Friday, July 01, 2011

Just A Speck of Plutonium...

will give you cancer/kill you.

Well, no. A number of people breathed in plutonium dust during the Manhattan Project. I don't have the numbers right here, but they didn't all contract cancer. They did all die, but from other causes, like old age.

So those two statements, which have risen from the ashes of the Las Conchas Fire, are false.

How about this? Just a speck of plutonium can give you cancer/kill you. That changes the statements quite a bit. Can covers a large universe of possibilities. Just a speck of the carcinogenic dust that's floating around New Mexico this morning from the fires can give you cancer/kill you. Just a glass of water, stuck in your lungs, can kill you.

Your body is designed to keep out small specks of anything. The hairs in your nose, the mucous membranes in the respiratory tract, stop particles and flush them out. Very small particles, smaller than about 10 micrometers (I'll believe Wikipedia on this), can get past the defenses. The lungs still have some flushing action and may remove them. But let's say that that plutonium particle stays in the lungs. What then?

The radiation from the particle will damage cells in its vicinity. There are several possible kinds of damage and cell response: the cell may die, it may correct the damage, or it may become cancerous. Even after it becomes cancerous, the body seems to have ways to destroy it. These cell-level processes are still not well enough understood to define specific pathways. If we believe the Wikipedia article, however, these same things happen with many kinds of particles. In particular, the smoke we New Mexicans are breathing contains condensed-ring hydrocarbons, well-known carcinogens. So I'm increasing my cancer risk as I write.

A large number of people have done some experiments for us on the effect of junk in the lungs. Those people are the ones who have been smoking cigarettes. They have been taking condensed-ring hydrocarbons into their lungs, and polonium as well. Polonium, which seems to concentrate in tobacco, is radioactive and decays in much the same way that plutonium does. Some of those people have developed lung cancer, whether from the hydrocarbons, the polonium, or the small particles is impossible to say. But others have not developed cancer. When we learn more about the cellular origins of cancer, we'll be able to sort these effects out.

It bothers me that pundits who supposedly respect science keep getting this wrong. It even bothers me that advocates against anything nuclear keep getting it wrong.

There's more that they're getting wrong that I hope to address later, after I talk to some people who have more recent experience with the drums at Area G than I have. Whatta concept, hey guys?


Atomikrabbit said...

The radical enviros trying to block transport of used Canadian steam generators across Lake Ontario for recycling in France said, “The amount of plutonium-239 inside the generators is enough to give more than 52 million atomic workers their maximum permissible “body burden” of 0.7 micrograms, he said.”

I can likewise say, “there is a substance found at my neighborhood Wal-Mart, available without restriction for less than a dollar, which if distributed improperly, could permanently blind 500 innocent children!”

I’m talking about a box of 1000 sewing pins. Even if it is technically true, it is also nonsense!

“Facts” without significance, along with half-truths and scaremongering fantasy scenarios, have been the stock-in-trade of the professional anti-nukes for thirty years.

Greg Mello said...

Dear Cheryl --

I very much support your initial point: there is a world of difference between "will" and "can."

And many of the ones that follow as well, as we have been tirelessly repeating to many people.

But your rhetorical method omits, in the final analysis, too much that is important. What is it about nuclear technologies that leads many intelligent and responsible parties to question them? What do the critiques have in common? Let's filter out the exaggerated stuff we all hear, and address the issues which are not crazy, which are numerous and telling.

So I think your critique is unbalanced, and probably for the same very human reasons that antinuclear groups are unbalanced: peer pressure, economic dependency, and unwitting ideological absorption.

Democracy, which requires clear thought, has not and cannot survive beneath the upas tree of a huge nuclear weapons institution. This, I would say, is a corollary of the best parts of your argument.

Best wishes,

Greg Mello

troutsky said...


In the end, what is "clear thought" (rational, logical) can only be decided democratically. I believe it is the profit system which corrupts and distorts democracy.

Cheryl Rofer said...

Dear Greg:

I notice that you didn't respond with any facts but rather tried to change the subject.

Blog posts are short and don't address every possible topic; that's the nature of writing on paper or any other medium. So you're right; I'm writing about a particular assertion that has been made and why it's irresponsible and wrong, not bigger and more abstract issues.

As to finding common ground, you and I tried that a while back. I'm still wondering why you never followed up.

Best wishes,


Luke said...

I find it quite amazing how, even though your local colleagues are probably some of the most qualified and experienced people in all the world with regards to the chemistry, physics, metallurgy, engineering, health physics, biochemistry and safety-related characteristics of the transuranics, there is always some attention-seeker in the media who insists that they actually know better. (Michio Kaku does come to mind.)

Cheryl, I hope your friends and loved ones aren't too severely impacted by the fire, and it's all under control soon. :)

nick said...

An old professor at Univ. of Michigan once said in a class, while discussing micro-plutonium fears:

"My the same argument, given the right logistical system, I could impregnate two hundred million women... TONIGHT!"


On the other hand, there have apparently been cases when people inhaled fairly large amounts of plutonium dust in the weapons days and had to get lung lavages or something, where they take you by your ankles and dip you into an oxygenated fluid which fills your lungs and flushes out the material.

A lot of plutonium can obviously hurt you. A tiny amount can not. Same with any radioactive material.

nick said...

"*By the same argument", that is

Colinsk said...

"To make a long story short, we bombarded the uranium night and day for six or seven weeks. I set up a small factory and built it on the Berkeley campus. In three weeks we isolated what turned out to be not half a milligram, but 1.2 milligrams of plutonium. Pure. In about a quarter of a teaspoon of liquid, out of this ton. I gave it to the Los Alamos Lab.

So I was the first chemist in the world to isolate milligram quantities of plutonium, and the third chemist in the world to work with it. We knew nothing of its biological problems.

I got a good radiation dose in doing that work. I feel that since that time, with each year that's passed, I consider myself among the lucky, because some of the people who worked closely with me in the Lawrence Radiation Lab died quite prematurely of leukemia and cancer. I'm still at a very high risk, compared to other people because of the dose I got. I probably got a hundred, hundred and fifty rems in all my work. That's a lot of radiation. And damn stupid, but nobody was thinking about biology and medicine at that point. We were thinking of the war. So we did it."

- Professor Emeritus of Molecular and Cell Biology at University of California at Berkeley. 1918-2007