Letters: Spring 1995 Ploughshares Monitor


Dear Gordon Edwards,

What follows is a letter from Owen Wilkes, a peace activist in New Zealand, responding to your article on plutonium in the March Monitor. Wilkes contests some of the points you raised, and we were wondering if you would be interested in printing a response to it on our letters page (pages, in this case, because his letter is long to begin with). What do you think? Your response would have to be in the neighbourhood of 650-700 words, and I would need to have it by the beginning of May.

Please let me know if you are interested.


Julia Farquhar
Ploughshares Monitor


I always look forward to receiving the Ploughshares Monitor, and wish New Zealand produced something equivalent. In general the articles are well researched and relate to the real world. But the article "Plutonium, Anyone?" is an exception. It contains the same errors of fact and logic that always seem to crop up when the peace movement starts to talk about plutonium.

To start with there is the hoary old theory that anyone who inhales even a few micrograms of plutonium "will likely develop a fatal lung cancer 10 or 20 years after exposure." It seemed a good theory once, but we now know it just isn't true -- plenty of workers at Hanford inhaled quite a few micrograms of plutonium 30 or 40 years ago, and the expected incidence of lung cancer never eventuated -- apparently the localized alpha radiation from plutonium kills lung cells rather than stimulating them to become cancerous.

Then the ridiculous claim "Most nuclear proponents...have a long-standing love affair with plutonium." I think that is about as true as saying that most coal miners have a long-standing love affair with coal dust. No one loves the stuff, but some people acknowledge not only that it exists but that it should be got rid of, and that burning it in a reactor is one feasible option.

Edwards rejects this option, saying that more plutonium is created in the process. That is true, but the point is that only about half as much is produced as is consumed, so there is a net loss of 50 per cent or more, and the end product is mixed with all sorts of fission products, and, more importantly, contaminated with even- numbered plutonium isotopes which render the remaining plutonium unsuitable for bomb-making. Even if some clandestine bomb-maker were able to separate the plutonium out from the hot fission products, they would still find it practically impossible to separate the plutonium 239 (which makes a bomb go bang), from the plutonium 240 (which makes a bomb go fizzzzz).

Edwards suggests instead that the plutonium be rendered unusable by mixing it with fission products from another reactor. A little simple arithmetic would show that by doing this he would end up with about four times as much plutonium as he would if he followed the first process -- because there would be no 50 per cent reduction in the ex-warhead plutonium, and there would be an equal amount of ex- reactor plutonium in the fission products added to it. Worse still, the amount of plutonium 240 in this mixture probably would not be sufficient to rule out use in a bomb if a clandestine operator decided to re-separate the plutonium from the fission products.

Thanks to thousands of nuclear weapons being dismantled, there is a mounting stockpile of relatively pure plutonium 239 which is ideal for making bombs, but which could be got rid of by burning it in reactors and producing useful energy. To do so would not be an irreversible step towards an unstoppable plutonium economy, because there is only a finite "free" supply of pure 239 from dismantled weapons. Once all that ex-warhead plutonium 239 is consumed then we will come back to the question of whether it is worth all the expense and risk of reprocessing spent commercial nuclear fuels so as to be able to recycle the uranium and (reactor- grade) plutonium in them. On economic grounds alone it seems as though it will not be worthwhile, despite Japan's inexplicable passion for hoarding the stuff.

The ex-warhead plutonium, by contrast, is virtually a free source of energy, because the cost of making it was paid for decades ago out of superpower military budgets.

If we think environmental considerations are more important than economic ones, then burning the plutonium is also a good idea. In all the stages of the nuclear fuel cycle--mining, refining, enriching, fabricating, burning, reprocessing, etc.-it is the re processing stage which creates by far the worst environmental hazards. In the case of the ex-warhead plutonium the reprocessing stage has already been passed, long before the plutonium ever found its way into a warhead, so the environmental costs of burning it now are actually less than mixing it with other fission products.

