A little over 81 years ago, Glenn Seaborg and his team discovered plutonium at the University of California, Berkeley. The existence of this bizarre element had been speculated about for many years prior, and had even been erroneously claimed by Enrico Fermi. As we know, this discovery shook the world, literally and figuratively, with the subsequent invention of the atomic bomb. The story has been told many times, but here we look in detail at the more technical aspects of the development of plutonium science from conception to the prospects for the future.
Several years later, Seaborg used the properties of plutonium and its periodic neighbor, neptunium, to define the actinide series as a heavier congener of the lanthanides. This concretely defined actinide science, which was then expanded to the transplutonium elements, starting with curium and americium. This type of work requires dedicated, large-scale facilities which handle radioactive, controlled materials, and necessitates both inter-organizational collaboration and specialized training of workers. Seaborg and his colleagues recognized the importance of this training, and grew especially concerned after witnessing a reduction in nuclear workforce professionals in the 1970s–80s. In 1991, he formally announced the institute that bears his name at a symposium commemorating the 50th anniversary of the discovery of plutonium. The Glenn T. Seaborg Institute for Transactinium Science was established at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and in the following years three more centers were founded. Previously competitive and/or decoupled, they are now collaborative within the national laboratory network.
Last year, to mark 30 years since this historic date, we invited the directors of these institutes to contribute articles showcasing their past achievements. We are pleased to include these articles in this issue. This work gives us hope for a bright future of actinide scientists finding solutions to problems in fields as diverse as national security, manufacturing, non-proliferation, nuclear power, fuels, and medicine, materials, and environmental science.
— Owen Summerscales, Editor