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The Military Science

Oldest Weapons-grade Plutonium Found In Dump 552

Posted by samzenpus
from the radioactive-home-coming dept.
Urchin writes "Researchers have just identified the first batch of weapons-grade plutonium ever made. The batch was produced as part of the Manhattan Project, but predates Trinity — the first nuclear weapon test — by seven months. It was unearthed in a waste pit at Hanford, Washington, inside a beaten up old safe."
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Oldest Weapons-grade Plutonium Found In Dump

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  • Mystery Pits (Score:3, Informative)

    by Gonzotek (206051) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @08:32PM (#26554501) Homepage

    "But sloppy work by the contractors running the site saw all kinds of chemical and radioactive waste indiscriminately buried in pits underground over the 40 years Hanford was operational, earning it the accolade of the dirtiest place on Earth."
    Oh, great. :)

    • by Bozzio (183974) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @08:40PM (#26554561)

      Don't worry, it's only a matter of time before a crew of teenage crime-fighters mutates into existence. Hanford will then be the safest place in the world!

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Hojima (1228978)

        I heard Iran wanted this significant piece of history for the space museum that they plan to launch at us for all Americans to enjoy.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Do you have any idea of the kind of balls it took to be a part of this team? Under intense time pressure to work with previously theoretical isotopes that just might save tens of thousands of American lives?

      And you judge them? You, with the heat on, comfortable, probably overly fed.

      What. A. Putz. You. Are.

      • Re:Mystery Pits (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @08:54PM (#26554681)

        Under intense time pressure to work with previously theoretical isotopes that just might save tens of thousands of American lives?

        At the cost of hundreds of thousands of civilian Japanese lives.

        • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @09:00PM (#26554741)

          At the cost of hundreds of thousands of civilian Japanese lives.

          That's what happens when your Emperor and your military piss off America.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Kokuyo (549451)

            That's what happens when your emperor takes the bait and tries standing up for his own people living on American soil.

            I am willing to bet that most of us haven't been there when this all happened, so I'd say we should all just shut the fuck up about dishing out blame, no?

        • Re:Mystery Pits (Score:5, Insightful)

          by El Torico (732160) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @09:08PM (#26554833)

          At the cost of hundreds of thousands of civilian Japanese lives.

          Did you notice that was the last time that Japan attacked anyone? Peace is the result of completely removing your enemy's capacity or desire to wage war. Sad, but true.

          • Re:Mystery Pits (Score:5, Insightful)

            by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @09:17PM (#26554909)

            peace for the enemy maybe, How long has US spent in the time since then NOT at war?

            • Re:Mystery Pits (Score:5, Insightful)

              by fishbowl (7759) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @09:23PM (#26554971)

              >peace for the enemy maybe, How long has US spent in the time since then NOT at war?

              With all due respect, there has been nothing to compare with WWII. All states of War are not equal.

              • Re:Mystery Pits (Score:4, Insightful)

                by postbigbang (761081) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @09:32PM (#26555053)

                Tell that to the guys in the cemetary, their widows, their children.

                • Re:Mystery Pits (Score:4, Insightful)

                  by conlaw (983784) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @10:08PM (#26555323)
                  I'm not sure why parent was modded Flamebait but he's right. The soldiers being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are just as dead as those killed in WWII or any other war or"police action." Believe me, all states of war are equal when you're on the wrong end of an enemy weapon.
                  • Re:Mystery Pits (Score:5, Insightful)

                    by RudeIota (1131331) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @11:09PM (#26555797) Homepage

                    All states of War are not equal.

                    Tell that to the guys in the cemetary, their widows, their children.

                    Believe me, all states of war are equal when you're on the wrong end of an enemy weapon.

                    Well, any state of war is bad (I think that's your point), but I offer you 416,000 [wikipedia.org] examples of why "all states of war are equal" is a mistake to think. Compare that to the current war's 5,000ish [wikipedia.org] figure and you can better visualize the point of the GGP.. BTW, figures are fatal U.S. military casualties only

                    Fishbowl's opinion remains true in my eyes - WWII does not compare to anything since and there is indeed a 'spectrum' in regard to the 'state of war'. War is war, but it is not the same every time -- Some wars are more heinous than others.

