The Bush administration is planning the government's first production of plutonium 238 since the Cold War, stirring debate over the risks and benefits of the deadly material. The hot substance, valued as a power source, is so radioactive that a speck can cause cancer.
Federal officials say the program would produce 330 pounds over 30 years at the Idaho National Laboratory, a sprawling site outside Idaho Falls, about 100 miles to the west and upwind of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Officials say the program could cost $1.5 billion and generate more than 50,000 drums of hazardous and radioactive waste.
Project managers say that most, if not all, of the new plutonium is intended for secret missions and declined to divulge details. But in the past it has powered espionage devices.
"The real reason we're starting production is for national security," Timothy A. Frazier, head of radioisotope power systems at the Department of Energy, said in a recent interview.
He denied that any of the classified missions would involve nuclear arms, satellites or weapons in space.
The laboratory is a source of pride and employment for many residents in the Idaho Falls area. But the secrecy is adding to unease in Wyoming, where environmentalists are scrutinizing the production plan - made public late Friday - and considering whether to fight it.
They say the production effort is a potential threat to nearby ecosystems, including Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park and the area around Jackson Hole, famous for its billionaires, celebrities and weekend cowboys, including Vice President Dick Cheney.
"It's completely wrapped in the flag," said Mary Woollen-Mitchell, executive director of Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free, a group based in Jackson Hole. "They absolutely won't let on" about the missions.
"People are starting to pay attention," she said of the production plan. "On the street, just picking up my kids at school, they're getting keyed up that something is in the works."
Plutonium 238 has no central role in nuclear arms. Instead, it is valued for its steady heat, which can be turned into electricity. Nuclear batteries made of it are best known for powering spacecraft that go where sunlight is too dim to energize solar cells. For instance, they now power the Cassini probe exploring Saturn and its moons.
Federal and private experts unconnected to the project said the new plutonium would probably power devices for conducting espionage on land and under the sea. Even if no formal plans exist to use the plutonium in space for military purposes, these experts said that the material could be used by the military to power compact spy satellites that would be hard for adversaries to track, evade or destroy.
"It's going to be a tough world in the next one or two decades, and this may be needed," said a senior federal scientist who helps the military plan space missions and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the possibility that he would contradict federal policies. "Technologically, it makes sense."
Early in the nuclear era, the government became fascinated by plutonium 238 and used it regularly to make nuclear batteries that worked for years or decades. Scores of them powered satellites, planetary probes and spy devices, at times with disastrous results.
In 1964, a rocket failure led to the destruction of a navigation satellite powered by plutonium 238, spreading radioactivity around the globe and starting a debate over the event's health effects.
In 1965, high in the Himalayas, an intelligence team caught in a blizzard lost a plutonium-powered device meant to spy on China. And in 1968, an errant weather satellite crashed into the Pacific, but federal teams managed to recover its plutonium battery intact from the Santa Barbara Channel, off California.
Such accidents cooled enthusiasm for the batteries. But federal agencies continued to use them for a more-limited range of missions, including those involving deep-space probes and top-secret devices for tapping undersea cables.
In 1997, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration prepared to launch its Cassini probe of Saturn, hundreds of protesters converged on its Florida spaceport, arguing that an accident could rupture the craft's nuclear batteries and condemn thousands of people to death by cancer.
Plutonium 238 is hundreds of times more radioactive than the kind of plutonium used in nuclear arms, plutonium 239. Medical experts agree that inhaling even a speck poses a serious risk of lung cancer.
But federal experts say that the newest versions of the nuclear batteries are made to withstand rupture into tiny particles and that the risk of human exposure is extraordinarily low.
Today, the United States makes no plutonium 238 and instead relies on aging stockpiles or imports from Russia. By agreement with the Russians, it cannot use the imported material - about 35 pounds since the end of the Cold War - for military purposes.
With its domestic stockpile running low, Washington wants to resume production. Though it last made plutonium 238 in the 1980s at the government's Savannah River plant in South Carolina, it wants to move such work to the Idaho National Laboratory and consolidate all the nation's plutonium 238 activities there, including efforts now at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
By centralizing everything in Idaho, the Energy Department hopes to increase security and reduce the risks involved in transporting the radioactive material over highways.
Late Friday, the department posted a 500-page draft environmental impact statement on the plan at www.consolidationeis.doe.gov. The public has 60 days to respond.
Frazier said the department planned to weigh public reaction and complete the regulatory process by late this year, and to finish the plan early in 2006. The president would then submit it to Congress for approval, he said. The work requires no international assent.
The Idaho National Laboratory, founded in 1949 for atomic research, stretches across 890 square miles of southeastern Idaho. The Big Lost River wanders its length. The site is dotted with 450 buildings and 52 reactors - more than any other place - most of them shut down. It has long wrestled with polluted areas and recently sought to set new standards in environmental restoration.
New plutonium facilities there would take five years to build and cost about $250 million, said Frazier of the Energy Department. The operations budget would run to $40 million annually over 30 years, he said, for a total cost of nearly $1.5 billion.
An existing reactor there would make the plutonium. Frazier said the aim was to start production by 2012 and have the first plutonium available by 2013. When possible, Frazier said, the plutonium would be used not only for national security, but also for civilian missions, reducing dependence on Russian supplies.
Since late last year, the Energy Department has tried to reassure citizens living around the proposed manufacturing site of the plan's necessity and safety.
But political activists in Wyoming have expressed frustration at what they call bureaucratic evasiveness regarding serious matters. "It's the nastiest of the nasty," Woollen-Mitchell said of plutonium 238.