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US to produce new Plutonium-238

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posted on Jun, 26 2005 @ 09:54 PM
I wanted to submit this to ATSNN, but I don't know how. I went to and I couldn't find any link to submit a story.

According the International Herald Tribune, the US is planning re-opening production of Pu-238, for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

Note: Pu-238 is NOT the more well known Pu-239, which is the predominant ingredient in the fissile cores of implosion-based nuclear warheads.

Instead, it has entirely the opposite quality as Pu-239, namely that Pu-238 has a very large rate of spontaneous fission---meaning without extra implosion or a neutron trigger used in a nuclear weapon. The spontaneous fission would thwart a proper detonation of a nuclear weapon, and keeping spontaneous fission neutrons down is a key design constraint, and is what distinguishes reactor-grade from weapons-grade plutonium.

It gets hot all on its own and stays that way for years. It has thus been used on NASA's probes to outer planets, Jupiter and Saturn, as a power source via thermo-electric generation for situations where solar power would be inadequate. That usually means "farther than Mars".

However, in this case, the intended uses are being kept entirely secret, and it's not clear why. I invite the readership to speculate and deny ignorance about the potential uses of new Pu-238 and intents of such a move. I think it's fairly safe to ignore the denials of the official quoted in the IHT article as being definitive.

Here's my list:

1) there is some secret deep space mission. This seems very unlikely---what national security implications are there on Jupiter or Saturn---unless "2001" is right.

2) This is intended as a power source for a very long-term UAV project, e.g. a stealth surveillance platform which could remain aloft for months. Why solar power would be inadequate isn't clear, unless they believe that the performance and battery capacity (for night-time use) would be insufficient. This would have to be substantial advantage as a Pu-238 source would add enormously to cost, complexity and weight. And the neutrons may make it quite visible to remote sensors.

3) A power source for a spy satellite. Question: again, why is such a difficult think like a themoelectric generator necessary when solar is known to work well in near Earth orbit, and the efficiency of solar is increasing rapidly and the power requirements of electronics decreasing.

4) This is intended as a neutron generator for homeland security for detecting fissile uranium or plutonium in a transportation scanner or emergency response situation. Here, the idea is that the neutrons from Pu-238 would set off additional neutrons from Uranium or Plutonium in a fissile weapons configuration, and the distinct signatures could be detected.
But, there are already neutron generators using conventional technology (mini accelerators) well known in seismology and oil exploration that run on normal electricity and other things, which have a very great advantage that they can be turned off. Unless very large fluxes (and thus requiring Pu238 versus a neutron generator) are necessary---but this seems unlikely given a detection mission. Also, a neutron generator's output could be far better *aimed*---critical for detection, as opposed to Pu238 which would radiate essentially isotropically unless somehow and expensively reflected (e.g. beryllium). This is a use not covered by the official's denials.

5) there is some strategic missile defense use, in that the Pu-238 would be used to try to ensure predetonation of an incoming nuclear warhead. But really this would only work if the Pu-238 were glued to the warhead, and stayed stuck with it all the way down and stayed during the detonation sequence, and only right before the moment of maximum implosion were there too many neutrons to have a proper detonation. Again, this seems extremely unlikely. It's very hard to hit and detect an incoming warhead to begin with.

It's possible there is a SDI use somehwere between #4 and #5, i.e. detecting true incoming warheads from fake ones by using their response to high levels of neutrons generated by Pu238. There the in-orbit power capacities may be too low to use conventional neutron generators. But I seriously questoin the range at which this would be possible could be any use in a missile defense area, where incoming velocities are tens of kilometers per second.

In sum, though I am perplexed. The only really scientifically logical and justifiable mission is deep space exploration, as far as I can tell, and I see no reason to keep it a secret. Why not say we're considering it to support NASA's future Mars and Jupiter missions. I believe the next Mars Science Laboratory lander may have a nuclear source like Pu-238 to generate more power for its experiments.

posted on Jun, 26 2005 @ 10:05 PM
To post an ATSNN submission use the "news" button in the icon bar at the top of any ATS page:

[edit on 6/26/2005 by djohnsto77]

posted on Jun, 27 2005 @ 06:11 PM
For the record, the ATSNN story.

Whenever they say they're using something for undetermined processes, you get edgy. I suspect, as you have, it has to do with national defense, or offense, because that sort of information is the only logical thing to want to keep a secret.

I'm very interested in the possible space uses. I'm not a big fan of nuclear power in space, especially on colonization ships, but it could be very helpful for, as you said, long range purposes.

