Losing things is the worst, right? It never fails: you’re running late for an appointment, and your car keys have mysteriously fallen into another dimension, or whatever — so frustrating. But your lost keys are nothing compared with the goings on at Idaho State University. The school says it’s misplaced a small amount of weapons-grade plutonium. It’s just a little, but the US government is still not pleased.
This material (plutonium-239) is tightly controlled by the government for fairly obvious reasons. Weapons-grade nuclear material can be used to create nuclear weapons, and you don’t want it falling into the wrong hands. Even in the event such material is simply misplaced, it’s highly radioactive and dangerous to living things. Plutonium-239 is produced from uranium-235. You just need to bombard the uranium with neutrons until you end up with plutonium. This is not the only fissile material used in the creation of bombs, but it’s the most common.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reports the sample is about 1 gram and about the size of a US quarter. Idaho State University was authorized by the federal government to use the plutonium for research, and records indicate it was on campus as of 2004. However, no one can locate it now. It’s small, but nuclear material is the sort of thing you should keep close tabs on. The government certainly thinks so — it has proposed a $8,500 fine.
You may be thinking that sounds like too little if we’re all going to die in a nuclear inferno generated by the lost plutonium. Well, there’s good news. The single gram of weapons-grade plutonium is not enough to build a bomb; it’s actually not even close. The critical mass of 11 kilograms (24.25 pounds), which is the lowest of all known nuclear fuels. The ring above is about half that amount. You’d still need about 11,000 times more than the lost sample in order to build a bomb. So, you’re safe. Well, safe from a nuclear weapon built from Idaho’s lost plutonium. You may not be safe in the grand scheme of things.
The material is still dangerous, so the school is attempting to track the sample down. Someone with malicious intent could use it to poison people via a small “dirty bomb” or just irradiate them. When it went missing, the plutonium was in a sealed container that would prevent injury to those nearby. There’s no immediate danger if it was just lost in a storage closet.
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