The Time Scientists Nearly Caused A Nuclear Catastrophe for the ‘Gram

A picture is not worth a thousand lives
The Time Scientists Nearly Caused A Nuclear Catastrophe for the ‘Gram

Its been a long time since humans have been able to claim ignorance to the dangers of radiation. The days of Marie Curie slopping a bunch of uranium all over her workstation without a care in the world are over. Weve had plenty of evidence now through catastrophes both inadvertent and very, very advertent on the damage that nuclear radiation can do. One place thats even more familiar with those advertent catastrophes is Los Alamos, New Mexico, most recently heavily featured in the film Oppenheimer.

Which is to say, youd hope that safety is paramount in modern nuclear facilities, given that a workplace accident there doesnt just break the fryer at Wendys, but could be world-altering. 

Unfortunately, Im here to tell you things might be a bit more slipshod than ideal over there, even within the last 10 years. One specific example came and went with remarkably little fanfare, probably because they didnt want everyone to know just how fast and loose safety standards had gotten at the home of Fat Man and Little Boy.

For example, if I saw even one rod of plutonium outside of at least a couple layers of thick material, Id be uncomfortable. Seeing a couple of them sitting together on a table, and I would definitely at the very least wonder, “Is this allowed?” The answer is obviously “no.” Having too much plutonium close together is, indeed, what scientists call a “dogshit idea.” That proximity can cause the plutonium to go critical and release a burst of radiation, which might be the only “burst” thats worse to get hit by than a burst of machine gun fire, since at least the machine gun fire will make it quick.

U.S. Department of Energy

Ever seen this many plutonium rods this close together? Turns out no one should!

Regardless, Science magazine, in a piece about widespread safety concerns over U.S. nuclear facilities (lovely) covered a tale from that same Los Alamos National Laboratory that would have OSHA clutching their chest. A bunch of technicians decided to prop up eight plutonium rods right next to each other for a photograph. Luckily, no big blue radioactive flashes ensued, and the rods were moved apart when the supervisor got back from their lunch break. Which, yeah, I guess I can understand why youre not supposed to eat at your desk at a nuclear lab, but come on.

The hits just kept coming, however. It then turned out that “moving them back apart” isnt step one in the “plutonium about to go critical” emergency plan, and there should have been an evacuation. This is because body parts in close proximity increases the chance of a nuclear chain reaction even further. Instead — and this is something anyone in a profit-focused workplace will be familiar with — they told people to just keep working. 

Just in case you think Im a fearmongering idiot (HEY! Ive never fearmongered!) and this wasnt as big of a deal as Im making it out to be, know that the lab itself described it as the most dangerous nuclear-related incident in years.

Nuclear catastrophe for clout, I guess.

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