Disposing of Plutonium

Science  07 Feb 1997:
Vol. 275, Issue 5301, pp. 737-741
DOI: 10.1126/science.275.5301.737a

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Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky has recently written (Letters, 3 Jan., p. 11) in support of the decision by the Department of Energy (DOE) to “pursue two technologies for disposing of excess military plutonium.” He describes the technologies as (i) the “throw away” vitrification into glass logs option, and (ii) the “burn-up” in a mixed oxide fuel option. This does not seem to be an accurate or complete description of the Administration's two options. It is correct that one option is to burn up the surplus plutonium as mixed oxide fuel, with subsequent disposal of the spent fuel in a geologic repository. However, the other option is not restricted to vitrification, but includes immobilization of plutonium in “glass or ceramic material” (1).

The “ceramic” option includes the possibility of developing durable, crystalline materials for disposing of dangerous, long-lived, fissile materials, particularly if DOE decides to immobilize all of the surplus plutonium. The National Research Council's committee (chaired by Panofsky) which assessed the options for disposing of plutonium gave the ceramic option only cursory consideration (2). However, research on ceramics as waste forms already has a long history (3). The disposal of fissile materials with long half-lives may well benefit from strategies that capitalize on the benefits of using highly durable materials that can retain both the fissile nuclides and the required neutron absorbers for hundreds of millions of years (4).