Weapons grade plutonium-239 found in Hanford nuke dump

In the later years of World War II, the U.S. government set out on an ambitious project to develop nuclear weapons, ultimately succeeding in July 1945. The greater project involved work by hundreds of scientists across the country, including Los Alamos, New Mexico; Washington; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

As a result of this, there are large swaths of New Mexico and Washington state that are now deeply contaminated with intensely radioactive nuclear waste. The Hanford site will take decades or longer to get slightly cleaned up. And it was there at Hanford that a jar containing a sizable quantity of very refined plutonium-239 was found in an old safe that had been dumped and abandoned back in 1951, where it stayed until it was discovered in 2004.

Is that plutonium in that jar, or are you just happy to see me?

That dirty glass jar on the right is the one holding the refined plutonium. Apparently someone put the jar in that safe upon receipt from the uranium-plutonium refinery at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which apparently then proceeded to cause the whole safe to be come contaminated, presumably by radiation and radioactive sources that resulted from having that very hot sample of plutonium in the jar.

New Scientist has a lengthy article on this chilling discovery.

It almost makes me want to say, “Never mind the credit crisis and the economic meltdown; what are we going to do with our thousands of nuclear weapons and thousands millions of tons of nuclear waste?” We could always try to bury it and forget about it, but these things do have an often deadly way of turning up.

(h/t Slashdot.)

Also: Time has an article about Obama’s stated intention to halt development of nuclear weapons. Good riddance, I say. My interest in Obama the candidate was crystallized when I heard he wanted to stop the development of nukes. That’s a very good start. But can he start to help us get rid of them en masse?


Author: Jason Haas

Jason is an elected member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, occasionally moonlights as an amateur gardener, and is a proud father of two, or three, depending on how you do the math.