BACKGROUND: Production

PLUTONIUM IS AN ARTIFICIALLY CREATED ELEMENT rarely in existing in nature. It is a transuranic radioactie chemical element created through the absorption of neutrons within the nuclei of uranium atoms that have been subjected to neutron bombardment through the uranium-238 fission process. [1] After a series of elemental transmutations, plutonium-239 is produced yielding a half-life of approximately 24,000 years. [2]

To produce nuclear weaponry a complex series of integrated manufacturing activities were executed at multiple sites across the country. The Hanford facility was charged with producing plutonium. The Oak Ridge facility, formally named Clinton Engineer Works produced enriched uranium. Both of these facilities supplied weaponry products to scientists at Los Alamos where development and testing of the bomb took place.

Historic atomic weaponry production was grouped into eight stages: [3]

The Hanford plutonium production cycle began with the arrival of uranium billets from offsite sources. The billets were pressed, machined, canned, tested, and stored in the 300 Area. From there the unirradiated fuel elements (referred to as "fresh metal") were transported to 100 Areas where they were irradiated within the reactors. Irradiated fuel was then "cooled" in the 200 North Area so short-term radioisotopes could decay before being transferred to the 200 East or West Areas for separation within huge chemical separation plants nicknamed canyons or Queen Marys. Following the separation and concentration process the plutonium nitrate paste was returned to the 200 North Area for storage before being shipped to Los Alamos. [4] It took one metric ton of uranium metal to produce 250 grams of plutonium. [5]

Along with production additional research was undertaken to develop health and safety procedures to study, monitor, and remediate radioactive contamination in workers and the workplace. Scientists were already familiar with radioactive hazards at the onset of the Manhattan Project from past occupational tragedies such as the fate of the radium dial painters. These workers, consisting mostly of young woman, painted radioluminous or "glow-in-the-dark" watch faces, gauges, and clocks at a factory located in New Jersey. They were often fatallypoisoned after unintentionally ingesting radium from licking the tips of their paint brushes tinged with the toxic element as they painted on the assembly line.

Hanford radiation policies were developed by a small group of men headed by the English radiologist, Herbert M. Parker and his senior assistant, Carl C. Gamertsfelder, an X-ray defraction scientist. Parker and his staff worked closely with DuPont's Hanford medical chief, Dr. William Norwood and the Public Health Department head, Dr. Ralph Sachs. [6] This entity, known as the Health Instruments Section (HES) was charged with defining radiological hazards, establishing worker safety procedures plus the developement and calibration of instruments. HES later took charge of radiation monitoring of workers. They also surveyed the Hanford site and surrounding areas for signs of radioactive contamination.

Because of strict Manhattan Engineer District security regulations Hanford officials were not able to disclose the actual existence or levels of radioactivity in the workplace. Only a handful of employees were given this information on a "need to know" basis. Strict secrecy was enforced; mentioning the words plutonium and uranium was forbidden. Instead code words were used in place with plutonium referred to as "product" and uranium as "base metal." [7] To promote safety in the workplace, a series of sloganeering posters and billboards encouraged worker safety even if the true hazard could not be revealed. Because officials feared that workers might choose to quit if radiation hazards were known, common industrial safety procedures such as evacuation practices were discouraged (although with DuPont's insistence they were eventually held). [8] To control the flow of health information outside the facility, Hanford offificials in charge arranged for only Dr. Arthur M. Ringle, the public health officer in Walla Walla to be privy to confidential Hanford health records. [9]

To safeguard workers an assortment of health and safety procedures and radiation detection devices were implemented. Shieldings of thick concrete and lead put in place to distance radiological materials and the amount of time which workers could come into contact with potential radiation hazards were the primary established protection standards. Victoreen integrons, ionization chambers, survey meters, gas sampling vessels, and air-monitoring filters were used to measure contamination of liquid and gaseous wastes, tools, and clothing. [10] With many devices unfamiliar and often unnerving to workers, playful nicknames such as Betty Snoop, Cutie Pie, Zeus, Zeuto, Juno, Queenie, Big Sucker, Little Sucker, Hot Dog Grill, Walkie Talkie, and Horizontal Pig were used for the machinary. [11] Film badges and two small ionization chambers known as "pencils" were worn by every employee on each shift. [12] Pencils were read daily and the badges read once a week. The immensity of this monitoring task is better appreciated when you take into account that "between January and August 1945 alone, over one million pencils had been measured, over 170,000 film badges has been processed, 52,000 instrument checks and 157,00 hand checks had been made, and over 31,000 surveys of operating conditions had been performed in only the 200 area." [13] Other procedures included providing urine and fecal samples for bioassay monitoring and other routine medical examinations.

In certain buildings such as the Plutonium Isolation facility health precautions were taken to the extreme. Clothing was repeatedly changed and hands were scanned for radiation contamination before entering or leaving work areas. [14] Every nick, cut or wound was required to be reported due to the hazard of absorbing plutonium through open cuts. One laboratory worker commented "Contamination was the big word...when we couldn't get our hand count down, we dunked them in a solution of 'goop'...It was supposed to take off a very thin layer of skin. Sometimes it took three or four dunkings [to remove radiation contamination.]" [15] An official MED policy even went so far as to require "immediate amputation of any human limb with a cut contaminated by plutonium." [16]

NOTES | CONTINUE TO NEXT SECTION >>