Feeds

back to article Israelis develop 'safe' plutonium: good for power, bad for weapons

Israeli boffins have developed a promising technique for "declawing" plutonium, which would let it be used as fuel but not for building bombs. They believe the technique could greatly expand peaceful use of nuclear power worldwide, while preventing weapons proliferation. Almost all plutonium is produced in nuclear reactors, …

COMMENTS

This topic is closed for new posts.

Page:

Anonymous Coward

there is

There is of course still a problem, alot of nations don't like the idea of being dependent on somebody elses technology for vital parts of the national infastructure (strange I know).

"Hi Mr Arab, want nuclear power, well then buy our plants."

"But they're ludicrously expensive."

"Well you wont have to maintain or build them, we'll do that all for you!"

"Wait, you mean you're going to build and man these plants with your own people?"

"Sure - what could be wrong with that, local jobs for foreign workers. Don't think about trying to work in our countries though, we wont stand for that."

"But we want to have our own people employed, what happens if our countires have a falling out?"

"Well then we shutdown the plant, take all our stuff and leave."

"I'm not liking the sound of this deal."

"Oh you also have to buy our increadibly expensive bespoke fuel."

"Wait you run the plant,your people build and run the plant, and we have to buy your over priced fuel?"

"That's about it."

"I think we'll pass."

"Fine darky, taste our bombs!"

It's like PFI on crack.

0
0
Boffin

Chemical separation

Stripping two different elements is orders of magnitude easier than separating two different isotopes (such as U-235 and U-238) as chemical techniques can usually be used to separate them.

SO I doubt the Americium on its own is the key to the story, and that there's probably something to do with the ratio of Pu isotopes as well (ie, not as much Pu-239 which is the one all the bad boys want).

Still, I can't beleve it would beyond the skill of your average mad dictator to take this stuff and turn it into something nasty.

Jolyon

0
0
Boffin

Thats good news - however

A large amount of work has been done on the solvent extraction of americium, as it is the case that americium and the other transplutonium elements are responsible for the majority of the long lived radiotoxicity of spent nuclear fuel. It is thought that by removal of the americium and curium that the used fuel will only need to be isolated from man and his environment for a shorter time than that required for the isolation of untreated used fuel. One recent EU funded project on this topic was known by the codename "EUROPART". Within this project triazines and other compounds were studied as potential extraction agents

0
0
Thumb Down

Eh?

It's fairly easy (at least by nuclear chemistry standards) to separate americium and plutonium...

0
0
Happy

Great idea - Bravo Israelis!

But (hee hee) Americium? Anyone else think it's funny that we Yanks are going to declaw weapons?

0
0
Bronze badge
Thumb Up

Good man

Now THAT is a fantastic idea.

Really - I have great admiration for people who look beyond the typical "I win, you lose" scenario of a conflict situation, and try to develop a win-win solution.

If this is real, and practical, and affordable, it could revolutionise the Arab States landscape - no more bickering about will they, won't they build weapons, simultaneously removing the political leverage currently exerted by the more dodgy regimes that by denying them (potential) nuclear weapons, you're denying them a way out of the third world.

Win/Lose - We beat the crap out of you (Iraq, Iran?) until you can't develop anything more technically advanced than a lightbulb: (and as Bully's special prize* we get your oil too):

Lose/Win - We give/sell you nuclear fuel to power your reactors, and hope like hell that you're not going to use it against us (or, we don't give it to you, and get a political mauling by the entire Arab world for being arrogant capitalist sons of Satan)

Win/Win - We give you your nuclear power, and get the security we want because there's no risk of it being used to develop weapons.

Genius.

Of course this all ignores the moral/ethical dilemma of whether or not the Western powers have the right to deny progress, in whatever form - to another nation. Discussion for another day.

If you haven't seen Bullseye you haven't lived.

0
0
Anonymous Coward

Ironic

That "Americum" would be a key to NOT making nuclear weapons.

Mines the orange one with the blindfold and the one way plane ticket in the pocket.

0
0
Paris Hilton

Chemistry?

I was wondering: what's to stop the customers from chemically removing the americium additive?

Since americium and plutonium are different chemical elements, I would imagine it's possible to chemically separate them. Or are americium and plutonium sufficiently similar, chemically, to make this too difficult in practice?

0
0

Safe plutonium

Does safe plutonium generate heavy electricity?

0
0

@Samantha

Iranium, anyone?

0
0
al
Paris Hilton

Re: Eh?

