Archive for the ‘Radioactive Collectibles’ Category

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Herb Anderson’s “Live Block” of the Chicago Pile

June 4, 2016

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They don’t give out spent nuclear fuel as a memento anymore.  But on the tenth anniversary of the first nuclear reactor (the Chicago Pile) going critical, pile physicist Herbert L. Anderson was presented with this handsome “live block” of graphite and uranium metal fuel, piping hot and right out of the reactor core.  With an estimated two millicuries of Cs-137 then distinguishing it from the natural uranium whence it was made, the unique artifact spent the next sixty years as part of Anderson’s home decor, a reminder of his pivotal role in one of the 20th century’s greatest triumphs in physics.  Herb’s wife Betsy kindly gave it to me in 2014 with the hope that new understanding and appreciation would follow.

Now, having had nearly two years to get to know this artifact, I can share some preliminary findings about it–and a few lingering questions as well.  I am grateful for ongoing partnerships with the University of Missouri and the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences that are bringing new details to light about its metallurgy and history, and I am grateful for past assistance from the University of New Mexico here in Albuquerque.  I am actively searching for ways to bring this piece of the first reactor to an appreciative public audience.  So, dear reader, if you have suggestions or information that will help with either the technical understanding of the artifact, or its accommodation in a museum for the upcoming 75th anniversary of the Manhattan Project, please get in touch.

Part I: Basic physical description

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This is a “live block” (meaning a piece of graphite with nuclear fuel installed in it), distinguished from the “dead blocks” of pure graphite that were interspersed or used as reflectors in the Chicago Pile.  Several museums possess “dead blocks”; to my knowledge, these include the American Museum of Science and Energy (Oak Ridge), the Bradbury Science Museum (Los Alamos), the National Atomic Testing Museum (Las Vegas), and the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (Albuquerque).  My friend Kelly Michaels has an excellent photo set of these artifacts.  Pieces of Chicago Pile fuel also survive independently;  most notably, this piece once belonging to Alvin Weinberg.  However, the Herb Anderson “live block” is unique, to my knowledge, in that it contains fuel and moderator together.  The block’s measured dimensions, including fuel dimensions and those of the decorative housing, are available in a SolidWorks model to interested parties (please contact me).

The “T01” lot stamp appearing on the right face of the graphite block indicates that the graphite is AGOT made by the National Carbon Company, one of at least six types of graphite used to build the Pile.  AGOT had the lowest neutron absorption of all of these types, so was preferred for the pile’s core region.  About 2/3 of the CP-1 pile consisted of AGOT.  This grade of nuclear graphite went on to be used in the Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge and the plutonium production reactors at Hanford.

The fuel is unclad uranium metal in cylindrical elements that bear identifying stamp marks on the front faces.  When I replaced the original cracked acrylic housing around the artifact, I was able to weigh the fuel elements directly.  The left element weighed 2.564 kg, and the right one, 2.553 kg.  The left element stamp reads “M230/L101/P2” while the right one reads “M170/L79/P1”.  The significance of these marks remains unknown to me.  I believe that if someone is able to assist in their interpretation, we might learn which of the three recorded contributing manufacturers of U metal produced this fuel.  It should be noted that metal fuel was a small minority of the Chicago Pile fuel, amounting to just 5.4 metric tons; the vast majority of the fuel was pressed-oxide “pseudosphere” elements.  Metal was made variously by Westinghouse, Metal Hydrides Corp., or the Ames Process.

Another question raised by this artifact is that it contains cylindrical metal fuel placed into chamfered recesses in the graphite designed for receiving “pseudosphere” oxide fuel.  As such, the cylinders cannot remain centered or upright in the recesses without the assistance of some acrylic supports that may be seen in the x-ray image.  I am quite sure that acrylic was not part of the original pile construction!  One is tempted to question, then, whether this fuel-and-stringer combination is original.  It could be that most graphite live blocks were machined for pseudosphere fuel, but when metal became available, the pseudosphere live blocks were used anyway (perhaps with graphite inserts serving the mechanical function of the acrylic supports, which begs the question of why the artifact contains acrylic instead; or perhaps without any supports, the fuel cylinders simply being dropped awkwardly into the recesses).  A lack of detailed photos from the construction of CP-1 makes the question hard to answer.

