USA - Plutonium Investigation n°17-18

Special USA Plutonium, Pits and Politics

   The United States is the biggest plutonium player in the global scene, even though it currently does not have a commercially-based reprocessing or plutonium use policy. The known US stockpile under federal management is well over 100 tonnes, and private utilities retain very significant stocks in unreprocessed irradiated fuel. It was in the United States that plutonium was created experimentally for the first time, by Glenn Seaborg in 1941 (PI No. 12-13); and in 1945 the United States became the first country to manufacture and test plutonium-based fission weapons. The United States remains the only country to have offensively detonated a plutonium weapon, the Nagasaki bomb on 9 August 1945.

   The US government has produced plutonium for the US nuclear weapons stockpile and US Department of Energy (DOE) research and development programs in fourteen plutonium production reactors at DOE's Hanford (Washington State) and Savannah River (South Carolina) sites. From 1944 to 1988 these reactors produced 103.4 tonnes of plutonium: 67.4 tonnes at Hanford, and 36.1 at Savannah River.

   Nuclear regulation in the United States is complex, with several government departments and many federal agencies plus specialist panels involved alongside state oversight authorities, often with competing international, national and regional priorities. As a result, the plutonium story in the United States is ever changing and sometimes contradictory. This short report provides a selective snapshot of the situation at the end of the millennium. It is not definitive.

   Unlike most countries where facts about plutonium are hard to uncover, the United States makes available to the public a huge volume of information on plutonium, much of it accessible on web sites. This report makes use of this situation, and refers the reader to various sites where more detailed data and original reports can be found.

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