Maybe.. but separating Americium and Israelium is impossible though! :-|

Paris, coz she is a living proof that removing bimboeon from babeide is not necessary at all.

0
0
Bronze badge

Chemical Separation?

I can understand and agent being added that prevents Plutonium being used in a fission bomb - presumably something that either means you need an impractically large critical mass, or possibly just something that stops it completely. However, as to the "guarantee" that the plutonium couldn't ever be used in a bomb, then that surely depends on how easily it can be chemically separated. Yes, chemical processing of plutonium is messy and potentially dangerous, but for a sufficiently motivated and ruthless large scale organisation, or rogue government, it is going to surely much easier to do than using the large number of very power-hungry, and difficult to operate, centrifuges that you need to produce enriched uranium. If yopu don't care too much for the safety of the operators, there are a lot of short-cuts you can take with chemical processing.

Now I don't know just how different the chemical properties of Americium and Plutonium are (they are both actinides), but I'll guess that it's within the scope of a graduate chemist to work out a process.

There is the other point, that the half-life of Americium isotopes are a great deal less than that of the "common" Plutonium ones, so you could theoretically wait until the former has reduced to the point where it has lost its ability to prevent the latter being made into a bomb. However, that's only a theoretical problem many thousands of years into the future.

0
0

story cannot be correct

Removing a different element (Americium) from plutonium is just ordinary chemistry and much much easier than isotopic speration. Either the real technique is quite different and involves isotpoes of plotonium in some way or it is just garbage sel f publicity.

0
0
Thumb Down

Old hat

Well it's nice that the Israelis think they've cracked this, but maybe they should be concentrating on fusion, rather than fission reactors? Fission is soooo yesterday.

0
0
Happy

or...

You could just hit your plutonium with a suitable neutron source...Make your own Americium!

wait, that might be bad ......... (Risk assessment)

0
0
Anonymous Coward

Dirty Bombs anyone?

Still make a crackin' "dirty bomb" though, wouldn't it?

0
0
Anonymous Coward

How does this help?

Americurium and Neptunium are a bit of a pain but what makes them so hard to remove? They're chemically different so chemical separation would work, no?

0
0

Enough with the thumbs down already

Until you read this fellows published paper and have a well-reasoned response STFU.

0
0
Stop

ummm

haven't the israelis officially disavowed to having nuclear weapons?

0
0
Flame

Developing Safer Weapons

Now all they need to do is develop a safer Israeli mortar that won't land on a Gaza school and kill the children inside.

0
0
Tim
Black Helicopters

Aren't they forgetting a MASSIVE problem?

Sure, Plutonium or uranium laced with americium may not be able to acheive critical mass and result in a nuclear or atomic explosion, but you can bet your sweet hiney that it is highly radioactive and poisonous, so would make an idea fuel for a crude Dirty Bomb.

They may have the tech to do that now, but need the fuel for their reactors, but selling them the stuff in any quantity means the can chuck as much of it back on the top of scuds as they feel fit!

0
0
Silver badge
Boffin

RE: there is

"There is of course still a problem, alot of nations don't like the idea of being dependent on somebody elses technology for vital parts of the national infastructure (strange I know)....." Yes, us in the West aren't too keen on our economies being dependent on Middle Eastern, African, South American or Far Eastern oil despots and dictators. So what's the difference, we get our oil from them, why can't they buy nuke fuel from us? Try and formulate a reply without falling back on tired and stereotypical portrayal of the West as racist.

"...."Wait, you mean you're going to build and man these plants with your own people?"...." Take a look at Saudi Arabia, if you see anyone doing any manual labour in places like Riyadh then it is almost always a foreigner. I have seen a complete office bulding built, commissioned with furniture and electrics, computing systems installed, and all without a single Arab hand getting dirty. Of the staff, we had one Arab, a "sales manager" who was employed simply because his uncle worked for one of the ministries, nudge-nudge, wink-wink. Even the receptionists were Lebanese. One of the great challenges facing many Gulf countries is not just the low levels of literacy and skills, but that many Arabs just can't seem to be bothered to do the jobs a guy from Sri Lanka or Ethiopia will do for a fraction of the price. All their high-tech infrastructure such as telecoms are still heavily dependent on foreign skills, even though the majority of companies involved are Arab-owned. They simply find it easier to buy-in foreign skills rather than develop their own (sound familiar?). I can quite comfortably guarantee you that any nuke station in Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia or Kuwait will be run - if not by a foreign contracted company - then predominantly by foreigners.

