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U.S. Plans to Produce Plutonium-238 in Idaho

The U.S. government wants to use this four-decade-old reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory to turn neptunium into plutonium-238.
Martin Kaste, NPR
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The U.S. government wants to use this four-decade-old reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory to turn neptunium into plutonium-238.

Fifteen years ago, the United States stopped making plutonium-238, one of the most toxic substances known to man. It can be fatal to inhale so much as a speck of the radioactive isotope. But now, citing national security needs, the government is preparing to start making it again at a federally owned site in the Idaho desert.

Plutonium-238 is far more radioactive than its cousin, plutonium-239, which is used in bombs. It's so radioactive, it stays hot to the touch for decades. It is useless for commercial nuclear power plants, but ideal to make small, long-lasting batteries for devices such as space probes and espionage equipment.

The U.S. now gets plutonium-238 from old stockpiles and from Russia, which won't sell the isotope for military or espionage applications. Nuclear engineers outside the government believe the plutonium made in Idaho would power spy equipment such as undersea listening devices. A spokesman for the Department of Energy would neither confirm nor deny that these types of applications are driving the government's interest in renewing U.S. plutonium production.

Many residents of Idaho Falls, about 50 miles from the proposed site, welcome plans for a new plutonium plant. But opponents worry about the environmental ramifications. The federal government already spends about half a billion dollars a year on nuclear waste cleanup in Idaho alone.

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Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.