The Daily Bork

June 28, 2005

Scare-symbol headlines

How often do you see an image as part of a headline?

Almost never right? So if a radiation symbol was used as part of a headline, what would it imply? Why use it? Surely to add impact, in this case it is a warning symbol so the implication is what, nuclear weapons? The article would be about North Korea? Iran?

Nope...

USA vill producera plutonium 238

The article appears to be a straight translation of a Reuters release (minus scare symbol)...

US plans to resume plutonium 238 production - report
28 June 2005

NEW YORK: The United States plans to produce highly radioactive plutonium 238 for the first time since the Cold War, The New York Times reported yesterday.


The newspaper quoted project managers as saying most, if not all, of the new plutonium was intended for secret missions. The officials would not disclose details, but the newspaper said the plutonium in the past powered espionage devices.

The Times said Timothy Frazier, head of radioisotope power systems at the US Energy Department, vigorously denied in a recent interview any of the classified missions would involve nuclear arms, satellites or weapons in space.

"The real reason we're starting production is for national security," Frazier was quoted as saying.

Officials at the Energy Department could not be reached for comment.

The program, which the newspaper said had raised concerns among environmentalists, would produce 150 kg over 30 years at the Idaho National Laboratory. The program could cost $US1.5 billion and generate over 50,000 drums of hazardous and radioactive waste, federal officials told the Times.

Plutonium 238 is hundreds of times more radioactive than plutonium 239, which is used in nuclear arms, according to the newspaper. Medical experts say inhaling even a speck posed a serious risk of lung cancer, the Times said.

The newspaper said plutonium 238 had no central role in nuclear arms, but was valued for its steady heat that could be turned into electricity. Nuclear batteries made from it power spacecraft to go where sunlight is too dim to energise solar cells.

Federal and private experts not connected to the project were quoted as saying the new plutonium would likely power devices for espionage under the sea and on land.

The United States last made plutonium 238 in the 1980s and now relied on aging stockpiles or imports from Russia, the newspaper said. It added that under the agreement with Russia, the United States could not use the imports - about 16 kg since the end of the Cold War - for military purposes.


Now I may be reading a bit much into this, but what is the big deal? The US, instead of soaking up Russian material, rather than leaving it lying around, is going to produce it again. For power sources, not weapons. It is not much different to producing other isotopes for medical and research purposes. So really, what is the news? Why the big bad bogey symbol?

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