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Japan Power

How Japan Lost Track of 640kg of Plutonium 104

Posted by Soulskill
from the left-it-in-my-other-pants dept.
Lasrick sends this quote from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: Most people would agree that keeping track of dangerous material is generally a good idea. So it may come as a surprise to some that the arrangements that are supposed to account for weapon-grade fissile materials—plutonium and highly enriched uranium—are sketchy at best. The most recent example involves several hundreds kilograms of plutonium that appear to have fallen through the cracks in various reporting arrangements. ... [A Japanese researcher discovered] that the public record of Japan’s plutonium holdings failed to account for about 640 kilograms of the material. The error made its way to the annual plutonium management report that Japan voluntarily submits to the International Atomic Energy Agency ... This episode may have been a simple clerical error, but it was yet another reminder of the troubling fact that we know very little about the amounts of fissile material that are circulating around the globe. The only reason the discrepancy was discovered in this case was the fact that Japan has been unusually transparent about its plutonium stocks. ... No other country does this.
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How Japan Lost Track of 640kg of Plutonium

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  • by serviscope_minor (664417) on Wednesday July 09, 2014 @05:17AM (#47413633) Journal

    This sounds bad: any slashdotter ought to realise, 640kg of plutonium ought to be enough for anyone.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 09, 2014 @01:50PM (#47417075)

      1) It wasn't 640kg of plutonium. It was 640kg of fuel rods that contains a much smaller amount of plutonium
      2) They were at Fukushima the whole time.
      3) The "Dude, Where's My Plutonium?" spreadsheet didn't have a column for "Halfway loaded into a reactor that just got hit by a tsunami"
      4) The plutonium bean counters noticed that SUM() didn't include the new column.

    • by antdude (79039)

      Funny. I put 6:40 AM for my wake up alarm and say that's enough sleep for me. ;)

  • Come now. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Rei (128717)

    Let's not make a big deal out of this. 640kg of reactor-grade plutonium is only enough for a bit over 100 fission bombs / fusion bomb first stages, merely enough to make the recipient roughly tied for being the world's sixth most armed nuclear power.

    Nothing to see here.

    • Re:Come now. (Score:5, Informative)

      by MachineShedFred (621896) on Wednesday July 09, 2014 @07:54AM (#47414033) Journal

      Except that "reactor grade" plutonium is unsuitable for weapons, and cannot have the undesired isotopes of plutonium separated out of it to make it weapons grade. There's a reason why the US built the special reactors at Hanford for weapons production - you can't just make material suitable for weapons in any commercial generating station.

      But besides that, yeah we should all duck and cover.

      • Re:Come now. (Score:5, Informative)

        by Mr D from 63 (3395377) on Wednesday July 09, 2014 @08:13AM (#47414101)
        Except that it was never lost, and you'll find that not in the summary, but midway through TFA where it says they just entered it in the wrong column on a spreadsheet . Disaster averted. Spreadsheets are actually tools of terror!
        • Shame that /. will spend much of the day wailing at the horrors of weapons-grade Pu being lost, even though it wasn't weapons-grade, and it wasn't actually lost. TFA FTW.
        • by Archtech (159117)

          Exactly. "No plutonium was actually lost, and the IAEA was quick to confirm that its own safeguards, which are there to ensure that no nuclear material is diverted, were applied at all times".

          More worrying is the admission that "[a]s it turned out, the Genkai plant’s internal accounting system could not properly deal with such a situation, and the material ended up in the wrong column on a spreadsheet".

          Spreadsheets are probably not appropriate for such critical applications. Their deceptive simplicity

          • by Luckyo (1726890)

            What kind of a better replacement that clerics involved in rotating those numbers en masse on continous basis are you suggesting? As far as I know, spreadsheets are used because they are pretty much the best tool we have for the job that meets the sum of all requirements better than any known alternative.

            • by ultranova (717540)

              What kind of a better replacement that clerics involved in rotating those numbers en masse on continous basis are you suggesting?

