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Technique Disables Plutonium’s Use in Bombs

Technique Disables Plutonium’s Use in Bombs

March 12, 2009

Alternative Energy, Natural Sciences

Israeli scientists have devised a technique to keep plutonium produced in nuclear power plants from being used in nuclear bombs.


Adding the element Americium, a synthetic compound used in commercial smoke detectors and industrial gauges, to nuclear power plant fuel generates higher-than-normal concentrations of a particular type of plutonium, rendering it useless for armaments without additional processing.


“If you make a bomb with a lot of Plutonium-238, you’d melt down the structure of the bomb. You can’t create it,” Yigal Ronen, a professor of nuclear engineering at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, told Discovery News.


The technique could make it easier for the United States, Russia, Germany, France and Japan to assist countries such as Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Oman and Malaysia — among others — that are seeking to develop nuclear power plants.


Concerns about weapons proliferation currently compete with economic and other issues associated with spreading nuclear energy technology.


“There’s a huge nuclear renaissance going on right now,” said Jon Schwantes, a senior research scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wa.


“If the United States were to choose to stay out of it, you could argue that it would be somewhat dangerous on the national security front,” Schwantes told Discovery News. “You want to be involved in the development of these technologies around the world so things like safeguards can be implemented.”


Ronen said that adding Americium, already a reactor waste product, to nuclear fuel “is like killing two birds with one stone,” and probably well worth the extra cost of fuel production.


The United States has been working on research initiative for a new generation of fuels for nuclear reactors to not only stem weapons proliferation, but also to make nuclear fuel more reusable and environmentally compatible.


“It’s still burnable, but not for use in weapons,” Schwantes said.


Fuel used in nuclear reactors contains two uranium isotopes, one fissionable, the other not. The latter undergoes various reactions, which results in the creation of plutonium, among other elements. The plutonium also has fissionable and unfissionable components. It’s the fissionable plutonium that can be used in nuclear weapons.


“We have shown that small amounts of Americium — one-tenth of one percent — is enough to obtain enough Plutonium-238 so that you cannot build a bomb,” said Ronen, the lead researcher of a report appearing in next month’s Science and Global Security journal.


Americium, however, isn’t a miracle cure for weapons proliferation, he added, since other enrichment methods are available to produce weapons-grade fuel.


“Still, it’s an important development,” Ronen said.