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

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.

Radium glow finale

Radium glow finale

The final scene in the movie provides some real food for thought. The last couple of minutes explain the precautions associated with moving a small vial of radium from its lead lined storage vault to a studio set up to capture an image of the glowing substance as a climatic shot for the movie. As the set up continues, it is quite a contrast to watch how the photographer dresses and shields himself in comparison to the way that the experienced scientist protects himself as he extracts the material from its storage containers to display for the camera.

Aside: My wife was the one who noticed and pointed out the contrast. She found it quite amusing to think about the difference between the nervous amateur and the calm professional. End Aside.

I imagine most of my colleagues and all of the people whose fear of radiation stokes their opposition to using nuclear energy would be surprised to learn that radium’s curative powers made it the world’a most valuable substance, with a value of $750,000 per ounce – in 1937 dollars. People who have been forced to leave their homes and businesses in the Fukushima prefecture, which were made slightly radioactive due to the presence of small quantities of cesium, should consider the implications of how Romance of Radium concludes with prediction that “centuries from now it will still shine upon some future civilization, saving through the ages countless thousands of human lives.

Is impossible for anyone to characterize this information-filled work of cinematic art as propaganda produced by a powerful nuclear energy industry. There was no nuclear energy industry in 1937; the film was made a year before the basic process of fission had even been discovered in the laboratory. The primary reason there was a commercial interest in radium was that it demonstrated the ability to provide positive health benefits by curing infection, and increasing the strength of our ability to combat illness through what is now understood to be a biological mechanism called adaptive response.

Here is a homework assignment for some of the more mathematically oriented radiation professionals out there. I think there is enough information provided to produce a rough dose estimate for some of the example exposures in the film – like Becquerel’s habit of carrying a vial of radium in his coat pocket. It would be interesting to compare some of those doses against current regulatory limits or against the ALARA “best practices” that result in enormous expenditures to reduce exposures as measured in the discredited collective dose unit of “man-rem”.

PS – I am also interested in finding a better copy of the film than the one that I embedded for this post. It should be in the public domain; it is 76 years old.

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48 Responses to “Romance of Radium – How did our relationship with radioactive material sour?”

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  1. Daniel says:

    In a televised debate on national TV regarding the closure of Gentilly II in Québec, it was very funny to see the pro nuclear side represented by a 4 feet 2 inches old professor with a speech impediment while the anti nuclear side had a 6 foot 4 inches tall, 20 something verbal ignorant. At the end, the good side lost by lack of verbosity and prose.

    That being said, the issue of medical radio active isotope supplies came about. Interestingly, it was not argued by the green side that these isotopes had medical value. The issue was that these precious isotopes were generated by nuclear reactors. Of course the pro nuclear side provided no hints that these isotopes were not generated by civilian nuclear plants but specialized medical nuclear reactors. But why have someone competent represent the pro nuclear side in a national debate ?(Where is DV82XL when you need him ?!)

    The point made by the greens was that all those precious medical isotopes need no longer be produced in nuclear reactors but simply in superconducting super colliders (SSC) facilities.

    Is this true ? I do not think that all medical isotopes can be produced in a SSC …

    • DV82XL says:

      There are plenty of young and reasonably telegenic spokespeople working in the Canadian nuclear industry they could have called on to defend the nuclear side before they would have to turn to an old grizzled hobbyist like me. But of course the producers didn’t want a fair debate in the first place did they?

  2. mjd says:

    The symptom of the problem is the shear cost and un-manageability of the huge plants the industry is so in love with. The root cause is that after TMI, the “people” involved in the whole process never got a clue.

    From page 8 of the Kemeny Commission Report:
    “ATTITUDES AND PRACTICES
    Our investigation started out with an examination of the accident
    at Three Mile Island (TMI). This necessarily led us to look into the
    role played by the utility and its principal suppliers. With our
    in-depth investigation of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), we
    gained a broader insight into the attitudes and practices that prevail
    in portions of the industry. However, we did not examine the industry
    in its totality.
    Popular discussions of nuclear power plants tend to concentrate on
    questions of equipment safety. Equipment can and should be improved to
    add further safety to nuclear power plants, and some of our recommendations
    deal with this subject. But as the evidence accumulated, it
    became clear that the fundamental problems are people-related problems
    and not equipment problems.
    When we say that the basic problems are people-related, we do not
    mean to limit this term to shortcomings of individual human
    beings — although those do exist. We mean more generally that our
    investigation has revealed problems with the “system” that manufactures,
    operates, and regulates nuclear power plants. There are structural
    problems in the various organizations, there are deficiencies in various
    processes, and there is a lack of communication among key individuals
    and groups.
    We are convinced that if the only problems were equipment problems,
    this Presidential Commission would never have been created. The
    equipment was sufficiently good that, except for human failures, the
    major accident at Three Mile Island would have been a minor incident.
    But, wherever we looked, we found problems with the human beings who
    operate the plant, with the management that runs the key organization,
    and with the agency that is charged with assuring the safety of nuclear
    power plants.”

