Russia - Plutonium Investigation n°12/13

News !

Figures of the month

The French Minister for Industry has just published the latest figures on the status of foreign spent fuel reprocessing at La Hague. While the Japanese fuel under contract has been entirely delivered, the situation is more complicated concerning the German clients. The German utilities have signed up for UP2 and UP3 "baseload customer" contracts to be carried out until the year 2000 and for post-2000 contracts. According to other sources, about 4,435 tonnes of the fuel under the UP2 and UP3 baseload customer contracts have been delivered until the shipments were interrupted in May 1998. About 320 tonnes of fuel have been shipped to La Hague under post-2000 contracts.

Foreign spent fuel delivered and reprocessed at La Hague
(as of 31 December 1998, in tonnes of heavy metal)

Client Country

Source: French Minister of Industry, answer to a parliamentary question
Journal Officiel 15 March 1999

Glenn 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 mass destruction.

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 after Seaborg.

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 Foundation (1960-1961).

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.

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Words of the month

        "Today reprocessing 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 and volume."
The French Reprocessing Company COGEMA in its press dossier dated 1 April 1999

         "The 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)

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