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It's been 15 years since the United States stopped making one of the most toxic substances known to exist: plutonium-238. Inhaling just a speck of the radioactive isotope can be fatal. Citing national security needs, the government is getting ready to start making it again. NPR's Martin Kaste reports on the proposed new production site in Idaho.
MARTIN KASTE reporting:
Plutonium-238 is not the kind of stuff you just leave lying around. Stephen Johnson is a program manager at the Idaho National Laboratory.
Mr. STEPHEN JOHNSON (Program Manager, Idaho National Laboratory): There is, behind the door there, which is a concrete door--there is a manifold with welded steel cans. The plutonium is inside an iridium cladding, inside a specially prepared graphite block, inside a welded can.
KASTE: All of which is contained in a windowless building with foot-thick concrete walls located in the middle of a 900-square-mile expanse of federally owned desert. Plutonium-238 is far more radioactive than its cousin, plutonium-239, which goes into bombs. Plutonium-238 is so radioactive, it stays hot to the touch for decades. It's no good for commercial nuclear power plants, but it's ideal to make small, long-lasting batteries for things like space probes. And that's just what Johnson and his team are making here, a power source for an unmanned NASA mission to the planet Pluto.
(Soundbite of beeps; radioactive signals)
KASTE: But as long as the plutonium-238 remains here on Earth, everybody who gets close to it has to get a full-body radiation scan afterward, just in case. Johnson says he doesn't lose sleep about the risks.
Mr. JOHNSON: I feel this is a very safe facility. It's a facility I would have no problem bringing my family into. This is something that we take very, very seriously.
KASTE: The plutonium in this particular space battery is not new. Some was made before 1989. The rest was purchased from the Russians. But the government says American stockpiles are running low, and it's proposing a new plutonium-238 plant here in the Idaho desert, right next door to the space battery factory. This is welcomed news in Idaho Falls, the town 50 miles away that's home to thousands of nuclear workers. At a public hearing on the proposed plant, state legislator Mel Richardson speaks for many locals when he says he's glad that the US government is losing its squeamishness about nuclear radiation.
State Senator MEL RICHARDSON (Republican, Idaho): Anytime we do something to develop nuclear energy, we're developing America's future and energy for the future. Thank you very much.
(Soundbite of applause)
KASTE: Locals see the plutonium plant as just the first step in a nuclear renaissance. They hope Idaho will also be the site of the prototypes for new kinds of commercial nuclear reactors called for in the federal energy bill.
But not everyone here dreams of a nuclear renaissance. Beatrice Brailsford is a native Idahoan who works for the environmental group called Snake River Alliance.
Ms. BEATRICE BRAILSFORD (Snake River Alliance): This push to ramp up everything nuclear I think we will live to regret, as much as we regret all the mistakes that we're trying to compensate for now.
KASTE: She points to the Cold War-era radioactive waste that's already piled up at the Idaho site. Some of that waste has leaked into the aquifer, which irrigates Idaho's famous potatoes. The Department of Energy says plutonium-238 will generate comparatively small amounts of new waste, which might be shipped out of state. But Brailsford questions whether it's necessary to generate any more waste at all.
Ms. BRAILSFORD: We have had Russia as a source, and that source is still there. There are ways to get around this production question. And I think the first step in getting around it is for the Department of Energy to be a little more clear about exactly what this is going to be used for.
KASTE: While the Russians are happy to sell us plutonium-238 for space probes, they won't supply it for military or espionage applications. And that appears to be what's driving the government's need. Nuclear energies outside the government believe the plutonium made in Idaho would power spy equipment, such as undersea listening devices. John Kotek of the Department of Energy says this is not something he can confirm or deny.
Mr. JOHN KOTEK (Department of Energy): The one thing I can say about that is, you know, we've got to balance, you know, the benefits of a well-informed citizenry with the dangers of a well-informed enemy. And in this case, you know, the balance tips towards national security.
KASTE: But while the public is not allowed to know the benefits of more plutonium-238 production, it can be sure that the costs will be high. Nuclear-waste cleanup just here in Idaho runs about half a billion dollars a year, and elsewhere in the West the price tag is even higher.
Unidentified Man: If we can't fix the problem, we should just let it be, walk away from it and not throw good money after bad.
KASTE: Tomorrow, a look at Hanford, Washington, where the most expensive nuclear cleanup in the country is in danger of bogging down under its own complexity. Martin Kaste, NPR News.
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