    From page 25 of the Kemeny Commission report:
    Nevertheless, we feel that our findings and recommendations are of
    vital importance for the future of nuclear power. We are convinced
    that, unless portions of the industry and its regulatory agency undergo
    fundamental changes, they will over time totally destroy public
    confidence and, hence, they will be responsible for the elimination of
    nuclear power as a viable source of energy.

    Did Kemeny have a crystal ball? Not hardly.

    • Rich Lentz says:

      I wish I had enough time to comment on the Kemeny Commission report. I was a rather senior engineer/manager with GPU – the owner of TMI – and happened to be there at the time of the accident. There is a lot of “safety” bias in that report. There were members of that commission that wanted to shut down ALL NPPs, those that wanted to make a name for themselves, those that wanted to fix the industry, and those that wanted to CYA. For example:
      “There are structural problems in the various organizations, there are deficiencies in various processes, and there is a lack of communication among key individuals and groups. ” Did you know that this was precipitated by the fact that the problem with the “PORV” happened several months earlier at Davis Besse during start-up, the DB operators discovered the problem, isolated the PORV, fixed the PORV, and went on their way. NO ONE at any of the other plants knew of this “incident” other than grape-vine talk, not wide spread, and not to the operators. I had been in contact with DB engineers several times after their minor event and before the incident at TMI and not once did they tell me about their problems with the PORV. The NRC was also aware of the DB PORV incident, via the IR program, and again NO other B&W plants were told of the problem. If the TMI operators had known about this – TMI-II would be operating today – GUARENTEED!
      Aside: Back in the late 70′s (before computers), but before TMI-II, in looking for some detailed information on a particular plant problem I went to NRC HQ to review the Incident Reports (IR’s) and see if other plants had this problem. I was directed to a room in the basement were a clerk showed me the “banker box” files of that years IRs (part 21 reports). As I spent the better part of a day trying to find the information I needed I got an idea of just what they did with these reports. The conclusion I left with was that even though the plants were required by law to submit these reports all that the NRC did was catalogue them and file them. PERIOD.

      • mjd says:

        Question:” Did you know that this was precipitated by the fact that the problem with the “PORV” happened several months earlier at Davis Besse during start-up, the DB operators discovered the problem, isolated the PORV, fixed the PORV, and went on their way.”
        Answer: I’d say i knew about it. I was the Shift Supervisor/SRO during that event.
        Yup… plants never got the word, but it got to ACRS twice. Don’t have to explain those reports to me, deposed for Rogovin (it was even worse), and a live witness for GPU vs B&W trial in NYC. I could about write a book about it. Your anger can’t possibly approach mine. I could have explained it to any operator in about three minutes. In hind sight it is so simple; but based on my understanding, training, procedures, and the control room I was in at the time, for 22 minutes, the world as I knew it totally unraveled. That event would have been the same at any PWR with a hole in the pressurizer top, including navy. I still can’t stand the fact those three TMI operators took the bullet for the whole industry failure.
        Doesn’t change my conclusions on my post. BTW, I had trouble posting so I sent a considerable longer post via direct contact email. It had more “opinions”.

    • northcoast says:

      I worked in Pittsburgh on Navy reactor plants at the time. From conversation with an engineer on the utility side, it seemed that new plants were having unanticipated operating problems associated with the interaction of system components supplied by different vendors. The Navy would have taken the time to diagnose and fix such problems, but I don’t think the utility managers had quite the same attitude. Some place I remember reading that TMI-2 operation had not been trouble free, and I think that some of the confusion in the control room that morning could be traced to earlier problems with the plant and the gages.

  3. Daniel says:

    Hints that nuclear reactors will restart in Japan:

    1) New set of rules to be set forth in July by independent body

    2) York Consulting put out some recent numbers showing Japan utilities have spent somewhere between $12 billion and $13 billion on safety upgrades recently, suggesting a belief their units will restart

  4. John Tucker says:

    Its strange, that they seemed perfectly able to accept both the uses and dangers of a substance so matter of factly then.

  5. Mikael Ros says:

    I think many of us would pay serious money for a Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab (1950-1951)

    http://www.orau.org/ptp/collection/atomictoys/GilbertU238Lab.htm

  6. Daniel says:

    Another country plagued with a nuclear nightmare, albeit an indirect one, is Bulgaria.