Libya and places like Syria, which have a chequered career with the West but still use lots of Western tech, people and knowledge, may try and Arabise the projects for national control's sake, but they will still be heavily dependent on foreigners (case in point - despite Ghaddafi Arabising his military, when the Russians packed up and left his Air Force couldn't keep their jets serviceable or even fire their SCUD missiles). Russia, China, the US and European nations are all sending nuke sales teams to the Middle East to try and grab a bit of the action, and supplying "safe" fuel would not only make this an easier sell for Governments but also mean more money for the companies involved. Ironicly, it is the Israelis that have the most to gain from the idea of the Arabs buying "safe" fuel from the West, mainly because they already have their own nuke weapons.

0
1
Anonymous Coward

So start with the Israeli Nuclear Program

If they are not war mongers and they have this technology then they should show by example. Start by revealing the full extent of their own nuclear weapons and power generation and use this on their own reactors.

0
0
Unhappy

Err...

...it's Neptunium-237.

=:~)

0
0
MnM
Thumb Up

D'oh - Kaboom!!

A staunch defence of the rights of all nations, no matter how iffy, to proliferate, @AC at the top. Why? Cynicism for its own sake? The West's interests surely lie in bending over backwards to have this stuff adopted.

But wouldn't we be gutted if said iffy nations cheaply acquired a fat stockpile, then worked out how to restore its mojo. I know the good Professor said this couldn't happen, but would someone please double-check?

0
0
Gold badge
Joke

So let me get this straight.

You dosed the fuel with some of this stuff. Fuel goes into reactor and turns into stuff-which-is-reprocessable_but-not-usable-in-a-bomb.

There's nothing like cutting edge scientific journalism.

Masterful exposition.

0
0
Gold badge
Coat

'safe' Plutonium?

This must be some strange new usage of the word 'safe' that I haven't previously been made aware of.

Or is that 'safe' as in: Oh yes, it's perfectly safe. It's us that's in trouble.

Mine's the one on the peg with the towel.

0
0

For sale: snake oil, enough to cover Arab Street

Luther was scratching his head as to exactly what the prof's alleged technical breakthru could possibly be when the read

> says the prof. "Thus, if the five agree to insert the additive into fuel for countries now developing nuclear power - such as Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Namibia, Qatar, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Yemen - they will have to use it for peaceful purposes rather than warfare."

WTF??? Stop the presses. No, FFS, stop the world. You mean it's not just Iran (and Israel of course) dabbling in nukes? I thought we had to bomb Iran into the stone age because it was dabbling where some people didnt like it. Now it appears, if the prof is to be believed, we could have to bomb the likes of Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Namibia, Qatar, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Yemen into the stone age too? No wonder the Santa Obama crowd are talking about "projecting" "soft power" (sans the quotes, but no more euphonious for their absence). Why isn't this on the front pages of the MSM???

0
0
Silver badge

@AC re: Israeli 'war mongers'

Are you a troll, or are you actually a drooling moron? I'm just curious.

0
0
Alert

Americium

Isn't that like Canadium but less boring?

0
0
Boffin

The problem is the slow ones

Neutrons, that is. Thermal neutrons will be produced in large measure by these reactors, whether they're dosed with Am-241 or not, and that means that suitable clandestine addition of natural uranium around the core can be used to produce Pu-239. Which is what they want.

The key to making spent fuel impractical to reprocess for weapons use is to mandate long fuel cycles, which load up the fuel with undesirable Pu-240, which is both very hard to separate from Pu-239 and highly radioactive (worse than the usual stuff, anyway, which is pretty unpleasant by all accounts.) None of this stops a suitably conniving reactor operator from sticking extra stuff in the reactor to irradiate it with stray neutrons- the only way you could do that would be by absorbing them all, which would, uh, stop it working.

I guess you could probably design a reactor which didn't have any space to add anything, but then where would the coolant and control rods or drums go?

The other point I'd like to make is that now laser isotope separation is possible, it seems unlikely that anyone with enough money and sufficient insanity to actually want nuclear weapons is going to be stopped by any technological means. Pandora's box is well and truly open, and any half decent A-level physics student could design you a pretty reasonable bomb given access to the interwebs and a couple of months to do the calculations involved.

0
0
Bronze badge

Is Mordechai Vanunu allowed to comment yet?

The idea of tuning reactors so that it is difficult to extract weapons grade Pu from their by-products isn't exactly new; nor is that of similarly denaturing existing weapons stocks. Comparisons of different reactor types have often included a section on proliferation resistance: either they don't make much Pu, or it's difficult to extract the appropriate isotope or remove contaminants that are highly radioactive and are chemically very similar.

