Plutonic relationships

Chernobyl in Ukraine, site of a notorious nuclear reactor disaster 36 years ago, was invaded by Russian forces on day one of the latest war to give them access to Kyiv via Belarus. While there, they souvenired some items and now have about a year to live. More accurately, they have a year to die of radiation induced illnesses and join the estimated 200,000 lives lost since the meltdown occurred.

Some of the toxic plutonium created in the accident has turned into americium-241, which is also deadly.

Few of us will ever see a lump of plutonium but your house probably has a number of samples of americium in it – inside your smoke detectors. A teensy amount, but enough to emit 37,000 particles a second as it decays.

Plutonium, a by-product of uranium reactors, is great for making nuclear weapons.

Politics and chemistry means it is hard to get, but it’s also incredibly hard and dense, with a kilo of the stuff being about the size of a golf ball.

The bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945, dubbed ‘Fat Man’, contained a sphere of plutonium-239 just 92mm in diameter. Less than a gram of it was converted to the energy that immediately ravaged the city while the rest exploded into dust, causing deaths and illnesses in the years following.

According to British chemist Martyn Poliakoff, his colleague Alfie Maddock, who worked on the Manhattan Project during WW2, was experimenting late at night with the UK’s total supply of plutonium and spilled all 0.1g of it on his workbench. Thinking fast, he found a saw and cut a hole in the bench where the spill was. He burned the wood and recovered 95% of the costly element.

Sir Martyn went on describe being at a supercritical fluids conference in the US where he met a woman employed by a nuclear weapons manufacturer.

When he asked her why she was attending the conference she explained she was looking for more environmentally friendly ways to clean plutonium, since the current methods required extremely nasty chemicals.

So, finally, some good news. A step in the right direction for the makers of weapons of mass destruction.