A ring of refined plutonium
There is a club among atomic scientists who have worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Known as UPPU, it’s a strange, informal organization that began in 1951 and includes scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project and brought nuclear weapons to the world.
It’s a small club, and only 26 people had joined as of the mid-1990s. Membership isn’t easy to obtain, and there are few benefits. First, an applicant must expose themselves to a high dose of plutonium, then they must volunteer to allow the U.S. government to monitor their health for the rest of their lives.
How much plutonium in the body does it take to join the club? Enough so that it comes out in your urine. The members of the UPPU club pee plutonium … and some of them ship it back to the government for study…
The members of the UPPU club are some of the most studied cases of plutonium poisoning in the world. Which is important. Many news stories about the substance focus on its toxicity and danger. Both scientists and journalists have sparred over the past half-century about the potential dangers.
It may be a surprise to learn that the members of the UPPU club have all done well, especially when compared to national averages.
“They’ve fared pretty well as a group,” George Volez and expert on plutonium exposure told Los Alamos Science in 1995. “Of the original 26, only seven have died, and the last death was in 1990.” Since the publication of this interview, more of the original 26 have died, including both Magel and Dallas in 2008 and 2007, respectively.
“One was a lung-cancer death, and two died of other causes but had lung cancer at the time of death. All three were heavy smokers. In fact, 17 of the original 26 were smokers at the time,” Volez continued. Others died due to heart disease, some to car accidents. But overall, “the mortality rate for the group is about 50 per cent lower than the national average.”
But Volez was quick to point out “that doesn’t mean that plutonium isn’t very hazardous. It is.”
RTFA for individual stories, how scientists and techs acquired the plutonium in their bodies.
I can more than sympathize. I get a note or a phone call every decade from folks “just checking in…”. I worked in a research lab in the 1950’s previously used by the company to produce some of the first zirconium-clad fuel rods for nuclear power plants. We were told they did an exceptional job of cleanup – and apparently they did.
I forget about that part of the job, nowadays. I’d rather recall a couple of the amazing scientists I worked with.