Original Publication Date - 11/16/2000

INEEL picked for plutonium project
By N.S. Nokkentved
Times-News writer

TWIN FALLS -- Federal Energy Department plans to produce a form of plutonium used to power spacecraft will include Idaho, officials announced Tuesday.

The Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory was selected to produce the plutonium isotope, but the process to extract the isotope will be done at a facility in Tennessee.

The material -- plutonium-238 -- is the most radioactive form of plutonium and the heat produced by the radiation is used to generate electricity and "keep things from freezing up," INEEL spokesman Brad Bugger said.

The Snake River Alliance, a statewide nuclear watchdog group, is relieved that the recovery process will not be done in Idaho. The process produces a lot of liquid, radioactive waste, alliance director Gary Richardson said.

"Anytime plutonium comes to Idaho we're concerned," Richardson said. "They don't have good track records with plutonium."

But to INEEL officials, producing the plutonium is no different that the other medical and commercial isotopes produced at the INEEL Advanced Test Reactor.

"We handle radioactive isotopes of all types on a regular basis," Bugger said. The plutonium is no more concern that other isotopes.

The plutonium isotope would be produced by inserting a piece of the metal neptunium in the reactor. The nuclear reaction transforms the neptunium to the desired plutonium isotope.

An isotope is a form of an element with a slightly different nuclear configuration -- it may have an extra neutron or be missing a neutron. The difference is expressed in the atomic number. The form of plutonium used in bombs is plutonium 239, for example.

The Advanced Test Reactor is the only operating reactor at INEEL. It also performs research on fuel for the U.S. Navy's nuclear powered ships.

The decision announced Tuesday includes shutting down, decontaminating and decommissioning the facility at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington that was considered a possible site for the project. But the proposal had generated statewide opposition in Washington state.

The plutonium-238 produced at INEEL would be used on the spacecraft NASA wants to send to Pluto -- but possibly not until 2020. The mission would use most of the plutonium produced at INEEL.

Extracting the plutonium is similar to extracting bomb-grade plutonium and the uranium once recovered from reactor fuel at INEEL -- a process that left 8 million gallons of highly radioactive liquid waste.


Times-News writer N.S. Nokkentved can be reached at 733-0931, Ext. 237, or by e-mail niels@magicvalley.com