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America’s nuclear headache: old plutonium with nowhere to go via Reuters

AMARILLO, Texas (Reuters) – In a sprawling plant near Amarillo, Texas, rows of workers perform by hand one of the most dangerous jobs in American industry. Contract workers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pantex facility gingerly remove the plutonium cores from retired nuclear warheads.

Although many safety rules are in place, a slip of the hand could mean disaster.

In Energy Department facilities around the country, there are 54 metric tons of surplus plutonium. Pantex, the plant near Amarillo, holds so much plutonium that it has exceeded the 20,000 cores, called “pits,” regulations allow it to hold in its temporary storage facility. There are enough cores there to cause thousands of megatons of nuclear explosions. More are added each day.

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The United States has a vast amount of deadly plutonium, which terrorists would love to get their hands on. Under another agreement, Washington and Moscow each are required to render unusable for weapons 34 metric tons of plutonium. The purpose is twofold: keep the material out of the hands of bad guys, and eliminate the possibility of the two countries themselves using it again for weapons. An Energy Department website says the two countries combined have 68 metric tons designated for destruction – enough to make 17,000 nuclear weapons. But the United States has no permanent plan for what to do with its share.

Plutonium must be made permanently inaccessible because it has a radioactive half-life of 24,000 years.

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The Energy Department has a small experimental storage site underground in New Mexico. The department controls the radioactive materials – plutonium, uranium and tritium – used in America’s nuclear weapons and in the reactors of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines. In a Senate hearing in June 2017, Energy Secretary Rick Perry said the Energy Department has been in talks with New Mexico officials to enlarge the site. Environmental groups there have strongly opposed expansion.

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The alternative method is known as dilute-and-dispose. It involves blending plutonium with an inert material and storing it in casks. The casks, however, are projected to last only 50 years before beginning to leak, and so would need to be buried permanently deep underground.

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THE MOX MESS

President Donald Trump has sided with the Energy Department in wanting to kill the MOX project because of the extreme cost overruns and delays. The Energy Department, beginning in the Obama administration, favored closing down the MOX project for the same reason, but Congress overruled it. The federal budget adopted in February, however, specifies a means for ending the project, if a study shows that dilute-and-dispose would be at least 50 percent cheaper than making MOX.

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Today’s plutonium glut mainly is a legacy of the Cold War. The quantities now seem surreal. By 1967 the U.S. nuclear arsenal reached its apex, with 37,000 warheads. The Soviet Union’s peak came in the 1970s, with approximately 45,000. These were enough to destroy life on Earth thousands of times over.

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