British plutonium a possible target for terrorists

Davina Perera ('10)/ Eastside World Issues Editor

crazyexplosion.jpgBritain’s plutonium stash is becoming a serious threat to both the environment and the lives of humans. 

“Plutonium is highly toxic,” said a report by the Royal Society, the United Kingdom’s top institute of science. “It is the primary component in most nuclear weapons and could be made into a crude nuclear bomb by a well-informed and equipped terrorist group.”

With a store of more than 100 metric tons, Britain has accumulated enough plutonium to recreate the 1945 devastation of Nagasaki, Japan – and do so 17,000 times over. Britain is still searching for the best way to deal with this enormous cache, whether the solution means using it or losing it.

The Royal Society’s chairman and the lead author of the report, Professor Geoffrey Boulton, said that the plutonium powder could be converted into mixed oxide fuel pellets. These pellets are not only less likely to disperse into the atmosphere, but they can also be burned in nuclear reactors to produce electricity. Another option is to burn the lethal material, which would increase its radioactivity and make it very difficult for anyone to steal, and then keep it buried underground where it would be inaccessible.

Finding such a place is not easy for the government; wherever they decide to dispose of the plutonium, the site must be geologically stable, impossible for terrorists to reach and an acceptable location to the community. Many, including the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, are still suggesting other alternatives for the government to consider.

Plutonium is mainly produced when used-up uranium fuel is recycled for re-use at nuclear power plants.

“We must take measures to ensure that this very dangerous material does not fall into the wrong hands,” said Boulton.

According to the Royal Society, the problem was detected about a decade ago. Since then, the British supply of plutonium has doubled. The government assures that the stocks are fully protected from any possible attacks. The radioactive element is kept in the Sellafield complex, a nuclear site in Cumbria, England.