Jeremy Bernstein’s PLUTONIUM (2007)

In Environment, Plutonium, Rocky Flats, Workplace exposure on January 18, 2011 at 9:45 am

Jeremy Bernstein, former staff writer for the New Yorker and occasional author of intelligent articles on nuclear issues for The New York Review, calls his book Plutonium: A History of the World’s Most Dangerous Element. The book is very good at explaining the discovery and production of this most unusual material and all the difficult steps along the way of turning it into bomb material. But the author never explains why he calls plutonium (Pu) “the world’s most dangerous element.” He’s not alone in using words like this to describe Pu, but if an activist speaks of Pu in this manner he or she is quickly ridiculed for overstating the case by spokespersons for the nuclear establishment.

I like this book and learned much from it. But I will here offer two criticisms, one relatively insignificant, the other of considerable importance. The less significant criticism is simply to express surprise that Bernstein seems unfamiliar with the fact that small quantities of naturally produced plutonium were discovered in the 1950s in Gabon on the west coast of Africa. At a very specific place there, water and uranium had combined in the right mix to create a naturally occurring chain reaction similar to what happens in reactors made by humans. One of the byproducts of such a chain reaction is plutonium.

Bernstein’s more serious shortcoming is to take at face value words of George Voelz, long-time head of the Health Division at the Los Alamos Lab. One of the features of Bernstein’s book is that much of what he reports is based on his direct contacts with major players in the nuclear weapons enterprise. But with Voelz he went astray, not because Voelz is not an insider and a major player in the nuclear enterprise but because he is. On the crucial topic of possible adverse health effects among plutonium-exposed nuclear workers, Bernstein quotes the following statement made by Voelz in 1995: “So far, we have not seen any significant health effects from plutonium,” because “we have taken great care from the beginning to operate with conservative limits on the permissible body burden for plutonium workers” (p. 128). Not for the first time (having uttered similar words five years earlier in an interview published in Los Alamos Science), Voelz fails to acknowledge results of a study done at Los Alamos by Gregg S. Wilkinson. This study showed that some exposed Rocky Flats workers with internal plutonium deposits as low as 5% of the permissible lifetime body burden to which Voelz refers had developed a variety of cancers in excess of what was normal for workers who had not been exposed. Wilkinson’s study was published in The American Journal of Epidemiology, vol 125, no. 2 (1987), pp. 231-250. One of eight co-authors listed on the title page is George Voelz.

The New York Times reported on February 28, 1990, that Wilkinson had been told by his supervisors at Los Alamos that before publishing his paper he should alter the results of his study to please “the customer” (that is, the DOE). After he went ahead and published the article without change, his Los Alamos work was downgraded and subjected to increased levels of internal review, making future research more difficult and publication less likely. In response, Wilkinson resigned. One George Voelz was moved into the position he vacated.

Wilkinson tells some of this story in his “Seven years in search of alpha,” Epidemiology, 10 (1999). I myself have written a longer, more detailed piece about this which I will happily send to anyone who requests it.


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