Exclusive: New York Times and the Plutonium Myths

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BY MICHAEL R. FOX PHD – On July 10, 2010 in the New York Times another article about the Hanford site in Eastern Washington appeare (https://tinyurl.com/2azj5kz).

During World War II, Hanford was chosen by the Army Corp of Engineers to be one of the sites in what was then called the Manhattan Project.  To make a long story short, Hanford produced the majority of the nation’s inventory of plutonium, including that dropped on Nagasaki. Having many decades of experience working at Hanford, including working with plutonium and managing a plutonium laboratory, it gets wearisome to read such superficial, inadequate, and misleading articles.


Given this specialized background I feel an obligation to comment on the article of the NYT reporter, the report he reports on, the authors of the report, and some of the references listed in the report.  My objections include the huge lack of context, exaggerations, omissions of fact, omissions of key research findings regarding health effects of plutonium, omissions regarding interesting aspects of the Hanford environment, inadequate literature sourcing, and other materials such as Americium, etc.

The Headline: “The headline reads that “Analysis Triples U.S. Plutonium Waste Figures”. The reporter does not provide anywhere in his article the relative magnitudes of the before and after values. Therefore, the reader cannot assess for himself the amounts of plutonium involved. 3 times a small number is still a small number, for example. As written, therefore, the headline is irrelevant and meaningless. In the universe of problems with this NYT article and report, the lack of information on Plutonium Waste Figures only hints at what lies ahead in terms of other irrelevances

Apparent Purpose: The apparent purpose of the paper and the NYT article is to create another image of looming doom as related to the Hanford cleanup mission.  Such stories of impending doom from Hanford have been frequent fare from Hanford critics for more than two decades, with all of them suffering from the same litany of exaggerated fears.

Plutonium and 24,000 year half-lives: Central to the scare stories are the two familiar concepts “plutonium” and “24,000 year half-life”.  These have been common bugaboos since the 1970s, when the antinuclear forces and their friends in the media friends promptly providing images of Pavlovian dogs. These have remained central to the scare stories for nearly 40 years, yet during this time thousands of workers operated quite safely with plutonium, because we happened to know a lot about it and how to work safely.  When one is managing a plutonium lab. with dozens of workers, personal safety of friends and colleagues was always of utmost importance and a no-nonsense part of everyday life. That safety effort paid off in terms of establishing an excellent health and safety record. Obviously, we worked hard and carefully with safety training, laboratory conduct, practices, and habits.

Gee-whizzy numbers: With regard to that frightening “24000 year half life”, the term “half-life” is commonly applied to all known radioactive materials, and is not scary for anyone who has taken course work in radiochemistry. One is reminded of children discovering a gee-whizzy new word or a gee-whizzy big number for the first time.  Nor in the universe of radioactive substances is the 24,000 year number unusual.  For example, potassium-40 is radioactive and along with two other non-radioactive forms of potassium, is measurably present in all forms of life including humans, including this author, the report authors, and the NYT reporter.  It has a half-life of 1.4 billion years. It is there in living tissue and quite measurable with today’s detectors. Radioactive thorium exists in all soil samples around the world, and has a half-life of about 14 billion years.  Carrying the half-life discussion to its obvious absurd ending, elements such as lead, mercury, and arsenic being stable elements may be described as having half-lives of eternity in length.

Chart of the Nuclides: When one checks with the Chart of the Nuclides there are more than 3000 known nuclides, all but about 250 are radioactive.  Many of them form and decay in trillionths of a second or less, and do not occur naturally.  But we still know a lot about them.  Others, as noted above, have half lives of billions of years.

Natural Radioactivity: One of them is uranium, one nuclide of which has a half-life of about 4.5 billions years, the age of the Earth.  Uranium can be found in all soil samples in the world.  It was discovered in 1896 by Antoine Becquerel of France.  It has been 114 years since that discovery of natural radioactivity, yet I’d dare estimate that even as a part of our natural environment, 99% of the public cannot give a 5 minute discussion on the subject.  Same for about 100% of the media.  After more than a century of such public ignorance regarding our natural environment, its way past the time that we learn. This is but a part of the huge context missing from these discussions and articles.

The World of Physics: The discovery of natural radioactivity turned the world of physics upside down for the next 60 years and was and still is a major factor in the history of 20th century physics. There is much more to this subject than merely “plutonium” and its “24,000 year half-life”.  This world of physics is essentially unknown to the American public and to the uncurious media.

Hanford Environment: The Hanford Reservation is one of the most heavily monitored tracts of land in the world, and it’s been reported annually for about 40 years.  These annual reports are in the open literature, and available to all. (See for example Hanford Site 2008 Environmental Report). Not surprisingly these reports are rarely discussed by either the anti-Hanford critics or by any of the media.  These reports are phenomenal in both scope and depth of details.  The distribution list for these annual repots is huge going to state and federal agencies across the nation. The reports also help explain why Hanford is not a threat to public health, because the radiations doses are far too small- often less than the doses received from natural radioactivity.

