Israeli boffins have developed a promising technique for "declawing" plutonium, which would let it be used as fuel but not for building bombs. They believe the technique could greatly expand peaceful use of nuclear power worldwide, while preventing weapons proliferation.
Almost all plutonium is produced in nuclear reactors, which can run on either uranium or plutonium fuel rods. When the rods are replaced with new ones, the old fuel can be reprocessed - so yielding useful fissionable fuel including plutonium, and reducing the amount of waste requiring disposal or storage.
Beyond basic reprocessing, there is also scope for more advanced techniques such as the use of fast-breeder reactors or perhaps hybrid fusion/fission ones, so turning almost all of the high-level radioactive waste produced by today's power reactors into useful fissile fuel.
In the early days of nuclear power it was assumed that such procedures would be routine. However it has turned out that uranium ore is much more common than was thought, meaning that it is generally cheaper to make fresh uranium fuel than run advanced reprocessing reactors.
Secondly, there has been huge pressure to forbid any activity which could even slightly increase the prevalence of nuclear weapons. Beyond a certain point, reprocessed fuel can not only run a power reactor - it also becomes saucy enough to make a bomb. Thus the USA for example does no commercial-scale reprocessing at all, preferring to tolerate a large waste stockpile. Though reprocessing and use of plutonium as fuel does take place elsewhere, notably in Europe, it is viewed with disquiet by those concerned over weapons proliferation.
But Professor Yigal Ronen of Ben-Gurion University says he and his colleagues have cracked a method whereby plutonium can be robbed of usefulness for weapons, yet remain a good power source. He believes this would let the established five nuclear-weapon states of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (the US, UK, France, Russia and China) trade and supply nuclear fuel to other nations with a guarantee that no weapons would result.
It seems the secret is to add the rare-earth isotope Americium-241 in due proportion.
"When you purchase a nuclear reactor from one of the five countries, it also provides the nuclear fuel for the reactor," says the prof. "Thus, if the five agree to insert the additive into fuel for countries now developing nuclear power - such as Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Namibia, Qatar, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Yemen - they will have to use it for peaceful purposes rather than warfare."
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev [Desert], where Prof Ronen works, describes itself as "a university with a conscience" and says it has a "unique responsibility to develop the Negev, reach out to its local community and its Arab neighbors, and share its expertise with the world". The professor clearly sees his "denaturing" or "declawing" tech as a way for the northern nuke powers (and, unspoken, Israel) to let Arab countries get in on atomic power technology without creating a possible threat against themselves.
The idea might also gain prominence in the wider debate over nuclear power, however, allowing more reprocessing to take place by allaying concerns over production of weapons-grade plutonium. Such reprocessing could hugely reduce the amount of waste generated by the use of civil nuclear power, so reducing its costs and making much more efficient use of existing uranium reserves.
Prof Ronen had previously worked on de-clawing of plutonium using Neptonium-237 as the additive, but believes his new plans are much improved. The research will be published in the Science and Global Security journal next month. ®