Friday, 26 May 2023

Fraudulent and Forever

 I'm going to write a book with the title above. Maybe it won't get past this blog site but it's a start. I want a place to put the information that I'm learning. I want to share difficult concepts in a comprehensive form. This book catalogues my journey from true believer to strong critic. I was misled, I was taught a lie and I believed a lie. Not just one lie but many lies. Uncovering one lie after another, my conclusion is that the nuclear industry is completely fraudulent.

Nuclear power, the power of the atom, is fascinating. The centre of an atom is held together with unimaginable strength – when the nucleus is cracked, like cracking an egg, the energy released can blow up a city or boil water for electricity. It can cause disease or it can heal.


However, it is not “clean, affordable and reliable[1].” The industry uses the media to say the same thing over and over again, so often that many people believe it. Clean? All nuclear power plants must emit radioactive hydrogen. Affordable? Westinghouse and Areva have gone bankrupt over the building of nuclear power plants in the USA and in Finland. Reliable? France has had to buy electricity from Germany during heat waves. When the blackout of 2003 resulted in the shut-down of the nuclear power plants in the affected region, it took more than a week for them to reach full power again. Point Lepreau in New Brunswick has been plagued with outages; refurbishment took over four years during which the plant was offline.


What if the only reason that there are so many supporters of this nefarious industry is that it has marketed itself relentlessly? Like cigarette companies in the 70’s and 80’s, full page ads appear in the magazines. They look like bonafide articles until, with our reading glasses, we identify the small print in the corner that says “advertisement”.  


I’m angry, angry that I was so misled and angry that so many continue to be misled. I’m angry with my profession – with its inability to come to terms with a scourge upon humanity and with its willingness to subvert health of populations to the nuclear industry. I’m also angry with the nuclear industry which has knowingly and purposely misled parliamentarians and populations and lied, denied and misdirected researchers.


Physicians knew that ionizing radiation affected human health from the very beginning of humanity’s interaction with it:

- miners in Czech and their “rotten lungs”

- radiologists in the early 1900’s who used their hands to focus x-rays 

 - dentists and doctors that diagnosed the “radium girls”, the clock painters in the 1920’s

- members of various International ionizing radiation protection associations


The same silence from physicians during atmospheric atomic testing continues in an environment where nuclear power plants emit ionizing radiation (especially tritium). 


The industry knew that ionizing radiation was bad for human health:

- International Atomic Energy Agency lobbied to silence the World Health

 Organization on matters affecting human health – and won in 1957.

- Researchers were fired or had their funds cut when their results didn’t comply with the industry’s sales model. Eg. Dr. John Gofman, Dr. Thomas Mancuso, Dr. Joseph Mangano, Dr. Sternglass, and Dr. Steven Wing. They were then trivialized or their work discredited.

            - Held international meetings on the health of Chernobyl victims behind closed doors. 


In 2009, I met one of the shills for the nuclear industry. He questioned me on my credentials in such a manner that I asked for his name. He coyly said that he was “just a concerned citizen”. Later I learned that he was the President of the Canadian Nuclear Association. 


The new President and CEO for the same CNA, a Mr. John Gorman, a long-time registered lobbyist has met with the government minister in charge with rolling out Canada’s energy plans, Mr. Seamus O’Regan, a recorded eight times. Which leads to the question of whether  Mr. O’Regan sought any opinion other than that of the industry.


Many people feel that they have to leave the decisions about nuclear power to “specialists” to form an opinion on nuclear power. This is not so; a science or engineering degree is not required. All that is needed are two facts. 


Fact one:  Nuclear power is a means to boil water – that is all that it does. Like coal, it boils water and the steam turns the turbines which produce electricity. Anything that will turn turbines would work as well. 


Fact two: The waste lasts for a hundred thousand years. It isn’t just a little poisonous, like a cup of bleach on the counter, it is big time toxic – standing next to a waste fuel rod, a fuel rod that has been “used up” in the reactor, for less than twenty seconds would result in death. This is not science fiction or hyperbole. There have been deaths among people in the early history of nuclear research. Not only is the waste poisonous but everything that the fuel has “touched” during the burning process is also radioactive and toxic. There is no recycling.


Ionizing radiation[2] – the type of radiation produced by nuclear power plants – causes cancers, autoimmune disorders, teratogenic[3] alterations and genetic damage. The nuclear industry itself does not deny this. It is not under contention. The industry simply fudges the truth, and then states that there is a level below which ionizing radiation is not harmful. This is a lie, uncovered countless times most recently by the National Academy of Sciences in its BEIR VII (Biological Effects of Nuclear Radiation) documents of 2007. The nuclear industry has successfully mothballed scientific research and trivialized researchers. It has even jumped past the financial sector to the governmental goldmine. It is truly a fraudulent industry.


The more we learn about small modular reactors, the more we dislike them. The words “recycling” or “reprocessing" are usually associated with the environmental movement but in the case of nuclear waste, the words are "repurposed". After a highly delicate process of dissolving the waste uranium fuel in high-temperature liquid sodium (salt?), the plutonium is separated to be burned as fuel – making more waste and the liquid sodium is now radioactive. 


Meanwhile plutonium is in high demand for the manufacture of nuclear bombs. That the push for SMRs coincides with the build-up of UK nuclear weapons and the refurbishment of those of the USA cannot be an accident. 


Hence, the story ends with the plutonium, the major link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are suicidal. There are many things that we should be doing with our money instead of proliferating plutonium and arming a second MAD[i] race to the bottom.

