Monday, July 28, 2014
PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA
99 CENTS

Roc Doc: Fear and four lab explosions

By
From page A4 | May 12, 2011 |

E. Kirsten Peters mug

Peters

On a couple of occasions in graduate school I stupidly miscalculated the effects of mixing strong acid and water  and then adding heat. Theres 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 eight miles. As I strolled, I gave serious consideration to going into the law. But, after that long walk, I realized I didnt 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 doesnt 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 eight 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.
Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Follow her on the web at rockdoc.wsu.edu and on Twitter @RockDocWSU. This column is a service of the College of Sciences at Washington State University.

 

Comments

comments

E. Kirsten Peters

.

News

Sand Fire burns more than 4,000 acres

By Dawn Hodson | From Page: A1, 1 Comment | Gallery

 
Fatal accident in Camino

By Cole Mayer | From Page: A1 | Gallery

 
County’s chief lawyer: No Brown Act violation

By Chris Daley | From Page: A1

General Plan workshop today

By Chris Daley | From Page: A1

 
Two growth control initiatives get green light

By Dawn Hodson | From Page: A1

Agricultural Crop and Livestock Report released

By Ross Branch | From Page: A3

 
35 people displaced in Tahoe hotel fire

By Tahoe Tribune | From Page: A3 | Gallery

.

Opinion

Bee-ing silly

By Mountain Democrat | From Page: A4

 
The balancing act: Toxic waste spreads

By Larry Weitzman | From Page: A4, 1 Comment

 
.

Letters

Want more water?

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A5, 1 Comment

 
Refugee crisis

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A5, 1 Comment

Letter to Speaker of the House

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A5, 1 Comment

 
GDPUD misinformation

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A5

At the crossroads

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A5, 1 Comment

 
.

Sports

Camp experience is ‘priceless’

By Mike Bush | From Page: A6 | Gallery

 
Speedway races cancelled

By Democrat Staff | From Page: A6

El Dorado doubles up on Pro Players

By Mike Bush | From Page: A6 | Gallery

 
Under the Scoreboard: July 26, 2014

By Democrat Staff | From Page: A6

Schedule: July 28 – Aug. 2, 2014

By Democrat Staff | From Page: A6

 
Roundup: July 26, 2014

By Democrat Staff | From Page: A6

Sports Scene: July 26, 2014

By Democrat Staff | From Page: A7

 
Local spiker shines

By Democrat Staff | From Page: A7

.

Prospecting

A beautiful day at Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony Farm

By Cathy Barsotti | From Page: B1 | Gallery

 
Foothill gourmet: Things get corny

By Donna Brown | From Page: B2

Bipolar Insights: From point A to point B

By Marcia Rose | From Page: B2

 
Cool time at Cowboys and Cornbread

By Democrat Staff | From Page: B2 | Gallery

 
As we were: Recreation district grows

By Ken Deibert | From Page: B4

Cantare names new director

By Cantare Chorale | From Page: B10

 
After 5 Club to meet

By Senior Day | From Page: B10

.

Essentials

Divorces

By Charlotte Sanchez-Kosa | From Page: A2Comments are off for this post

 
DUI Log: June 25-July 9

By Cole Mayer | From Page: A2

Crime Log: July 14-16

By Cole Mayer | From Page: A2

 
.

Obituaries

.

Real Estate

.

Comics

Horoscope, Tuesday, July 29, 2014

By Contributor | From Page: A8

 
Horoscope, Monday, July 28, 2014

By Contributor | From Page: A8

Shoe

By Contributor | From Page: A8

 
Sudoku

By Contributor | From Page: A8

Rubes

By Contributor | From Page: A8

 
New York Times Crossword

By Contributor | From Page: A8

TV Listings

By Contributor | From Page: A8

 
Speed Bump

By Contributor | From Page: A8

American Profile Crossword

By Contributor | From Page: A8

 
Tundra

By Contributor | From Page: A8