              A proper double-entry bookkeeping system, with every location an account. Why hack together a solution when the problem was solved centuries ago?

              • by Luckyo (1726890)

                You seem to think that double entry bookkeeping doesn't require extra work (significant increase in costs), that it wouldn't reduce usability (far more difficult to produce reports on wider issues), or that it would make system immune to human errors.

                You are incorrect on all accounts.

                • by ultranova (717540)

                  You seem to think that double entry bookkeeping doesn't require extra work (significant increase in costs),

                  No, it doesn't. Entering the numbers into a cell in Excel spreadsheet or to the field of a bookkeeping software require the exact same amount of work.

                  Also, this is plutonium. It sits in storage and gets moved around only occasionally. And when it does, accounting is the least of the expenses - or do you simply send it in mail?

                  that it wouldn't reduce usability (far more difficult to produce reports on

                  • by Luckyo (1726890)

                    Entering? Yes. Reading and managing with numbers? No. You seem to think that the only costs with data management are entering. That's just ridiculous.

                    I'm not going to even bother with the rest of your argument, which amounts to "spreadsheet bad for everything, world is wrong in choosing it, I stand alone as a warrior for just cause". Good luck with that.

          • Though in this case, it also highlights a degree of redundancy. No material was actually lost, but there where multiple spreadsheets and a data discrepancy discovered during a audit. This triggered an alarm and an investigation, the system failed safe. Maybe that was a high degree of wasted effort over a false alarm, but it would appear to add an extra layer of security against data manipulation to hide deliberate theft.

        • by tlhIngan (30335)

          Spreadsheets are actually tools of terror!

          You jest, but they actually are - a lot of terror groups use them to keep track of funding and expense tracking (Al Qaeda being one of them), and ironically, for corruption protection. Because they're not necessarily flush with cash, and keeping spending down and wise means your terror group can do more with less.

          Basically, a terror group happens to also be a business and businesses need to keep track of their accounts.

      • Actually you can, you just need short refuel times to avoid burnoff in a LWR and some reprocessing. Also with proper cooling you can use reactor grade Pu in weapons ( late 50's it was successfully tested ).

        I would think you could also separate the Pu-239 from the "useless" Pu-240 with a well tuned cyclotron, much like grabbing the U-235 from U-238. It would probably be easier and faster to just short fuel cycle a LWR and reprocess than separate the fuels with a single neutron mass difference though.

        • The mass difference between Pu 239 and Pu 240 is so insignificant that it is completely infeasible to use any current production isotope separation techniques (gaseous diffusion, centrifuges, etc.) and Pu 240 reacts to chemicals exactly the same as Pu 239, so you can't cheat it by using a chemical bath to dissolve the stuff you want / don't want (PUREX). There are experimental techniques, but they are so unreliable or expensive that it's cheaper and faster to just build a reactor to make the stuff if you'r

    • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

      The most likely explanation is that it was syphoned off by the Japanese government for a secret nuclear weapons programme. While they don't want to have actually weapons right now they do want to maintain the ability to build them in short order. Their space programme provides delivery vehicles.

      • by Luckyo (1726890)

        Reading the TFA pretty much tells you that your "likely explanation" is the exact opposite of what actually happened.

        Hint: a cleric sitting in his office somewhere filing lots of reports accidentally pasted the wrong number into the column. Woops. Clearly, a government conspiracy to create nuclear weapons from material that you can't make any from in the first place.

        • by jpvlsmv (583001)

          Hint: a cleric sitting in his office somewhere filing lots of reports

          Thank goodness we have the separation of church and state in the US. It's only our Patriotic Paladins who get to fill out reports over here.

    • In fact, no amount of weapon grade Pu was lost, even no Pu of any grade was lost either.
    • Reactor grade plutonium is useless for bombs, and parroting the lie doesn't change that. See Dr. Helen Caldicott: Toilet Paper & Plutonium at 5:50 [youtube.com]. (The other Caldicott videos by Thorium Remix [youtube.com] also offer further insight into a prototypical leader of the anti-nuclear movement. The source of this story, "The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists" belongs in the same class and deserves similar scorn for their rampant intellectual dishonesty.)