Part II: Gamma spectrometric estimate of fuel burnup

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Mentioned earlier is the fact that this fuel contains cesium-137.  In fact, the external radiation signatures are dominated by this long-lived fission product.  Without a doubt, then, the fuel has been significantly exposed to reactor operation.  By comparing count rates in the Pa-234m gamma peaks to that in the Cs-137 peak at 662 keV, we can determine the quantity of Cs-137 remaining in the fuel under the assumption that the Pa-234m is in equilibrium with its U-238 parent.  This will motivate the estimation of fuel burnup range under various assumptions about the artifact’s history.  I performed the requisite experiments with my PGT germanium detector and obtained the spectrum shown above, leading to an estimated activity of 540 microcuries of Cs-137 distributed throughout the total fuel at the time of measurement.  Here are a few historical scenarios and the fuel burnup roughly corresponding to them:

  • The fuel operates in CP-1 only (December 1942-February 1943):  163 kWd/MTU
  • The fuel operates in CP-1 and its reconstruction in the Red Gate Woods (CP-2), and is removed from the operating reactor before being presented to Herb Anderson in November 1952 at the Tenth Anniversary celebration in Chicago: 132 kWd/MTU
  • The fuel was removed from the pile (CP-2) when it was decommissioned in 1954, and somehow was then integrated into the artifact: 127 kWd/MTU

There are challenges with all three potential histories.  The first is very unrealistic, given the known operating conditions of CP-1 in the brief months it was in use.  Intermittently critical, with a peak power of ~200 W achieved on one day only, the burnup in the fuel attested by these calculations is many thousands of times greater than what is possible according to the conventional history of that Pile.  The second scenario is supported by both the burnup calculation (even though I am aware of no formal operating records from CP-2) and the description given by Mrs. Anderson of how Herb got the item, but it leads to two big puzzles, firstly concerning how the fuel was removed from the reactor while the reactor was still in service, as the pile was not designed to be easily disassembled in the CP-2 instantiation; and secondly concerning the high activity levels of the discharged fuel when it must have been released from government custody to Anderson.  The third explanation avoids the issue of taking apart the reactor just to obtain a souvenir as the reactor was disassembled during decommissioning; however, it is historically inconsistent with the story told by Mrs. Anderson.  So what this gamma spectrometry measurement allows us to say with certainty is that the fuel was used in CP-2 (as well as the original pile, presumably).  Beyond that, plenty of thought-provoking questions remain.

Part III: Neutron multiplication properties

It would seem there is no greater aspiration for a piece of the world’s first nuclear reactor than to return, momentarily, to the task originally undertaken with so much fanfare: multiplying neutrons in fission chain reactions.  These three photos above show some multichannel-scaling apparatus to look at fission in the CP-1 block (set up in my kitchen, because this is a “cooking” project of sorts).  We are going to examine the time correlation between neutron counts in a bank of two He-3 proportional counters next to our specimen.  Both counter tubes and the specimen are reflected by polyethylene blocks to trap neutrons in the system as best we can.  Highly-correlated counts point to fission “chains”, in which a fission event causatively leads to successive ones on a time scale controlled by the neutron transport properties of the specimen and surroundings.  I’ll measure correlation by way of excess variance, or the Feynman Y-statistic: the difference between the measured variance-to-mean ratio of counts accumulated in a certain time window interval and unity (which corresponds to idealized, uncorrelated, Poisson-distributed counts).  We’ll look at the CP-1 live block by itself and with a small additional neutron source present.  We will also look at the neutron source alone, a lead brick, and the empty polyethylene cavity.  Results and commentary below.

So what the fuck does this mean?  Firstly, the CP-1 block by itself produces strongly time-correlated neutrons (purple data) on a measurement scale of about a millisecond or greater, while the little homemade AmBe neutron source is pretty much stochastic (red data).  (Note, though, that the AmBe source is about five times stronger a neutron source than the block.)  Putting the block in with the AmBe source slightly reduces the neutron count (~12%) versus the source alone, but produces excess correlation of nearly 30% of the block by itself, indicating the presence of induced fission.  The high correlation in the block itself may be attributed to spontaneous fission (SF) as a minor decay mode of U-238, as well as a smaller contribution of spallation and fission induced by secondary cosmic rays.  These neutron sources each produce a burst of neutrons, and are also closely coupled to successive induced fissions.  The AmBe source, by contrast, is driven by radioactive decay: alpha particles slam into beryllium.  Notice the curvature of the data in all cases: it rises as we lengthen the counting window.  That is to say, there is more neutron correlation as the window gets longer.  Neutrons take their time moving through materials, scattering, slowing down, and finally reaching the detector, and neutrons produced in coincidence will not register as such unless the window is long enough to account for their random meanderings through material.  Finally, just to illustrate fission and other fission-like reactions in something other than uranium, I put a 20-pound lead brick in the counter.  Now you may believe that lead is not a fissionable material, but under the right conditions–such as when a 500-MeV electron in the secondary cosmic ray spectrum hits it–the lead nucleus can split up by fission or by a somewhat similar process called spallation, cooking off a distribution of neutrons.  And that is why we see highly-correlated neutrons (green data) being emitted by lead.  Again note the upper right graph, though: lead is a very weak source of neutrons even though the ones that are emitted are highly time-correlated.

