The Odd Depths of Preserving Plutonium

Donald F. Mastick

Project Alberta
Born Sep 1 1920
Manhattan Project Veteran, Military Veteran, 509th Composite Group, Postwar Nuclear Program, Pacific Nuclear Tests, Project Alberta, Scientist
Donald F Mastick


The Odd Depths of Preserving Plutonium

Plutonium is a silvery-white chemical element that you can probably go your whole life without encouraging in a meaningful way. It's used in some medical equipment, in some satellites, and in bomb-making capacities, but it's both too rare and too dangerous to be used more generally. Inhaling it can be particularly dangerous, as it can remain in your body for decades, leeching radiation. But more importantly for our purposes today, there simply isn't a lot of it out there. If you wanted to buy some -- provided you had the okay from the relevant regulatory agencies -- it would cost you about $4,000 per gram, or about $1.8 million per pound.

And that's by today's standards. Plutonium wasn't discovered until the 1940s and in those early years, every microgram was invaluable. With a world war raging, when it came to plutonium, research into its viability as a weapon took precedent. And when things went wrong, recovery became paramount.

Just ask Donald Mastick.

In 1942, just weeks before his 22nd birthday, Mastick graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in chemistry. He began his professional career studying radioactive chemicals and soon drew the attention of Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the Los Alamos Laboratory -- home to the Manhattan Project. Mastick joined the Los Alamos team and was immediately assigned to study plutonium.

That was easier said than done, though. Los Alamos had a large percentage of the world's plutonium at the time, but in absolute amounts, it had barely any at all; Mastick and his lab partner, a chemist named Arthur Wahl, were only given a vial containing 10 milligrams of the element. Using microscopes and really small instruments, they got to work. At one point, the pair decided to dissolve the plutonium in acid and see what happens.

The next day, they found out. Mastick returned to the lab to find that the mixture was bubbling, glowing, and even seeping into the glass bottle containing their concoction. The pressure building in the bottom ultimately became too much for the container to handle, and it exploded. The plutonium mix spread across the room, with some flying into Mastick's mouth. He had just become the first person, as far as anyone knew, to ingest plutonium. 

He immediately sought medical attention. As this was the first time something like this had happened, it wasn't entirely clear what the best route forward was, but Los Alamos' chief medical officer, Louis Hempelmann, did what he could. In consultation with some others, Hempelmann quickly developed a series of mouthwashes for Mastick to use and, effectively, spit out as much as he could. But fearing that Mastick had also swallowed a large amount of plutonium (again, relatively speaking; even a few micrograms is a "large amount" in this context), So he pumped Mastick's stomach and dumped it into a beaker.

And that's where the real work began. Mastick, still recovering from the incident and treatment (and likely anxious because, you know, he just swallowed a mysterious and new radioactive element), had to do a different type of recovering -- he had to recover the lost plutonium. The New York Times explains:

Hempelmann gave the young chemist a couple of breakfast waffles for his empty stomach and some Sippy alkaline powders to be taken during the day. Then he turned and handed him the four-liter beaker of murky liquid.

Go, he said, retrieve the plutonium.

Mastick returned to his lab with the beaker and opened his textbooks. It took a "little rapid-fire research," as he put it, to figure out how to separate the plutonium from the organic matter. But he didn't flinch from the task, despite the ordeal he had just been through. "Since I was the plutonium chemist at that point, I was the logical choice to recover it." 

Mastick waded through his own stomach contents and, ultimately, was able to save about 60 nonograms of the lost plutonium, a meaningful amount from an experimental point of view. And as for stuff still in his body, it didn't seem to have a significant adverse impact on his health. While the researchers didn't know this year, "plutonium swallowed with food or water is poorly absorbed from the stomach, so most of it leaves the body in the feces," per the EPA. That's effectively what happened to Mastick; per the Times, his "urine contained detectable plutonium for many years," and decades later, "in one of several interviews Mastick said that he was undoubtedly still excreting 'a few atoms' of plutonium but had suffered no ill effects."

Bonus fact: Mastick's dive into his own stomach isn't the only story of post-accident plutonium recovery in World War II. English chemist Alfred Maddock was working with a 10mg sample in Canada at the time and accidentally spilled it on his workbench, and the plutonium quickly seemed in between the wood grains. But as Chris Maher of the UK's National Nuclear Laboratory explains, Maddock had a solution: fire. Maddock sawed off the exposed area of the work surface and burned the wood to ash. He was then able to recover 9.5mg of the plutonium from the pile of ash, but as Maher jokes, didn't have time to fix the table.

The Mighty Amazon River

Map of Amazon River crossing - Brazil to Ecuador via Peru
Map of Amazon River crossing – Brazil to Ecuador via Peru

Today's selection -- from River of Darkness by Buddy Levy. The 16th-century explorer Francisco Orellana accomplished one of the greatest feats in the history of explorers when he navigated the entire length of the world's longest river, the Amazon. He encountered tribes both hostile and friendly, including the massive tribes under the rule of Aparia the Great:

"Francisco Orellana had reached the confluence of the Napa and the Maranan, the origin of the Amazon River proper. Though he certainly could not know it at the time, Orellana and his crew were the first Europeans to experience the world's largest river. The Spaniards grew awed by the stupefying scope and scale of the river, a grander and more inspiring body of fresh water than any of them had ever encountered, or ever would again. 'It was so wide from bank to bank,' they recounted, 'that it seemed as though we were navigating launched out upon a vast sea.'