[1] Opening statement on the Canadian Nuclear Association website, 20.01.21

[2] The term “radiation” will be used throughout to mean this particular form of radiation, one that produces ions and oxidation products in molecules. The molecules might be in biological entities but also structural objects such as steel and concrete.

[3] Effects on the fetus during development.



[i] Mutually Assured Destruction.  The term "mutual assured destruction", commonly abbreviated "MAD", was coined by Donald Brennan, a strategist working in Herman Kahn's Hudson Institute in 1962.  Accessed 26.5.2023

Thursday, 15 December 2022

Small Modular Nuclear Reactors


Response to the article “Nuclear energy plays a key role in meeting Canada’s net-zero goals” found in a publication from the Institute for Researach in Public Policy.

Authors David Billedeau and Nicholas Palaschuk are staffers of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and are certainly welcome to their opinions on nuclear power, but I challenge the two leaps of faith that they make about nuclear energy:

1. That small modular nuclear reactors are legitimate. You will discover that not one has been built if you have the patience to read the World Nuclear Association’s page on small modular reactors. No private investors have put money after them. Fantasy and government subsidies do not make a market.

2. That nuclear power is carbon-emissions free. To fulfill that claim, the industry has to incorporate the carbon “costs” of mining, refining, shipping the uranium to enrichment, in itself requiring the energy of a small city, shipping it back to the reactor, manufacturing the steel and concrete of the reactor, dealing with the waste and, finally, decommissioning, which produces even more radioactive waste. Protecting the environment from radioactivity at the mine sites and the tailings piles should also be added to the carbon cost of nuclear power. (A boiling-water reactor proposed for Saskatchewan will require enrichment, but not all proposed SMRs will. A proposed small reactor in New Brunswick from ARC Clean Technology will have different costs.)

Radioactive pollution is particularly noxious. It occurs at every step of nuclear energy production. Nuclear reactors are not emissions-free. They must vent hydrogen mostly in the form of tritium, which is accompanied by other radioactive pollutants:  krypton, carbon-14, caesium-137, iodine-131 and strontium-90. Tritium and carbon-14 can be taken up by every cell in the human body, bombarding them with radioactive particles or rays. 

In 1962, my physics professor cautioned a group of pro-nuclear students – of which I was one – that nuclear power “had some shortcomings.” We listened respectfully as he described the waste as difficult to contain and hard to accommodate. We thought of him as an “old fuddy-duddy,” unable to embrace our new and wondrous technology. We believed that the smart people who had split the atom would figure out how to take out the garbage. 

They didn’t. They’ve tried for over 70 years.

The current idea is to abandon the waste underground in deep geological repositories. So far, not one is successfully in operation. Two have utterly failed at costs ranging in the billions – in Germany and Carlsbad in New Mexico. Finland, with its Onkalo respository, is the closest to having one be operational but it is having problems with the containers in which the waste will be packaged and has been criticized for siting it on the Gulf of Bothnia.

The industry talks about “reprocessing,” “recycling” and “pyroprocessing,” as if the product is denatured, environmentally friendly and that the waste has magically disappeared. Whatever you might think these processes are, they are not environmentally friendly. 

I am completely in agreement with the writers that nuclear physics, energy and power should be included in our educational curriculums. We must include the ways in which ionizing radiation affects health. With a more educated public, we’d have a more honest discussion about the price we are willing to pay for electrical energy. Are we willing to have radioactive pollution for this purpose? Especially when there are much less harmful sources of energy to exploit? Who speaks for our grandchildren?

Dale Dewar, MD, FCFP, Wynyard, SK

Friday, 2 December 2022

SMRs in Saskatchewan

SMRs - Small Modular Nuclear Reactors

There has been a lot of hype about these. Full page ads that look like they are written by journalists. Federal and provincial governments have been investing in them when not even a prototype exists. Premier Moe has even selected the type of fantasy reactor it wants, a BWRX-300, a Boiling Water Reactor.
If it uses Saskatchewan uranium, the uranium will be shipped to an enrichment facility in Tennessee and then shipped back to us. The Canadian Nuclear Safety commission, supposed to protect the health of people and the environment, lobbied the federal government to waive an environmental assessment.
Moe says that we'll pay $5 billion in return for 300 MW of electricity. That is a lot. He also says that the SMR will be located close to elbow or to Estevan and will use their nearby lakes for coolant. The coolant wo't becoem radioactive but it will be returned to the lake significantly warmer. Of course, accidents can still happen. 

The absurdity of this begs the imagination. Where has Moe been all summer as headlines speak of France's dilemma - not only has the drought meant that their coolant wasn't available but the heat also meant that the water that was present was too warm to actually cool the reactors. When Saskatchewan has a drought, who will get the water? The people who drink, wask and play in it - or the nuclear power plant.
Nuclear power is not "green". It is not carbon-dioxide free from mining, milling, transporting, enriching, more transporting, construction and waste management.
"Recycling", "reprocessing" and "pyroprocessing" are misleading marketing. 

Nuclear waste is not "waste" in the ordinary sense of the word. It is a biological poison, a radioactive environmental pollutant with long term consequences, a boiling cauldron of tiny atomic explosions, the gift "that keeps on giving" as the decaying elements burn into another generation of decaying radioactive elements and so on for an estimated four billion years.

Many First Nations peoples speak of the need to consider seven generations. Who here is speaking for our granchildren?


Thursday, 16 June 2022

Physicians: What do we say?