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Gamma Analysis of Chagan “Atomsite”

August 19, 2012

Lake Chagan (“Atomic Lake”) was formed in 1965 following a thermonuclear cratering explosion on the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan.  More photos from my recent trip to the site are here.  Merely visiting the site does not answer some of the most interesting questions about its current state, such as the isotopic origin of the significant (1-2 mR/hr) gamma radiation.

I decided to take a more scientific look at the gamma rays emitted from Chagan’s fused rock—the glassy, vesiculated slag (“atomsite” or “kharitonchiki”) that covers the ground near the shore of the lake.  A grab sample was acquired, and transported home by means other than my own return flight from Almaty (this airport’s departure lounge is guarded by a notoriously-sensitive portal scintillator made by Aspect).  I filled a 3-ounce plastic jar with the material for counting.

My method of analyzing this unique “soil sample” is HPGe gamma-ray spectrometry.  I followed the same approach discussed in my earlier analysis of Japanese soils, involving comparison of the test specimen with an identically-shaped Cs-137 sand standard.  My germanium detector is operated via a homebrew LabVIEW program built around Mark Rivers’ EPICS interface for the Canberra 556 AIM MCA and Carsten Winkler’s CA Lab; I subsequently analyze the spectra (peak fitting, background subtraction, energy calibration) with FitzPeaks.  In this experiment I collected an 8000-second count of the slag sample and a 2000-second count of the Cs-137 sand standard.  An appropriate long-duration background was subtracted from each.  The quantitative calculation of activities relies on a single major line from each nuclide, chosen (to the extent possible) to be close to 662 keV.  Corrections for detector energy response were made by calibrating the energy-dependent photopeak efficiency in FitzPeaks to a point Ra-226 source, covering the range of roughly 200-1600 keV with a power-law model.  Corrections for material attenuation, including density variations from the standard, are NOT made from a calibration but are calculated based on an exponential attenuation model that assumes the sample has the elemental composition of concrete.  It’s probably not a bad comparison, and typically results in a correction of under 20%.  However, I expect better accuracy in the quantitative analysis for peaks that are closer to 662 keV.  Finally, no corrections are made for count losses to coincidence summing.  An Excel spreadsheet of this data and analysis may be downloaded here.

Referring to the 0-1600 keV gamma spectrum below, the first major observation is that most of the lines belong to europium isotopes, Eu-154 and Eu-152.  These isotopes were produced when neutrons from the “device” were captured by the ~1ppm naturally-abundant Eu-153 and Eu-151, respectively, which have remarkably high capture cross-sections.  These activation products are also long-lived enough to persist in significant quantity to the present day.  The other major long-lived gamma-emitting activation nuclide is Co-60.  Some of this cobalt could be from metal in the bomb’s well casing, but it could also be from activation of crustal mineralization.  The remaining major activity, Cs-137, is a product of fission in the bomb’s fissionable components.

Gamma spectrum of Lake Chagan atomsite

If we examine the smaller peaks in detail (click on below thumbnails), long-lived isotopes of holmium (Ho-166m), silver (Ag-108m), and barium (Ba-133) are in evidence.  Am-241 is present at a low concentration; on the basis of its 59-keV gamma line I cannot confidently estimate its concentration using the Cs-137 reference source technique.  Am-241 is the daughter of Pu-241 produced by neutron capture on plutonium in the bomb, and thus is a reliable proxy for the presence of plutonium in the sample.  The gamma radiations from plutonium itself are too weak and swamped by the spectrum’s low-energy continuum to be observed.

The chart below presents the results of the quantitative analysis.  Gamma-emitting radionuclide activity in “Chaganite” exceeds 375 Bq / g, with Eu-152 being the most concentrated.

