Plutonic Man

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By Roger Snodgrass

Ev Nienhouse is not a freak. Extraordinary, remarkable and unusual yes, but not monstrous, even though he is walking around with 1/200 of an ounce of plutonium-238 lodged in his chest.


Nienhouse returns to Los Alamos for an encore of his talk here in September on “Living with a Nuclear Powered Heart Pacemaker.” He will speak at the Bradbury Museum Thursday at 2 p.m.


When Nienhouse was 39 he had two nearly fatal cardiac arrests and was taken to the hospital in Michigan to be examined for a suspected heart attack. But  the problem turned out to be his misfiring bodily electrical system and he needed a pacemaker to keep his heart functioning properly.


“At that time, the only pacemakers were powered by nickel-cadmium batteries,” he said, “which meant that every two years the patient had to go in for general surgery to have the battery replaced. Later, lithium batteries became available that extended the period between surgeries to 10 years, not counting occasional problems with the wiring.


In an interview this week, Nienhouse explained that he has had a plutonium-powered pacemaker for 33 years, without ever having to have it serviced.


Luckily, he believes, he was the recipient of an experimental device afforded to only about 800-1,000 people worldwide, which has kept him going ever since.


Nienhouse was a professor of organic biology and forensics and a distinguished professor emeritus at Ferris State University, Michigan. He is now retired and spends half his time in Michigan and half in California.


He has been an enrichment speaker in the San Diego area and with the Holland American Line.


In his talk he’ll reflect the brief window of opportunity that enabled him to enjoy the life-long benefits of his implant, how the plutonium battery technology grew out of the Manhattan Project and the space program and how the window closed.


How close can one get to the speaker?


Not to worry, said Nienhouse. “Plutonium-238 is only an alpha emitter and alpha rays can be stopped with a piece of tinfoil.” His source is inside a platinum-titanium container about the size of can of tuna fish.


Many questions come to mind. With what is probably the longest lasting nuclear implant of its kind, Nienhouse has some very interesting answers for Atomic City residents, one of whom will be responsible for removing and disposing of the smidge of plutonium when it must be retired.