                    Here's a quick synopsis of casualties in major U.S wars [infoplease.com].

                    • Re:Mystery Pits (Score:5, Insightful)

                      by commodoresloat (172735) on Thursday January 22, 2009 @02:20AM (#26556937)

                      BTW, figures are fatal U.S. military casualties only
                       

                      I think that's exactly the problem with this line of discussion.

                    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

                      by mortonda (5175)

                      Well, any state of war is bad (I think that's your point), but I offer you 416,000 [wikipedia.org] examples of why "all states of war are equal" is a mistake to think. Compare that to the current war's 5,000ish [wikipedia.org] figure and you can better visualize the point of the GGP.. BTW, figures are fatal U.S. military casualties only

                      ... and compare that to drunk driving [alcoholalert.com]: In 2006, there were 13,470 fatalities in crashes involving an alcohol-impaired driver (BAC of .08 or higher) ... or heart disease, or cancer... relatively, this war has pretty light casualties.

                      OTOH, comparing those numbers to the risk of a terrorist attack on US soil, I have to say, who cares about homeland security? I'm much more likely to be hit by a drunk driver than I am to be attacked by a terrorist.

                  • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

                    by ScrewMaster (602015) *

                    I'm not sure why parent was modded Flamebait but he's right. The soldiers being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are just as dead as those killed in WWII or any other war or"police action." Believe me, all states of war are equal when you're on the wrong end of an enemy weapon.

                    Nonsense. Let me put it this way: when it comes to armed conflict, SIZE DOES MATTER. Sure, you're just as dead no matter what ... but World War II produced a lot more dead than Iraq and Afghanistan (and I'm not even counting what happened to the German Jewish population.) Look at the thousands upon thousands of Allied soldiers buried all across Europe, the loss of civilian lives ... and then tell me that you can in any way compare that conflict to any more recent "war".

                    Let's hope a real nuclear war never

            • Re:Mystery Pits (Score:5, Interesting)

              by afidel (530433) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @09:31PM (#26555045)
              All of it? Yeah we've had skirmishes since then but we haven't had a significant percentage of GDP geared towards war since. Even the trillion dollar fiasco in Iraq has only been about 1.3% of GDP over the time we've been there. Our standing army and research and procurement programs during times of absolute peace are around 3% of GDP so it's been nothing in the grand scheme of things.
              • Actually... (Score:4, Interesting)

                by Savage-Rabbit (308260) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @10:48PM (#26555629)

                Our standing army and research and procurement programs during times of absolute peace are around 3% of GDP so it's been nothing in the grand scheme of things.

                ... military expenditures are a bit like unemployment figures. How high they are depends on how you do the math. It seems the actual US military/defence budget is just over 4% of GDP. For the year 2009 the figure is (According to wikipedia) $515.4 Billion which is some 5.7% of GDP. If you also count miscellaneous other military spending it gets closer to 8-9%. This only covers the US armed forces. The Iraq war comes on top of this figure since Iraq and Afghanistan aren't included in the defence budget they are funded through supplementary spending bills. If you take other military expenditures like: black projects, veterans expenditures, subsidising of military equipment to other countries including the massive aid to Israel (only a portion of this aid ever gets paid back even if it is theoretically handed out in the form of loans) and count them as military spending the total US military expenditures for the last few years will easily top 10% of GDP. Keep in mind that black projects include some very expensive gadgetry and Israel isn't exactly a cheap proposition either. To keep the peace in that region the USA has to subsidise the military acquisitions of several surrounding arab countries to ensure a reasonable degree of military parity. Plus every time the the Israelis decide to exercise their right to defend them selves with totally disproportionate bombing campaigns in Lebanon and the occupied territories it triggers another wave of bribery to keep their Arab neighbours nice and docile and that usually takes the form of new and better weapons.

