Plutonium, fun for the whole family!

A few weeks ago on Twitter, a Japanese guy named Yukari Takasugi pinged me (and a lot of other journalists) with an incredible video. Without another word of comment, I give you Pluto-kun of plutonium:


Oh yeah, it’s the real deal. There are a few ways to know: first, it’s actually pretty accurate. Plutonium is made in nuclear reactors, it is an alpha emitter, and Glenn Seaborg did discover it. Some of the health claims made by Pluto-kun are slightly more dubious: I wouldn’t want it in my water, and the assertion that “there is no case concluded so far that man got cancer from plutonium” is dishonest. It’s true that it’s always difficult to directly link an individual case of cancer to radiation exposure, but this summary by the Federation of American Scientists shows that workers who inhaled plutonium at Los Alamos and the Russian facility, Mayak, did face cancer risks.

Finally, Pluto-kun’s argument that “it is very difficult to make an atomic bomb by using the plutonium,” seems just a liiiitttle outdated now that we have a nuclear North Korea threatening stability in the region.

Digging around a little, I traced this gem back to a quasi-government laboratory called “Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation,” which was working on advanced fuel-cycle projects like breeder reactors (hence another mascot: an adorable pink drop of liquid sodium coolant). The Wall Street Journal’s Japan-Real-Time has a nice mascot round-up from Japan’s nuclear industry. It also pointed me to the animated gif at the start of this post. I have wanted an animated gif on this blog for a long time now, and it’s better than I ever could have dreamed.

So is this just some funny quirk of pre-Fukushima Japan? Meet Richie Enrichment, the brand-spanking-new mascot from URENCO, Europe’s enrichment corporation. Richie is here to help kids understand the basics of uranium-hexaflouride and centrifuge cascades. He also teaches us that “nuclear power plants are very safe and secure.” One thing he won’t teach you is how to steal nuclear technology from URENCO and then use it jump start a domestic weapons program whose expertise can later be sold to rogue nations through an illicit trafficking network (click here for a primer on that topic).

I know that there are probably a few nuclear types who read this blog. Can any of you tell me why these weird cartoon characters pop up? It seems unlikely that they’re going to convince anyone that nuclear power is safe, and when something like Fukushima happens, they only create embarrassment for the industry. Moreover, they are unnecessary. I think most people accept that nuclear is a powerful technology that carries risks, just like a lot of other technologies. Aluminum smelting doesn’t have a mascot (that I know of), so why does uranium enrichment need one?

Finally, if you could point me towards more nuclear mascots, that would be awesome.

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4 Responses to Plutonium, fun for the whole family!

  1. Seto says:

    Nuclear Engineering (grad student) here.

    First some other mascots. American Nuclear Society, a professional organization of nuclear engineers, tries to promote public outreach. One of their promotional items, which was originally designed in the 60′s but is still sold today, is a coloring book with “fun activities for the whole family.” I think the covers says it all: http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5211/5397290902_9defd58a18_z.jpg
    (You can buy it here http://www.new.ans.org/store/i_750055)

    While I cannot with any certainty say why mascots have always been part of the nuclear industry, I can speculate. And speculate I shall. But first I have to tell you a bit about the mentality of nuclear engineers, at least from my perspective:

