Monday, May 9, 2011

The Plutonium Files by Eileen Welsome

This is a non-fiction book published in 1999. Its focus is on experiments with radioactive materials on humans. It is shocking. Some of the experiments described include:
•18 people injected with plutonium without their consent in 1945-46. One was a four-year-old boy.
•751 pregnant women given a radioactive tracer without their consent in 1945-1947.
•74 boys at a state institution recruited to join the “science club” in the 40’s and 50’s for which they received special outings and radioactive compounds in their oatmeal.
•131 prisoners in Oregon and Washington irradiated in the 1960s.

The early experiments were to determine what effects scientists working on developing nuclear bombs prior to WWII might be exposed to in their labs. A 23-year-old chemistry graduate, Don Mastick, recruited to Los Alamos, got 10 mg of plutonium in his mouth when a vial exploded.

“After the accident, Mastick’s breath was so hot that he could stand six feet away and blow the needles on the radiation monitors off scale. His urine contained detectable plutonium for many years.”

His treatment consisted of two different mouth rinses every 15 minutes for 3 hours. Then he had his stomach pumped several times. After that he was handed the beaker containing his bodily fluids and told to separate out the plutonium!

Once nuclear bombs were developed, many tests involved military personnel. A number of nuclear bombs were detonated in Nevada. One larger than that dropped on Nagasaki was tested in Feb. 1951. Three young soldiers, including Jerry Schultz, ages 19 to 21, were supposed to gather weather data about 6 miles from point of impact.

“The AEC official had warned Schultz that the atomic bomb the aircraft was lugging toward them would be the biggest ever dropped from a plane. Be sure to protect yourselves, he had warned. ‘How do we do that?’ Schultz asked. There was a long pause and then the voice said, ‘Frankly, we don’t know.’”

Details about the tests of nuclear bombs at the Pacific Proving Ground, as it was known, are also included. I found it unbelievable that young servicemen were sent in just a few hours later to clean up ships hit by nuclear bombs. Testing pilots flew through the immediate aftermath of bombs to gather data.

It is definitely an eye-opening book about what went on prior to WWII and during the Cold War. Many reports on these activities were declassified in the 1990’s. The book also includes a detailed history of the nuclear experiments going on at Berkeley, Chicago, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Hanford during the war. I had never heard much about this nuclear development period, although I listened to Glenn Seaborg’s annual talk to general chemistry students at Berkeley in the early 90’s. That was definitely a feel good talk with pictures of him with every president and students coming up afterwards to get his autograph. The building where he first made plutonium now has a plaque up. I worked in a building connected to this building for 5 years and never realized that’s where plutonium had been discovered. The half-life of plutonium 239 is something like 24,000 years!

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