Plutonium: 'Our Country's Only Feasible Solution' Essay

This essay has a total of 2168 words and 9 pages.

Plutonium: 'Our Country's Only Feasible Solution'

Abstract: Should we begin to manufacture one of the most destructive and infamous
substances on the face on the Earth once again? The engineers say yes, but the public says
no. The United States stopped making this element with the ban on manufacturing nuclear
weapons. But with the continuing problem with our ever diminishing energy sources, some
want us to begin using more nuclear energy and less energy from natural resources. This
paper is going to discuss what plutonium is, the advantages and disadvantages of its use,
and why we should think about restarting our production of this useful element.

After the United States dropped "Fat Man" and "Little Boy" on Japan ending World War II,
the public has had some type of understanding about the power of plutonium and its
devastating properties, but that is all anyone heard.

After WWII, Americans started to think about what the atomic bomb could do to the U.S. and
its people. When anyone mentioned plutonium or the word "nuclear" the idea of Hiroshima or
Nagasaki being destroyed was the first thing people thought about. No one could even
ponder the idea that it could be used for other more constructive things like sources of
energy or to kept a person's heart beating. Then we started to build more reactors and
produce more of the substance but mostly for our nuclear weapons programs.

Along with reactors, sometimes comes a meltdown which can produce harmful effects if it
isn't controlled quickly enough. After such instances as the Hanford, Washington reactor
meltdown and the accident in the U.S.S.R. at the Chernobyl site, no one wanted to hear
about the use of plutonium. The United States government banned nuclear testing and also
ended the production of plutonium.(Ref. 5) Now we are in a dilemma. We are in need of
future sources of energy to power our nation. We are running out of coal and oil to run
our power plants.(Ref. 7) We also need it to further our space exploration program. People
need to understand the advantages to using plutonium and that the disadvantages are not as
catastrophic as they seem. With the turn of the century on its way, the reemergence of
plutonium production will need to be a reality for us to continue our way of life.

In 1941, a scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, discovered something that
would change our planet forever. The man's name, Glenn T. Seaborg, and what did he
discover?, the element plutonium.(ref. 10) Plutonium, or Pu #94 on the periodic table, is
one of the most unstable elements on the earth. It is formed when Uranium 235, another
highly unstable element, absorbs a neutron. Plutonium is a silvery-white metal that has a
very high density of 19.816 g/cm3.(ref. 10 ) It has been rarely found in the earth's crust
but the majority of the substance has to be produced in the cores of nuclear reactors.
Plutonium can be found fifteen different forms, or isotopes and their mass number can
range from 232-246.(ref. 13) Radionuclide batteries used in pacemakers use Pu-238, while
Pu-239 is used in reactors and for Nuclear weapons.(ref. 13) This paper will focus on the
isotopes Pu-238 and Pu-239. Plutonium can be very advantageous for the United States. It
can be used for several purposes. The three major advantages to using this element are for
an energy source, power for nuclear propulsion in space exploration and thermo-electric
generators in cardiac pacemakers. The first use for plutonium, nuclear power, is obviously
the most beneficial use. Plutonium 239 can be used to power nuclear reactors. The average
nuclear reactor contains about 325 kilograms of plutonium within its uranium fuel.(ref. 7)
This complements the uranium fission process. With the continually decreasing supply of
coal and oil to power our nation, we need a substitute to complement our energy needs and
right now the best replacement is that of nuclear energy.(ref. 7) At the moment there are
one hundred and ten nuclear power plants in the United States and they produce one-fifth
of the nations electricity. Nuclear energy has been proven to be the cheapest, safest,
cleanest and probably the most efficient source of energy.(ref. 7)

Nuclear power plants do not use as much fuel as the plants burning coal and oil. One ton
of uranium produces more energy than several million tons of coal and plutonium can
produce much more energy than uranium.(ref. 12) Also the burning of coal and oil pollute
our air and the last thing we need is more pollution to worsen the greenhouse effect.
Nuclear power plants cannot contaminate the environment because they do not release any
type of pollution.(ref. 2) Plutonium can also be recycled by using a enrichment process.
This will produce even more energy. Coal and oil can not be recycled. What is left by
their uses is what has been contaminating our atmosphere since the 1800's.

You might ask how exactly is plutonium converted into an energy source? Well it is
obviously quite complicated to explain. Basically, power comes from the fission process of
an atom of the element and produces over ten million times the energy produced by an atom
of carbon from coal. One kilogram of plutonium consumed for three years in a reactor can
produce heat to give ten million kilowatt-hours of electricity. This amount is enough to
power over one-thousand Australian households.(ref. 7) Presented with this information, it
is only common sense that we should not depend upon fossil fuels to take us into the 21st
century. It is obvious that our future lies in the hands of nuclear reactors and the use
of plutonium.

The second major use for plutonium is for space exploration with its ability to power
nuclear propulsion. Nuclear electric propulsion is using energy from plutonium to power
space vehicles.(ref. 3) One of the major goals of NASA space program is to, one day, get
to Mars, and it looks like the only way it is going to happen in our current fiscal
condition, is if we use plutonium, instead of chemical fuel, to power our explorations.
Nuclear electric propulsion can be defined as using small plutonium based bricks, to power
space vehicles for interplanetary trips. Nuclear electric systems provide very low thrust
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