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Plutonium In Fuel Rods: Cause For Concern?

A container of mixed oxide, or MOX, a blend of plutonium and reprocessed uranium, that Japan uses as nuclear fuel for the No. 3 reactor at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, is loaded aboard the Pacific Heron ship in the French port of Cherbourg on April 8, 2010.
Jean-Paul Barbier
/
AFP/Getty Images
A container of mixed oxide, or MOX, a blend of plutonium and reprocessed uranium, that Japan uses as nuclear fuel for the No. 3 reactor at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, is loaded aboard the Pacific Heron ship in the French port of Cherbourg on April 8, 2010.

Some outside experts are particularly concerned about high levels of plutonium in one of the damaged Japanese reactors. About 6 percent of the fuel rods in reactor No. 3 at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant are made from so-called "mixed-oxide" (MOX) fuel, which contains plutonium as well as uranium.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, MOX fuel presents particular risks in an accident.

For one thing, it melts at a slightly lower temperature.

In addition, plutonium is a particularly long-lived and toxic material. The half-life of plutonium-239 is 24,000 years, so if it escaped in smoke from a burning reactor and contaminated soil downwind, it would remain hazardous for tens of thousands of years.

But officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency say the presence of MOX fuel does not add significantly to the dangers.

Denis Flory, a top safety official at the agency, pointed out that all used nuclear fuel contains plutonium. It forms naturally within conventional uranium fuel as the uranium is bombarded by neutrons.

And although plutonium is a long-lived emitter of radiation, it is also quite heavy, so it is not likely to move very far downwind from its source.

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Dan Charles is an independent writer and radio producer who contributes regularly to NPR's technology coverage. He is currently filling in temporarily as an editor on the National Desk, responsible for coverage of the environment and the western United States. He is author of Master Mind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Laureate Who Launched the Age of Chemical Warfare (Ecco, 2005). He also wrote Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food (Perseus, 2001), about the making of genetically engineered crops. From 1993 to 1999, Charles was a technology correspondent for NPR. Charles covers a wide swath of advanced technology, including telecommunications, energy, agriculture, computers, and biotechnology. He's reported for NPR from India, Russia, Mexico, and various parts of Western Europe. Before joining NPR, Charles was a U.S. correspondent for New Scientist, a major British science magazine.
Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.