Physicians have been largely silent on
two nuclear industry challenges before the federal government. Do we pour millions of dollars into research and development of Small Modular Nuclear Reactors? Do we bury our current nuclear waste in the vicinity of Wakerton, Teeswater and Kincardine and the city of Ottawa in Ontario?i

In fact, physicians have been silent about nuclear power in general. We have also been silenced as the industry has worked its mysterious media fantasy of “too cheap to monitor” into a myth of “necessity” for climate change energy. We have been silent, not because we have nothing to say but because we’ve been led to believe that these decisions are “political”, not health-related.

During the Canadian Covid epidemic, physicians were utterly unable to keep the primacy of health care out of the political arena. We saw our ICUs worked beyond capacity, and our colleagues quit in frustration. With respect to the threat of ionizing radiation we have been remarkably silent.

To reiterate, the two very different questions currently before Canadian legislators, both involve ionizing radiation, not merely that of nature (sun, rocks, air) but entirely man-made atoms, some of which will still be emitting ionizing radiation in a time-frame that is outside human comprehension (plutonium-239 will be around for 24,100 x 10 yearsii).

1. Nuclear Waste Management:

Having decided that the only way to “manage” nuclear waste was to put it into a Deep Geological Repository (DGR), the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO)iii has spent the last two of decades searching for such a site. The process has divided communities even while much of negotiation with perceived leaders (mayors, chiefs and council members) has occurred behind closed doors. Health professionals have been silent.

These wastes will be toxic for a long, long time. They are not like ordinary waste simply degrading over time. Each nuclear element has its own decay chain. What is buried in 2030 will never be what it was again. Short-lived waste and decay products will disappear but longer-lived ones will continue to emit radioactivity. A cask of nuclear waste is like a boiling cauldron with atoms of ever-changing elements.

 From this graph, you can see that the total radiation has decreased over 10 million years.


While it is easy to understand that burying the waste in undisturbed bedrock changes the bedrock to a “disturbed” status, many people don’t know that the radioactivity of the waste can change the very containers in which they are buried. Refurbishing of nuclear reactors involves replacement of miles of metal pipes that have become corroded, why would we expect that containers in a DGR would fare better?iv

DGR? This is not the only disposal in question – NWMO is fantasizing a Near Surface Disposal Facilityv (NSDF) at Chalk River only 200 km North of Ottawa. This proposed disposal facility would be an eight story mound that will be within a few hundred metres of the river from which Ottawa and Montreal draw their cities’ drinking water.

vi From

Ionizing radiation directly affects the human genome. No one disputes this but many believe or pretend to believe (denial) that there is a low level at which it is actually beneficial. Hormesis is a fiction.

Physicians often find themselves at odds with an industry when, using the precautionary principle, we hesitate to approve a new drug or technical procedure. For example, thalidomide’s disastrous side effects became evident only after marketing. Our history with radiation in medical use has been a continual story of overuse followed by rationalizing behaviour.

A radiological example, X-rays and CT scans. The overuse of x-rays for removal of skin lesions led to discipline by the American Medical Association at the end of the 1920’s and use for hair removal forbidden. Using x-rays to treat Tinea capitus in Israel resulted in a significant increase in cancers of the head and neck decades later.

In 1996, I joined the multitude of physicians using CT scans “to rule out brain injuries” in children that had bonked their heads – a negative result tended to reassure both the parents and myself, only to discover that these investigations resulted in an increase in cancers years later.vii Choosing Wisely, a program to guide physician decisions about lab and x-ray investigations, now recommends CT scans under a limited number of circumstances – none of which are “I want reassurance” or the “parents expect it.

The industry has settled upon a Deep Geological Repository (DGR). What could be simpler? Bury it deeply in the bedrock where it would be safe and immobile for time immemorial. Are we so brilliant and so prescient that we can know what will be safe for the next 100,000 years and more?

Currently the waste is stored in concrete containers above ground. They can be watched – providing jobs for generations of Canadians – and repackaged if they leak. “Rolling Stewardship” would provide laboratories in Canada and elsewhere with experimental material. Finally, perhaps our brighter descendants will discover a way to use ionizing radiation safely. Instead of choosing a DGR recklessly with our limited understanding of the waste, we have the opportunity to spawn years of research.

2. Building Small Modular Nuclear Reactors:

Full page ads about Small Modular Nuclear Reactors tout them as “safe”. How is anything that produces ionizing radiation safe? We use it extensively in diagnostics and treatment but we also know that it is implicated in causing cancer.

In the 1950’s we routinely x-rayed pregnant women for “pelvimetry”, measuring their bony pelvic outlet to ascertain whether they could give birth naturally or needed a Caesarian section. In both the USA and the UK, the cancer societies noted a rise in leukemia in children. Suddenly there was a boom in building pediatric hospitals devoted to treating cancer.

During the 1940’s and 1950’s, there was a leukemia boom in North Armerica and the UK. There was a sudden increase in incidence from ~ 1:20 to 1:16 children. At that time it was almost always fatal.

Dr. Alice Stewart, a general practitioner in the UK and one of the first epidemiologists, and the Tri-State Health Study in the USA collected data and connected the dots. X-rays during fetal development doubled the incidence of cancer in the offspring. Doctors had been ordering x-rays to measure womens’ pelvises, a series called “”pelvimetry”. The technique disappeared. Lead aprons came out for dental x-rays.

In 2007, after decades of study and six reports, the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR VII)viii, in publishing its seventh report concluded that any level of exposure to radiation was unsafe (although “at lose doses, the number of radiation induced cancers is small”).