        • Re:Mystery Pits (Score:5, Informative)

          by LWATCDR (28044) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @09:24PM (#26554975) Homepage Journal

          Actually that number is a very very low estimate.
          Did you know that the US military is still using the stockpile of purple hearts that was made for the invasion of Japan.
          The military estimates for the losses are in the hundreds of thousands for US and over a million for Japan.
          Japan had also already crossed the NBC line before the US dropped the bombs. They had used chemical and biological weapons in China.

          Yes it was a terrible waste of life. If the government of Japan had just cared enough about their own citizens lives it never would have happened.

        • Re:Mystery Pits (Score:5, Informative)

          by frosty_tsm (933163) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @09:52PM (#26555231)

          We killed just as many Japanese civilians in one bombing run with incendiary bombs as with one atomic bomb.

          Everything I've observed and studied about the war points to the loss of Japanese lives would have been far higher if we invaded. If you question this, look at casualty numbers for German civilians. Plus we (racially) hated the Japanese far more than the Germans. And the Germans weren't culturally opposed surrender.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Tisha_AH (600987)

          There were a great many factors that were considered before the United States dropped two nuclear weapons on Japan. At that point in time, allied forces had cornered the Japanese military to the home islands with it's outposts in the Pacific cut off from resupply and slowly starving into submission.

          Our next move for Japan would have been the whole-scale destruction of every Japanese city with incendiaries (like what happened to Dresden Germany). In that bombing campaign, millions of Japanese would have died

      • Re:Mystery Pits (Score:5, Insightful)

        by schwillis (1073082) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @09:02PM (#26554775)

        Do you have any idea of the kind of balls it took to be a part of this team? Under intense time pressure to work with previously theoretical isotopes that just might save tens of thousands of American lives?

        And you judge them? You, with the heat on, comfortable, probably overly fed.

        What. A. Putz. You. Are.

        Nuclear isotopes were treated with quite a degree of reckleness for a good many years. Also I don't think they were any more heroic then anyone else who assisted with the war effort, although unlike many they were establishing for themselves quite a lucrative career. The men working in coal mines to supply energy to head up the war effort we far more heroic then a bunch of scientists getting paid handsome salarys to do what they like to do anyways, ground breaking science.

        • Amen to that (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Weaselmancer (533834) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @09:49PM (#26555211)

          Nuclear isotopes were treated with quite a degree of reckleness for a good many years.

          It's amazing how they treated plutonium like a bag of groceries back then. Best example of that is the Demon Core. [wikipedia.org] A sphere of plutonium that killed two scientists, Harry Daghlian and Louis Slotin. In two different critical exposures.

          Both times were simply the experimenter being clumsy. Dropping a brick or bumping a screwdriver. The core would go near-critical and make a flash of radiation. Louis Slotin lasted 9 days, and Harry Daghlian made it 21.

    • Re:Mystery Pits (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Tenebrousedge (1226584) <tenebrousedgeNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @09:40PM (#26555133)

      Hanford isn't that bad of a problem---yet. The important thing to note is that Hanford is proximate to the Columbia River, a major watershed for the Pacific Northwest. Currently the stored (highly radioactive) waste is leaking into the groundwater, but has not yet reached the river. Once that happens, well, things won't be very pretty downriver. Portland is known for being a fairly "green" city, and that trend can be expected to continue. Possibly it'll be a glowing, radioactive green city...

  • by Anthony_Cargile (1336739) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @08:42PM (#26554575) Homepage
    For some reason, just seeing the word "dump" in the title first brought feces to mind (cue word association, /. therapists).
  • File 13 (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Zymergy (803632) * on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @08:42PM (#26554579)
    When in doubt, always check File 13.

    No political statement intended, but it would be surprising if one day the government contractors doing cleanup also found a more/less completed Nuclear weapon warhead buried in a trash pit too.
    Makes one wonder what Russia still has buried in their "nuclear trash pits"?
    I am sure Mike Rowe will Not be going to film that Dirty Job... (But I would certainly watch it if he ever did... as I imagine seeing Barsky fall in a pit of Nuclear Waste as Mike kiddingly mocks him... /chuckle)
    • Re:File 13 (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Bearhouse (1034238) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @09:25PM (#26554987)

      Makes one wonder what Russia still has buried in their "nuclear trash pits"?

