Is it true you can hold plutonium or uranium in the palm of your hand with no ill effects?

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Mudassir Ali 9 months 1 Answer 92 views

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  1. If you’re holding a piece of uranium, you’re likely to notice little more than its great density. A piece light enough to be held easily in the palm of your hand won’t be very big.

    If you’re holding a a piece of plutonium, you’ll notice the great weight and the warmth. Leona Woods Marshall described the sensation as similar to the warmth you feel holding a rabbit. Mind you, that’s for 239Pu. A piece of the plutonium isotope used for radioisotope thermal generators (RTGS), 238Pu, gets hot enough that with some insulation, you can get it to glow red. Holding a chunk of that could get pretty unpleasant, but so is holding a hot potato.

    Both uranium and plutonium are primarily alpha emitters. The alpha particles (actually fast-moving helium nuclei) are easily stopped by your skin. There will be a small amount of gamma radiation from spontaneous fission; plutonium produces a good bit more than uranium. The levels are quite low — it would take a long time to accumulate a dangerous dose.

    Both uranium and plutonium are toxic, but you can’t absorb even trace amounts from touching metal billets. Even so, I’d prefer to wear lab gloves — there’s no point being sloppy. Getting the stuff in your system isn’t a good idea, though they’re not as deadly as reports would have you believe. There was an informal group known as the “UPPU Club” — literally, “You Pee Plutonium.” This was a group of Manhattan Project workers who had enough plutonium in their systems that there were measurable amounts in their urine. Most of this group (29 people, I think) lived considerably longer than their actuarial life expectancies. (No, that doesn’t mean plutonium is good for you — just that it’s not the fearfully deadly poison that some people would have you believe.)

    Breathing powdered oxides is another thing entirely. (You couldn’t breathe the powdered metal because it would spontaneously ignite, and form oxides.) Lung tissues are delicate, and dust emitting alpha particles will damage them rather badly. Depending on how much you inhaled, you could be looking at dying of pulmonary fibrosis in as little as a few months.

    The pieces of uranium and plutonium metals will also produce tiny amounts of radon gas as they decay. It’d take a long time to get a dangerous amount of radon, and even then you’d need a fairly stuffy room to accumulate it. You’d be at worst risk from radon in brick or cinder-block houses built in some parts of North America. Oh, and you’ll get a really, really tiny amount of radon from a lovely granite countertop — there’s a tiny bit of uranium in most granite.

    TL;DR

    I wouldn’t leave a billet of uranium or plutonium metal on my bedside table for a decoration. If someone offered me a piece of either metal to hold for a moment, I’d be happy to have had the experience. Being a fussy sort, I’d probably look for a pair of gloves, perhaps like the ones they use at sandwich shops, or wash my hands afterwards. (Who knows where those things had been? Yuck!)

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