March 3, 2009

Antique Nuclear Plutonium Sample Found In Dumpsite

A bottle found at a dumpsite has the oldest example of plutonium prepared in a nuclear reactor, scientists announced yesterday. The sample is from 1944 and is an artifact from the early years of the US nuclear weapons program.

Scientists from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory utilized nuclear forensic methods to precisely date and find the origins of the sample.

The researchers have labeled this "nuclear archaeology."

The bottle of plutonium was found in a trench at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington.

Part of the Manhattan Project in 1943, Hanford housed the world's first plutonium production factory. The Manhattan Project was the US' attempt to create the world's first nuclear weapon in World War II. The project was started due to fears that Nazi Germany was creating a similar weapon. It concluded in bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

The Hanford site is part of a huge cleanup attempt because of high amounts of radioactive waste. While cleaning out a trench, personnel found a safe, which housed a large bottle full of liquid.

More tests discovered that the liquid was a kind of plutonium created in a way coherent with early attempts at Hanford.

Understanding the historic prospective of the discovery, Jon Schwantes and colleagues from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory conducted additional tests.

To find its age, the researchers reviewed the varied isotopes of plutonium and uranium.

Their findings implied that the plutonium was created at the X-10 reactor in Oak Ridge in Tennessee, opened in 1943.

The forensic techniques utilized in the study are important for shaping the beginnings and paths of smuggled radioactive materials.

"The frequency of smuggling events involving radioactive materials is supply driven and is on the rise worldwide," the researchers said in Analytical Chemistry.

They noted: "It is likely that (given) the current nuclear renaissance and greater access to these materials by the public, smuggling events involving fissionable materials may rise in the near future."


On the Net: Warning sign at entry to Hanford Site, Washington. Courtesy Wikipedia


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