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London Nuke Plant Loses 30 Kilos of Plutonium 613

Posted by CowboyNeal
from the or-is-it-tonnes dept.
solafide writes "The Globe and Mail reports 'A British nuclear-reprocessing plant [at Sellafield] cannot account for nearly 30 kilograms of plutonium, but authorities believe it is an accounting issue rather than a loss of potential bomb-making material, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority said.' Although it says later plutonium is only 1% of what they deal with there. The Times Online has more details."
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London Nuke Plant Loses 30 Kilos of Plutonium

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  • Bomb em! (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Whoa. Them Londerners is gonna build one of them atomic bombs and get us. Hey, GWB! Let's get em. The US is gonna bomb London now! Look out Tony Blair, you thought you was gonna trick us eh? Well, your gonna take a missile up the tailpipe from good ol Bush. Fsckin traitorous terrorist limey brit bastards. Ha! and you all thought that Iran and Syria would be next. We sure fooled you!
    • Re:Bomb em! (Score:5, Informative)

      by amliebsch (724858) on Thursday February 17, 2005 @11:58PM (#11707864) Journal
      To pre-empt the tin-foil hatters: it is not possible to construct a nuclear weapon from power-grade plutonium, and terrorists do not have the technology to refine it into weapons-grade plutonium. However, it would make a nasty dirty bomb.
      • Re:Bomb em! (Score:5, Informative)

        by cameldrv (53081) on Friday February 18, 2005 @12:03AM (#11707896)
        That's not exactly true. Several governments have investigated the possiblity of making bombs from mixed-isotope Pu. It is possible. However even the best designs have a chance of a fizzle due to premature fission when the critical mass is being compressed. Making a bomb from power grade Pu is definitely quite a bit harder than making one out of pure Pu-239, which is harder than making one out of Uranium.
        • Re:Bomb em! (Score:4, Informative)

          by billsoxs (637329) on Friday February 18, 2005 @12:17AM (#11707988) Journal
          While the radiation is a problem - the chemical issues with Pu are almost worse. The stuff is more poisonous than Arsenic
          • Re:Bomb em! (Score:3, Informative)

            by thue (121682)
            While the radiation is a problem - the chemical issues with Pu are almost worse. The stuff is more poisonous than Arsenic

            It seems to be a myth that plutonium is very poisonous. See fx the wikipedia entry [wikipedia.org] or The Myth of Plutonium Toxicity [russp.org]
      • Re:Bomb em! (Score:5, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 18, 2005 @12:06AM (#11707917)
        The first article linked doesn't say what grade of plutonium it is, and the second article seems to be playing silly buggers right now. But to expand on this: "weapons grade plutonium" is 93% pure Pu-239. If there's more than 7% Pu-240 in the mix, the chances are that the Pu-240 will spontaneously fission, making it next to impossible to assemble a critical mass that is necessary for the nuclear explosion.

        Power grade plutonium doesn't have that problem to the same extent, because the reaction doesn't have to happen at a precisely controlled moment.

        Separating out Pu-239 from Pu-240 is a similar problem to separating U-235 from U-238: slow, tedious, and lots of centrifuges and similar. Because the relative weights are so close together, it's a significantly harder problem. This is why the production of weapons grade plutonium requires very regular reprocessing of fuel from the reactor core; otherwise, you'll get too much Pu-240, and it becomes too hard.

        • Re:Bomb em! (Score:5, Informative)

          by stevelinton (4044) <sal@dcs.st-and.ac.uk> on Friday February 18, 2005 @03:44AM (#11709203) Homepage
          It's not any particular lump(s) of Pu that are missing. I think they took in some used fuel rods and estimated somehow how much Pu was in it. Then, when they reprocessed them they found they had slightly less Pu than they expected.
      • it is not possible to construct a nuclear weapon from power-grade plutonium

        it is possible to make a nuclear bomb out of any element. for some odd reason, people think radioactive = nuclear bomb.

        while it will not tell you anything about bombs, watch october sky to see something about thinking.

      • Re:Bomb em! (Score:3, Funny)

        by oil (594341)
        Nasty and dirty? Ooooh!
      • Re:Bomb em! (Score:3, Interesting)

        Dirty bombs aren't any more nasty than regular bombs. Because there's no chain reaction, and because the radioactive material is blown up, the amount of radiation is extremely diffuse. Both the US and Iraqi governments have experimented with dirty bomb tests, and concluded that the danger is simply in fear of radiation - it's unlikely anyone would get radiation poisoning. The BBC covers this in their documentary "The Power of Nightmares," as well.
    • by darkonc (47285) <stephen_samuel&bcgreen,com> on Friday February 18, 2005 @12:43AM (#11708144) Homepage Journal
      Let's not go ballistic, here.
    • Bomb? (Score:3, Funny)

      by adolfojp (730818)
      You are thinking small.

