Scientists have a cute name for it: "ploot." But plutonium, a man-made element created by bombarding uranium 238 with neutrons, has awesome properties. On the plus side, fast-breeder nuclear reactors, which are generally fueled with plutonium and U-238, can not only generate electricity but also produce more plutonium fuel than they consume. On the other hand, plutonium, even in tiny quantities, is searingly radioactive and ranks with botulin toxin as one of the world's most poisonous substances. Moreover, with as little as 12 Ibs. of plutonium, the right equipment and expertise in handling the stuff, almost any government - or terrorist outfit - could make a nuclear bomb.
The plutonium dilemma has troubled policymakers for years. Should the development of fast-breeder reactors be encouraged as a wise way of dealing with global energy shortages? Or must the manufacture of plutonium be sharply curtailed to minimize the chance of its being put to unpeaceful uses?
As expected, Jimmy Carter last week came down hard on the anti-plutonium side. Citing the "serious risk," he said he would seek to halt the development of plutonium as a fuel source. (It can be manufactured only under federal license.) A prototype breeder to be built on the Clinch River in Oak Ridge, Tenn., will be restricted to research employing other fuels, like thorium, which is not used in weapons. Carter will block the federal funds needed to complete a privately owned plant in Barnwell, S.C., designed to reprocess used uranium fuel into plutonium. He will also call for a "joint effort"; with other nations to tighten controls over plutonium use.
Environmentalists and antinuke organizations applauded the moves, although some felt Carter should have killed the breeder program outright instead of merely changing its emphasis to breeders that do not use plutonium. Indeed, if the Administration's estimates of domestic uranium reserves - a minimum of 1.8 million tons and probably as much as 3.7 million - are accurate (some experts characterize them as speculative at best), development of the breeder reactor would be less urgent because there would be enough uranium available to fuel conventional nuclear plants until at least the end of the century.
Yet Carter's decision flew in the face of some high-level backing for breeders. The Government's own Energy Research and Development Administration had long advocated plutonium power, arguing that it would save the U.S. $50 billion in energy costs over 30 years. Even more curiously, in March Energy Chief James Schlesinger commissioned a panel of eleven energy and environment experts to study the breeder issue. The group's report, which endorsed further development of plutonium as a fuel source and concluded that the danger of weapons proliferation existed with all kinds of reactors - not only breeders - was released on the day the Administration made its anti-breeder declaration. Many of the experts felt they had been ignored - as they had.
Carter is known to have doubts as to whether breeders are worth the billions it would cost to develop them. But the basic explanation for his anti-plutonium stance seems to be politics. Carter may be gambling that by coming out strongly against the breeder reactor, which is the main focus of the ire of the antinuke forces, he can tamp down the debate over the safety of nuclear power and press on with the development of conventional uranium-fueled plants. Partly because of the safety controversy, orders for such plants declined from 30 in 1974 to three last year.
Many in the energy industry regard Carter's position as dubious at best. Says Charles Luce, chairman of New York's Consolidated Edison, "For future generations, we can't give up such an important energy resource as the breeder reactor. The rest of the world isn't going to give it up." Washington Democrat Mike McCormack, a chemist who heads a House subcommittee on energy technology, argues that the proliferation problem has been exaggerated: "As far as we know, there's not been a single nuclear weapon made anywhere on earth from the nuclear fuel cycle. It's far cheaper and easier to make them outside the fuel cycle." McCormack adds that plutonium can be safeguarded against theft by storing it in casks weighing 50 tons or so - rather unwieldy even for the most determined terrorist.
Carter wants the U.S. to expand the plants that process uranium for conventional reactors. He will also offer other nations supplies of uranium fuel if they forswear plutonium in return. His views on plutonium and breeder reactors will be the focus of hot debate at a conference on nonproliferation to be held in London this month. West Germany, to the Administration's displeasure, has said it will go ahead with plans to sell Brazil plutonium-producing technology. Some of the conference participants - notably Britain and France, which already have prototype breeder reactors - are certain to argue that their stiff oil-import bills preclude doing away with plutonium, no matter how Washington feels.