    When you spend years and years studying this field, you feel that there are many advantages to using nuclear – power production is not sensitive to fuel prices (which make up only about 5% of the final electricity cost), national energy security (since fuel lasts for years, while with natural gas you are screwed about two days after you are cut off), no CO2 emissions, and good scalability – you can design a reactor of virtually any power. Now, don’t get me wrong, you are still aware of the bad things. Hell, those are the things you spend half of your education talking about. While major accidents are very uncommon, when they happen, they affect a lot of people. Not just deaths, but other things too, like displacement and increased risk of cancer. That is taken very seriously – there is quite the whole culture of safety surrounding the field. And you can tell. Because when you look at the whole cycle, starting with the fuel mining and processing, power plant construction, operation and decommissioning and also waste treatment, and you conclude that per unit energy produced it’s by far the safest source of electricity. And for engineers, that’s enough to be support it. Yes, there are problems that need fixing. Yes, we should still try to improve many aspects of safety. Yes, we are still very very VERY far from perfect, or even the “achievable optimum”, but it’s still better than the OTHER choices. Waste is another issue that engineers find confusing. We look at the problem and say – ok, we can carry out all these processes and waste will be harmless in, say, 100 years. We present these ideas and get rejected, because it’s too expensive. It’s easier to just let “the government” deal with that and lobby them to make laws that say that it’s ok to not have a plan to deal with waste. And this is where the problem lies – nuclear power plants, while operated by engineers, are owned by profit-driven companies, and at the end of the day the company wants to do whatever is most profitable. Engineers generally find themselves in a position where they are told how to solve problems. Politicians came and said: We chose Yucca Mountain as a place where we will let you store all the waste. People are uncomfortable about it, so make it everything-proof until it’s NOT RADIOACTIVE. Who cares that their definition of not radioactive implies 100,000 to 1,000,000 years of storage. So engineers square their shoulders and design a system that they are reasonably confident will isolate the waste from the environment. Then other politicians come and say: “Too late. We changed out mind. Stand by for further instructions.” That makes it very difficult to talk to people about. I talk to people and they say: “I’m against nuclear, because I don’t agree with how the waste problem is handled” and all I can say is “I agree completely! The waste issue isn’t given the attention it deserves at all!” but then you add “But I still support nuclear” because you think back to least casualties per unit of energy statistics and you think that engineers are totally able to solve the engineering problems that stand in the way of actually dealing with waste. You constantly get confused by arguments people make against nuclear, because (except for those that are just plain wrong) many of them are indeed right, and you’re not denying this, but you don’t understand what they are comparing it against. Yes, nuclear does lead to this and that, but honestly, at this point it’s nuclear or coal (just look at all the growth of coal power in Germany), and you have to be realistic…

    OK, that ended up being a lot longer than I thought. But here’s the connection to the mascots: You have a large group of people who understand nuclear power pretty well. And these people see that even given its flaws, it’s still an important part of the energy mix. Then they see that the public disagrees, that many actually strongly oppose nuclear power. That’s confusing. So they do what anyone who went through years and years of education to enter their field does – they assume that people feel that way because they don’t understand it, because they lack information. So they try to think of a way to explain it to them. And here another idea enters the (collective) mind – in order to educate “the public” you need to reach out to EVERYONE. How do you do that? Oh, just assume they know nothing, just to be sure. (Let’s call it a conservative assumption.) OK, how do we reach out to such a (ignorant) group? Just like we would to children – with cartoons and mascots! It always makes sense at the time when you come up with it, seriously.

    • Thanks Seto, I think that’s a really excellent comment. One thing I’ve always found interesting about nuclear engineers is just how passionate they are about nuclear power. They really believe in it, and I guess they want others to believe just as much. Of course, my personal view is that cuddly mascots might not be the best route, but you’re right, I’m sure it makes sense at the time!

  2. sannekurz says:

    Richie Enrichment – insane.
    I guess in this entire discussion we must not forget to think about how populated a place, continent or country is where nuclear power is used, uranium is enriched, nuclear material is reprocessed and nuclear waste is dumped.
    In Germany, I learned at school back in the “nuclear is amazing and will save us all” 80ies, that the only slight problem is, that we can not make sure, that our nuclear waste will be safely stored and non-hazardous for the time it’s being dangerous. Not even thinking about where and how to keep it – already labeling it for future generations seems a bit tricky given that we do for example still not understand he script of the Etruscan civilization in Italy, a culture that left it’s marks only about 2500 years ago. How can we ever be sure people in 10.000 years will be able to read what we left them?
    Her ein Germany, we got still no sustainable solution whereas to dump our nuclear waste permanently. We still keep happily producing this waste.
    The interim storage facility in Gorleben – researched, tested and found to be sufficient by good German engineering already in 1977 and many times ever since – used and filled up since 1995, yes, what is whit it?
    There’s water coming from somewhere, and no one knows from where. Long faces, worried looks, no solution.
    We did not have to wait for 10.000 years till the problems started.
    And I know there’s waste from medical, scientific and industrial use as well.
    The people who doubt civil use of nuclear to generate power do have a mascot as well: the nuclear sun http://www.ausgestrahlt.de/ueber-uns/anti-atom-sonne.html.
    Germany, by the way, has indeed an increased use of coal for power – by about 5%.
    Wind energy, however, has increased in the same time by about 50%.

    • Maybe nuclear waste needs a mascot too! Seriously, though, you’re right to point out that nuclear waste is a real issue for the industry. But the problem (as Seto points out above) is that the waste problem is also a political one. Governments and citizens need to be committed to a waste repository if it’s really going to work. The interesting cases right now are in Finland and Sweden, where the political process has found acceptable locations for repositories.

      Germany’s an interesting case too. I’m really curious to see how the effort to get out of nuclear goes in the coming years.

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