      They have the plutonium, now all they need is an old Delorean and time as we know it is no more!

      Cheers,
      Adolfo
    • Re:Bomb em! (Score:4, Informative)

      by FireFury03 (653718) <slashdot@@@nexusuk...org> on Friday February 18, 2005 @04:12AM (#11709303) Homepage
      It's Sellafield [multimap.com] who's lost the Plutonium, not London [multimap.com]. I realise that most Americans are geographically challenged and that this is a smaller mistake than usual (When I was at University in Swansea, it was not infrequent for americans to say "Oh, you're in Wales... that's in London isn't it?").
    • Re:Bomb em! (Score:3, Informative)

      by Guppy06 (410832)
      "Them Londerners is gonna build one of them atomic bombs and get us."

      It's a leeetle late for that. We more or less gave the UK The Bomb before many of our parents were born.

      Of course, they seem to be following the philosophy of "Speak softly and carry a big thermonuclear device." You hear a lot about the US and Russia, you hear about French special forces vs. Greenpeace over nuclear testing in the South Pacific, but the UK seems content in letting everybody forget who else has The Bomb and the submarin
  • Geee... (Score:4, Funny)

    by alex_guy_CA (748887) <`alex' `at' `schoenfeldt.com'> on Thursday February 17, 2005 @11:53PM (#11707828) Homepage
    I know it's here somewhere.
  • 88 mph (Score:5, Funny)

    by froggero1 (848930) on Thursday February 17, 2005 @11:54PM (#11707829)
    sweet, I'll finally have fuel for my flux capacitor so I can get back to the 80's!
  • by ackthpt (218170) * on Thursday February 17, 2005 @11:54PM (#11707830) Homepage Journal
    Kim Jong Il is taking good care of it. He says so regularly!
  • Oh yeah (Score:3, Insightful)

    by metlin (258108) on Thursday February 17, 2005 @11:54PM (#11707834) Journal
    Accountability?

    Seems like nobody needs that irky little thing anymore. Not even if you're dealing with stuff that could blow up half the world.

    Sheesh.
  • by Your_Mom (94238) <slashdot@ i n n i s m i r . net> on Thursday February 17, 2005 @11:54PM (#11707836) Homepage
    A small boy with a oval shaped head was seen today in Leicestershire(sp?) saying "VICTORY IS MINE!"
  • by modifried (605582)
    1.21 Gigawatts?
  • by Rexz (724700) on Thursday February 17, 2005 @11:56PM (#11707847)
    I don't say that Boston is the same as New York. Please don't do this to my country.
    • I'm guessing it's due to The Globe and Mail's "London -- A British nuclear-reprocessing plant...".

      Rather amateurish error to make, though.
    • by fm6 (162816) on Friday February 18, 2005 @12:05AM (#11707913) Homepage Journal
      I got news for you: most Americans think that Boston is the same as New York!
    • by Peter Cooper (660482) on Friday February 18, 2005 @12:31AM (#11708066) Homepage Journal
      But at least Boston is comparable with New York. Sellafield is about 300 miles away from London (basically at the opposite end of the country) and is a tiny place in the middle of nowhere.
  • by grqb (410789) on Thursday February 17, 2005 @11:58PM (#11707866) Homepage Journal
    Uranium regeneration is a good thing. A nuclear reactor only uses about 4% of the uranium until it has to be either discarded or regenerated (because of reduced efficiency issues) but the regeneration process makes plutonium, which can then be used in a bomb. Most of the time, the plutonium is actually mixed with uranium and it can then be used as a fuel.

    Hopefully fusion will come along sometime soon [thewatt.com]...
    • by Anonymous Coward
      Depends on how it's reprocessed. If you use the fuel until it's considered "spent", the plutonium in the mix will be a combination of Pu-239 and Pu-240, and will only really be useful for power generation and/or dirty bombs. For weapons grade plutonium, you need a high (93%+) concentration of Pu-239; Pu-240 will render it useless for that purpose. If you don't pull the fuel out and reprocess it on a very regular basis, you'll get enough Pu-240 in there to contaminate the mix, and you can forget about weapon
  • by zymano (581466) on Thursday February 17, 2005 @11:58PM (#11707867)
    Remember after 9/11 and some nuclear plant had some rods missing. It was another accounting error i think. Never heard much more about it.