Studies of significant increases in leukemia and other cancers within 5 to 25 km of operating nuclear power plants seem to yield conclusive results but research by both the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE, UK) and the Kikki study in Germany have had disputed by the nuclear industry.

iP. Kaatsch, C.Spix, S. Schmiedel, R. Schulze-Rath, A.Mergenthaler, and M. Blettner, Epidemiologische Studie zu Kinderkrebs in der Umgebung vonKerkraftwerken (KiKK Studie), Sltzgitter: Bundesamp fuer Strablenschutz, 2007, urn:nbn:de:0221-20100317939.

In 2012, I mentioned the German study in discussion after delivering a brief to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). The health science person on the board dismissively called the effect “due to a virus.” If there is a special virus that affects only children close to nuclear power plants, we should endeavour to identify it. No such research appears to have been launched.

Before 1990, when it was forced to open its records, the United States Department of Energy not only controlled access to all information on the health effects of radiation on nuclear workers and the public but it also controlled all the funding of radiation researchx. It had successfully stone-walled independent research for decades.

We don’t know which ray or particle will cause any particular DNA molecule to turn the cell into cancer but we know that they do. Physicians have conducted studies on the medical uses of ionizing radiation. Here are a few examples:

a) Xray treatment of Tinea capitus:

The studies on patients who, as children, received x-ray treatment for Tinea capitis (fungal infection of the scalp) in the 1940’s and 1950’s have shown “excess incidences of tumours of the head and neck including the skin, brain, thyroid, and parotid glands”xi. Needless to say, this technique of treating fungal infections is left in the dustbin of history.

b) Breast cancer after fluoroscopic examinations of the breast during treatment for pulmonary tuberculosis:

The role of ionizing radiation as a cause of carcinoma has long been recognized, particularly in relationship to carcinoma of the skin, lung, thyroid and bone.”xii Dr. Ian Mackenzie in Halifax found fifty cases of breast cancer in patients who had received this form of x-ray treatment prior to 1961. From length of time from the beginning of the x-ray treatments and the breast cancer averaged 17 years. There was also a high correlation between the side of treatment and the cancer-affected breast.

This method of treating pulmonary TB had disappeared by 1955 when antibiotics became available but This research carried out largely on indigenous women and largely had disappeared by 1955. Decades later when they developed breast cancer, I’m sure they were very grateful that they had contributed to show that breast tissue was sensitive to radiation. Should we take a closer look at the use of x-rays in mammograms?

c) PET, MUGA, MIBI and SPECT scans:

All of these scans use a radioisotope, an element that gives off gamma rays that can create images of various parts of the body. For example, I131 concentrates within 15 minutes in the thyroid. This can provide a very good picture of the thyroid. Some studies require two scans, one before the radioisotope is injected and then a later one showing where the element accumulates in the body.

In 2011 researchers in Montreal examined the charts of more than 80,000 patients who had received post-heart attack PET scans and concluded that there was a 3% increase in the incidence of cancer per 10 mSv of scan exposurexiii. Scans require between two and 8 exposures to satisfy the demands of the test. (For comparison, 10 mSv is equivalent to the exposure from 100 chest x-rays).

d) Increased secondary cancers in post-radiation patients:

Radiation-induced second malignancies (RISM) is one of the important late side effects of radiation therapy”.xiv The exact risk is dependent upon so many factorsxv that it probably contributes only 5% increase of the 17 – 19% total secondary cancers.

What is quite amazing is the real paucity of good prospective research on the health effects of radiation. These ones briefly listed here concentrate on carcinogenic effects, there are other possible affects. Radiation-associated cardiac diseasesxvi is known. Hypertension with its related cardiovascular diseases and strokes has also been identified as associated with chronic exposure to low-dose radiationxvii.

We know that background radiation has health effectsxviii but it seems that limited research has been conducted on diseases other than cancer.

Many of the residents of Port Hope, home to Canada’s uranium refinery since 1933, feel that they have been “researched to death”xix but a casual review of papers shows that many have time-lines that are too short, populations sizes that are too small, and mixed outcomes which do a disservice to all. Quantity of research tells us nothing if it's poorly done.

Finally, the myth believed by many physicians and the public is that we need nuclear power for radioisotopes, for treatment or diagnosis. We do not. We already make radioisotopes more safely in cyclotrons or accelerators and could expand this to all medical radioisotopes.

In conclusion, ionizing radiation is not safe; nuclear power cannot be made safe. Physicians have been altogether too silent about this industry – or, in fact, silenced at its very inception. With the pressure on the government to support an industry that is too slow, too costly and too dangerous to respond to the threatening climate change, who speaks for our great grandchildren?

iBurying nuclear waste requires resources and uses energy as well – currently high grade steel containers covered in copper have been found to be the least likely to corrode. These do not seem to be costed out in either monetary or environmental terms.

iiThe half-life of plutonium-239 is 24,900 years; it takes ten half-lives to disintegrate to almost unmeasurable amounts.

iiiThe Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO, pronounced “Noo-mo”) was formed in 2002 by Canada’s nuclear electrical energy providers as directed by the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act (NFWA).

ivNWMO engineers say that the containers won’t corrode because they are made of the “finest steel” and covered with relatively impervious-to-radiation copper. Does this mean that the tubing in nuciear reactors is not the “finest steel”?


viFrom Geosphere: A blog hosted by the European Geoscience Union. Note that the graph starts at a “zero” of 1000 Bq.