Nuclide concentrations, July 30 2012

Chaganite versus Trinitite: when the activities are normalized to their initial values at the time of the respective explosions (1965 and 1945), a direct comparison can be made that illustrates just how much more radioactive the Chagan slag is (see beow).  The data for Trinitite is taken from Pittauerova, Kolb, et al., “Radioactivity in Trinitite: a review and new measurements,” Proc. 3rd Eur. IRPA Conference, Helsinki, 14-16 June 2010.

Comparison of “Chaganite” with Trinitite

The Chagan slag contained almost an order of magnitude more Cs-137 at the time of formation, but it is the rather staggering ratios of the activation nuclides that surprises me the most: 400 times as much Eu-154 in Chaganite versus Trinitite.  70 times as much Eu-152.  And 370 times as much Co-60.  Why?  One fairly obvious explanation is found in the facts that Chagan was a more powerful bomb, detonated in closer proximity to the crustal rock that its neutrons activated since it was underground.  Some further considerations may also be relevant.  According to Carey Sublette’s Nuclear Weapons Archive, Chagan “was reported to be a low-fission design, which had a pure thermonuclear secondary driven by a fission primary with a yield of about 5-7 kt.”  In contrast, the Trinity bomb was a pure fission core surrounded by a uranium tamper.  Thus, escaping neutrons with a hard DT fusion spectrum probably carried a significantly higher fraction of Chagan’s energy yield relative to Trinity’s.

There is not a statistically-different concentration of Ba-133 between the two slags.  I think most of Trinity’s Ba-133 came from the bomb’s explosives, while Chagan’s probably came from crustal concentrations of barium.

Finally, if the Trinity bomb had a fission yield more than three times larger than Chagan, why is the latter’s concentration of Cs-137 higher?  The best reason I can suggest is Chagan’s better underground containment of volatile fission products.  In a surface explosion, volatile Cs and its beta-decaying precursors exist as gases for a long time, enabling atmospheric dispersal.  In an underground explosion, volatiles are condensed rapidly near where they were formed.

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U.S. Radium, Then and Now

May 14, 2012

Many people know the tragic story of the “radium girls,” the luminous-dial painters of the flapper era who tipped their paintbrushes in their mouths, became sickened from internal radiation exposure, and had to fight for workers’ compensation as they died.  Although a large number of radium paint factories existed, one in particular is identified with this infamous episode: the United States Radium Corporation, sited on two acres at the southwest corner of High and Alden Streets in Orange, New Jersey.  This factory was built in 1917 for the combined purposes of radium extraction, purification, and paint application.  Two original buildings—including the paint application building—remained standing until the US EPA had them torn down as part of a Superfund remediation project in 1998.  Today, the site is a barren, fenced-in, field with no hint of radioactivity betraying its former capacity.  In this post I’ll share a few photos from my trip this month, from the Library of Congress’s archive of the recent past, and even one from the plant’s heyday.  I’ll share some quotes about the technical operation of this facility, and a pic of my samples of its product, Undark.

The former U.S. Radium site viewed from the southeast corner in 2012. A railroad track once paralleling the confined Wigwam Brook brought 100-lb sacks of carnotite from Paradox Valley, CO, as well as soda ash, to a siding here. Radium was extracted in a long-since-demolished building at this corner of the property before going to the crystallization lab and ultimately the paint shop on site.  Hydrochloric acid, the main extractive lixiviant, was stored in a tank on the opposite side of the property.

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Paint Application Building, exterior: About 300 dial painters, virtually all of them young women, came to work here between the years of 1917 and 1926.

South-easterly view of U.S. Radium’s paint application building from Alden Street, mid-1990s (public-domain photo from the Library of Congress). Grace Fryer and her dial-painting cohort probably ingested their fatal doses of radium on the second floor of this building.

A similar view today (2012): all that’s here now is an empty field behind a fence. A scintillation counter measures nothing above background levels of gamma radiation.

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Paint Application Building, interior: “Dial painting areas had four parallel rows of work benches, aligned with the building’s longer axis.  Both floors included large wooden, double-hung, triple windows, and at least one section of the upper floor appears to have skylights.”

Second floor of the Paint Application Building, interior view to the southeast in this 1922 photo belonging to Argonne National Laboratory. Note the open skylights.

The same room, late 1990s, Library of Congress photo. The skylights have been filled in, but their recesses and original plumbing are still visible.  The floor has been replaced.