  • Jokes (Score:5, Informative)

    by Bonhamme Richard (856034) on Friday February 18, 2005 @12:00AM (#11707880)
    You all joke, but a nuclear submarine goes around the world on a lump the size of a golf ball.

    A nuclear weapon only uses about a grapefruit sized piece of fissionable material.

    And only about 8 grams of matter were actually converted to enegery by the original nukes used against Japan.

    30 kg missing seems like a big deal to me. I'd like to know for sure whether its an accounting issue or someone else has it.

    • I'd like to know for sure whether its an accounting issue or someone else has it.


      Actually, it wasn't an accounting issue. You see, the spreadsheet was run on a Pentium...
    • Re:Jokes (Score:5, Insightful)

      by khrtt (701691) on Friday February 18, 2005 @12:11AM (#11707954)
      A nuclear weapon only uses about a grapefruit sized piece of fissionable material.

      True. Now try to guess how much a grapefruit-sized piece of plutonium would weigh.
      • Re:Jokes (Score:5, Informative)

        by Powertrip (702807) * on Friday February 18, 2005 @12:34AM (#11708089) Homepage Journal
        Let's see, if the grapefruit I ate this morning was about 12cm in diameter the total approx. volume would be about 864cm^3. Plutonium has a typical denisty of 19.84g per cm^3, giving us a total weight of 17.062Kg.... Thats a darn heavy grapefruit! Brad
        • Re:Jokes (Score:3, Funny)

          by quanminoan (812306)
          Well it's obvious that to account for the missing plutonium, we're going to have to redefine the grapefruit:

          ((4/3)Pi((d/2)^3))*(19.84) > 50 kg

          Therefore, it is obvious that all grapefruits have a diameter of 16.88 cm and the plutonium missing is inadequate to construct a bomb.

  • by BovineSpirit (247170) on Friday February 18, 2005 @12:00AM (#11707881) Homepage
    Sellafield is right up in the north west of england. London is in the south east. The people who decided where to put Sellafield(then Windscale) are, however, based in London. Strangely they decided the best place for it was as far away as possible.
  • by toby (759) on Friday February 18, 2005 @12:01AM (#11707885) Homepage Journal
    As usual, a quick cross-check would have revealed that this story has been subsequently qualified in the UK press as somewhat less of the sensation initially implied:
    British Nuclear Fuels, which runs the Sellafield nuclear complex in Cumbria, claimed yesterday that no nuclear material had gone missing from the site ... a spokesman for BNFL said similar discrepancies have been recorded in audits since 1977, and do not represent real losses of radioactive material ... it is impossible to know precisely how much plutonium is at a nuclear site. Plutonium is created inside nuclear fuel rods while reactors are running, so scientists can only estimate how much plutonium is in them. Only when spent fuel rods are reprocessed, by dissolving them in acid to separate out the plutonium, uranium and other materials, can the true quantities be measured...
    --UK Guardian, 18 Feb 2005. [guardian.co.uk]
    • by p.gogarty (684488) <{moc.liam} {ta} {ytragog.p}> on Friday February 18, 2005 @12:36AM (#11708098)
      I watched this news article on BBC world last night (am British living in forign country). The BBC world account of this story did highlight a couple of points that take the wind out of this sensationalist post.

      1. The missing 30Kg is discrepancy between the estimated amount of reclaimed fuel and the actual amount for a whole yeare (See previous post). As any engineer involved with nuclear reclamation will tell you there is no precise method of calculating the amount of fuel that will be reclaimed from nuclear waste until after it has been reclaimed.

      2. On several occasions (years) Sellafield has reclaimed more fuel than estimated.
    • Notice the complete lack of comment in that statement. The only important line is the first one.

      British Nuclear Fuels, which runs the Sellafield nuclear complex in Cumbria, claimed yesterday that no nuclear material had gone missing from the site

      Notice that line is unqualified. If they have not ruled out accounting, being the issue, it is not yet a fact that anything is missing. Therefore the statement is true. The rest of that comment is pure misdirection. Yes it is true that the total amount of
  • Why this makes sense (Score:5, Informative)

    by Beryllium Sphere(tm) (193358) on Friday February 18, 2005 @12:01AM (#11707886) Homepage Journal
    If you reprocess tons of spent fuel then those little fraction-of-a-percent measurement errors add up. Also, in a big plant you could have an ounce of plutonium stuck in a filter one place, another ounce elsewhere, and add up to tens of kilos.

