US resumes production of Cold War plutonium

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The Independent US

The US is poised to begin production of highly radioactive plutonium 238 - used previously to power spy satellites and space probes - for the first time since the Cold War. Officials say that the plutonium is being produced for "national security".

The US is poised to begin production of highly radioactive plutonium 238 - used previously to power spy satellites and space probes - for the first time since the Cold War. Officials say that the plutonium is being produced for "national security".

The isotope, many hundred times more radioactive than plutonium 239 which is used in nuclear arms, is to be produced at the Idaho National Laboratory, a sprawling site close to the Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Local environmental and anti-nuclear groups are concerned about possible contamination from radioactive waste: plutonium 238 is so powerful that even a speck of it is enough to cause cancer.

Officials involved in the $1.5bn (£800m) programme, which is intended to produce around 300lb of the material in the next 30 years, say the bulk of the plutonium will be used in secret projects but refuse to provide further details. The material has previously been used in batteries to power deep space probes such as Cassini as well as underwater surveillance and espionage equipment.

"The real reason we're starting production is for national security," Timothy Frazier, head of radio-isotope power systems at the Energy Department, told The New York Times.

The US has not made plutonium 238 since the 1980s when production was based at the Savannah River plant in South Carolina with some other work done in New Mexico and Tennessee. Since then it has relied on ageing stockpiles of the material or else on imports from Russia. The new programme will concentrate production at the Idaho facility in an effort to minimise the risk of leakage or contamination involving the 50,000 drums of hazardous and radioactive waste it is expected to make.

Local groups fear the programme will present considerable public health risks. Mary Woollen-Mitchell of Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free said: "They are concentrating all this production in just one place but it has never really been done safely anywhere. We're sceptical when they say, 'We know enough to make sure it's safe and to avoid an accident'. When they have spoken to us they say the majority of it will be for secret missions but they don't talk about the remainder. I worry about whether it will be involved in the weaponisation of space."

In his interview, Mr Frazier adamantly denied that the plutonium would be involved in military projects in space, though it has previously been used to power vessels that have travelled to those parts of space where there is insufficient sunlight to power solar panels. One unidentified federal scientist who helps the military plan space missions told the newspaper that the plutonium might be used in future projects to power compact spy satellites that would be difficult to detect. "It's going to be a tough world in the next one or two decades and this may be needed," he said. "Technologically, it makes sense."

The Snake River Alliance, a nuclear watchdog in Idaho, said: "Idaho is once again in the bull's eye for a dangerous nuclear programme that will create more nuclear waste and increase the contamination risks for our people, economy, and environment."

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