Archive for the ‘Radioactive Collectibles’ Category


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Nuclear Collection (Part IV)

January 12, 2010

Radioactive pottery and glassware are ubiquitous at antique malls.  Most items are affordable,  attractive, and retain their utilitarian function for serving food and beverages.  Plus, it’s always fun to pass a Geiger counter over a dinner guest’s plate just after the meal is finished and watch his face as the counter roars.  The vast majority of such articles can be categorized as shown below.  Uranium is present in their composition as a colorant and the radioactivity is merely incidental.  Some ceramic quack health products were intentionally radioactive.  My collection is by no means exhaustive, but is fairly representative of what a few weekends in local flea markets can turn up.

The red stuff owes its distinctive color to a leaded uranium glaze.  This glaze is most frequently encountered in so-called “California pottery” of the 1930s-50s, a style featuring bright, solid colors evocative of Moorish tile.  The best-known example is Fiesta made by the Homer Laughlin China Company.  Red Fiestaware contained natural uranium from 1936 to 1943, when wartime demand for uranium stopped production.  Production resumed in 1959 with depleted uranium and ended for good in 1972.  The selection in the photo at left includes Fiesta, as well as items made by Bauer, California Pottery, Pacific, and various unknown potteries.  Uranium red glazes can produce up to about 30 kcpm on a 2″ pancake Geiger detector.  Some kinds of California pottery are collectible and command high prices (e.g. Fiesta), but many uranium-glazed items of lesser pedigree can be found that cost no more than a couple dollars.

The yellow stuff, glazed with a transparent uranium glaze, is generally much less radioactive than the red (ranges up to about 5 kcpm on a 2″ pancake Geiger detector), and more stylistically diverse.  Examples of the California style can be found (the Franciscan Ware cup and saucer at left), but so can fine English bone china (small Paragon pitcher at center back), floral-patterned ware (Hall’s pitcher; Limoges “Golden Glow” plate, center-right) even special childrens’ dishes (front, with romantic verse and decal).  In general, the deeper the yellow tint, the hotter the product.  Most fluoresce a greenish tint under ultraviolet light.

The green stuff is uranium glass, made by including a highly variable amount of uranium oxide in the melt.  Colors range from amber to blue-green; some is transparent, some opaque.  Regardless of color or opacity, almost all fluoresces brilliant green under ultraviolet light.  Major sub-varieties are known as vaseline glass, jadeite, custard glass, and canary glass.  Uranium green glass was especially popular during the Great Depression; “elegant glass” and the cheaper “Depression glass” of a green color frequently contain some uranium.  Cullet, tubing, and marbles of modern production are widely available.  Uranium glass was also once widely used in making graded glass-to-metal seals because of a favorable coefficient of thermal expansion.  Its use in that application is represented by the Eimac 35-TG vacuum tube at right.  The hottest specimen in this tableau is the large hand-blown vase.  Though not particularly fluorescent, it puts out 5 kcpm into a 2″ pancake Geiger counter.

Quack crockery. “Revigators”  made in the 1920s are still surprisingly (frighteningly!) commonplace.   They were to Americans of the flapper age what acai-berry weight-loss supplements are to the Linda Litzke types of today.  Lined with a porous and highly-radioactive torbernite-charged grout, these jars dispensed drinking water saturated with radon gas and its radioactive progeny.  Health benefits were claimed, but the only proven reality of the radioactive water craze was a number of cases of terminal bone cancer.  Needless to say, the Revigator and similar offerings from other manufacturers aren’t safe to use as intended!  Radioactive quack crockery is highly collectible, so expect to drop a few benjamins on specimens in good condition.  My Revigator was a cheap local bargain, but it is missing the matching stand and lid.  It blows nearly 50 kcpm on a 2″ pancake Geiger counter placed within.


Nuclear Collection (Part III)

April 1, 2009

Radioactive chemical reagents (and a bit of non-radioactive fake yellowcake) constitute this instalment of my Nuclear Collection feature.

u_metal_lazarDepleted uranium metal from United Nuclear. These two rough-hewn triangular slabs weigh in at about 13 g apiece.  No idea what Bob Lazar cut up to put these on the market, but they’re not a bad deal while they last. They sport very rough, sharp edges and have to be stored under oil because of the risk of pyrophoric ignition.  Uranium fires are a bummer, especially when they occur in your living room.

conquista_uFake yellowcake memento from the Conquista Project.  About 20 cm3 of a canaryyellow, non-radioactive powder that resembles a diuranate salt is contained in a small vial embedded in this commemorative plastic paperweight.  The Conoco-Pioneer strip mining and milling operations in Karnes County, Texas commenced in 1971, for a time producing most of that state’s uranium.

u308_timkoethReal yellowcake, or actually a chemically-pure grade of depleted U3O8 in a 1-lb reagent bottle from Research Organic /Inorganic Chemical Corp.  After calcining, this is indeed what most modern “yellowcakes” resemble both in chemistry and appearance.  This bottle is a gift from another amateur scientist.

