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 substance, valued as a power source, is so radioactive that a speck can cause cancer.
Federal officials say the program would produce a total of 330 pounds over 30 years at the Idaho National Laboratory, a sprawling site outside Idaho Falls some 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 they declined to divulge any 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 Energy Department, said in a recent interview.