    Before joining the Europan Union, Bulgaria had enough nuclear capacity to export electricity to adjacent countries. As a condition to become a member of the Union, they had to close Soviet type reactors. They were compensated but never got around to use the money to replace the foregone capacity (A little sound governmental foresight would have made it mandatory to use the compensation money to first build replacement reactors, then close the old ones)

    Now Bulgaria has skyrocketing electricity prices that eats away close to 60% of middle class citizen’s income. Riots everywhere.

    Bulgaria joined the European community to escape poverty. They should split and reopen the reactors. Rod has always maintained that the Soviet type reactors were safe and I agree.

    So nuclear stupidity is not limited to Japan, the US and Germany.

    • Engineer-Poet says:

      The 2 inactive reactors in Bulgaria are VVERs, not RMBKs.  They’re just 440 MW(e) apiece; would 880 MW make that big a difference to Bulgaria?  It’s around 120 watts per capita.

      • Rod Adams says:

        @Engineer-Poet

        Thank you for the correction. 880 MWe may not be too much per capita, but it is enough to produce one half to one million dollars per day worth of revenue. That is nothing to sneeze at for an economy the size of Bulgaria’s.

        • Engineer-Poet says:

          At 10¢/kWh, 880 MW(e) is worth about $2 million/day.  That comes to about $100/capita/year.

          Interesting data point:  EIA figures indicate that Bulgaria exports 25% or more of its electric generation.  Adding 880 MW(e) would boost exports from about 13 TWh/a to ~20 TWH/a.

          There must be some large effect on electricity pricing at the margins, because otherwise this doesn’t look like such a huge deal.  Bulgarian GDP/capita is about $6900.  Adding or subtracting $100 from that is more or less what you’d expect from the economy going up or down a bit.

      • Krigl says:

        Hmm, I’m a year late, but there are actually four mothballed VVER-440s in Kozloduy, not two. They are VVER-440/V-230 subtype, the newer V-213 we have here (Czech Republic), were uprated to net 500 MWe each, instead of shutdown. Now these four oldies produce half of our nuclear electricity. Not sure if it would work with V-230, they were the first of the line and had some safety issues, whose addressing resulted in V-213.

  7. Josh says:

    It appears Slovakia has had a similar experience to that of Bulgaria. The Slovaks were forced to close two older units even though they could have safely provided power for several more years. Happily, the new left wing government (Fico was elected last year) is strongly committed to a nuclear expansion.

    • Rod Adams says:

      Contrast the experience of Bulgaria, Slovakia and Lithuania, who were all forced to shutdown well maintained and refurbished RBMKs with that of Russia, which has not only continued to run their own RBMKs but has extended their licenses.

      http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111904563904576584831235317422.html

      Critics say Russians would rather squeeze more power out of the old reactors than build expensive new ones, or gas-fired power plants, as Russian officials prefer to sell the natural gas to Western Europe.

      So do supporters; it is a sensible business and environmental move.

      I suspect Russia liked it when the EU forced former Soviet Union satellite countries back into energy dependence on Russia. The sales revenues from natural gas have been far higher than the nuclear fuel sales would have been.

      It’s also easier to threaten a gas customer with shutting off valves. It’s much harder to have leverage on a nuclear fuel customer who only needs to buy fuel every 18 months or so and can afford to store several reloads on site if necessary.

      • Rod Adams says:

        I continue to wonder sometimes if Chernobyl was a sabotage job aimed at discrediting nuclear energy and encouraging natural gas sales. That explanation fits with the Russian decision to keep operating the very plants that were demonized in the west. They were in a good position to know that the hazardous situation could be easily avoided through proper operation and a few minor modifications.

        • DV82XL says:

          Best never to assign to conspiracy that which can be adequately explained by stupidity; given the state of the U.S.S.R. at that time, incompetence is by far the more likely cause.

        • illumined says:

          Now now Rod, let’s save the conspiracy theories for the renewable energy supporters. What happened at Chernobyl can reasonably be blamed on the inherently flawed design of the RMBK itself as well as incompetent management. If they hadn’t tried to run a dangerous experiment the incident might never have happened.

          • Rod Adams says:

            Why is it so far fetched to suspect that the “ill-planned” experiment was not so accidental? The reaction has certainly resulted in many billions worth of fossil fuel sales that might otherwise have never happened. Just think about all of the nuclear plants that were shutdown in overreaction. Then imagine how many others could have been built if there had not ever been a Chernobyl.

            When you read the detailed report as I have and keep asking “how could they have been so stupid as to do THAT”, pretty soon you start to think, what if just one of the people involved knew exactly what he was doing?

