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U.S. to decide soon on making plutonium for rockets

September 1, 2005

By Laura Zuckerman

SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) – The United States is poised to
produce plutonium-238 for the first time since the end of the
Cold War but it will be used for space missions, not weapons,
officials said this week.

The U.S. Department of Energy will decide this fall whether
to move forward with its proposal to produce the radioactive
metal at a federal nuclear facility in southeast Idaho, a
department spokesman said.

Under the $300 million plan, the Idaho National Laboratory
would produce 11 pounds (5 kg) of plutonium-238 a year for 30
years starting in 2011. The non-weapons-grade plutonium is used
to power everything from satellites to deep space probes,
leading industry insiders to call the finished product “space
batteries.”

The proposal calls for half the batteries to be earmarked
for NASA projects and the rest for undisclosed national
security purposes.

The United States needs to produce plutonium because its
stockpiles are low and because an agreement with Russia
prevents it from using plutonium-238 produced there for
security or defense applications, according to DOE analyses.

Idaho officials are endorsing the proposal but are in a
dispute with the DOE over disposal of radioactive waste. They
want written assurances that the estimated 5,500 gallons of
contaminated waste generated each year by producing
plutonium-238 would be hauled out of state.

“In my opinion, this would lay the foundation for Idaho to
become a leader in our nation’s space program,” U.S. Senator
Mike Crapo, a Republican, said in an interview. “This could
make Idaho a significant part of NASA.”

Most Idaho residents who attended public hearings this
summer disapproved of the proposal, said Kathleen Trever, Idaho
Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s lab oversight coordinator.

“The negatives outweighed the positives but it was unclear
to what extent that reflected the opinion of the general
population,” Trever said.

Idaho and the Department of Energy have been locked in a
years-old conflict over cleanup of nuclear waste materials at
the laboratory’s sprawling complex near Idaho Falls. The
complex overlies the Eastern Snake River Aquifer, one of the
state’s primary sources of drinking and irrigation water.

“We want to make sure we don’t repeat problems of the past
that led us to have waste with no clear disposal path,” Trevor
said.




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