Owen Wilkes Hamilton, New Zealand


Dr. Edwards' Reply:

Owen Wilkes deplores the "errors of fact and logic which always seem to crop up" in the peace movement (but not in the military or nuclear establishments?) whenever plutonium is discussed.

He nevertheless adopts several fallacious assertions originating from the nuclear establishment and presents them as unquestioned truth.

He says plutonium-240, mixed with plutonium-239, (as in "reactor-grade plutonium") makes a nuclear weapon go "fizzzzz" instead of "bang". This myth, propagated by the nuclear industry, was exploded more than 20 years ago when America detonated a powerful bomb made from just such a mixture.

In Foreign Affairs (Winter 1976/77), Albert Wohlstetter wrote:

"the lowest yield of such a weapon can by no stretch of the imagination be called "weak" -- its yield would still be in the kiloton range."

In 1978, Commissioner Victor Gilinsky (U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission) wrote:

"There is an old notion . . . that 'reactor-grade' plutonium is not suitable to the manufacture of nuclear weapons. . . . This is not true. It is possible to use this material for nuclear warheads at all levels of technical sophistication. Even simple designs . . . can serve as efficient, highly powerful weapons."

Wilkes says the stockpile of plutonium from dismantled warheads "can be got rid of" by using it to fuel civilian reactors, and awaits the day when "all that ex-warhead plutonium-239 is consumed".

This is wrong. Even he admits that about half the plutonium is not consumed -- so the stockpile isn't eliminated; it's reduced by a factor of 2. The difference is crucial; for as long as plutonium is around, it isn't the exact amount that matters, but its accessibility to would-be bomb makers. More civilian traffic means more opportunities for plutonium to fall into the hands of thieves, criminal organizations, terrorist groups and militaristic governments. It is exactly the wrong thing to do.

The only security advantage from "burning" plutonium is, as Wilkes says, that "the end product is mixed with all sorts of fission products" (they're intensely radioactive, so the plutonium is harder to get at) -- yet Wilkes rejects the much simpler approach of mixing plutonium directly with fission products already on hand from military reprocessing plants. This requires no reactors, no civilian traffic, and no additional plutonium.

Wilkes' description of plutonium from dismantled warheads as "virtually a free source of energy" is incorrect. Fabrication and transport of plutonium fuel is very expensive, even if plutonium is free, because of the extraordinary safety and security measures needed. If the civilian industry has to pay for it, rather than the taxpayer, burning plutonium in reactors will never happen.

Regarding plutonium inhalation, human data are sparse (thankfully) and hence unreliable. Existing scientific risk estimates are based on the many lung cancers induced in animals forced to breathe plutonium dust. That's how the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) arrived at its 1992 "best estimate" that a person inhaling 27 micrograms of plutonium (invisible to the eye) will almost certainly develop lung cancer. The BEIR-IV Report (Health Effects of Internally Deposited Alpha Emitters) uses human lung cancer data involving other alpha emitters to derive a comparable estimate for plutonium inhalation.

These bodies -- dedicated to public health, unlike the defense experts that Wilkes seems to prefer -- do not support his stated views on alpha radiation. Moreover, the Manhattan Project workers he cites had lung exposures ranging from 0.04 to 3 micrograms of plutonium -- on average, about one percent of the lethal dose identified by IPPNW. BEIR-IV considers these human data unsuitable for deriving risk estimates.

To say that nuclear advocates love plutonium is not analogous to saying coal miners love coal dust, as Wilkes maintains. It is rather like saying that auto-makers love gasoline, for nuclear advocates have long regarded plutonium as the fuel of the future. As John Foster declared, when president of AECL, "Plutonium is an extremely useful substance and we will be dealing in it."

If Wilkes truly believes that errors of fact and logic must be corrected, he should welcome my call for a wide public debate on the entire question.

Gordon Edwards, Ph.D.,
Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility.

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