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Crystallization Laboratory: From the element’s discovery well into the 1950s, the only practical chemical technique for separating radium from barium was arduous multi-stage fractional crystallization.  U.S. Radium used a chloride and bromide system, as described by Florence Wall, plant chemist: “…in the crystallization laboratory, large quantities of radium chloride solution from the plant progressed in stages from silica tubs, three feet in diameter and about a foot deep, into smaller evaporating dishes until, after conversion, the product appeared as a few crystals of radium bromide in a tiny dish, 1/2 inch in diameter.” 

The one-story crystallization lab as it looked from the northwest, in this mid-1990s Library of Congress photo. Behind it is the Paint Application Building.

In 2012, the grass covers all. (The same house can be seen in the background in both images.)

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The Product: U.S. Radium named its radioluminous paint Undark.  An article that was painted with this product was said to be “Undarked.” The formula of Undark varied with application and was a trade secret.  At the time of the “Radium Girls” poisoning, a single employee named Isabel manufactured a zinc sulfide base activated with trace quantities of cadmium, copper, and manganese.  Another employee, originally company founder S. A. von Sochocky, added a measured amount of radium to the base and fixed it in its insoluble sulfate form: “[D]epending upon the type of work the material is to be used for the element of radium varied from one part of radium element to 140,000 parts of the base—zinc sulphide, to one part of radium element to 53,000 parts of the base [about 20 microcuries per gram].  The radium element when added to the zinc sulphide […] is in an aqua solution.  When that is added to the zinc sulfide which is in the form of a dry powder, it becomes like a paste.  The radium element when mixed with the sulphide powder is soluble.  In order to make certain that it will become insoluble and also that it will be equally distributed in the paste and also to prevent the radium element from being dissolved later when water is applied to it, I converted the radium into radium sulphate which is insoluble by adding amount of ammonium sulphate also in an aqua solution.” 

Undark, dated 1940, made to Army Specification 3-99D, packaged in 1g vials. Each produces a gamma exposure rate of about 40 mR / hour on contact, broadly consistent with about 20 microcuries of Ra-226 activity per gram.

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The Waste: Anything that was not radium—i.e. the vast majority of the ore that entered the plant—was waste and had to find a new home!  This included the uranium content of the ore; preceding the discovery of fission, uranium was effectively worthless.  One common application for U.S. Radium tailings was infill for construction projects in nearby Glen Ridge, Montclair, and Orange.  Contaminated fill was identified, dug up, and replaced throughout the 1990s.

Carteret Park (e.g. Barrows Field), located in Glen Ridge, was originally filled with waste tailings from U.S. Radium. Third base was rumored to be particularly “hot.” The entire ballfield was dug up, trucked away in drums, and restored with clean fill in 1998.

The hottest spots at Barrows Field today are along the concrete fence wall. Whether the minor detected radioactivity is owing to natural occurrence in the concrete materials, or un-remediated residues from U.S. Radium, is impossible to say.

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References:

Historic American Engineering Record HAER NJ-121, National Park Service (1996)  (All quotations in italics above are from this source.)

Photographs from above record by Thomas R. Flagg, Gerald Weinstein, 1995-1996, at the U.S. Library of Congress

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Nuclear Collection (Part VI)

March 13, 2011

Click any thumbnail image to view in full size. And, as always, if you have something radioactive and in need of a good home, contact me: I buy and trade all the time. Enjoy!

Lithograph by Leo Vartanian commemorating the CP-1 nuclear reactor.  In what has to be the winningest art idea ever,  moderator graphite from the historic reactor was actually ground up to make the ink in which the portraits of physicists Leo Szilard, Arthur Compton, Enrico Fermi, and Eugene Wigner were rendered.  Prints were distributed by Argonne National Laboratory to honor long and illustrious careers.  The ink is not detectably radioactive.  See my other mementos of CP-1 here. Size is 17″ by 22″(framed).

Though it is in many ways a modern and progressive nation, Japan steadfastly clings to certain curious anachronisms.  From the land of whaling and sailor-suit school uniforms come these examples of radioactive “quack cures”, modern instances of a fad phenomenon that, half a century ago, had largely been driven into extinction in the US and Europe.  Both items pictured—the Wellrich Co. Ltd. “Health Card” (top) and the “Mainasu ION” plaque (bottom)—contain natural thorium as verified by gamma spectrometry.    The “Health Card” claims to offer benefits that include denaturing nicotine in cigarettes.  The health benefits of the negative ion disk aren’t mentioned on it, but surely have no basis in sound science.  It is equipped with an adhesive surface on the back for mounting.  Dozens of varieties of negative ion quack products are peddled by Asian eBay sellers, and I have no idea how many of these items might be radioactive.  The Wellrich card and the ion disk measure 1400 CPM and 550 CPM respectively on a Ludlum 44-9 pancake Geiger tube.  (Donated to my collection by Bill Kolb.)