      However, the article refers to unexposed MOX fuel, which is not th

    • by Luckyo (1726890)

      Or, as has been pointed out in the TFA, it has most likely been a clerical error.

      Meaning fissile material is actually accounted for, someone just messed up a copy paste into excel file somewhere among the line of filing lots of reports.

      But let's panic!

    • by tlambert (566799)

      Let's not make a big deal out of this. 640kg of reactor-grade plutonium is only enough for a bit over 100 fission bombs / fusion bomb first stages, merely enough to make the recipient roughly tied for being the world's sixth most armed nuclear power.

      Nothing to see here.

      Clearly, you have never built a fission device, if you think you could get that many of them out of 640kg of even weapons grade Plutonium. You need to probably go back and read "The Curve of Binding Energy" and recalculate the neutron numbers to determine critical mass, assuming a pareto optimal design, because you are more than a bit high with "100"...

      You could build a lot of dirty bombs with something like that, but you are likely better off just robbing a radiomedicine unit at a large research hospital

  • Misreporting (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 09, 2014 @05:27AM (#47413651)

    From TFA: "No plutonium was actually lost, ... the material ended up in the wrong column on a spreadsheet."

    That's because all Pu isn't created equal. It begins as some Pu in a used fuel element. It can be separated to become elemental Pu, which is somewhat dificult. The Japanese incorporate this into MOX fuel, from which it could easily be separated again (which would be pointless, but never mind). And then the MOX fuel is used, and the Pu (both old and new) becomes difficult to isolate again. This particular 640kg of Pu is in the form of an unused MOX core for a reactor which was scheduled to be started, but due to the hasty shutdown of all nuclear power in Japan after March 2011 never was. So the Pu in the unused core ended up in the books as a used MOX core.

    Moreover, Podvig hints that this is about weapons grade material. It's not. Japan doesn't have a (working) fast breeder, no Hanford-style Pu production reactor, and no Magnox-style dual purpose reactors. This Pu is from light water reactors, therefore heavily irradiated, therefore isotopically a mess, and therefore not weapons-grade and never going to be weapons grade by any means. But Podvig makes a living off the case of nuclear non-proliferation, so of course desaster is looming, or he wouldn't have a job anymore.

    • Somebody please mod AC +Informative. One of the few comments that seem to be informed about reactor physics, and not just conjecture from amateurs.

    • Damnit Microsoft, when are you going to finally include a Plutonium macro in Excel!
      • Damnit Microsoft, when are you going to finally include a Plutonium macro in Excel!

        Well this is the thing: for years, most of the requested features in Office have actually already been in there, but people simply didn't realise. Trust me, it's in there somewhere, but you have to be an expert at navigating the ribbon to find it.

        • by bobbied (2522392)

          Damnit Microsoft, when are you going to finally include a Plutonium macro in Excel!

          Well this is the thing: for years, most of the requested features in Office have actually already been in there, but people simply didn't realise. Trust me, it's in there somewhere, but you have to be an expert at navigating the ribbon to find it.

          That's why they need to bring back that Paper clip.... "I see you are trying to find Pu.... "

  • by Chrisq (894406) on Wednesday July 09, 2014 @05:45AM (#47413677)
    Sellafield in the UK lost nearly 30 kg of plutonium [wikipedia.org] in 2005. But that was on paper only.....except the plutonium washed out to sea [theguardian.com]. Of course it can't enter the human food chain can it? [theguardian.com]
    • by Sockatume (732728)

      If I'm reading that right, the material wasn't lost, it just couldn't be accounted for after deliberate disposal because they made some seriously incorrect assumptions about how it would sequester itself in the environment. So that's a different issue.

  • Let's wake up Godzilla!

  • by Charliemopps (1157495) on Wednesday July 09, 2014 @07:24AM (#47413935)

    Sensationalize much?