The underlying problem remains the same as it has been for several decades: how to explain to hawk politicians that if we continue to hold nuclear weapons then sooner or later this will lead to mutually assured destruction.

Perhaps world stability would be increased rather more if Israel were to own up to the extent of its own nuclear programme and allow international inspection of its weapons facilities. This might set an appropriate example to those nations that find themselves threatened by the asymmetric advantage that possession of these weapons presently confers and who do not have the option to launch a similar 'last ditch' defence.

0
0
Bronze badge

@Sean Aaron

There are plenty of people arrounf that have been sufficiently trained in nuclear physics or chemistry to understand the difference between the two. The world is full of academics who make grand claims for their particular pet project without dealing with the real world issues.

As it stands, then there is, at the very least, a very valid question about how the proposal deals with the possibility of chemical separation. On the face of it there is no obvious way of eliminating the latter without supplementary physical controls - possibly some trusted party to load the stuff into the reactor.

Nice little comments like STFU don't betray an open mind, but rather one that isn't too interested in asking pertinent questions. Some of us don't take headline stories at face value - by all means we should see the final proposal. However, another common sign of a scientist flying their own particular kite is to announce headline items to be picked up by non-specialist journalists in order to generate publicity rather than a peer-reviewed paper (which this seems like an example of). Exactly that happened with the infamous cold fusion fiasco.

Something similar happened a couple of years ago when a US scientist (with a vested interest) was bidding for a state money for a wholly impractical and self-defeating proposal for generating hydrogen in-vehicles using aluminium pellets and water, However, anybody with a reasonable understanding of chemistry could easily see that the whole life cycle process was thermodynamically inefficient ,and the reprocessing of the aluminium oxide waste would generate huge amounts of CO2 (due to the use of sacrificial graphite electrodes are used and not the CO2 used for generating electricity),

Now I suspect that you aren't trained in either chemistry or physics but are quite fond of believing a story which suits your particular mind set. Some of us are a little more sceptical. I'm there to be convinced, but I want the answer to dealing with the chemical separation issue (and that's ignoring the "dirty bomb" one).

0
0

@ simon elliott

no, just less Maple syrup.

0
0
Coat

Re: Americium

"Isn't that like Canadium but less boring?"

No. When you stand close to Americium and Canadium they sound the same, but you'll notice that Canadium doesn't have a red neck.

Okay. Mines the one with the I-Spy book of stereotypes in the pocket.

0
0

Reciprocity

@Anonymous Coward Posted Thursday 5th March 2009 12:44 GMT

I take your point. A counter to this might be something like this:

The Arabs (or other states with a lot of sunshine) can use solar for a lot of their power generation. But for base load, nuclear is fine. Studies have already been done by the EU to look at the feasibility of solar in African deserts transmitted to Europe. One can imagine a reciprocal arrangement where solar is provided in return for nuclear.

0
0
Anonymous Coward

toxicity

erm last time the toxicity of Plutonium was published, it was 50picogrammes per kilo LD30 in rats.

If it goes "wrong" - like gets bombed by Israel, I see a country where few live beyond 30.

the pebble bed reactor is a better option, or whats wrong with plain old sun-power in these countries?

0
0
Coat

Re: Safe plutonium

"Does safe plutonium generate heavy electricity?"

No. Safe plutonium generates electricity that can't give you a fatal shock.

Mines the one with the Faraday cage lining.

0
0
Anonymous Coward

@Are you a troll, or are you actually a drooling moron?

My point stands. They should lead by example and start with their OWN reactor and eliminate their OWN weapons first.

Lead by example.

.... or if they won't lead by example, then why not? How can you expect anyone else to use this approach if the country that invented it won't use it?

0
0
Silver badge

Chemistry

It's a long time since I did any recreational actinide chemistry, so I was wondering about using lanthanum as a carrier to separate plutonium from americium; but a quick check online suggests there's an even easier way:

http://scitation.aip.org/getabs/servlet/GetabsServlet?prog=normal&id=APCPCS000532000001000239000001&idtype=cvips&gifs=yes

'A single stage process using MgCl2 in CaCl2 has been demonstrated to remove 90% of the americium from plutonium with no transfer of impurities to the product metal except magnesium, which is readily removed in a vacuum casting operation. ©2000 American Institute of Physics.'

$24 for the whole paper.

God bless Aldermaston.

