Chapter

The Chemistry of the Actinide and Transactinide Elements

pp 813-1264

Plutonium

  • David L. ClarkAffiliated withLos Alamos National Laboratory
  • , Siegfried S. HeckerAffiliated withLos Alamos National Laboratory
  • , Gordon D. JarvinenAffiliated withLos Alamos National Laboratory
  • , Mary P. NeuAffiliated withLos Alamos National Laboratory

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The element plutonium occupies a unique place in the history of chemistry, physics, technology, and international relations. After the initial discovery based on submicrogram amounts, it is now generated by transmutation of uranium in nuclear reactors on a large scale, and has been separated in ton quantities in large industrial facilities. The intense interest in plutonium resulted from the dual-use scenario of domestic power production and nuclear weapons – drawing energy from an atomic nucleus that can produce a factor of millions in energy output relative to chemical energy sources. Indeed, within 5 years of its original synthesis, the primary use of plutonium was for the release of nuclear energy in weapons of unprecedented power, and it seemed that the new element might lead the human race to the brink of self-annihilation. Instead, it has forced the human race to govern itself without resorting to nuclear war over the past 60 years. Plutonium evokes the entire gamut of human emotions, from good to evil, from hope to despair, from the salvation of humanity to its utter destruction. There is no other element in the periodic table that has had such a profound impact on the consciousness of mankind.

In 2005, approximately 2000 metric tons of plutonium exist throughout the world in the form of used nuclear fuel, nuclear weapons components, various nuclear inventories, legacy materials, and wastes (Albright and Kramer, 2004). This number grows every year by 70 to 75 metric tons through production in irradiated nuclear fuels (Albright and Kramer, 2004). It is clear that the large inventories of plutonium must be prudently managed for many centuries. A complex blend of global political, socioeconomic, and technological challenges must be dealt with to manage these inventories efficiently and safely.