Friday, 15 Jan 93 Washington, DC
1. PLUTONIUM: RUSSIA MAKES IT--JAPAN BUYS IT--U.S. WAREHOUSES IT.
With the end of the Cold War, weapons-grade plutonium has become
a hot item on the commodity market. A shipment of plutonium from
a reprocessing plant in France arrived in Japan ten days ago. In
the next 20 years, Japan plans to amass over 100 tons of Pu-239
for an ambitious breeder program--that is more Pu-239 than is in
the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal! It would make the island nation
energy self-reliant and greatly reduce production of greenhouse
gases. Russia also plans to build fast-breeder reactors as part
of a program to double its nuclear power capacity by 2010. Even
now, Russia continues to operate plutonium production facilities
on the grounds that they are also used to generate electricity
and heat apartment buildings. The U.S., however, terminated its
Clinch River fast-breeder program in 1983. There is no long-range
plan to use the tons of Pu-239 from dismantled weapons now piling
up at a facility near Amarillo. We do hope DOE has a long-term
lease on the warehouse. The half-life of Pu-239 is 24,000 years.
2. MEANWHILE, NASA HAS AGREED TO BUY PLUTONIUM-238 FROM RUSSIA,
as WHAT'S NEW predicted a year ago (WN 25 Jan 93). The non-
fissile isotope, which decays by alpha emission with a 90-year
half-life, is used by the U.S. for the thermoelectric generators
that power deep space science missions. NASA does not have enough
of the isotope for the 1997 Cassini launch. DOE considered using
the idle Fast Flux Test Facility at Hanford to make Pu-238, but
at the Russian price of only $1.2M per kilogram, it's far cheaper
to buy it. A relic of the fast-breeder program, FFTF will now be
turned off. It will take five years to achieve "cold" shutdown.
3. SDI BOUGHT A TOPAZ II SPACE NUCLEAR REACTOR FROM THE RUSSIANS.
And to the distress of American astronomers, they want to test it
in near-Earth orbit. Astronomers have had plenty of experience
with Soviet space reactors. During the Cold War, the Soviets used
nuclear reactors to power radar satellites. On each pass, the
reactors blinded American gamma-ray satellites. It would be even
worse with the more sensitive Compton Gamma Ray Observatory that
was launched last year. Last week, the Council of the American
Astronomical Society adopted a resolution urging SDIO to put the
reactor in a high enough orbit to avoid interference. In 1978, a
Soviet reactor crashed in Canada, scattering radioactive debris
over 40,000 square miles of tundra. In 1989, Rep. George Brown
(D-CA) called for a moratorium on nuclear power in Earth orbit.
Amazingly, SDIO has not even defined a mission for the Topaz.
4. CONFIRMATION HEARING FOR SCIENCE ADVISOR SET FOR 26 JANUARY.
Hearings on the nomination of Jack Gibbons to head the Office of
Science and Technology Policy
(WN 1 Jan 93) have been scheduled
by the Senate Commerce Committee. Early confirmation would allow
Gibbons to have an input to the FY 1994 budget request and to the
selection of the other 77 presidentially appointed S&T positions.