"Indeed, the Amazon River is so immense that superlatives fall short of doing it justice. More than 4,500 miles long, the Amazon discharges one-fifth of all the freshwater that flows into the earth's oceans, about sixty times the amount contributed by the Nile, its closest rival in size. Snaking across an entire continent in a languid west-to-east flow, the immense river drainage is fed by some five hundred tributaries, a number of which themselves, were they located anywhere else in the world, would be the largest river on their continent. In places the Amazon sprawls a remarkable fifty miles wide; it can vary in depth with floodwaters or tides by as much as fifty feet; and, near its terminus at the Atlantic, it contains an island the size of Switzerland.

"Orellana and his men saw trees many times the size of the San Pedro twisting violently in the river's whorls, and they knew they must stay always on alert to avoid being struck and wrecked. Here, too, they encountered floating islands, some more than a mile wide, great rafts of moving meadows, wondrous and bewildering to behold. The banks of the river teemed with wildlife that they viewed fleetingly as they sailed on: brown capybaras, giant rodents up to four feet in length, that dived from the banks into the muddy water to escape predators, and huge tapirs -- hoofed animals related to rhinoceroses and horses -- with their short, bristling neck hair and downward-curving snouts, that wallowed through the mucky hog lands, disappearing into the marsh as the expe­dition came near. Numerous felines, black-spotted jaguars, pumas, ocelots, and margays, lurked in the shadowy forests along the river as well, their predatory eyes luminous in the moonglow at night.

"The Spaniards encountered more villages, learning from their chiefs that they were now in the outer realm of a powerful overlord called Aparia the Great. Orellana and his men paused in one of these villages, but marauding mosquito swarms literally drove them away and they packed up and sought refuge farther downstream. They pulled ashore and rested for a few days, where Indians 'came with peaceful intent to bring us large quantities of food.' 

"On Sunday, February 26, rested and reasonably fed, Orellana started off again, coming soon to a large, two-forked channel in the river. Almost immediately they saw four or five canoes approaching them from below, paddling hard upriver. The Spaniards readied for possible confronta­tion, though up to now the Indians of the region had not been warlike. As the canoes drew closer, Orellana could see, to his continuing good fortune, that these craft were laden with foodstuffs, and as they came alongside, the Indians spoke to Orellana, who, after a bit of trial and error, began to converse back, and they exchanged introductory pleas­antries. Friar Carvajal once again marveled at Orellana's gift for lan­guage, saying, 'The Indians remained very happy to see the kind treatment that was being extended to them and to see that the Captain understood their tongue, a fact which was of no little consequence with our getting to a haven of clear understanding.'

"Orellana produced a few gifts for these men, who he learned were prominent lords under vassalage to Aparia the Great. In exchange for Orellana's trinkets, the lords proffered delectable foods, including 'many partridges like those of our Spain, save that they are larger, and many turtles, which are as large as leather shields, and fish also of vari­ous kinds.' This convivial exchange completed, the Indians offered to guide Orellana and his men downstream to the main village where Aparia the Great resided, and Orellana agreed, following the canoes down one of the channels in the river.

"A few of the Indian canoes sped off, vanishing downriver, and as Orellana rounded a curve he saw a large settlement, and only minutes later witnessed an alarming sight: 'It was not long before we saw many Indians come out of the aforesaid village and get into their canoes, in the attitude of warriors, and it looked as if they were getting ready to attack us.' Orellana felt certain that he had fallen into a trap.

"Quickly barking out commands to his men, Orellana ordered the crossbowmen and harquebusiers to ready their weapons, and the rest of the soldiers brandished their blades. Orellana directed the oarsmen of the San Pedro and the Spaniards in canoes to row at full strength for shore above the village, and in minutes they were storming the banks. 'The Captain leaped out on land all armed, and after him all the others, and at this the Indians became quite frightened.' The Spaniards stood their ground, defiant and at arms, while the Indians pooled in their canoes in the shallow bank waters, in a tense standoff.

"At length Orellana called out for some of the Indians to come ashore, waving to them. A few did so, and Orellana spoke calmly to them, assur­ing them that they need not fear harm, that he and his men came with peaceful intentions. The Indians apparently comprehended Orellana's message, for they conveyed it to the many canoes that remained waiting there on the water, and moments later they began coming ashore, including, to Orellana's amazement, Aparia the Great himself:

The overlord leapt out on land, and with him many important personages and overlords who accompanied him, and he asked permission to the Captain to sit down, and so he seated himself, and all his followers remained standing, and he ordered to be brought from his canoes a great quantity of foodstuffs, not only turtles, but also manatees and other fish, and roasted partridges and cats and monkeys.

"The stalemate had merely been a misunderstanding. The people of Aparia (as the Spaniards called the village -- which lay just below present-day Iquitos, Peru) had come to welcome, not fight, the Spaniards. Orellana thanked Aparia the Great for the food, and he took the formal opportunity to launch into his requerimiento speech, his fri­ars at his side, adding that the Christians 'worshipped a single God, who was the creator of all created things, and not like them who walked in the paths of error worshiping stones.' Orellana explained that he and his companions were servants of a great emperor and master, who com­manded the Christians and, in fact, 'to whom belonged the territory of all the Indies and many other dominions and kingdoms existing throughout the world.'"

River of Darkness
author: Buddy Levy  
title: River of Darkness  


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