ixP. Kaatsch, C.Spix, S. Schmiedel, R. Schulze-Rath, A.Mergenthaler, and M. Blettner, Epidemiologische Studie zu Kinderkrebs in der Umgebung vonKerkraftwerken (KiKK Studie), Sltzgitter: Bundesamp fuer Strablenschutz, 2007, urn:nbn:de:0221-20100317939.


xiFollow-up study of patients treated by X-ray epilation for Tinea capitis:

This paper is merely one of many on this subject.

xii J. A. Myrden, J. E. Hiltz, “Breast Cancer Following Multiple Fluoroscopies During Artificial Pneumothorax Treatment of Pulmonary Tuberculosis”, Canad. Med. Ass.J., June 14, 1969, vol 100

xiiiMark J. Eisenberg, Johathan Afilalo, Patrick R. Lawler, Michal Abramhamowicz, Hugues Righard, and Louise Pilot, “Cancr Risk Related to Low-Dose Ionizing Radiation from Cardiac Imaging in Patients after Acute Myocardial Infarction”, Canad. Med. Ass. J, 183(March 8, 2011); 430-436.

xivChinna Babu Dracham, Abhash Shankar, and Renu Madan,”Radiation induced secondary malignancies: a review article” Radiat Oncol J. 2018 Jun; 36(2): 85–94.

xv For example: age at radiation, dose and volume of irradiated area, type of irradiated organ and tissue,

radiation technique, individual and family history of cancer, chemotherapy, cigarette-smoking, diet and

external environment.

xviMilind Y. Desai, “Radiation Associated Cardiac Disease”, American College of Cardiology, June 21, 2017.


xviiiBen Spycher, Judith Lupatsch, Marcel Zwahlen, Martin Roosli, Felix Niggli, Michael Grotzer, Johannes Rischewski, Matthias Egger, Claudia Kuehni, for the Swiss Pediatric Oncology Group and the Swiss national Cohort Study Group, “Background Ionizing Radiation and the Risk of Chilhood Cancer: A Census-Based Nationwide Cohort Study”, Environmental Health Perspectives, June 1, 2015.

xixPersonal communication with Port Hope citizen

Monday, 27 December 2021

Notes from “The. Making of the Atomic Bomb” by Richard Rhodes

P1  “New nuclear powers are a threat, old nuclear powers keep the peace” as quoted by Anne Harrington de Santana who discerned that nuclear weapons have acquired the status of fetish objects: “Just as access to wealth in the form of money determines an individual’s opportunities and place in a social hierarchy, access to power in the form of nuclear weapons determines a state’s opportunities and place in the international order.” 

The 1970’s/80’s were frightening times: The USSR was at war in Afghanistan and the US was widely referring to them as “the evil empire” and “the focus of evil in the modern world”. President Carter threatened to use nuclear weapons if the USSR continued its thrust to the Arabian Sea. The USSR was building nuclear bombs quickly in order to achieve parity with the USA and the US right wing was “howling for blood”. Ronald Reagan more than doubled military spending. NATO held a field exercise, Able Archer 83, that was designed as a run-up to nuclear war foolishly (and even had world leaders at it) on Russia’s doorstep, very nearly scaring the Soviets under an ailing Andropov into launching a nuclear first strike.

P2. ”I found it Harvard to believe that a species as clever and adaptable as ours would voluntarily destroy itself, even though it had voluntarily manufactured the means to do so.” “Why seventy thousand nuclear weapons between us when only a few were more than enough to destroy each other?” RR 

P3. Niels Bohr articulated that: though nuclear weapons are the property of individual nation-states, which claim the right to hold and to use them in defence of national sovereignty, in their indiscriminate destructiveness they are a common danger to all, like an epidemic disease, and like an epidemic disease they transcend national borders, disputes and ideologies.

Given the development of nuclear physics up to 1938, a time during which physicists were exploring, collaborating across borders, only one, Leo Szilard saw the possibility of a weapon of mass destruction. Physicists in Germany, Japan, Britain, France, USA, Russia, Denmark, Italy were all working on the structure and energy of atomic nuclei. Furthermore they were not only sharing information across boundaries, they were honourably given credit where it was due. 

P4 “Knowledge has consequences, not always intended, not always comfortable, not always welcome.” RR

P5 The USSR and the United States prefer to sacrifice a portion of their national sovereignty - “prefer to forego the power to make total war - rather than be destroyed in their fury. Lesser wars continue, and will continue until the world community is sufficiently impressed with their destructive futility to forge new instruments of protection and new forms of citizenship. But world war at least has been revealed to be historical, not universal, a manifestation of destructive technologies of limited scale.” 

Until recently, natural violence in the form of bacteria and viruses were the human race’s worst enemies. The invention of public health, vaccines and antibiotics sent death to the side-lines at the same time that war began rapidly and pathologically to increase, reaching horrendous peaks in the twentieth century’s two world wars. Man-made death claimed not fewer than 200 million human lives before 1945 and an average of 1.5 million/year ever since in guerrilla conflict and conventional interstate wars. 