    From the Summary:

    How Japan Lost Track of 640kg of Plutonium

    From the Article:

    No plutonium was actually lost

    This was an accounting error, nothing more.

    • by bobbied (2522392)

      Sensationalize much?

      From the Summary:

      How Japan Lost Track of 640kg of Plutonium

      From the Article:

      No plutonium was actually lost

      This was an accounting error, nothing more.

      Then don't tell the IRS. Accounting errors are NOT an excuse... But neither is "my hard drive crashed" and we all know who uses that...

  • Usually memedot editors simply post the first paragraph of the original article as the summary, at least time they call out that it's a quote.

  • Whenever I lose something, I go back to wherever I last saw it and retrace my steps. Have they tried that?

  • by TheDarkMaster (1292526) on Wednesday July 09, 2014 @07:36AM (#47413973)
    Damn, they found my scheme! Now I will have to get plutonium for my diabolical plans elsewhere.
  • Unfortunately, I do not agree with this!
  • They stored their plutonium stockpile carefully (also because packing it too tight is a very bad idea), but they were not aware that it was made of Pu-233 [periodictable.com]. This explains why the stockpile they bought was sold at such a bargain price on the market...
  • Clean, safe and too cheap to meter.

    Anybody who tries to use a misplaced 640 kilograms of plutonium to spread FUD about 1950's Energy Source of Future is just a damn liar.

    But you have to admit, Japan has a pretty remarkable record with nukes. They must have it in their blood. At least the ones whose grandparents lived in Nagasaki.

    Regarding the lost 1410 lbs of the deadliest substance on Earth, I'm pretty sure it has something to do with that giant lizard marching toward Tokyo (and no, I'm not referring to

    • Regarding the lost 1410 lbs of the deadliest substance on Earth,
      By what metric do you declare Plutonium to be the deadliest substance on Earth? I only ask b/c not all Plutonium is created equal, and if the stuff remains Pu for ~100 minutes is it really all that deadly?
      • by PopeRatzo (965947)

        By what metric do you declare Plutonium to be the deadliest substance on Earth?

        Well, if it's not the deadliest, it's gotta be in the top ten. Doctor Jonathan Osterman, notwithstanding, that is.

    • by ssam (2723487)

      >deadliest substance on Earth

      "I'll eat a as much plutonium as you can eat of caffeine"
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

      • by PopeRatzo (965947)

        You will notice that while Dr Cohen offered to consume as much plutonium as you would caffeine, he never actually did so.

        The annals of the history of science are littered with cranks.

        Dr Cohen also said that he believed uranium to be a renewable resource. Unless he's figured out a way to grow uranium, I'm sure you'll agree there is a finite amount of the substance. Dr Cohen did not believe that the amount of uranium on Earth was finite.

        Crackpot.

        • by ssam (2723487)

          He was pointing out that we attach irrational levels of fear to some substances, while are completely unconcerned about consuming significant (if not deadly) amounts of other toxins. I don't know what the 'most deadly substance on earth' is, but there are plenty of things that will kill you at the mg level.

          If you define 'renewable' to mean it will never run out then there is no such thing as renewable energy.

      • by PopeRatzo (965947)

        Oh wait, it gets better. The esteemed Dr Cohen also stated that you could not die from exposure to radiation.

        I'm pretty sure you'll agree that 1410 lbs of plutonium is probably not safe to keep under your bed.

        • by ssam (2723487)

          Do you have a reference for that? All I see is him pointing out that the linear no threshold model its unproven and inappropriate for low radiation doses.

          High doses of radiation (and pretty much anything else) will obviously kill you. I bet the are 10s or hundreds of substances of which there is enough in your house to kill you consumed it all at once.

          (Also worth noting that the plutonium in the article was not actually lost)

  • 640 kilograms ought to be enough for anyone.

  • say oops in Japanese?

  • I mean, the smallpox was there, why not the plutonium?

  • I am shocked, SHOCKED, that Slashdot would appear to support the paternalistic rights-management censorship attitude that "keeping track of dangerous material is generally a good idea."

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