Skip to comments.Possible Plutonium Find Has Wide and Disturbing Implications
Posted on 04/10/2003 5:19:05 PM PDT by Axion
Possible Plutonium Find Has Wide and Disturbing Implications Summary
Apr 10, 2003 - 2202 GMT
Initial reports from coalition forces at Iraq's Al Tuwaitha nuclear complex indicate the presence of weapons-grade plutonium. If this is truly the case, and tests should confirm the plutonium's presence very shortly, the finding will have disturbing ramifications for the region and American foreign policy.
Coalition forces searching the Al Tuwaitha nuclear complex just south of Baghdad on April 10 have detected a type of radiation that could signal the presence of weapons-grade plutonium.
One of two materials is used to fuel nuclear explosions: uranium or plutonium.
The initial indications from Al Tuwaitha indicate the presence of plutonium-239. If true, this is worrying on numerous fronts. Uranium is far more abundant than plutonium and methods to separate, purify and mold weapons-grade uranium are not particularly technically advanced or expensive. Plutonium manufacture and purification, in contrast, is one of the most advanced weapon-fabrication processes. Plutonium weapons also require far less material -- as little as 5 kilograms -- and so plutonium weapons can use a wider array of lighter delivery vehicles. Unlike uranium, plutonium does not occur naturally in any form.
Using radiation detectors to determine the difference between uranium products and plutonium products without taking samples is a sketchy business, but there is one relatively clear difference. When plutonium-239 decays naturally it emits almost exclusively alpha particles, or positively charged helium nuclei. Uranium isotopes, on the other hand, emit beta particles (electrons) and gamma rays along with alpha radiation.
Alpha radiation normally cannot penetrate clothes and skin, whereas beta and gamma radiation certainly can. Initial reports from Al Tuwaitha indicate very high levels of radiation, yet there have been no reported casualties. That indicates that most of the radiation is probably not beta or gamma radiation, but alpha radiation, plutonium-239's calling card. Since the people who discovered the radiation at Al Tuwaitha have reported no health problems, the plutonium is most likely purified -- and therefore usable in a weapons program.
This has some disturbing implications.
No isotope of plutonium occurs naturally. In fact, it is normally created in only one of two ways. The first method involves bombarding a sample of uranium-238 with neutrons to make plutonium-239. In the second method, a uranium reactor creates the plutonium as a byproduct.
Unlike uranium enrichment programs required to make uranium-based nuclear weapons, plutonium enrichment and purification is an expensive and technically advanced process involving quite a bit of sophisticated equipment that supposedly is under a series of strict international controls.
If Iraq has obtained the equipment to manufacture or extract plutonium, it must either have some quite complex -- and highly restricted -- technology or a functioning nuclear reactor.
Such a confirmation would signal a colossal failure not only of the United Nations sanctions regime as relates to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, but also of the broader global efforts to stem the spread of nuclear technology. The new fear would be that if Iraq, clearly on the to-watch list, can import nuclear materials and advanced nuclear technology, so can other nuclear wannabes.
It also means that United States will hardly want to depend upon the United Nations or the International Atomic Energy Agency for global nuclear security, for if it cannot prevent proliferation in the relatively cut-and-dried case of Iraq, it will be next to useless in cases where the subject has more international standing.
That is a big "may", but conveivable.
I have to acknowledge another freeper on another thread who made this initial suggestion. It's not original with me.
There's a third, and perhaps even more disturbing possibility: that the plutonium was produced elsewhere (say, Russia or France) and shipped in its purified form to Iraq.
Not necessarily. Look for a MADE IN FRANCE, RUSSIA, or NORTH KOREA sticker somewhere on the specimen.
I agree with this hypothesis. It would have been relatively easy to smuggle this out of the former Soviet Union. They may have had this stuff for decades or right after the fall of the FSU, using it for experimentation for further P239 development. But I'm sure it wasn't for some Badhdad University post-graduate physics project.
I think they already tried.
Remember the container ship flap? Where alpha radiation was detected?
And where after a great deal of searching and strange activity the source was supposedly "trace elements in a consignment of tiles"?
I agree. Perhaps we should declare the scientists who work on these programs to be "enemy combatants," and let it be known that we consider them legitimate military targets.
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