P6 “Nuclear weapons, the ultimate containers of man-made death, made the consequences of sovereign violence starkly obvious for the first time in human history. Since there was no sure defence against such weapons, they also made the consequences certain.” “Every great and deep difficulty bears within itself its own solution,” Niels Bohr 

In 2008, some of the scientists who modeled the original 1983 nuclear winter scenario investigated the likely result of a theoretical regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan, a war they postulated to involve only 100 Hiroshima-scale nuclear weapons, yielding a total of only 1.5 megatons - no more than the yield of some single warheads in the US and Russian arsenals. They were shocked to discover that because such an exchange would inevitably be targeted on cities filled with combustible materials, the resulting firestorms would inject massive volumes of black smoke into the upper atmosphere which would spread around the world, cooling the earth long enough and sufficiently to produce worldwide agricultural collapse. Twenty million prompt deaths from blast, fire, and radiation. Alan Robock and Owen Brian Toon projected, and another billion deaths in the months that followed from mass starvation - from a mere 1.5-megaton regional nuclear war. 

P7 From the 1996 Canberra Commission on the Eliination of Nuclear Weapons identified the “axiom of proliferation” “As long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will seek to acquire them.” Australian ambassador-at-large for nuclear disarmament, Richard Butler, said “The basic reason for this assertion is that justice, which most human beings interpret essentially as fairness, is demonstrably a concept of the deepest importance to people all over the world.” It is manifestly clear that attempts over the years of those who own nuclear weapons to assert their security justifying having those weapons while the security of others does not is an abject failure. 

P8 When Butler was with the UN commission in monitoring Iraq, Iraqis demanded that I explain why they should be hounded for their weapons of mass destruction when, just down the road, Israel was not, even though it was known to possess 200 nuclear weapons. I confess too that I flinch when I hear American, British, and French fulminations against weapons of mass destruction ignoring the fact that they are the proud owners of massive quantities of those weapons, unapologetically insisting that they are essential for their national security and will remains so.” “Human beings will not swallow such unfairness. This principle is as certain as the basic laws of physics itself.” “My attempts to have the Americans enter into discussions about double tankards have been an abject failure……I sometimes felt I was speaking to them in Martian, so deep is their inability to understand….that their weapons of mass destruction are just as much a problem as are those of Iraq or of Iran or North Korea.” 

President Obama in his Prague speech in 2009 said “if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable.”

The knowledge of how to make nuclear bombs will not disappear with nuclear disarmament but instead of having the ability to attack using these weapons within minutes or hours, much longer periods of time, significantly longer times, would be required. In the interim, we might have pause to negotiate our differences before destroying all of civilization. MD


Wednesday, 22 September 2021




In 1952, the Periodic Table that covered our exam questions had plutonium, atomic number 94, on it. It also had americium, curium, berkelium and californium but all these were faint, made of dots, faded as though they were ghosts of elements rather than the elements themselves.


It was exciting to know that scientists were still “discovering” new elements. They described what they were doing as “discovering”; I had no idea that they were actually manufacturing them nor that they existed for mere seconds or milliseconds. To my eight-year-old mind, their “discovery” meant that they were part of the basic building blocks of the universe. I was now primed for more elements, for more atomic “discoveries”!


In fact, uranium is the last element natural to our environment; all elements with atomic numbers greater than 92 were or would be created, would be artificial, transient, and radioactive.  


Uranium was first isolated in 1789. A German chemist, Martin Klaproth, isolated it from pitchblende ore. He named it “uran” in honour of a recently discovered seventh planet from the sun, Uranus. 


Martin had no knowledge of nuclear physics; he did not know that uranium had an atomic number of 92 for the 92 protons in its nucleus and the 92 electrons flying around it. A hundred and fifty years later when Manhattan project scientists created an element with 93 protons in its nucleus, they named it “neptunium” (Np) after the eighth planet from the sun. It was natural for them to name element number 94 “plutonium” after then-ninth-planet Pluto[1].


Planet Pluto itself was named for the god of the underworld, and of the afterlife. Pluto was also the god of wealth because gold and silver came from the ground. It was an apt name for a long-lived and entirely manufactured element that would become the sought-after explosive for atomic bombs.


Both neptunium and plutonium[i] were formed by bombarding uranium-238 with neutrons in a cyclotron. 


Scientists knew that uranium-235 was fissile bomb-making material; its disadvantage for this purpose was that nearly 50 kg were required to make an explosive device. Furthermore, natural uranium was mostly U238. Being less than 5% of natural uranium, it required time-consuming processes to be enriched to a bomb-making concentration greater than 90%. Scientists didn’t feel that they had “lots of time”. They also knew that a heavier element was theoretically possible.


Element 93, neptunium, was not fissile, but it spontaneously and quickly (two days half-life) decayed by beta emission into element 94, plutonium, which proved to be fissile. Only eleven kilograms, a 4-inch diameter sphere of plutonium-239 would be needed to make a bomb. 


The race was on to isolate it, characterize it and weaponize it. Scientists at Los Almos, New Mexico, worked with quantities so small that they could not see them. They could only trace them by following their radioactivity. The history of the “radium girls” was in their minds so they watched contamination rigorously. They worked in a highly ventilated and filtered atmosphere, submitted to “nose wipes” that were checked for radioactivity, and tried to recover every spilled atom of plutonium. 


It is clear from the records kept by Dr. Hempelmann, the medical doctor in charge of the health team, that measures to protect the staff were not taken for simple humanitarian reasons – he, Oppenheimer and another physician, Stafford Warren, were concerned about lawsuits. Studies with plutonium in rats indicated that the element was a “bone-seeker” like radium and also that it accumulated in the liver. Compared to radium, it was excreted much more slowly which meant that it stayed in the body longer. Having a longer biological half-life meant greater exposure to radioactivity.


One of their other early discoveries was the difficulty in keeping it contained. They couldn’t even see the element, but it got onto their shirt cuffs, soles of shoes, laboratory doorknobs and their own faces. 


