[ RadSafe ] Book review: Plutonium: A History of theWorld's Most Dangerous Element

Brennan, Mike (DOH) Mike.Brennan at DOH.WA.GOV
Fri May 4 11:57:59 CDT 2007

 By the time that I started visiting Hanford all the reactors were shut down, though the buildings were still standing.  I've read our reports from back when they were still running, and I've talked to a fair number of people who were involved "back in the day".  There were a lot of things done that by current standards seem rather sub-optimal.  Indeed, there were a lot of things done that even by the standard of the time lead me to believe that most of the decisions were being made by people who were not engineers at heart.

Some of the boneheaded, excuse me, sub-optimal, choices included single pass reactors, where river water was pumped through the core, sent to a cooling pool (for thermal cooling), then back into the river.  Added this to running the reactors in a way that lead to frequent fuel element failure, and you wind up with readily detectable fission fragments all the way down the Columbia, out into the Pacific, and up the coast.  Another sub-optimal choice were the "reverse injection wells", where highly contaminated water (by my standards, under which "highly" is indeed high) was pumped down into the water table, apparently on the premise that if no one would ever think to look for it there.  I could go on, because there are a lot of things that offended my Navy-trained soul when I first heard about them.

However, Hanford at its worst didn't have as much of a negative impact on the River as the dams built on it, and perhaps not as much impact on any one of them (inarguably less than Grand Coulee).  The Hanford site has (or had, as many have been torn down) some breath-takingly ugly buildings on it, but they were separated by vast open area (in no small part due to the fear that something might go horribly, horribly wrong, and it would be good to be a couple miles away).  The land on the Hanford site is without argument less impacted than any of the hundreds of square miles of irrigated farmland in that part of the State.  The wildlife and plant life on the Site is healthy, in some cases healthier than anywhere else in the State.

To be fair, everything I've seen and heard about the Soviet plutonium production system indicates that their attitude towards safety and not harming the environment was such that it would have made the most cavalier of our people shudder.  But even in their case there were probably other industries and practices that did more damage.

Now, if all the plutonium made into bombs had been detonated, that would have been bad.  It would definitely have thoroughly trashed the environment in a huge number of places, one ground zero at a time.  The fallout would have been pretty bad for a while.  With the collapse of the world-wide infrastructure, the number of people who would have died would have been huge; I suspect half the world population, maybe more, maybe a lot more.  

Fortunately, that didn't happen, and it is very unlikely to happen any time soon.  Many of the weapons, and even more of the delivery systems, have been dismantled.  The Pu now represents a resource in the form of fuel for nuclear reactors, which are one of the lower environmental footprint energy sources available.  

I haven't read Bernstein's book.  Maybe he made all these points, and the reviewers missed them.  In that case, he should have been clearer.  Maybe he didn't make these points, because he didn't know about them.  In that case, he should have been better informed.  Or maybe he didn't make these points because they didn't support the position he advocates.  In that case, he should have been more honest. 

-----Original Message-----
From: radsafe-bounces at radlab.nl [mailto:radsafe-bounces at radlab.nl] On Behalf Of Steven Dapra
Sent: Thursday, May 03, 2007 6:10 PM
To: John Jacobus; radsafe
Subject: Re: [ RadSafe ] Book review: Plutonium: A History of theWorld's Most Dangerous Element

May 3

         I looked for this book on Amazon.  According to a review in "Booklist," Bernstein's accounts of Pu's discovery "give way to a sobering overview of the environmental damage caused by plutonium-producing reactors and the enormous threats embodied in today's global plutonium inventory. 
Although convoluted, Bernstein's unique history of the diabolical element is invaluable."  (review by Donna Seaman Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved )

         "environmental damage"?  "enormous threats"??  "diabolical element"???  Is any of this true, or is this reviewer resorting to some deranged form of hyperbole?

Steven Dapra
sjd at swcp.com

At 06:24 AM 5/3/07 -0700, John Jacobus wrote:
>This review appears in Nature.
>Nature 447, 31-33 (3 May 2007)
>The dark heart of the bomb
>John S. Rigden(1)
>-Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element by Jeremy 
>Joseph Henry Press: 2007. 258 pp. £16.99 $27.95


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