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More radioactive vacuum tubes. All the specimens in this batch were kindly donated anonymously, and all are receiver protection tubes for military radar sets.  In this application, gas breakdown, aided by deliberately-included radioactivity, dissipates any high-power RF energy that finds its way into the receiver waveguide.  From left to right in the top photo: Varian MA37002X with Co-60 (originally “0.7 microcuries max.”), date code 1995; Omni-Wave MPT-24 with (originally) 25.0 microcuries of Kr-85, date code 1984; Omni-Wave MPT-47-B with (originally) 25.0 microcuries Kr-85, date code 1976.  The gamma spectra of the two Kr-85 tubes clearly shows the residual 514-keV gamma activity of the 10.8-year fission product and even permits a coarse estimate of the quantity remaining (about 3 microcuries in the MPT-24, 0.2 microcuries in the MPT-47-B).  More radioactive tubes are described here and here.

Large receiver protection tube with tritium. The application is the same as the tubes mentioned above, but this one is a monster, measuring almost 16 inches in length.  The part number is MA3948L-12, the manufacturer is Varian, and the contents are mostly argon and a small amount of radioactive tritium (H-3), 10 mCi.  The second photo shows an electrodeless RF discharge established in the tube.
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Contaminated Geiger counter strap from Chernobyl trip. Last summer’s trip to Pripyat resulted in detectable radioactive contamination of my shoes (see description) as well as this shoulder strap.  Gamma spectrometry easily identifies Cs-137, one of the handful of long-lived fission products, in a hot spot on the strap.  The activity in the spot is small, only about one nanocurie (~35 Bq).  Some possible contribution from the synthetic transuranic americium-241 is also noted.

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More radioactive goodies from Bayo Canyon

March 2, 2011

I’ve written about this place twice before, and a bumper crop of radioactive souvenirs from a February visit compels my new assessment that Bayo Canyon, New Mexico is simply unmissable for any hardcore nuclear tourist.  Of course, there’s the historical dimension:  the radiolanthanum experiments that commenced here in 1944 provided crucial insight into the implosion weapon design validated in 1945 by the Trinity test (and embodied later by “Fat Man” and virtually all successive bombs).  But what makes Bayo so special is that the history here is tangible, collectable, and detectable provided you come with a Geiger counter.

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The next four photos at left show pieces of blast debris that were scattered across the surface near the escarpment under Point Weather (where I am standing, 2nd photo above), along with readings in counts per minute on a Ludlum 44-9 pancake GM tube.  While the great majority of findings are not detectably hot, there is so much debris available that the prospects for major finds here are good.  This is my second piece of radioactive cable, and the other two pieces appear to be aluminum metal.  For comparison, local background is about 60 CPM.

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There is sufficient gamma radiation to identify uranium in one of these samples by scintillation spectrometry and to estimate its present activity.  The piece of cable was my choice for this test, owing to easy source-detector geometry and negligible self-absorption.  The last image is the 2000-second NaI:Tl gamma energy spectrum.  The peaks are consistent with the prominent decay radiation of U-235 at 185.72 keV (emitted in 57.2% of decays).  Assuming a geometric efficiency of ~50% and an intrinsic photopeak efficiency of ~75%, the piece of cable contains about 8 mg of uranium if the uranium has its natural isotopic ratio, or about 20 mg if it is depleted. (Both DU and natural U were used in the Bayo experiments.)

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Radioactive Treasure in Bayo Canyon

November 11, 2010

Bayo Canyon, near Los Alamos, NM, was a testing ground for radioactive explosives during and after the Manhattan Project. Unfortunately, though it is public land now, it isn’t the most accessible place.  This photo depicts the canyon from its western rim last fall when I tried to get in with a friend.  The deep snow was a show-stopper on the trail leading down from the town on that day.  There is an access road that enters the canyon and provides for an easy walk to the blast sites, but it is gated, and unauthorized vehicles lured in by an open gate may find it locked when attempting to exit.  In spite of the hassle, however, I can now attest that Bayo Canyon is a bona fide destination for radioactive collectibles.

