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July 19, 1976

The Plutonium Controversy

Author Affiliations

From the Division of Medical Physics, University of California, Berkeley.

JAMA. 1976;236(3):284-286. doi:10.1001/jama.1976.03270030038026

IF THE world chooses to seek a solution to the energy dilemma through nuclear energy, the element plutonium will become an article of commerce to be handled in quantities of thousands of tonnes annually. Plutonium is a uniquely potent inhalation carcinogen, the potential induction of lung cancer dwarfing other possible toxic effects. For reasons to be presented here, it is my opinion that plutonium's carcinogenicity has been very seriously underestimated. If one couples the corrected carcinogenicity with the probable degree of industrial containment of the plutonium, it appears that the commercialization of a plutonium-based energy economy is not an acceptable option for society.

Sagan's statement1 that "the experience of 30 years supports the contention that plutonium can be used safely" is manifestly indefensible. No meaningful epidemiological study of plutonium-exposed workers for that 30-year period has ever been done. Since thousands of those possibly exposed have left the industry and are