On August 1, 1944, a chemist, Don Mastick, had an accident that illustrates the concern that the laboratory had about their plutonium samples.


Don’s equipment was miniature – his test tubes were the size of darning needles. He was working with microscopic quantities when he opened a tiny vial containing 10 mg of plutonium[2] dissolved in acid. Because gas had accumulated in the vial, it exploded onto the wall, his face and his clothing. He tasted the acid.


He immediately went to the medical clinic across the road. His face was washed and the water saved. His mouth was swished and the spittle saved. His stomach was pumped twice and the contents saved. In fact, as the only chemist working in isolation of plutonium, after these decontamination procedures, Don was given all the washings to return to the laboratory and retrieve the plutonium. All but 1 microgram (one thousandth of a milligram) was recovered. That one microgram in his body was enough to blow the ionization chamber off-scale for days after the accident with his breath and, thirty years later, still be detectable in his urine!


Plutonium is an unusual element. When pure plutonium is exposed to air it quickly forms hydrides and oxides and can expand massively to 70% more that its original volume. The flakes are pyrophoric meaning that they can spontaneously ignite. It reacted chemically in such different ways that it was easy to separate from its parent element, uranium-238.


John Gofman had isolated 1.2 milligrams of plutonium from 2 tons of uranium in a cyclotron in autumn, 1942. It took six weeks of neutron bombardment[3] and a further three weeks to chemically isolate it (at this time, every step had to be invented; they were just beginning to learn about its characteristics). In liquid form, the 1.2 mg had a volume equal to ¼ of a teaspoon.


Clearly, for bomb construction, they need a faster process. Enrico Fermi created a primitive nuclear reactor in Chicago, the Chicago Pile 1, to demonstrate that a sustained reaction could be obtained. An Oak Ridge reactor was in construction and would be functioning by November 1943 to deliver plutonium to Los Almos the following year.  


By this time, the uranium bomb had been designed as a “gun-type” device. A half sphere of uranium was “shot” using a conventional explosive into another half-sphere to create a critical mass which would explode. Scientists needed to work on a different device because the desired plutonium isotope, Pu239, was contaminated with another isotope, Pu240, which just fizzles along and interfers with the explosive quality of Pu239. 


They came up with a different device, an implosion bomb that brought the bits of plutonium forcibly together by a circle of explosive charges. Once united, they reached criticality and would explode.


They weren’t entirely sure that it would work as planned and arranged to test it. The Trinity Test was secretive, allegedly done “where there were no people or animals”. In the highly secretive wartime atmosphere, General Groves’ pre-prepared press release lied about the detonation, seen and felt up to 100 miles away like this: “A remotely located ammunition magazine containing a considerable amount of high explosives and pyrotechnics exploded.” 


Thirty miles away farm animals and cattle lost the hair on their backs – it regrew white. The army purchased these animals and allegedly took them to Los Almos and Oak Ridge to follow their health. Some researchers claim that there may have been human fetal loss of up to 52% using state statistics. It was not, in fact, an unpopulated location and many of the rural people in the area consider themselves to be the first victims of nuclear weapons.


One thousand miles away, the Eastman Kodak officials reported furiously that their unexposed film had been contaminated by radioactive particles, presumably from Wabash River water. Any delusions about limited radioactive fallout were dashed from the first atomic bomb blast.


When the Manhattan project scientists were working with it, plutonium was code-named as “the Product”. Dogs, cats, rats and rabbits were injected, forced to breath plutonium-contaminated air or fed plutonium. Those that received the largest doses sickened and died. Pregnant animals aborted or eventually delivered small or deformed babies. Large numbers of lab animals were sacrificed in numerous studies. This was not enough to establish plutonium’s toxicity.


They wanted human subjects to test “the product”. They didn’t know how quickly people could excrete it, whether through urine or feces. They knew that radioactivity caused a decline in blood cells but they didn’t know how quickly it might happen with plutonium. They explained that human experiments “were needed to see how to apply the animal data to human problems”[ii].


At this point, the story of plutonium slips into the bizarre.


While they determined that the human subjects sought needed to be suffering from incurable diseases but have close to normal kidney function in order to study excretion of plutonium in urine and feces, their first victim was a "well developed...well nourished" "colored male"[iii] who had been involved in a motor-vehicle accident. He was employed as a construction worker from the Oak Ridge site of the Manhattan project.


It is very unclear why he was chosen because he was noted to have “somewhat diminished”[iv] kidney function. Perhaps he was only a victim of opportunity. His motor-vehicle accident occurred on the Oak Ridge site. 


Ebb Cade was 55 years old. He had multiple broken bones which left untreated for three weeks in order prepare for the experiment. The bones were surgically reduced five days after the plutonium was given an opportunity to “settle” in and on them. During the surgery, physicians were able to determine that plutonium did indeed go to bones. 

Their study was badly flawed because they failed to keep the pre-injection urine and feces separate from the post-injection products


When describing the experiment in a classified talk, perhaps in an attempt to assuage his guilt, one of the researchers described Ebb as “an elderly male whose age and general health was such that there is little or no possibility that the injection can have any effect on the normal course of his life”[v]. No mention was made of his employment or of his broken bones. No mention is made of his subsequent health until his death in 1953 from “ventricular fibrillation following heart failure”[vi] at the age of 63. No consent for the experiment was ever sought and no information was given by the researchers to his wife or family.


The next patient was Arthur Hubbard, a retired businessman with an aggressive squamous cell cancer. He received 6.5 micrograms of plutonium intravenously and his urine and stool samples were collected thereafter. Arthur’s cancer was well advanced so he fit their criteria.