It's hardly surprising that techniques for separating the two are well-developed. Pu241 is a contaminant in most plutonium, decaying to americium with a 13 year half-life. This affects bomb performance, so it can be necessary to separate the two elements in plutonium which has come from reactors with a long burn time.

0
0
Bronze badge

A bit mroe research

A bit more reading around on this indicates the proposal may be more to do with preventing the generation of weapon grade plutonium from using normal fuel-grade uranium in a reactor. Proper weapons grade plutonium has, apparently, less that about 7% plutonium 240. Fuel grade plutonium has considerable higher proportions of plutonium 240 and won't makie a proper "bang" in a fission bomb (but would make an extremely messy dirty bomb).

Now it is possible to generate something close to weapons grade plutonium in an LWR with more limited irradiation of uranium fuel (although it seems to involve closing down the reactor). Possibly the addition of Amercium into the Uranium fuel stops it generating weapons greade plutonium (at least without further isotope separation). This is what this article appears to say :-

http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1235898328437&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull

"Ben-Gurion University of the Negev engineers have developed a practical technique to "denature" plutonium created in large nuclear reactors and make it unsuitable for a dozen countries that are building reactors - mostly Arab or Islamic states - to produce nuclear arms. "

So not, as the Register article implies, a way of using "safe" plutonium in a nuclear reactor but a means of stopping one generating weapons grade plutonium in the first place - probably by preventing the generation of too much of the plutonium isotopes useful in making A-bombs. As it stands, fuel-grade plutonium is only of use in a "dirty" bomb.

0
0
Flame

I wonder...

I understand the Chemistry and Nuclear Physics can do different things, and that it is (theoretically) quite possible to chemically separate Am from Pu or U, with enough Chem experiance. The question then becomes, what if the process of separation uses a substance that had nuclear properties. Like water, for instance, which greatly reduces the size of critical mass (and completely mucks up the whole stability thing) over time; so it may be possible to separate them, if it weren't for the fact that the process would ruin them.

I'm guessing that this guy with a slew of degrees after his name is more educated than a large number of the arm-chair physicists who are saying that he's wrong or over looked the obvious. He may have, he may not have. read his paper (and understand it) *then* criticize his work.

0
0
Silver badge
Thumb Up

This is actually a good thing. A very good thing...

Look at it this way...

Outside of the big 5, there are a handful of smaller countries that may have nuclear weapons. Its in everyone's best interest to not have more countries trying to gain nuclear weapons.

If you think about it, this is the first step in a process that can ultimately allow for non-nuclear countries to get clean energy.

If you can agree upon some common standards of fuel types and reactor plants, you can actually have a good thing going....

If you consider a pebble reactor, you can offer a country cheaper power.

You build the plants for them. You supply the fuel. You remove the waste and recycle it.

The upside is that they get cheaper and cleaner power.

Developing countries need clean cheap energy.

With respect to a dirty bomb, The Big 5 control the fuel and most of it is secured. Biological weapons are more dangerous and scary than a dirty bomb.

Even if you consider just North America and the EU, if they adopt plants based on this technology, you will still have clean energy and a reduction in the waste issue.

Your big expense in the US is finding a plant site, getting it approved through the EPA, fighting all of the lawsuits by non-nuke activits, and then eventually construction of a plant. You want green electric cars and electric trains... You're going to need something like this to make nuke plants more viable.

0
0

Friends of the Negev

Interesting to note that all but one of the countries listed by Professor Ronen are Islamic.

0
0

Factoring problem

This sounds like a chemical version of the traditional mathematical problem of factoring. It's much easier to put two things together than to take them apart. That's the basic concept behind RSA encryption. It's also the same idea here. It's nice to see the same concept showing up in multiple realms.

0
0

@AC 15:52 GMT

Hear, hear!

0
0
Heart

What? No Altruists in the crowd?

Hrmmm, nobody expecting Israel to give this secret away to the world for free and provide peace and energy security for all? Everlasting happiness & all that?

...thought not.

0
0
Silver badge
Flame

Great Idea

I won't even begin to speculate on the feasibility or the technicalities, but general historical experience shows that if there is a way to do mischief it will be found.

Resulting in plenty of flames

0
0
MnM
Stop

warmongers, lead by example, etc.

Here's a news story about technology which could, by finessing the argument against rights to civilian nuclear power, pragmatically prevent nuclear weapons proliferation to the great benefit of all.

Pragmatic, i.e. there's a chance it might actually happen, unlike AC's continued daft suggestions.

0
0
Joke

@jolyon

Heh, you said Pu.

0
0

Page:

This topic is closed for new posts.