The Scientists Who Pee Plutonium
Researchers with the Manhattan Project lived and breathed radiation ... literally
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.
Nick Dallas and Ted Magel came to Los Alamos in February 1944. The scientists of the Manhattan Project had yet to manufacture the plutonium metal required to power an atomic bomb. Dallas and Magel would change all that, but at the time of their arrival … morale was low.
“The place seemed like a morgue to us; everyone was quiet and working in isolation. I guess they were discouraged,” Magel told Los Alamos Science in 1995. The pair worked to improve the methods and working conditions of the metallurgy lab at Los Alamos, and soon they thought they had figured out how to refine and produce plutonium on demand.
The administrators were so excited about the scientists’ progress that they set up a special exhibition of their work. Manhattan Project leaders, including Gen. Leslie Groves, were set to come out and watch a demonstration of their technique on March 24, 1944.
Magel was reluctant. “Well when does everything go wrong — when you have a whole lot of observers, right?” he explained. “So on the 23rd, I said to Nick, ‘Let’s go up to the lab and make the reduction tonight before all these people get here.’”
And so they did. Magel and Dallas performed one of the earliest refinements of plutonium in the dead of night with no one watching.
“When it was done, we cut open the bomb, dropped the little button of plutonium metal in a glass vial and put it on Cyril Smith’s desk with a note that read: Here is your button of plutonium. We have gone to Santa Fe for the day.”
The higher ups didn’t take it well.
“Everyone was pretty mad at us and claimed that we had contaminated the lathe and the back shop when we had opened the bomb to retrieve the plutonium button,” Magel said. “I don’t believe that we had, but I understood how they felt.”
Magel’s understanding would deepen just a few weeks later when an accident granted him access to the exclusive club of plutonium whizzers.
“I had an incident in which I was working in a dry box scraping the slag from another of those one-gram buttons, and the needle I was using slipped, went through the rubber glove, and embedded in my finger,” he told Los Alamos Science. “ I could see some black stuff in my finger. OK, I thought, that’s plutonium oxide.”
Doctors rushed him to the hospital and attempted to dig out the radioactive material, but they couldn’t get it all. “I still have some plutonium in one finger,” he said. Later, both Magel and Dallas inhaled a significant amount of plutonium dust. The power behind the first atom bomb would be with them forever.
“They began taking urine samples in 1945,” Magel explained. Los Alamos continued to monitor their urine for the duration of their long lives. “Every year, I would send them a gallon of urine from a 24-hour period so they could measure plutonium content.”
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.”
“I’ve lived 50 years in good health, and I have two healthy children,” Bill Gibson, an Army veteran and member of the UPPU club told Los Alamos Science. “I’m 74 now, and I don’t see any reason that I shouldn’t get to 84 or 94. I don’t really have any concerns about the plutonium in me.”
The plutonium pissers are lucky. They worked on one of the most important and frightening scientific achievements of the 20th century, breathed in the chemicals that made it work and lived long, healthy lives. The same is not true for others exposed to radiation, such as the Radium Girls or the people the U.S. government secretly injected with plutonium.
But that’s another story.