    What's scary is that the margins of error are big enough to include several bombs worth of material.
  • by saundo (312306) on Friday February 18, 2005 @12:01AM (#11707889)
    The BBC has had this story since yesterday!

    From what I read on http://news.bbc.co.uk, the "missing" plutonium was a result of the way in which material was accounted for, not an actual loss.
  • Great! Now, those British blokes are going to be lynched for proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Bush is going to invade that island and make it the 51st state. In other news, the queen, suspected of drinking a suspect cocktail, has turned into a gigantic, mean, green, old lady terrorizing the common folks into bowing before her smelly legs.
  • 30 kilos of weapons-grade is enough to make no more than 2 crude bombs, so the whole world is not really in danger. Just a couple of large cities.

    If it wasn't weapons-grade, you could make one hell of a dirty bomb out of it, but not really anything that makes a big boom with a pretty mushroom cloud on top.

    Lookie here [nuclearweaponarchive.org]
  • 3000kg (Score:3, Funny)

    by Tabor_Kelly (849807) on Friday February 18, 2005 @12:09AM (#11707941)

    "cannot account for nearly 30 kilograms of plutonium... Although it says later plutonium is only 1% of what they deal with there."

    Does this mean they are missing 3000kg of uranium?

  • For once, it's not the Americans with egg on our face for being idiots. But I'm sure it won't be long until we regain that distinction...
  • 1. Sellafield is nowhere near London.

    Sellafield is well known for mistakes, so well known in fact that it changed it's name to Sellafield, it's old name was Windscale.

    Nothing new here, please move along.

    http://www.nucleartourist.com/events/windscal.htm [nucleartourist.com]
  • by CAIMLAS (41445)
    Make a bomb, eh?

    Reactor grade plutonium isn't nearly as volatile as bomb plutonium. I wouldn't say this is such large concern, as it takes a good deal of energy/tech to create bomb grade shit out of reactor grade shit.

    Aside from a dirty bomb, of course. Or something wholely unenthralling.
  • by m3rr (669531)
    it would be highly difficult for most people to get any use out of that plutonium. radioactive material is purified to only 3% for use in power plants and needs to be purified up to somewhere around 90% to be weapons grade.

    ergo, i don't think i would be extremely worried if someone had stolen it.
  • hmm (Score:3, Funny)

    by Turn-X Alphonse (789240) on Friday February 18, 2005 @12:38AM (#11708111) Journal
    Damn it, then Liverpool fans got into the nuclear power station again! Time to send things by Royal mail, it'll never arrive so at least it's safe in a black hole.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 18, 2005 @12:56AM (#11708220)
    "And precisely how much nuclear material has escaped?" said the interviewer.

    There was a pause. "We wouldn't say escaped," said the spokesman. "Not escaped. Temporarily mislaid."

    "You mean it is still on the premises?"

    "We certainly cannot see how it could have been removed from them," said the spokesman.

    "Surely you have considered terrorist activity?"

    There was another pause. Then the spokesman said, in the quiet tones of someone who has had enough and is going to quit after this and raise chickens somewhere, "Yes, I suppose we must. All we need to do is find some terrorists who are capable of taking an entire nuclear reactor out of its can while it's running and without anyone noticing. It weighs about a thousand tons and is forty feet high. So they'll be quite strong terrorists. Perhaps you'd like to ring them up, sir, and ask them questions in that supercilious, accusatory way of yours."

    "But you said the power station is still producing electricity," gasped the interviewer.

    "It is."

    "How can it still be doing that if it hasn't got any reactors?"

    "We don't know," he said. "We were hoping you clever buggers at the BBC would have an idea."
    • I *LOVE* THIS BOOK.

      And you just made my evening, thank you sir.

      To any who are curious: The book is called, "Good Omens", it's by Terry Prachet ( Disc world fame ) and ..and...someone else who I just blanked on.

