Researchers Find Weapons-Grade Plutonium in a Dump: Is There Cause for Concern?

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Next to the rusted remnants of a safe, an unassuming 60-year-old glass bottle with barely legible words scrawled in red crayon was the central focus of a group of researchers from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). The writing on the glass bottle was only partially legible, but for Jon Schwantes of the PNNL, there could be no mistaking the contents: This bottle contained weapons-grade plutonium.

During the cleanup of the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state in 2004 (a cleanup that’s been going on since 1987) workers stumbled upon a beaten-up, rusted safe buried in the ground. Schwantes analyzed gamma rays coming from the jar, detecting plutonium-239, the isotope most used for weapons. Later, spectral analysis showed that the jar contained about a half-gram of 99.96 percent pure plutonium-239. Schwantes checked the rate of plutonium decay into uranium and dated the plutonium back to the beginning days of the U.S. nuclear weapons program. Using Hanford’s records, Schwantes hypothesized that the sample was created in December 1944, making it the second-oldest known sample in the world. His discovery is a surprising piece of history, but his study published this month raises another question: Should we be worried about the surprise find of plutonium in the garbage?

Not particularly. First, the dump was actually inside the secure Hanford facility, says Cameron Hardy of the Department of Energy. “It wasn’t like it was in some municipal dump,” he says. For more than 40 years, Hanford created most of the plutonium for America’s nuclear arms, and along with it created not just nuclear waste but also all kinds of contaminated equipment. In the 1940s, Hardy said, scientists didn’t know how to safely dispose of radioactive material, so at Hanford they buried waste in 800 trenches, each about 100 x 60 ft. The DOE has been cleaning up those sites since 1987. “We’ve pulled out whole trucks, whole rail cars,” he says. And this wasn’t the first time crews has unearthed small samples of plutonium


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