I returned to Bayo Canyon in the company of Taylor Wilson on October 16, and discovered my first radioactive token from this locality—a short piece of shielded two-conductor cable that reads about 600 CPM on a 2″ pancake Geiger tube.  It’s not screaming hot, but it means there’s more here.  (Photo credit: Tom Clynes; used with permission).

Los Alamos’ TA-10 facility in Bayo Canyon entered its decommissioning phase in 1960, and since then the canyon floor has been subject to sustained scrutiny from cleanup crews.  However, it’s obviously true that a persistent and focused hobbyist with good radiation detection equipment can beat a veritable army of government nine-to-fivers when it comes to truffling out the good stuff.  The DOE’s Radiological Survey of the Bayo Canyon, Los Alamos Final Report (1979) explains the nature of the residual contamination:

Because of the wide dispersal of debris by the tests and continuing natural erosion processes, it was recognized at the time of decommissioning that there was a reasonable probability that some high-explosive and some potentially radioactive materials remained in the canyon.  Thus, periodic surface surveys and searches were conducted in 1966, ’67, ’69, ’71, ’73, ’75, and ’76.  During such surveys a number of additional pieces of debris were located, with only a few of them being contaminated with “°Sr or including normal or depleted uranium.

Indeed there are many remaining pieces of debris, often entertaining in their own right if not detectably radioactive.  The pieces of metal in this last photo are representative; both exhibit extreme distortion from the force of whatever blast hurled them through the woods sixty years ago.

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Nuclear Collection (Part V)

May 13, 2010

Today’s long menu includes more radioactive pottery, more radioactive vacuum tubes, smoke detectors, a couple lesser-known radioactive elements, and a few interesting odds and ends. As always, if you have something radioactive and in need of a good home, I buy and trade all the time.  Enjoy!

Uranium-glazed artistic pottery is hard to come by, in contrast to the mass-produced (and mass-collected) Fiestaware and similar.  Here are two examples of handmade ceramics.  Especially interesting is a vase made in 2010 (left) that is representative of the work of crystalline-glaze artist William Melstrom, who has a studio in Austin, Texas (photo courtesy of Mr. Melstrom).  Melstrom is one of very few contemporary artists who have gone to the lengths required nowadays to work with uranium.  His adventuresome report on obtaining uranium compounds in France to formulate his glazes is a must-read.  The fluorescent light yellow glaze on this vase clocks in at 2200 CPM on a 2″ pancake GM tube.  At right is a hand-thrown and hand-glazed  decorative bowl from an unknown artist containing a typical “uranium red” glaze.  It registers 38,000 CPM on a 2″ pancake GM tube, making it among the hottest pieces of pottery in my collection.

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These raw ceramic underglazes containing uranium are a gift from William Melstrom, who made the vase pictured above.  Before Melstrom owned them, they were in the possession of a radiation safety officer at the Texas Department of State Health Services, slated for official disposal as radioactive waste.  Because so few artists use or even know about uranium glazes now, old bottles such as these sometimes present surprise disposal problems when studios are cleaned out.  Both are products of Thompson Enamel and both read about 12,000 CPM on a 2″ pancake GM tube.  At left is a “531 Burnt Orange” (when fired, of course), and at right is a “108 Forsythia.”

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This is a 6″ Corning uranium-glass optical filter I recently obtained on eBay.  The uranium concentration is through the roof: it emits 11,000 CPM into a 2″ pancake GM tube, making it more than twice as hot as the hottest decorative vaseline glass items I own.

Some other interesting properties of uranium glass are dramatically demonstrated with this example.  In the second photo, ultraviolet light from a distant Sun-Kraft lamp (an electrodeless quartz-mercury discharge tube) excites the uranium glass, provoking the characteristic green fluorescence.  Based absorption of the  lamp’s harsh 254-nanometer UVC radiation, it’s easy to distinguish a quartz crucible (casting the central shadow) from the nearly-opaque borosilicate tube (left) and soda-lime glass vial (right).

Uranium glass is also apparently a fair scintillation medium.  In the lower photo, a thin face of the Corning filter abuts the output window of a commercial x-ray machine, where exposure rates are on the order of 1000 roentgen / hour.  The glass glows its characteristic green color as the x-ray beam expands across its surface.

