Plutonium and death

From the May-June 2016 issue of News & Letters

The fate of earth’s biota (we humans included) is inextricably linked to that of plutonium, element 94 on the periodic table. Before 1941 it wasn’t there and the amount of plutonium on earth was close to none at all.

On Sept. 10, 1942, when a trace quantity was isolated, Glenn Seaborg marked the apocalyptic event with these words: “These memorable days will go down in scientific history to mark the first sight of a synthetic element, and the first isolation of a weighable amount of an artificially produced isotope of any element.”

The Cold War was about plutonium. The U.S. and the USSR were in a race to keep each from bombing the other with a plutonium explosion. Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters, by Kate Brown, is the story of the lengths two governments went to to produce huge quantities of this deadly material and its unspeakable filth from which nature had protected us for about two billion years. Richland, Wash., and Ozersk, Chelyabinsk, evolved as mirror images. Spills, fires and uncontrollable radiation spread ghastly pollution to the countryside around both nuclear company towns.

Ozersk poured its corruption into the Techa River, while Richland emitted radioactive gases into the skies above Walla Walla and soluble isotopes into the Columbia River and its feeders. Radioactive flakes that spread across North America were not cleaned up, because it would have slowed the production of plutonium to make those useless bombs.

Environmental justice was an even lesser concern than environmental health. Dire poverty dogged Black families in Pasco, Wash., in the mid-1940s as they struggled with hard work, low wages, prejudice and ghetto life. There were no Blacks with high enough rank to live in Richland.

The situation in the suburbs and environs of Ozersk was even more stark, as slaves from the gulag were moved in to build homes, dig ditches and construct the Rube Goldberg contraptions that passed as production lines and laboratories.

But even before the Cold War, plutonium production in Oak Ridge, Tenn., precluded concerns about environmental health. Denise Kiernan tells the story in The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II. Plutonium was first priority as the U.S. prepared for what turned out to be the Hiroshima/Nagasaki drops. Anti-Black prejudice worked against some of those “girls” in addition to the other female disadvantages: lower pay and slower (if any) advancement.

Secrecy became the watchword of the atomic project in both the USSR and the U.S. Kate Brown explores what it costs in resources and manpower to maintain secrecy. Plutonium production has remained a tight-lipped endeavor. Corporations using fission to produce electricity are privileged to keep their activities secret from citizens who are physically, deeply, generationally affected by nuclear reactors.

The USSR did not feel compelled to warn anyone downwind in 1957 when an underground storage facility in Chelyabinsk blew foul matter into the atmosphere and the Techa’s marshes. The descendants of Tatars who live near the river are still reaping what that whirlwind sowed. And it was not the scientists and engineers at Chernobyl who exposed that disaster, but the Swedes who blew the whistle.

Most people still haven’t heard of the 1961 accident (or murder/suicide) that William McKeown recounts in Idaho Falls: The Untold Story of America’s First Nuclear Accident. Three people suffered quick but grotesque deaths at what is now the Idaho National Laboratory. 

Kristen Iversen, in Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, describes an area of Colorado that she knows to be beaming radiation turned into the “Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge.” Tourists are invited to enjoy the beautiful flowers, birds, and reptiles. Fish and Wildlife officials did not promote the opening of the new park, yet insist there is no danger.

So humans have been able to increase the plutonium in our environment from near zero to thousands of tons of high-level waste. The fissionable isotope plutonium-239 is the most abundant form by far.

Rosalie Bertell in 1985 published a book with the ironic title No Immediate Danger: Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth. It’s possible that we have arrived there.

—January

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