Hanford Health Threat: Based upon these environmental monitoring programs, relevant epidemiology programs, dosimetry measuring and monitoring programs, etc., for both workers and surrounding populations, the radioactive health threats from Hanford operations are extremely small, statistically indistinguishable from zero.

A Risk Management Problem: Since the health threats from the Hanford operations are so small, a huge ethical problem arises out of risk management considerations.  As of July 2009, Washington State had 6,664,195 people.  The average mortality rate was 725 per 100,000 or a total of 48,285 funerals in 2008.  Nearly 22% (10622) of these were from heart disease and about 20% (9657) of these were from cancer.  Suppose we were concerned about reducing the cancer mortality rates for the State of Washington, with a fixed budget to do so.  How would we allocate such resources?

Common sense would dictate using such allocations where the mortality were well above expected values.  These locations do exist in Washington State, but such locations do not include Hanford.  Given that the cancer excesses occur elsewhere in the state, what fraction of that fixed budget should be directed at reducing cancer at Hanford? The answer, if fairness applied, would be little or none.

However, the Hanford cleanup program (portrayed as a huge safety program) is costing taxpayers about $2 billion per year, with estimates approaching $100,000,000,000 before its “done”.  No matter how much money is spent on

Hanford cleanup efforts, there will never be shown a decline in the cancer rates since the Hanford cancer rates are quite normal now. In terms of basic principles of risk management, the Hanford cleanup is a tragic waste of taxpayer resources in the alleged pursuit of public safety.

Using the same fixed budget in the pursuit of public safety, hundreds, perhaps thousands of Washington State lives could be saved by spending these resources protecting people from measurably more harmful activities.

More missing Plutonium Context: The NYT reporter quoted the activist lawyer as saying “What is reasonably foreseeable is that there are people who will be drinking the water in the ground at Hanford at some point in the next few hundreds years.  We’re going to be killing people, pure and simple.”  Plutonium toxicity is most assuredly not that “pure and simple’. The activist lawyer apparently is a captive in his own “demon haunted world”, as Carl Sagan might have said.  His well rehearsed lines have been commonly heard from him and from the anti-Hanford movement for years, without supportive evidence.

His statement is not supported by many environmental and epidemiology studies of plutonium. His statement that “It has been found to cause lung, liver, and bone cancer in humans” is also referenced in their report, to another pamphlet with the same quote.

The pamphlet was published by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). It too does not provide the literature source of the above statement about plutonium.

Since the statement is unreferenced it must be considered hearsay, of which there is plenty to choose from.

In strong contrast to the NYT article, much has been written about the Myth of Plutonium, such as by Dr. Bernard Cohen Dept of Physics Univ. of Pittsburgh.  See for example (https://russp.org/BLC-3.html).

More Missing Plutonium Context: My experiences with laboratory studies of plutonium show that it is spectacularly insoluble in water and most other solvents.  Plutonium prefers to remain in the solid state, often bound to soil solids, thus any study of the transport of plutonium through underground soil formations, and begs great and detailed scrutiny.

In many cases it also should not be considered lethal even if it is ingested. At low doses of plutonium in humans, epidemiology studies show that it was difficult to find observable harm, let alone cancer, let alone death. Their report made no mention of these human epidemiology studies and the negative results.

More missing Plutonium Context: Friend and scientific colleague Richard Emery performed a study of one of the ponds at Hanford which had received low levels of plutonium (https://tinyurl.com/25odcag).  It was described as one of the most contaminated bodies of water in the world.  This may have been factually true, but missing important context.

A good reading of his research paper showed a much more interesting description of the pond, which had a phenomenally low level of plutonium.  It actually supported a rich and diverse wildlife population from the bass and bluegill fish in the water, to a number of birds, and the population of predators of herons and coyotes.

These animals were thriving because the plutonium radiation doses were extremely low (in spite of the exaggerations).  Emery also calculated that if a human ate one pound of the fish from U-pond every day for 70 years, he would not receive a significant dose of radiation, hardly cancerous or lethal.

The pond and the rich wildlife populations have now been destroyed, thanks to fear and the millions of dollars used to do so. This is one of the prices we pay for fear, exaggeration, and lots of money.

After nearly 40 years, the Hanford critics continue to repeat old   scare stories, the media continues to repeat them without fact checking, and continue to ignore a lot of the scientific literature.  We have also learned that these true believers, in the words of author Christopher Booker, exhibit a kind of moralistic self righteous fanaticism justified by the transcendent importance of their cause.

For years this has not provided an atmosphere of serious discussion, let alone for a rational approach to the risk management of Hanford. In fact this has made a mockery of risk analyses and risk management, not to mention the waste of billions of dollars thrown at Hanford cleanup in the pursuit of small or zero risk.

Michael R. Fox, Ph.D., is a nuclear scientist and a science and energy resource for Hawaii Reporter and a science analyst for the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, is retired and now lives in Eastern Washington. He has nearly 40 years experience in the energy field. He has also taught chemistry and energy at the University level. His interest in the communications of science has led to several communications awards, hundreds of speeches, and many appearances on television and talk shows. He can be reached via email at mailto:mike@foxreport.org