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Lanthanum and lutetium are two of the lesser-known natural radioactive elements.  Although there are other natural, primordial radioelements (e.g. V-50, Rb-87, Sm-147, Re-187, In-115), these two stand out (along with good old potassium) for their usefully high gamma activity.   Both could be used as check sources or energy calibration sources for scintillation detectors.  La-138 (0.09% abundance, T1/2 = 1.02E+11 y) decays by electron capture or beta emission, unleashing gamma rays in either branch.  A ~50-g specimen of the metal (inset, left) racked up 7.2 counts / sec above background into a 2″ NaI:Tl detector.  Lu-176 (2.6% abundance, T1/2 = 3.78E+10 y) undergoes beta decay with a high yield of several gamma energies, most notably at 202 and 307 keV.  The peak at 509 keV in the spectrum is not a real gamma energy, but rather a “sum peak” caused by 202- and 307-keV gammas simultaneously entering the detector (this happens to be an “anomalous” sum peak, larger than would occur by random summation, precisely because the two radiations involved are frequently part of the same decay sequence).  The 23-g chunk of lutetium in the right inset veritably boils a 2″ NaI:Tl detector with more than 120 counts / sec above background.

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More radioactive vacuum tubes. At right are three similar radar TR switches and their packaging (left to right: Bomac JAN-CBNQ-5883 from 1961 originally containing 0.3 µCi of Co-60; a Westinghouse 1B37 from 1952 containing several µCi or Ra-226; a GE 1B35 containing a small amount of Co-60.  At left, a spark gap (in hand) originally with 5 µCi of Cs-137 and a dual TR switch originally containing less than 0.7 µCi of Co-60.

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Ionization smoke detectors contain an alpha emitter, typically Am-241.  The left-most pic shows industrial smoke detectors from ca. 1960, each containing a total of 80 microcuries of Am-241.  These detectors measured the current imbalance between an exposed “sense chamber” and a sealed “reference chamber,” both of which contained alpha sources.  In front of the detectors are examples of their sense-chamber sources, which hold the greater amount of activity (~60 microcuries).  Left is a Pyrotronics F5-B4 with its annular source holder bearing six thin sealed sources; at right is an F3/5A and its pedestal source, containing a single foil covered by a screw-adjustable bonnet.  More modern detectors are shown in the upper-right image: At left is a Simplex 2098-9508 with 4.5 µCi of Am-241, manufactured in 1980, and at right a run-of-the-mill modern detector with the typical  1-µCi source.  The lower right photo shows a Ra-226 foil source from a batch of smoke detectors, make unknown, that was intercepted on its way into a Pennsylvania junkyard.  Approximate activity is 1 microcurie.

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Tritium glow-in-the-dark devices include emergency exit signage and the button at right.  Self-luminous exit signs are undoubtedly the most radioactive items in peoples’ everyday experience, but few probably realize it.   They can contain up to 20 curies of H-3 (tritium) gas in the glowing phosphor-lined tubes, as does the example shown here.  They are regulated under a General License by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (see yellow sticker in right image).  Though initially costly, these self-powered signs easily deliver value over the life of a building by eliminating the need to conduct tests and change light bulbs.  Numerous outlets sell them on the Internet; they can also frequently be found at bargain prices on eBay (when the NRC isn’t looking).   The lower pic shows an old luminous button that originally contained 0.1 Ci of tritium.  This item replaced more hazardous predecessors containing radium.   Common consumer goods containing tritium today include “Traser” keychain lights (technically illegal in the USA as a “frivolous use” of radioactive material) and Trijicon gun sights.

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Kodak 8-mm film projector (left) and camera (right) with radioactive thorium lenses. High refractive index and low dispersion justified the use of thoria in optical glass formulations.  The film projector’s 22-mm, f/1.0 Projection Ektar lens clocks in at 1200 CPM on contact with a 2″ pancake GM tube, while the camera’s lens only reads about 250 CPM.

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Radium postcard, ca. 1930, from Luther Gable quack outfit. Ah, the good old days when you could just send loose radioactive contamination through the freaking mail! This postcard bearing a dollop of glow-in-the-dark radium paint (11,000 CPM on a 2″ pancake GM tube) promoted Dr. Luther Gable, the man responsible for the notorious Gable Ionic Charger.  A number of these cards were found in a collection of magician’s tricks.

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The “Becquerel Chemicals” educational kit manufactured by Damon contains six small plastic boxes labeled A through F.  The contents of three are yellow powders, the contents of the other three are white crystals.  Students were intended to exploit physical and chemical properties—including radioactivity—to identify these unknowns from a list consisting of uranyl sulfate, sodium sulfate, uranyl nitrate, sodium nitrate, thorium nitrate, and sulfur.

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