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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Plutonium Makes the Heart Beat

Plutonium, that horrendously potent cancer-caus­ing substance, is viewed more benignly in some gov­ernmental and industrial circles. The Nuclear Regu­latory Commission is proposing to license wide-scale use of plutonium-powered heart pacemakers.

There are more than 100,000 conventional or non-nu­clear pacemakers implant­ed in Americans, and the market is growing rapidly. Companies wanting to manufacture the plutonium pacemaker are pressing the NRC for approval.

They claim their pace­maker will operate longer than conventional types and that any radiation risk to the patient or progeny is ac­ceptable.

SCIENTIFIC and medi­cal critics filing comments with the NRC disagree. They are especially critical of the NRC’s environmental impact statement as overly optimistic as to the superi­ority of this pacemaker and too neglectful of the haz­ards. Any use of plutonium, a tiny 0.2 micrograms of which has given lung can­cer to animals, must be viewed with utmost caution.

It was only two years ago that an independent panel of specialists advised the National Heart and Lung Institute against even the experimental use of an artificial heart with an im­plantable plutonium-power­ed pump.

Containing SO grams of plutonium, such an artificial heart would pose risks to bystanders as well as pa­tients. One scientist com­mented that he would not want to sit between two peo­ple with such plutonium pumps for any length of time.

The proposed pacemaker contains less of the toxic plutonium —about 5OO milli­grams of plutonium of the 238 variety, which is not weapons-grade.

BUT CRITICS, such as as Dr. Dean Abrahamson of the University of Minneso­ta, say the latest non-nu­clear pacemakers will do just as good a job without such hazardous shortcom­ings. Dr. Abrahamson cites several studies of patients with conventional pacemak­ers to rebut the NRC posi­tion that a plutonium design will save lives on the oper­ating table.

Prof. Donald Geesaman, a leading authority on plu­tonium, believes that the radiation dose to patients (particularly younger, more susceptible patients), is a cumulative exposure that is unacceptable even if the device operates without any disintegration.

The NRC’s environmen­tal impact statement did not consider the effects of production and disposal of the pacer. The Oil, Chemi­cal and Atomic Workers Union wants to know why the statements ignored the potential effects to the peo­ple who would fabricate these units.

In the commission’s benefit-risk comparison, ad­vanced conventional pacers with comparable durability and much greater clinical testing than the plutonium pacemaker were not ade­quately discussed as alter­natives. Moreover, all pacers have a common limitation in their electrodes and wires.

PROF. Karl Z. Morgan, a prominent health physicist now at the Georgia Institute of Technology, advises stronger safeguards for any future user of plutonium pacemakers than those pro­posed by the NRC.

For example, he recom­mends that patients with radioactive pacers be tat­tooed for any emergency identification. An ID card or bracelet, he feels, would be inadequate. Dr. Abra­hamson thinks younger pa­tients of child-bearing age would be well-advised not to become parents.

Should the NRC go ahead and license these pace­makers, licensing requests for other similarly powered products like plutonium-heated diving suits, plutonium-powered coffee-makers or wristwatches may not be far behind.

SEVERAL YEARS ago I heard a pro-nuclear power scientist say that citizens must be given a stake in nu­clear power if that technol­ogy were to flourish. Plutonium-powered consumer products as well as plutonium recycling for electric generating plants makes this indeed a ma­cabre vision.

For more information on these pacemakers, send a self-addressed, stamped en­velope to Health Research Group, P.O. Box 19404, Washington, D.C. 20036.