Romance of Radium – How did our relationship with radioactive material sour?

Note – This post was initially published on February 23, 2013. After attending the ANS President’s Special Session about the way we should communicate about radiation, I thought it would be worth repeating.

Sometimes, we need to look outside of our immediate time and place to find “best practices” that we should emulate.

Hitting road now for the final leg of my return to Virginia. Lots more to tell about the meeting and the trip.


My lovely wife, knowing my atomic energy obsession, thought that I might enjoy watching Romance of Radium a 1937 movie short (10 minutes) from MGM Studios that TCM (Turner Classic Movies) is occasionally running to fill time between full length movies.

It was utterly fascinating to me to watch how the filmmaker portrayed Henry Becquerel’s discovery of radiation, the Curie’s effort to refine radium, and the way that hunters in the Belgian Congo discovered one of the world’s richest sources of pitchblende because it was known to the local inhabitants as a soil with remarkable curative powers. This film was so well received that it earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short Film (one reel).

Watching this film through the lenses of a nuclear energy professional who has spent decades being taught that it is worthwhile to use precious resources to reduce radiation exposure to a level as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA) – with an unreachable goal of zero – it is interesting to think about the way irrational radiation phobia has developed over the last 3/4 of a century. It is almost unimaginable that society has moved away from widespread recognition that radioactive substances are highly beneficial if treated with the proper care and respect to a widespread response of fear and trembling at tiny doses of ionizing radiation.

There are some hints in the movie about how the fears developed; the writers could not resist using phrases like “extremely dangerous” or pointing out how some people who were exposed to large doses due to ignorance of the side effects suffered negative health consequences. However, the movie provides abundance evidence that by 1937, about four decades after Becquerel’s discovery, people had learned to avoid the risks well enough to take full advantage of the benefits associated with the intense radiation that naturally emanates from tiny quantities of radium.
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