RICHLAND – Tucked away in a metal-sided warehouse at the Richland Airport, WSU researchers sift through years, even decades, of data files and human tissue samples in an attempt to track how previous nuclear workers were affected by plutonium, uranium and other nuclear-industry related elements.
The project is called “The United States Transuranium & Uranium Registries,” (USTUR) and is operated by the WSU College of Pharmacy, with support from the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Health and Safety.
“The project is to basically increase the confidence in the regulatory system for protecting workers and also, by extension, members of the public from intakes of plutonium and assessing the hazard of intakes of different forms of plutonium (and uranium) materials at different levels” said Anthony James, USTUR former director.
The samples of tissue and body organs come from volunteer donors who worked at government sites where plutonium, uranium and other elements were processed, such as Hanford and Los Alamos.
James said the work being done in Richland is unique in the world, for the way donors are tracked with complete medical and exposure records and for the focus on protecting the identity of the donors. James said scientists from around the world use the data collected by WSU to search for any links between relatively high exposure and later diseases, like cancer.
“It’s basically providing quantitative information, no guesswork, on the lifetime consequences (if any) of substantial intakes of plutonium – from as long ago as the 1940s. Is there any real evidence that these relatively high intakes have led to a specific type of cancer in the United States’ plutonium and uranium workers most at risk,” said James.
He said this question can only be answered by studying workers known to have been (accidentally) exposed, and for whom reliable estimates of their lifetime “radiation dose” can be made.
Collecting data from tissue samples means dissolving the tissue in an acid and running it through a series of separation steps so the purified plutonium or other desired elements can be extracted and collected for measurement.
“When you measure the radio-element content of a tissue, you don’t usually need the whole tissue. You take a sample and so you can keep the bulk of the dissolved tissue, or even the frozen tissue itself, for future study. In theory, we can go back to our tissue collection and look for additional materials (such as asbestos or beryllium) that were not measured at the time the original analyses were done,” said James.
For more information visit the USTUR website.