Plutonium on Film – A Material Witness

Defence, Safety and Security Committee
11 Oct 2012
Operator at a plutonium active glovebox

As materials go, it is often the more exotic or the difficult to obtain that generate wider interest, whether it is due to their intrinsic rarity value or for their scarcity amongst the general population.

One of those areas where there is both relative scarcity as well as restrictions on access to materials is that of the main nuclear materials used in the civil nuclear industry.

To try to bring a greater understanding of some of the physical properties of materials in a more dynamic manner, the University of Nottingham has over the last few years embarked on a project to make videos about each of the elements in the Periodic table . While this was relatively easily achieved for much of the periodic table, there were a number of elements where it was difficult for the University to gain access in order to create a useful video.

An earlier collaboration in the area of uranic chemistry brought both the University and the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) together and once the request to get access to film these materials was raised, NNL rose to the challenge to make it possible to create videos of four radioactive elements.

The elements in question were uranium, plutonium, americium and neptunium and the potential uses for these materials. Their fissile nature and toxicity meant that there were a number of safety and security measures that would need to be satisfied before any filming could be considered.

To get a suitably interesting and educationally informative video, the aim was to view and handle more than just the metallic elements themselves and this would require some preparation. Due to the nature of the materials being fissile and radioactive, some routine measures were required and some additional precautions were needed because of the filming.

NNL’s Central Laboratory is a modern purpose built facility designed to carry out research and development on nuclear materials and one of three specialist laboratories designed for handling nuclear material operated by the company. As such it has state-of-the-art gloveboxes with shielding to allow these sorts of materials to be handled and to perform experimental work within them.

NNL’s facilities were ideal because research work is already being carried out on these types of materials meaning that small quantities of each element were available, along with the opportunity to show different forms of each element.

As some isotopes of these elements are classed as fissile (i.e. can sustain a chain reaction with neutrons of any energy), there are stringent handling requirements both to ensure that the “criticality” rules are followed and that the security arrangements are complied with. For the filming of each element, the “criticality” rules were not an issue as these rules are complied with as part of the normal operation of the laboratory.

The security requirements were more of a challenge as there is seldom a requirement to film within a laboratory and the use of cameras is only allowed for official purposes. Having complied with all the necessary requirements and received all of the appropriate permissions, the filming went ahead.

Similarly, there were safety requirements to ensure that the video cameras and other equipment remained clean, with all equipment checked and monitored out of the active area of the laboratory. This provides confirmation that none of the items had picked up any contamination which might be transferred out of the controlled area.

The rigorous processes were worth going through however, as they enabled the capture of some unique footage of rare elements in different forms which were subsequently uploaded onto the internet for sharing around the world.

The most recent element video to be published online on the University of Nottingham’s Periodic Video Website is plutonium. It is believed that this is the first time that real images and video of plutonium have been available on the Internet. Within 2 weeks there were around 50,000 hits on the website with very positive feedback from viewers.

These videos have proved extremely popular around the world with the uranium video being one of the most popular on the site.

The website is now regularly used as a reference site for schools and colleges around the world when they want to demonstrate the different forms of a particular element in a visually stimulating manner.

NNL was pleased to be able to play a key part in this innovative project utilising the specialist facilities within its Central Laboratory to allow these videos to be produced.


Read more about this subject in Materials World and particularly in the feature published in October 2012 entitled: "Chain Reaction - Potential nuclear energy source".


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