uranyl_acetate_2Uranyl acetate reagent bottles.  Uranyl acetate is still widely available as an electron-microscopy stain.  It’s a beautiful color, and like most uranyl salts, exhibits striking UV fluorescence.  The yellow crystals have a faint odor of vinegar.  Likely they taste accordingly (although taking uranium internally is generally frowned upon).

c14_vial_2Vial of urea labeled with 50 microcuries of carbon-14.  C-14 is a weak beta emitter that is best known for its role in carbon dating.  Because of the importance of carbon in biological processes (durrrh!), C-14 is also useful as a tracer in research, which is the suspected purpose of this product from New England Nuclear.  The label says “Use only as authorized by Atomic Energy Commission,” effectively dating this carbon to 1974 or earlier.  Activity is only detectable by removing the lid and holding a Geiger tube over the opening.

bi_210Calibrated bismuth-210 beta sources. Bi-210, or archaically “radium E”, appears in the uranium decay series.  The sources actually contain lead-210 (radium D) with a half-life of 22 years in secular equilibrium with the 5-day Bi-210 daughter.  The weak betas from Pb-210 are absorbed in the source, while the 1.2-MeV betas from Bi-210 are free to escape.  The set is incomplete; present are four sources ranging in activity from 7.73 nCi to 0.364 μCi (measured in 1962).

thorium_bottle_2Quarter pound of thorium nitrate. This bottle of Baker ACS-grade reagent is still sealed, preventing radon from escaping and allowing the delicious thorium decay chain to build up.  The penultimate thorium decay product, thallium-208, is responsible for one of the most energetic gamma rays found in nature: 2.62 MeV.  I use this bottle as a source of 2.62-MeV gamma radiation to calibrate the high end of the energy scale in scintillation spectrometry.


Nuclear Collection (Part II)

March 1, 2009

Here are some more photos of my radioactive material collection. Featured today are radioactive vacuum tubes, radioactive optics, radioluminous items containing radium, and some recently-acquired resistors containing uranium.  I collect and buy radioactive material (duh!).  If you have some, and it’s in need of a good home, let me know!

radcollection_tubesMany types of electronic tubes contain radioactive material. Click on the thumbnail for a larger, numbered image. The purpose of adding a radioisotope to a vacuum tube is usually to ionize residual gas in gas-filled types, improving the timing characteristics or helping to “strike” a discharge.  Uranium glass saw much use in the metal-to-glass seals for tubes of all kinds.  Its coefficient of expansion more closely matches the metal than the regular soda glass of the package, and the slight radioactivity is merely incidental.  Various isotopes are found in tubes: these can include artificial H-3, Ni-63, Kr-85, Co-60, and Cs-137; and natural Ra-226 and Th-232.  The activity is usually internal to the tube, but some of the examples shown here feature external radium sources.

radcollection_lensesSome lenses contain thoria (ThO2) to improve the refractive index while keeping dispersion low.  The thorium content can range from barely-detectable to major constituent of the glass.  Along the back row, left to right:

  • Unknown first-generation image-intensifier tube from a military night-vision system.  The output optic on this tube is, as far as optics go, the most radioactive thing I have encountered–it reads 50 kcpm on a pancake GM tube, and about 1.5 mR / hr on an ion chamber.
  • Kodak Pony 135 Model C camera (mid-1950s), with thoriated Anaston lens.  Not all Ponies have radioactive lenses.  Reads 4500 cpm on a pancake GM tube.
  • Angenieux zoom lens for television or film, Type 10 x 15 B.  Reads 350 cpm on a pancake GM tube (the radioactive lens itself is buried deep within the assembly).
  • In front are some small lenses salvaged from a variety of ’50s-’60s-vintage still and movie cameras.  Hottest among these is a Kodak 3″ f/2.8 Ektar lens, reading 10 kcpm on a pancake GM tube.

radcollection_radiumRadium paint was used for glow-in-the-dark applications from the 1910s through the ’60s.  Many people know of the tragedies suffered by early watch dial painters due to ingestion of radium.  The articles in my collection were probably all machine-painted, however.  The glow from these devices is feeble today, the result of radiation “burnout” of the zinc sulfide phosphor and NOT because the radium has decayed.  It remains virtually as radioactive as it ever was.

