Friday, June 8, 2007

Oh, hello, Mr. Pluto, fancy seeing you twice in a week.

The Associated Press reported on June 7, 2007 that “authorities are investigating how three workers were exposed to radioactive plutonium during environmental restoration work at the Nevada Test Site.”

While the employer of the three contract workers, National Securities Technologies, holds that there is no reason "to believe there were any security or safety considerations here," this seems like a great occasion to reflect on plutonium and human health.

As a fission product, isn’t plutonium basically a man-made element?

The Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment recalls that “Before 1945, plutonium was virtually nonexistent in the human environment. Then in the 1950s and 1960s, plutonium was released into the environment during atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Plutonium can now be found in very small amounts in the soil throughout the Northern Hemisphere because of fallout from the atmospheric testing. Plutonium has also been found in soil near nuclear weapons production plants such as Rocky Flats due to accidents and spills.”

Accidents and spills? Shouldn’t workers be very careful with plutonium?

Len Ackland, Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder observes on page 112 of his 1999 book Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West that there are at least three reasons to be very careful with plutonium: “First, microscopic particles of radioactive plutonium were extremely toxic if inhaled. Second, a small amount of plutonium – depending on its makeup, shape, and factors such as the presence of water – could create a localized chain reaction called a “criticality,” which could be fatal to anyone within several yards. Third, plutonium metal, especially small chips or filings, was pyrophoric, meaning it could catch fire on its own in the presence of air.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency observes that “External exposure to plutonium poses very little health risk, since plutonium isotopes emit alpha radiation, and almost no beta or gamma radiation. In contrast, internal exposure to plutonium is an extremely serious health hazard. It generally stays in the body for decades, exposing organs and tissues to radiation, and increasing the risk of cancer. Plutonium is also a toxic metal, and may cause damage to the kidneys.”

So, safety first, right?

It seems the first Americans to work with plutonium took its dangers, if not in their stride, at least in their stream. Ackland (pps 104-5) recalls the formation of a “UPPU Club” at Los Alamos National Laboratories around 1951, ostensibly for individuals whose urine tested positive for plutonium (UPPU = you pee Pu).

A new facility for plutonium pit production opened at Rocky Flats, Colorado in 1952. The U.S. Department of Energy reminds us that “On June 6, 1989, the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the Rocky Flats Plant as part of its investigation of allegations of mismanagement, negligence, and criminal practices...Rockwell International, the plant operator at the time, eventually pled guilty to ten counts, including violations of the Clean Water Act, and agreed to pay a fine of $18.5 million.”

Wow, aren’t we lucky that’s over!

Not so fast. According to a June 7, 2007 press release from Nuclear Watch New Mexico, “The Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) has invited Members of Congress to ‘celebrate’ on July 2 its production of its first certified plutonium trigger (AKA ‘pit’ or ‘primary’) … produced by the U.S. certified for deployment to the nuclear stockpile since 1989.”

So…a party to celebrate the first new plutonium pit certified for deployment to the stockpile since the year the FBI raided and closed the old plutonium pit facility?

I’m sure the July 2 Plutonium Party at LANL will be a glowing celebration, but I don’t think I’d eat anything.

Adding insult to taxpayers to potential for life-threatening injury to workers, as Nuclear Watch Director Jay Coughlin observes, the celebration is “five years late and a billion dollars over budget.”

Some additional plutonium resources:

Dr. Robert Gould, President of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Plutonium Health Effects: Basics, powerpoint presentation made on October 9, 2004
W. G. Sutcliffe, R. H. Condit, W. G. Mansfield, D. S. Myers, D. W. Layton, and P. W. Murphy, A Perspective on the Dangers of Plutonium, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, April 14, 1995
Plutonium: Human Health Effects Fact Sheet, Argonne National Laboratories, October 2001
The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Fact Sheet on the Physical, Nuclear, and Chemical, Properties of Plutonium
Plutonium on the Internet (from the Nuclear Control Institute)

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