      It's freakin' hilarious. Really the only book I have ever read that made me laugh out loud.
  • London!? (Score:4, Informative)

    by qqod (799432) <tomlongfield@gm a i l . com> on Friday February 18, 2005 @03:02AM (#11708959) Homepage
    Sellafield is nowhere near London. It's about a 300 mile drive away according to Multimap [multimap.co.uk]. It's at the complete opposite side of the country.
  • by Errtu76 (776778) on Friday February 18, 2005 @03:38AM (#11709178) Journal
    Some weird guy in a DeLorean was seen at the spot, doing roughly 88 mph, before mysteriously disappearing ...
  • by pair-a-noyd (594371) on Friday February 18, 2005 @03:42AM (#11709195)
    Somebody set up us the bomb.
  • by Legion303 (97901) on Friday February 18, 2005 @03:57AM (#11709246) Homepage
    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/ne ws/archive/2005/02/10/national/w153100S29.DTL [sfgate.com]


    Halliburton misplaces Americium in Massachusetts, fails to notify Nuclear Regulatory Commission within federally-mandated deadline.

  • The blind. (Score:3, Informative)

    by ramblin billy (856838) <defaultaddy@yahoo.com> on Friday February 18, 2005 @05:01AM (#11709474)
    In 1977 the United States announced the successful underground detonation of an atomic weapon made from civil plutonium - in 1962. In a Department of Energy publication [osti.gov] on weapons nonproliferation it says "Virtually any combination of plutonium isotopes -- the different forms of an element having different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei -- can be used to make a nuclear weapon." The report goes on to say "While reactor-grade plutonium has a slightly larger critical mass than weapon-grade plutonium (meaning that somewhat more material would be needed for a bomb), this would not be a major impediment for design of either crude or sophisticated nuclear weapons." It even evaluates how the ability of the organization building the weapon affects the scenario - " At the lowest level of sophistication, a potential proliferating state or subnational group using designs and technologies no more sophisticated than those used in first-generation nuclear weapons could build a nuclear weapon from reactor-grade plutonium that would have an assured, reliable yield of one or a few kilotons (and a probable yield significantly higher than that)."

    That's a bad thing, but what really worries me is that the management of the Sellafield plant are probably right that the missing material was not removed from the facility. They are using the plutonium in the creation of Mixed OXide fuel (MOX), a mixture of plutonium- and uranium oxide fit for normal nuclear power plants. The process involved includes various complicated cutting, soaking, and moving activities which must be done remotely due to the extreme radiation hazard. Due to the reactions of the various substances involved, this process also results in accelerated and unusual state changes in the materials. So they're not really sure what happened to the stuff - where it may be lying around or how much of it has turned into what - even though it is still under their control. There wasn't an accounting error - they can't account for the stuff because their accounting system doesn't work. They don't understand the process well enough to predict the outcome. And that scares me.
  • Winsgale (Score:3, Interesting)

    by yanestra (526590) on Friday February 18, 2005 @07:45AM (#11710219) Journal
    Even in old times, the plant in Winsgale (now called Sellafield) was losing radioactive material all the time. You could out for swimming in the sea, come back at night and you didn't need a flashlight, cause you were glowing.
  • by colin8651 (827971) on Friday February 18, 2005 @09:32AM (#11710732)
    I found it on ebay, the starting bid is $25.00 and he will ship international.
  • by Ancient_Hacker (751168) on Friday February 18, 2005 @10:13AM (#11711042)
    IIRC this happens all the time-- you have a big chemical plant with kilofeet of pipes. You have fuel rods dissolved in hot acid. You have various chemical reactions going on, some jangled a bit by radioactive effects. You have bored, semi-skilled technicians working three shifts. You end up with various soups containing hopefully separated chemical elements. You have your basic bits of Murphy's laws, resulting in vapor deposition, electrochemical deposition, sedimentation, gunk getting stuck in valve sleeves and filters, stuff condensing out in unexpectedly cool pipes, the whole gamut of undesireable side efects and reactions. And all this is happening behind several feet of concrete, inside opaque pipes, retorts, valves, pumps, and widgets. What percentage of the stuff is going to get stuck in the various gadgets? What percent of solid X is going to quietly end up in solution Y, then thrown away? I'd guess a 3% loss rate would be rather good.
  • by Shannon Love (705240) on Friday February 18, 2005 @01:40PM (#11713822) Homepage
    This is one of those stories that gets reported every few years when some nuclear facility releases an audit.

    The headline screams "X kilos of plutonium missing" making it sound as if plutonium went missing in one chunk but down in the story it is always revealed that the loss is not unusual and is in fact perfectly in keeping with the expected error of the accounting system. In other words, nothing newsworthy whatsoever happened at all.

    The fact that these audits get reported as if they were in fact news reveals the systemic anti-nuclear bias of the media.

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