      Stuff you would not believe, ranging from nuclear-powered generators (for remote installations) that were abandoned all over the ex-Soviet Union on its collapse, to six nuclear submarines and ten reactor cores that were just dumped into the Artic...

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kara_Sea [wikipedia.org]

      This not counting the nukes they lost at sea, or are still rusting away awaiting decomm.

  • Researchers (Score:5, Funny)

    by planckscale (579258) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @08:43PM (#26554593) Journal
    By "Researchers" they mean "Homeland Security officers" who were contacted by "Police" who were contacted by "Hospital Staff" who had become sickened by "vagrants" admitted to emergency rooms with strange "green glowing skin" who had admitted to trying to sell a "Safe" they found in the "dump".
  • by Bearhouse (1034238) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @08:51PM (#26554659)

    Apparantly the stuff was actually discovered in 2004, but it's taken them this long to do the scientific detective work to figure out where this particular sample came from.

    Scary picture of the rusty unearthed safe & dirty glass bottle full of 99.96% pure plutomium here:
    http://www.newscientist.com/gallery/dn16447-hanford-site/ [newscientist.com]

    • by A. B3ttik (1344591) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @09:14PM (#26554897)
      I'll say. And it's even more interesting if you do some research, too.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plutonium-239 [wikipedia.org] shows that Plutonium-239 is really hard to make and come by... anything more pure than 94% is considered weapons grade and anything more pure than 97% is considered "super grade."

      What's more is that after doing some calculations, it looks like you only need about 510cc of the stuff to reach critical mass and there's 400cc here. Could this have been dangerous in the wrong hands?

      The article is full of its own questions. There's still a mystery as to how the safe was contaminated and why this sample wasn't used in a bomb sooner. The article treats these questions like ancient history, but aren't there people alive and around who can answer them? Weren't there records kept?

      Further investigation is warranted.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by afidel (530433)
        According to this site [mphpa.org] the core of Fat Man was ~13.6 lbs or ~6,200g. Pu239 has a density of a little under 20g/cm^3 so the core of Fat Man was ~300cc. Fat Man used a subcritical mass of Pu detonated through the compression mechanism but it just goes to show that a weapon could have been created from the sample assuming the isotope mix hadn't degraded too badly.
    • by shadwstalkr (111149) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @09:35PM (#26555091) Homepage

      The real shame is that Doc Brown never had to get involved with terrorists after all.

  • Nuclear Dump (Score:5, Informative)

    by Pinckney (1098477) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @08:57PM (#26554719)
    It's worth noting that the sample was found at Hanford, a dedicated nuclear site. It's a radioactive mess, and the sample was not contained safely, but it's not as if they found it at a typical municipal dump.
  • A little insight.. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Kral_Blbec (1201285) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @09:01PM (#26554753)

    I have personally visited the fields where they doing all this. The term "waste pit" is misleading. A lot of stuff was stuffed in 55gal drums and buried in rows underground just because they didnt know what to do with it. It was always intended to go back and clean them up, but due to delays they have been there longer than expected. It wasnt just thrown out in a big pile.

    There is a huge tent on rollers (about football field size) that has a crane mechanism hanging from the ceiling. The barrels (and some boxes) are mostly rusted really bad so digging is done very slowly to avoid busting any. Those that are judged to be too weak are packed into a larger barrel that fits over the old one. There is also a ventilation trailer that has automated drills to pierce drums that are under pressure slowly to release gases so they dont explode. Its really pretty cool how they have it set up.

    They just didnt know any better back then, and there was no way for them to have guessed what would happen with all that stuff. Unfortunately work on the vitrification plant is constantly delayed due to red-tape, but when it gets up and running then that will be a major break through.

    Note: Most of the stuff in these barrels is solid. The liquid stuff are held in huge (over a million gallon) tanks. Those are also being replaced.

