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Contest Explores Creative Ways to Handle Excess US Plutonium - 2002-04-05

Cutbacks in the number of nuclear weapons during the last decade have left the United States with an estimated 34 metric tons of radioactive plutonium that needs to be safely disposed of. Suggestions from scientists have ranged from burying it to converting it to fuel for nuclear power plants. Last year, the Chicago-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists invited readers to come up with suggestions of their own. The winning ideas are on display in Chicago.

The Bulletin's editor, Linda Rothstein, says the contest asked not only for ways to dispose of plutonium, but also to design that depository in the form of a monument to the nuclear weapons program. "I felt that we had edited and I had about enough of too many articles on burying plutonium," she says. "So, I was thinking of other things we could do and said at a casual dinner, "Maybe we should build a monument, put it all in there and people could come take a look at it."

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was founded in Chicago in 1945 by a group of scientists who helped develop the first atomic weapons. Since then, The Bulletin has warned of the perils of nuclear war. It is the keeper of the so-called "Doomsday Clock," the publication's symbol of how close the world is to nuclear disaster.

Ms. Rothstein says the United States' excess plutonium will probably eventually be buried, which she does not agree with. "I thought that burying it was hiding the problem, giving people an easy way out," she says. "We spent billions to make it; we are going to spend billions to bury it. That would make it too easy to forget about it."

The plutonium memorial contest drew about 150 entries from 20 countries. Five architecture classes used the contest as a group project. One man from the state of Minnesota submitted a song titled, "Plutonium."

The entrants had to keep in mind that plutonium remains radioactive for 240,000 years.

One of the runners-up was architect Brantley Hightower of suburban Chicago. He proposed a series of sprawling memorials along the nation's highways. "It is kind of a circular form whose dimensions are given meaning," he says. "The outer radius is equal to that of the radius of complete destruction at Hiroshima. The circular pool you see in the center is equal to the fireball in that blast."

Mr. Hightower's project calls for each of his memorials to be surrounded by 300 large concrete and fiberglass towers, which would house the excess plutonium. For security reasons, only about one-fourth of the towers would contain plutonium.

Thinking that a plutonium memorial should be located someplace where millions of people could visit it, runner-up Michael Collins of California chose Orlando, Florida as his memorial site.

His entry calls for plutonium to be housed in hundreds of shiny metal spheres placed in two reflecting ponds. Visitors would walk between the ponds on their way into a plutonium museum. "So that, as people are processing through to the exhibit areas where they would learn about the actual plutonium, they are reminded of what the size is, reminded of what man has done, through the reflection on the canopy above, on the water, they can not escape the fact that they helped create this element," he says.

A man from San Francisco, California submitted the winning entry. It is called," 24-110", which is the number of years it takes for half the atoms in a mass of plutonium to decay: 24,110. This entry looks like a huge carpet made of grass, placed on the Ellipse, an expansive lawn just South of the White House in Washington. One edge of the carpet is lifted, suggesting sweeping the plutonium problem under a rug. Nobel laureate in physics Leon Lederman was one of the contest judges. "This is hysterical, right? This credits humor. I do not think it is very feasible, and the fact that it is not feasible is part of the humor," he says.

Another entry depicted ice cube trays containing cubes of plutonium. Another suggested storing plutonium in enormous models of human bones, because released radiation accumulates in the core, or marrow, of bones.

Bulletin publisher Stephen Schwartz says the contest was an attempt to get non-scientists to think about one effect of the nuclear arms race. "Who would come out to see something like this? Even for half and hour or an hour while they are here, to think about the problem of plutonium and the problem of the arms race, of radioactivity," he says. "If we do that and cause people to maybe reassess what the issue is and how to deal with it, then we have done our job."

Winners and other entries to the plutonium memorial contest will be published in the May issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. They will also appear on the Bulletin's Internet Web site by the end of April.