack on the grid — or just the grid’s failure — could quickly and critically affect the U.S. Army’s ability to protect strategic assets in the U.S.: “Defense of the homeland requires reliable access to power generation capabilities to protect critical infrastructure areas, maintain sovereign security, and provide aid to the nation’s population when needed.”

Including, presumably, all that sometimes-travelling, sometime-stationary tonnage of waste plutonium.

Meanwhile, as the U.S. General Accounting office report pointed out last week, the best choice for the plutonium would be “a deep geologic repository has been considered the safest and most secure method for disposing of high-level waste.”

Their immediate chaser on that line? “Currently, the United States does not have an operational high-level waste repository.”

What an interesting and terrifying world we live in.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire publications across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky


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