    • Whenever I see "They didn't know better back then." I get that feeling that in 50 years time they'll be saying the same of us - those dumb bastards that lived with that pathetic 2009 technology.

      I'm sure those guys back then were just as smug about their technology as we are now.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      A company I used to work for has also done some consulting work re: hazardous waste remediation at the Hanford site.

      You paint much too pretty a picture.

      Yes they did know better, but they counted on people coming in later to clean things up. Of course, the problem is that this same situation went on for many decades, and nobody came in to clean it up. Therefore, the old single-walled storage tanks (not just drums but many very large tanks) rusted and otherwise deteriorated and developed leaks. And thes
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @09:09PM (#26554847)

    Richard Feynman mustn't have had access to this particular safe.

  • More to be found (Score:5, Interesting)

    by HangingChad (677530) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @09:41PM (#26555151) Homepage

    Much more. Take a drive out there sometime. Mile after mile of desert. There is construction rubble, old reactors, contaminated pipes and equipment mixed with construction rubble. Even the stuff they know is there is bad. Tanks full of screaming hot radioactive waste that burp flammable gas. Can't stabilize it, can't remove it, and definitely no smoking near it. The cesium pool...no life guard on duty. N Springs, the canyon facilities. And that's just what we know about. There are certainly more finds like this one buried out there. More plutonium, uranium, americium, cesium, thorium, take your pickium there's a container of it buried out there, probably mixed with something toxic, mutagenic, or carcinogenic that's equally scary when it's not radioactive. They were in a hurry, didn't understand the risks, record keeping was...occasional...and what scientists did was not understood by the majority of people working out there and frequently not well regulated.

    I'm not saying it's good or bad, it is what it is out there. Just don't be surprised what turns up in a backhoe bucket out at Hanford.

  • by eggman9713 (714915) <{eggman97132007} {at} {mac.com}> on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @09:58PM (#26555267)
    Although this area is the site of a great deal of mistakes and consequences resulting from negligence back in the day, those of us who live here are proud of our history....And the fact that we are our own nightlights! But I digress, the community that has been formed around this area is just one of those gems that makes you want to live here for a very long time. I have lived here my whole life and the history, the community, and the natural beauty of the area are what keep me here. If anyone wants to see a great documentary of what happened out there, and how much crap is being cleaned up, buy the DVD Arid Lands from sidelongfilms.com. From a native's perspective, it is the best explanation and analysis of the history and community that I have ever seen.
  • by Ukab the Great (87152) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @10:27PM (#26555459)

    If you could just find a Delorean in the same junkyard, you'd have one-stop shopping for a time machine.

  • by DrBuzzo (913503) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 @10:46PM (#26555613) Homepage
    First, before we get all crazy about how this is going to end up in the hands of terrorists, lets please consider the nature of the site. This was found on the Hanford Site in Washington State. This is an areas under the control of the DOE which has been in use since the Manhattan project. It is a secure location that is monitored and is in the process of enviornmental remediation.

    The site at Hartford has numerous areas that are heavily contaminated. In no case does this mean that there are big chunks of radioactive material ripe for the picking, but the soil has been contaminated and there is mildly radioactive material around. It is actively being cleaned up and the materials concentrated and remediated. This has been going on successfully for a few years.

    This is the result of years of use of the site especially in the early years when chemical reprocessing of materials was not a well established process. Some of the experiments were messy. There were not the standards in the 1940's that there are today.

    Now as for the materials we're talking about: There is no big chunk of plutonium metal. That would not be thrown out, it's far too valuable. What is left is rags, lab coats, test tubes and so on that were contaminated.

    This sample was not weapons ready. If it were, it would have been used in a weapon and not left behind. This sample appears to be pretty small. It looks like it might be aqueous in nature. It could be from an initial test run that was used for analysis. It's not enough to make a weapon from - not even close.
  • by lugash (1458745) on Thursday January 22, 2009 @02:49AM (#26557061)
    And to think, Doc Brown could have avoided all dealings with those wacky Libyan terrorists!

    Actually, it would have made the whole lightning plot completely moot. Then Marty would only have had incest to deal with!

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