The third patient was Albert Stevens, a fifty-eight-year-old house painter. He was presumed to have a limited lifespan with stomach cancer. He had normal kidney function, an “ideal candidate for the experiment”. He was injected with Pu238, a more radiotoxic isotope of plutonium but more readily measured than Pu239 with the instruments of the 1940’s.


Four days after the injection, with plutonium coursing throughout his body, Albert went to surgery for removal of his “carcinomatous mass”[vii]. When the pathologist could not find any evidence of cancer, the entire team was shocked. Albert lived for another 21 years; there seems to be no comment about his general health although he had received one of the largest test doses of plutonium.


Neither Arthur nor Albert nor their families were sought for permission nor were they ever told about the experimental nature of their injections. Arthur died shortly after the injection; Albert died of heart failure at age 79.[viii]


There were a total of eighteen victims of plutonium injections. They received poor follow-up, their initial health conditions were so varied that it was impossible to establish a baseline, and of course, none of them were informed or asked to sign releases. 


Lying, obfuscation and secrecy kept the experimenters connected and established the foundation for denial of health effects of ionizing radiation. This was true for both scientists and politicians who supported research and continuing development of nuclear bombs.


There have been and will continue to be many more victims of Trinity, Hiroshima[ix] and Nagasaki.


Minute traces of plutonium are now found in every human body on earth. More than 550 atmospheric and underwater nuclear tests have been carried out and some dozen or more major nuclear accidents have contaminated the globe. 


While scientists with the Manhattan Project were unable to establish the health effects of relatively small exposures to plutonium, they certainly knew the effects of large exposures through some of the criticality accidents in their research labs. 


A critical reaction is one that is self-sustaining, a reaction that only needs “moderating” to continue, a reaction where the numbers of neutrons produced effect the further release of the same numbers of neutrons. A nuclear power plant is said to go “critical” when it is “turned on” to create the heat necessary to boil water.


A “criticality accident” occurs when an accidental uncontrolled, unmoderated chain reaction occurs. According to Wikipedia, there have been sixty criticality accidents recorded since 1945[x]


In order to determine the exact amount of plutonium required to explode, scientists experimented by bringing pieces of plutonium into close proximity to one another. They also tried various means to increase the number of neutrons released from the plutonium core by using various elements as “reflectors”. The experiments were called “tickling the dragon’s tail”. 


On two well known occasions, scientists received fatal doses of radiation when their experiments went critical. Since both men were using the same plutonium core and running trials less than a year apart, that core gained the name, “the demon core”. It was later melted down for use in other bomb tests.


Both men, Harry Daghlian and Louis Slotin, received estimated radiation doses greater than 5 Sv. Both men received the best possible medical care, specialists flown to the site hospital from across the United States. Their families were also notified and flown to their bedside knowing that they would not live. Both died painful prolonged deaths, their bodies bloating and edematous as cell walls broke apart, their minds disordered, excruciating diarrhea as the linings of their guts became part of their feces. 


Harry’s accident occurred less than three weeks after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His agonizing death took 25 days. All the scientists and highest-ranking military men could not avoid knowing that some people would die this way when bombed in an atomic war.


Louis actually moved closer to the reaction, possibly to protect the other people in the room. He died nine days later.


We heard nothing about these experiments in 1952; the information was classified.


Later, in 1958, Cecil Kelley’s death was also classified. Cecil was a chemist, a technician working in a plutonium-separation laboratory. He received an estimated 36 Seiverts exposure when a plutonium acid bath that he was mixing went critical. Since exposure to 5 Sv was considered a universally fatal dose for humans, medical staff knew that Cecil would die and considered him an “experiment of opportunity”. Repeated blood samples, catherization of his bladder and even a bone marrow biopsy of his sternum were done without permission. Every moment of his life was recorded.


The blood samples taken six hours after the accident showed that he no longer had white blood cells; a bone marrow examination produced only acellular red watery substance. He had been knocked unconscious initially, had a very brief period of lucidity before he slipped into a coma and died 35 hours later. He was autopsied and more than eight pounds of body parts and tissues were removed from his body. His wife was not informed of the accident until after his death, nor was her permission sought for either the autopsy or removal of organs. His cause of death was recorded as “congestive heart failure”.


Plutonium, like its namesake, the god of the underworld, afterlife, and wealth, was powerful. Dangerous to handle, it grabbed the hearts and minds of countless brilliant people. Even as it continues to leak poisonously into the environment, more is constantly being created. Like heroin, it has become an addiction.



[1] Pluto was demoted from planetary status to “dwarf planet” in August 2006.

[2] Plutonium is very dense. Twenty mg of plutonium occupies 1 cubic mm.


[3] Deuteron was used for bombardment. It is the nucleus of a deuterium atom, one proton and one neutron.

[i] There is argument that plutonium may have been a primordial element because infinitesimal amounts have been found in nature. The counterargument is that they are the result of natural bombardment of uranium-238 by neutrons. Neptunium is entirely of human manufacture.

[ii] Plutonium files p89, from Russell & Nickson, p2 Distribution and Excretion of Plutonium

[iv] The Plutonium Files P83

[v] Ibid, p86

[vii] “Description of Operation” June 6, 1945, Stevens m.r. Quoted in Plutonium Files P92

[ix] “Little Boy”, the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, was a uranium-235 bomb. “Fat Man” on Nagasaki was a plutonium-239 bomb.