‘Missing’ plutonium: just as you are missing money you still own

The Times, perhaps short of a splash, has a story headlined “Nuclear audit says Sellafield has ‘lost’ 30kg of plutonium”.

Note those little quote marks around ‘lost’. As one learns in the nuclear industry, this doesn’t mean that there’s some bloke wandering around with a glowing suitcase somewhere looking for a nice high building on which to detonate a dirty bomb.

How it works is this. Nuclear reprocessing has to be a sealed system. Which means that after you’ve done a bit of work, you can’t send the cleaners in to get the robot arms used to crack the fuel elements etc spick and span.

In the course of doing the operations, bits of radioactive stuff adhere to those mechanisms, and to other parts of the system. You put them into pools, take them out, weigh them, see what you’ve got. Because you’re not able to stand there with kitchen scales (or even a weighbridge) but instead are standing well back, with the wariness that really radioactive stuff deserves, it’s hard to be really precise.

In the same way, not all the money that comes into your house in the form of coins goes out. Some goes down the back of the sofa. Other bits accumulate behind tins, pots, and that large picture of Aunt Bessie. And that’s not even radioactive. How incredibly slovenly of you!

As the Times piece says further down, “The fact that the figures do not balance is embarrassing rather than sinister. They do not imply that any material has been improperly diverted, or that there has been a breach of security at the site.”

As I said, perhaps short of a splash. I’ll confess to having written a similar story to this a few years ago when a wodge went “missing” in the Scottish plant. Thing is, it’s not a nuclear terrorism issue. It’s just more of a headache when you come to do the decommissioning.

But when you’re short of a splash, even middle-of-the-road business stories will get promoted to the front.

1 Comment

  1. And of course Plutonium is rather heavy so 30Kg takes up rather less space than, say, 30 bags of sugar or 2 stoe of potatoes.

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