A very thorough post, though, nicely done.

posted on Jun, 27 2005 @ 08:28 PM
Although I am not a U.S citizen, I don't trust the government. Sorry. very fishy. Space Exploration? Why do you want to expore outer space when you cant even look after your own planet? then again, that is the perfect reason.

posted on Jun, 27 2005 @ 08:59 PM
Ok, I think this is an excellent discussion .. and I'm boggled as to why it hasnt taken off yet..

Anyhow, here's what I gather from what you've presented..

Plutonium 238 cant yeild nuclear bombs, am I wrong?

An above poster stated 239 yeild nukes.. correct us if we're wrong here..

So, they purchase a contract for 1.5 billion to extract 330 pounds of plutonium that they cant use in nukes.

Thats alot of plutonium.

Here's my question.. plutonium, regardless of type, is an unstable substance.. Couldnt plutonium 238 yeild the same amount of radiation as the proposed "dirty bombs" if not more? Should we be watching this stockpile very closely? Wheres it going? Into covert projects. They wont tell us!

Maybe I'm pulling at straws right now.. but 9/11 aint got crap on a dirty bomb. And 330 pounds of plutonium is alot of # to go around. And while I'm sure several of these pounds are going into legit black op projects, if any of it gets "lost" in the process and pops up in a terrorists hands in the middle of New York, we're gonna be looking the other way when/if it happens.

All I'm saying is 330 lbs is alot of plutonium with no explanation.... we need to follow this story closely..

This is a very bold move of the USofA.. and I dont think BushCo would have made the decision without consulting with a few "power states" allies beforehand. Follow his past movements.. and see which power state was excluded from past visits..

This purchase of plutonium is big.. its possibilities are endless.. but its something we need to watch closely.. if possible.

[edit on 6/27/2005 by QuietSoul]


posted on Jun, 27 2005 @ 10:41 PM
if Im not wrong cassini was using around 70 pounds of it, so 330 pounds would be sufficient enough for 4,7 cassinis.

posted on Jun, 28 2005 @ 05:56 AM
Cassini had about 70 kg of P-238, so that's around 154 pounds. (Thanks for the correction utrex!)

There are a lot of things to be concerned about on this - including the secrecy.

In 1999 the DOE was soliciting "Expressions of Interest" from the commercial light water reactor sector on transporting and irradiating Np-237 to produce P-238.

DOE Call for Expressions of Interest

In that statement, the DOE stated it was for future space missions since they were about to run out of P-238:

DOE's existing inventory of Pu-238 available for space
missions (approximately 9 kgs purchased primarily from Russia) will be
exhausted by about 2004. Though additional firm missions cannot be
specified at this time, some future space missions will require
Pu-238-fueled radioisotope power systems over the planning horizon of the
next 20 to 25 years. A production rate of 2-5 kgs of Pu-238 per year
would be sufficient to meet these projected long-term requirements.

Potential Hazards:

Under this commercial
scenario, these [Np-237] targets would then be shipped to a commercial light water reactor for irradiation. The private entity would then ship the
irradiated targets back to the DOE site for chemical processing.

That's a lot of transporting of a radioactive material with a half-life of over 2 million years.

Neptunium could be used - as of 2002 - in place of plutonium or uranium to create nuclear weapons.

In September, 2002, researchers for the University of California conducting research for a United States of America weapons of mass destruction development program created the first nuclear critical mass using neptunium rather than plutonium or uranium. US officials in March, 2004, planned to move the nation's supply of enriched neptunium to a site in Nevada.

If the aging Np-237, after the irradiation process - when it's waiting out it's 2.1 million year half-life - contains undecayed Np-239 it will eventually have pure Pu-239

posted on Jun, 28 2005 @ 06:51 AM

Cassini had about 70 kg of P-238, so that's around 30 pounds.

The conversion factor is multiplied there, not divided. It should be about 70 kg = ~150 lbs.

posted on Jun, 28 2005 @ 06:56 AM
You're absolutely right - thanks for catching me! (it's corrected now)

There is a curious thing about that. According to the DOE statement that I linked to above, we didn't ever purchase enough P-238 from Russia to be able to fuel that much on Cassini, did we?

EDIT: (I re-read the DOE statement and it is unclear. It sounds as if they are talking some time after Cassini they purchased 9 kg of P-238 from Russia. Maybe this was the last purchase they made.)

[edit on 6-28-2005 by Valhall]

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