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.

From the Archives: Bombs Away: The lost bomb that, thankfully, lacks plutonium.