From the onset of World War II until 1998, nations around the world conducted nuclear tests in a variety of environments. The superpowers of the United States and the former Soviet Union also used nuclear power sources to fuel satellites that orbited Earth. On this day in 1964, the United States was implicated in what was a costly error of losing about $1 million worth of plutonium, a radioactive chemical element, over Africa’s skies in the atmosphere.
As noted by an article from the Smithsonian, atmospheric tests conducted in the 1950s and beyond left radioactive debris in the atmosphere in the form of small particles called “aerosols.” Routinely, satellites would fail or give way and unleash the potentially deadly plutonium in to the atmosphere as the payload would crash in random areas around the globe.
The SNAP-9A satellite was a U.S. satellite that was powered by 2.2 pounds of plutonium inside a battery. The SNAP program was a joint project between the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and NASA, launching spacecrafts in to orbit powered in this fashion. By way of human error, the SNAP 9-A satellite burned up in the atmosphere over Africa causing concern at the time.
As the New York Times wrote in 1964:
Because someone forgot to throw a switch, the Atomic Energy Commission has lost $1 million worth of lethal plutonium somewhere in space near Africa. The loss was at first concealed but it now has become a source of public embarrassment and concern to the commission. The exact fate of the radioactive material is not known. The commission hopes that it is floating safely in the upper atmosphere. The 2.2 pounds of plutonium 238 were contained in a small atomic battery that was supposed to power a transit navigational satellite. Because of rocket failure, however, the satellite did not go in to orbit, and the payload came down in‐to the atmosphere off the east coast of Africa. This occurred in April.
The Atomic Energy Commission tried to gloss over the situation, but the plutonium hung in the air at 120,000 feet for months.
At the time, scientists believed that the plutonium particles would eventually behave like nuclear fallout, dispersing itself around the globe as it circulated.
As noted in the earlier referenced Smithsonian article, scientists today say that the plutonium is no danger to humans now as the radiation would be far too significant. Still, measurable amounts of the element have been found in volcanic eruptions as recently as in 2010, which highlights there could be more exposure than originally thought.
Exposure to plutonium can have disastrous effects if absorbed internally. Plutonium that makes its way in to food or water sources cannot be digested by the stomach so it passes through bodily waste. Plutonium particles, however, can remain in the lungs for years and lodge themselves in phlegm and be cast out in that fashion; however, the lungs and other organs may absorb the plutonium, which then passes through the body, affecting the bones and liver and exposing them and surrounding tissues to ongoing radiation, increasing one’s cancer risks. Plutonium has very little effect on skin or external features, though.