  • In the back are WW-II / Korean War vintage military aircraft instruments: gyrocompasses, a radio compass, fuel gauges, an “oxygen flow indicator” and a small pressure gauge.  The latter item was sold in large quantities in 2002-2003 by various surplus dealers.   The larger dials probably contain a few microcuries of Ra-226.
  • Lower left: radium-tipped toggle switches.  Radium content is probably a few tenths of a microcurie.
  • Right: some consumer timepieces with radium–Westclox “Pocket Ben” watch and a Phinney-Walker travel alarm clock.  The older Westclox “Big Ben” clocks are also reliably radioactive and still inexpensive and commonplace collectibles.
  • Center: two instrument knobs with external radium paint: “Pull out before preset tuning” and an illuminated on/off knob
  • Center right: 10 ampere circuit breaker with radium strip that is visible when breaker is open
  • Center foreground: two radium drawer pulls (or glowing eyes for a radioactive teddy-bear?)

radcollection_resistorsRadioactive power resistors obtained at “The Black Hole” in Los Alamos.  The activity appears to be due to uranium and its daughters as determined by gamma spectroscopy.  At first I thought the uranium was in the black vitreous glaze, but it actually appears to be distributed throughout the volume of the resistor material (also black in color).  The activity is relatively mild–only about 300 CPM above background on a pancake GM detector.


Nuclear Collection (Part I)

May 5, 2008

Here are some relatively recent additions to my collection of radioactive and nuclear-related items. Some of them I don’t know nearly enough about! Take a look, and if you have some information to add, please contact me. I will post other galleries as I get the chance. Also: I collect this kind of stuff (obviously), so if you have something radioactive and you’re not a big fan of radioactive stuff, let’s make a deal: send it to me. You get rid of the hot stuff that’s gonna harelip your kids and give you leukemia and whatnot, and I’ll pay you money for it.

Click on a photo for large size. Descriptions are at bottom of post.

graphite from CP1Graphite from CP-1, the world’s first nuclear reactor, built under the stands of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago in 1942. This 25th Anniversary memento popped up on eBay not long ago and I paid dearly for it. However, there’s not much of this stuff left; all but a couple bars of this famously pure graphite went on to be incorporated in CP-2 and thereafter entombed in concrete under a nondescript field in Illinois. The eBay seller would only say “I do know that my grandfather worked on the building of the atomic bomb but other than that I don’t know much else.” I have a feeling that the human story could be interesting, but on account of the seller’s reluctance to share so much as her grandfather’s name and other “personal information,” there’s nothing more to say right now. Tips appreciated…

graphite from CP1More Graphite from CP-1. This example was also obtained on eBay, but bears slightly different markings (the additional Argonne National Laboratory label on the side of the graphite piece) and different dimensions. Also, no notecard or box came with this one.

worker\'s badge from ChernobylWorker’s badge from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, dating from 1987 (the year after the catastrophe at Unit 4). Anyone able to read Russian shorthand? The back of the badge contains addresses and perhaps a description of what this man did at the plant. This badge is not discernibly radioactive.

Uranium glassUranium glass memento from the “Conference Nucleaire Europeenne” of 1975, held in Paris. The box also came with a slip of paper informing the recipient that “Ce verre est colore par un sel d’uranium” (“This glass is colored by a salt of uranium”). A present from a good friend, James Thiel. Shown at right under light from a mercury vapor discharge.

ionium“Ionium thorium nitrate” from Marie Curie’s lab. At least that’s the provenance claimed by the previous curator of this fascinating and rather radioactive vial. Ionium was a name for Th-230, the naturally-occurring parent of radium (Ra-226). Today, the vial contains 8.6 +/- 10% microcuries of radium as determined by careful gamma radiation measurements. If it’s indeed as old as the Curie lab, then there should be a couple hundred microcuries of alpha-emitting Th-230 present, in addition to a rather inconsequential activity of Th-232 carrier. The vial is contained in a test tube that has some rather cryptic markings on it. Take a look at the full-size pic and let me know if this means anything to you…

Walkie recordallThis late-model Walkie-Recordall contains a 4.8 microcurie radium source. An expensive dictation recorder in its day (ca. 1950s and ’60s), the battery-operated apparatus came in a discreet suitcase with hidden microphone—perfect for industrial espionage. Radium was used to discharge static on the “sonoband” embossing medium. This specimen was found by scintillation detector in a flea market in Ohio. The included sonoband, containing a medical lecture, was heavily damaged by radiation in the place where it sat in front of the radium source for years. The band still plays (video coming shortly). I pay $50 per Walkie radium source; taking out this radioactive strip does not impact operability of the recorder.

back in the good ol\' daysBack in the good ol’ days of 2004, an average joe could still buy uranium oxide from MV Laboratories in New Jersey, with nary a question asked. Those days are history! This 30-gram quantity of greenish-black U3O8 remains sealed in its bottle, an emblem of American freedom that has been eroded by the drumbeat of irrational fear. Something about “islamofascists” I think.

alpha sourceThis is an interesting alpha check source kindly given to me by Taylor Wilson. On the backside is a bare surface deposit of black UO2, evidently reading 700 CPM on the Nuclear Chicago Model R6 survey meter. Perhaps the UO2 was electrodeposited?


radium calibration sourceAnother interesting check source from Taylor, this one an “ionotron” type radium foil (probably about 0.1 microcurie) on a card that was last calibrated in 1955 at the height of the golden age of nuclear. It’s hard to see on the photo, but radiation damage has denatured and cracked the plastic right over the source strip in the lower right-hand corner.

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