Re: Should we go nuclear and conquer space?

Posted by Southern Man on Jul 13, 2002 at 11:41

Re: Should we go nuclear and conquer space? (DA Morgan)

“Plutonium waste will still kill a quarter million years into the future.”

I see you have gotten your education from the anti-nukes and have never been exposed to even a high school level physics course. The “Plutonium will kill people for 250,000 years!!!” is based on a total misunderstanding of nuclear half-life. Anything that is radioactive has a half-life. The amount of radiation emitted decreases exponentially over time as the individual atoms release their energy. When half the radiation has been emitted we say that the time past has been one half-life. Since there are only half as many atoms left after one half-life we also have only half the radiation intensity as we had at the start. What this means is that after 24,000 years a given quantity of plutonium 239 will have half the radiation level it had when you started timing it. Plutonium 238 releases much more radiation much faster and has a half-life of only 90 years. Uranium 238 releases it’s radiation so slowly that we say it has an infinite half-life. So half-life is a measure of how fast atoms release radiation. The longer the half-life the less radiation is released in any given period of time. Will it suddenly become safe after that time or even 10 times that amount of time? No, the radiation level is just ½ what it was before after one half-life. The question is, was it dangerous to begin with? The answer depends on how much you have and where you have it.

If you have it in your hand the answer is a couple of pounds is perfectly safe but a couple of tens of pounds is going to explode so you really don’t care that, from a radiation standpoint, even that is still safe. Plutonium emits alpha particles (hydrogen atoms) and the radiation can not penetrate your skin. This is because the surface of your skin is dead and acts as a perfect shield to these particles. A piece of paper does the same thing. Plutonium becomes unsafe only when you eat or inhale it. Once inside you it can come into direct contact with living tissue. The energy of the alphas released can kill live tissue or cause cancers. Now I hope you are sitting down because I hate to tell you this but you just inhaled several plutonium atoms. The governments of the world exploded hundreds of plutonium bombs in the atmosphere in the 50’s and 60’s. Much of that plutonium is still circling the earth in the atmosphere and you are breathing some of it in with every breath and will continue to do so until you stop breathing. The quantity that you berath in, however, is so small that we can barely calculate the additional deaths this will produce let alone point to a specific death and say that plutonium was the cause.

Now, back to your misunderstanding. How much “plutonium waste” would be killing people 250,000 years from now? Well if we bury it a few feet deep and if you don’t dig it back up and drink it or scatter it in the air, you could keep any amount you wanted and the hazard would be zero. But a better question is, why not get rid of it permanently? Most of the world does this now. It is called plutonium recycle. You place the plutonium in a nuclear reactor and not only does it produce more energy, the plutonium fissions and turns into other atoms which eventually decay into stable atoms which have no radiation at all. So why does the rest of the world do this and the US doesn’t? Stupidity. Jimmy Carter thought it was more important to appease the anti-nukes with they 250,000 year death rant than to take a stand for what was true and right. Carter thought he could lock in the environmentalists who were leaning against Democrats (Johnson sent them to die in Vietnam and Nixon founded the EPA). So he banned plutonium recycle in 1977. That immediately lead to the “where do we bury it” question which we have just answered (at least until the next wacko lawsuit) this past month. But I digress…

If you are really frightened by any amount of plutonium then I suggest you take a look at what the real effects might be of releasing it into the environment. Your knowledge of radiation is sorely lacking and this might help with your irrational fears. Then again...

P.S. "A wind turbine can be dismantled and becomes instantly harmless." Not if you eat it as you would have to do with a 6 month old fuel rod to consider that dangerous. A fuel rod is very dangerous when it first comes out of a reactor. A few weeks later you can safely handle it with bare hands. A few months later you can put it under your bed at night. You need to learn about radiation half-life.

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