Source: French Minister of Industry, answer to a parliamentary
Journal Officiel 15 March 1999
T. Seaborg, Nobel Laureate-The 'father of plutonium', 1912-1999
Nobel prize winner Glenn Seaborg was a many-sided man: one of America's
great scientific geniuses and one of the world's intellectual elite.
He was born in Ishpeming, Michigan, of Swedish immigrant parents, on
19 April, 1912. His family moved to California 10 years later, to improve
educational chances. In 1929 he started studying chemistry at the University
of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), and in 1934 tranferred to another
UC campus at Berkeley, to study for his PhD, gained in 1937 with a thesis
titled "The Inelastic Scattering of Neutrons". He stayed on at Berkeley
as an academic research assistant, and later became a professor. He
recalled later "Among the isotopes that we discovered were iodine-131
and iron-59 and among the useful isotopes that we characterized was
cobalt-60. In addition, during this period, Emilio Segre and I discovered
technetium-99m, which eventually became the most used isotope for diagnosis
in medical applications."
In 1941, with colleagues, Joseph W. Kennedy and Arthur C. Wahl, Seaborg
discovered the unstable element 94 - named plutonium, after Pluto, the
God of the Underworld - by bombarding neptunium with deuterons, using
a machine called the 'Cyclotron'. Seaborg later recalled "The critical
chemical identification that constituted the discovery of this important
element was performed on the stormy night of February 23, 1941, in room
307, Gilman Hall, Berkeley. That room was dedicated as a National Historic
Landmark just twenty-five years later."
"We demonstrated on March 28, 1941, that this isotope is fissionable
with slow neutrons, produced with the thirty-seven-inch cyclotron. This
demonstrated the utility of plutonium as the explosive ingredient in
a nuclear weapon and, I hope, more important, opened the use of uranium
as a nuclear fuel for breeder reactors to meet the future energy needs
of the world."
Seaborg and his colleagues discovered ten elements: plutonium (element
94 - a co-discovery with Edwin M. MacMillan), americium (95), curium
(96), berkelium (97), californium (98), einsteinium (99), fermium (100),
mendelevium (101), nobelium (102), and seaborgium (106).
In 1942, Seaborg left Berkeley to begin groundbreaking work on the
Manhattan Atomic Bomb Project at the University of Chicago with many
other leading scientists of the day. There, Seaborg was the section
chief in charge of finding a method for chemically extracting enough
plutonium-239 from uranium to be used in nuclear energy. This was a
difficult task, because of the chemical similarity of uranium and plutonium.
Seaborg and his colleagues pioneered the technique of 'ultramicrochemical'
analysis, which is used in working with minute amounts of radioactive
material. Seaborg wrote "Among the accomplishments of our Chicago group
was the first isolation of a visible amount of a plutonium compound
on August 20, 1942; this also constituted the first isolation of a visible
quantity of any synthetic element."
Ultimately by 1944, they were successful in isolating large amounts
of plutonium, enough for the construction of two nuclear weapons. They
also found that tiny amounts of plutonium existed in pitchblende and
carnotite ores. Seaborg was also an important influence in the decision
to use plutonium instead of uranium. Although Seaborg and other scientists
worked on developing nuclear weapons, they were active in the crusade
for the control of nuclear arms due to the atomic bomb's capacity for
In 1944, Seaborg devised the actinide concept, which is the principle
that regulates the prediction of the chemical properties and placement
of the heavier elements. Using this concept, Seaborg and his colleagues
were able to predict the chemical makeup of more transuranium elements,
and found americium (95) and curium (96), for which Seaborg received
patents. He is the only person to ever receive patents for chemical
elements. After returning to Berkeley in 1946, Seaborg assembled a group
of leading scientists, and under Seaborg's guidance as associate director
of Berkeley's Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, they worked to discover
more transuranics. In the period from 1948 to 1959, the elements berkelium
(97) through nobelium (102) were discovered, and in 1974, scientists
working under Seaborg discovered element 106, which is now named seaborgium
In 1958 Dr. Seaborg was appointed Chancellor of the University of California
at Berkeley and served in that capacity until his appointment as Chairman
of the US Atomic Energy Commission in 1961 by President Kennedy. He
served for 10 years on the AEC, a key decade when the US commercial
reactor program, which it promoted, was expanded rapidly. He recalled
his AEC appointment "within a few days I was plunged into a new kind
of chemistry, that of national and international events." He had a decade
earlier been appointed by President Harry S Truman to serve on the first
General Advisory Committee (GAC) to the Atomic Energy Commission for
a term extending from January 1947 to August 1950. This first GAC played
an important role in helping to establish a number of the basic policies
of the AEC.
Most notable among his awards are the Nobel prize for discovery of the
chemistry of transuranium elements, which he shared in 1951 with his
colleague Professor E.M. McMillan, and the Enrico Fermi Award for his
outstanding work in nuclear chemistry, and leadership in scientific
and educational affairs. He also received over 50 honorary doctorates
from academic institutions.
In 1959 he was appointed by President Eisenhower to be a member of the
President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), on which he served until
January 1961, and to the National Science Board of the National Science
Seaborg said he was " privileged to collaborate with President Johnson
in reducing the level of production of fissionable material for our
nuclear weapons production program as part of a concentrated move toward
arms limitation in this important field. Under the leadership of President
Johnson and President Nixon, the Atomic Energy Commission played a significant
role in the attainment of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)." Seaborg
served in 1972 as president of the American Association for the Advancement
of Science and in 1976 (the centennial year) as the president of the
American Chemical Society.
In his 1958 book, The Transuranium Elements, Seaborg wrote: "The story
of plutonium is one of the most dramatic in the history of science.
It was discovered and methods for its production were developed during
the last war, under circumstances that makes a fascinating and intriguing
story. It is, of course, a continuing story, and added chapters will
have to be written at a later date."
Plutonium Investigation continues this tradition.
Words of the month
is the only operational solution for the end of the [fuel] cycle, by
opposition to the storage of spent fuel. It allows to recover, in view
of their utilisation the recyclable materials (uranium and plutonium),
to condition the wastes in a safe manner and to reduce their radiotoxicity
The French Reprocessing Company COGEMA in its press dossier dated
1 April 1999
United States and other countries need to question the often-quoted
statement that the reprocessing of spent fuel and the recycling of plutonium
will ease radioactive waste management problems. They should not proceed
with plutonium activities based on this unsubstantiated benefit."
Final sentence of the conclusion of a study by B.G.Chow, G.S.Jones,
RAND, 1999 (see Worth Reading)