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Fear and Four Lab Explosions

Posted by | February 10, 2010

On a couple of occasions in graduate school I stupidly miscalculated the effects of mixing strong acid and water – and then adding heat. There’s nothing like the resulting exploding acid droplets quite near your face to give you pause.

The second time I managed to make the same, simple error I walked home, a journey of about 8 miles. As I strolled, I gave serious consideration to going into the law. But, after that long walk, I realized I didn’t want to make a decision about the direction of my education based solely on fear. So I stuck with the sciences.

But my tale of lab explosions doesn’t seem like much compared to two others I know, and they inspire greater fears in many members of the general public.

I work everyday with a chemist here at Washington State University who likes to say she is so radioactive she glows in the dark. That’s not true, of course, but she did get a goodly dose of the highly radioactive chemical element called americium, which is a byproduct of plutonium. The tale goes back to when she worked 25 years ago at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington State.

Hanford is the place where America made plutonium during World War II for nuclear weapons. After that, it became a major installation for our production of nuclear weapons in the Cold War. I know some people who are afraid even of the universal radiation symbol, but at Hanford it’s almost as common on old signs as the tumbleweeds around the fences.

That day at work 25 years back, my colleague knew she was in trouble when the reaction container she and her boss were working with at high temperatures and pressure started to leak – spewing hot water with radioactive materials on her arms, her lab coat, and her shirt.

“But my boss and the folks in environmental health and safety were calm,” she says, “and so was I. There were emergency showers, and of course I gave up my clothes, and then they scrubbed a layer of skin off my arms.”

Twenty-five years later this cheerful chemist I work with goes in for medical checkups once every five years, but otherwise she lives fully in the clear. And she’s had two healthy kids in the interval since her Hanford employment.

Harold McCluskey was another Hanford worker who received a much greater exposure to radiological materials. A chemical reaction with the material he was working with showered him with americium – about 500 times the occupational standard for exposure levels.

McCluskey likely would have died but a doctor gave him an experimental drug that removed about 80 percent of the contamination. McCluskey had to remain in isolation – and I do mean isolation – behind concrete and steel until the treatment ran its course, but he then returned home. He was known as the Atomic Man here in the Northwest. He died in his mid-70s, about 11 years after the accident that made him famous. He had never regained his full strength after the exposure, but he died of heart problems, not cancer.

Everything about plutonium and americium stirs up strong emotions. That’s understandable. But not everyone is aware that technical people have been exposed to radiation in moderate to very high doses – and lived to tell the tale. Every day I’m reminded by the presence and hard work of my colleague that americium is not, in fact, necessarily the end of everything – or anything.

At some point in this century we Americans will have to decide if we want to seriously embrace nuclear energy or not. Nuclear power offers the hope of energy independence, and it can meaningfully address many greenhouse concerns. But, for some citizens, safety and waste disposal issues outweigh those advantages.

What I hope is that the discussion about the nuclear issue can be made on the grounds of facts and rational discussion – and not just fears of chemical exposures.  Like that day when I walked 8 miles to calm down, we need to be thoughtful as we make our decisions.

We owe ourselves and people like my colleague, the chemist, at least that much.