            Conspiracies that require cooperation of many are hard to believe; events that only require a couple of people to be “in on it” are less far fetched.

          • Engineer-Poet says:

            Why is it so far fetched to suspect that the “ill-planned” experiment was not so accidental?

            I think you can make a better case that the Sandy Hook massacre was a false-flag operation.  The fact that there is a full-court press on to ban the oxymoronic “semi-automatic assault rifle” (an assault rifle is fully automatic by definition) despite the fact that Adam Lanza left the Bushmaster in the trunk of the car he drove, and this was given in the earliest media reports suggests an agenda (the asset screwed up his execution of the script).

            The Soviets could easily have lost big from Chernobyl.  If public opinion had only gone against the RMBK and an anti-Soviet faction had won out due to the contamination, all of Europe might be full of PWRs and BWRs today as a consequence of governments turning away from anything and everything Russian.

          • Rod Adams says:

            @Engineer-Poet

            One case of man’s inhumanity to man does not preclude others.

            Never saying that there is anything like a perfect plan or perfect prescience. However, I’ve read a few Russian novels and lived for more than half a century. Both experiences help me understand that Occam’s Razor type explanations for human activities often neglect the wonderful and tragic complexity of our minds and activities.

            Some people, often scientists and engineers, think I’m off my rocker or have too much imagination. Oh well…

          • Engineer-Poet says:

            My point is that Chernobyl could so easily have gone the “wrong” way (for the Soviets) in the PR department that the conspiracy theory strains credulity.  Had even one government said “Three Mile Island hurt nobody, we should build PWRs instead of buying gas from the builders of RMBKs”, all of Europe might now be like France.

          • Rod Adams says:

            Oh, but we did hear that – over and over again. How many times have you heard about how “western” reactors had containments and did not use that scary (no so) flammable graphite as the moderator?

            There was plenty of demonization of Russian reactor designs and claimed superiority of PWRs. However, the antinuclear movements have used the accident to say bad things about all nuclear plants for 25+ years.

            Again, it’s not a “conspiracy” theory to point out that there was plenty of gain available for ANY large accident at any nuclear plant if such an event could be instigated. Remember, we are talking about people from a nation where intrigue and complex plot lines are an integral part of the cultural history.

          • Brian Mays says:

            Engineer-Poet – Yes, the average journalist is so poorly equipped to report on this subject that the press often uses such stupid and incorrect terms as “semi-automatic assault rifle.” It’s not unlike their reporting on nuclear power. ;-)

            But the politicians call these firearms “assault weapons,” which is a conveniently nebulous term that doesn’t have any meaning beyond being a euphemism for “scary-looking gun” (and scary is in the eye of the beholder). Assault rifles are already heavily regulated and controlled by federal law.

          • DV82XL says:

            To paraphrase Freud: sometimes a cigar is just a smoke, in other words one must keep one’s perspective.

            The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986 was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later. Indeed, the Chernobyl catastrophe was an historic turning point: there was the era before the disaster, and there is the very different era that has followed. And if not the real cause, then at least the proximate one.

            The price of the catastrophe was overwhelming, not only in human terms, but also economically. Even today, the legacy of Chernobyl affects the economies of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Some even suggest that the economic price for the USSR was so high that it stopped the arms race, as they could not keep building arms while paying to clean up Chernobyl.

            Postulating that this event was engineered could just as easily have a reason assigned to these outcomes as well.

            That is the problem with this sort of inductive reasoning, and why conspiracy theories should not be taken seriously without substantive proof.

          • Engineer-Poet says:

            How many times have you heard about how “western” reactors had containments and did not use that scary (no so) flammable graphite as the moderator?

            Lots of times, mostly coming from myself.

            Had there been a few, or even one, major public figures or environmentalists breaking with the “No Nukes” orthodoxy to say “Hey, at its worst this is still the best thing out there!”, the whole thing could have flipped.  We may be watching a slow-motion flip right now, with James Lovelock and George Monbiot pushing the wedge into the environmentalist coalition.  When it splits, nuclear will have vocal advocates on both major sides of the political spectrum.  Had that happened in 1986-88, we probably wouldn’t be having an ideological fight over ACC today.

          • Joris van Dorp says:

            “The price of the catastrophe was overwhelming, not only in human terms, but also economically. Even today, the legacy of Chernobyl affects the economies of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Some even suggest that the economic price for the USSR was so high that it stopped the arms race, as they could not keep building arms while paying to clean up Chernobyl.”

            A more likely trigger for the Soviet collapse was – AFAIK – the plummeting oil prices in that period, thought to be the deliberate strategy of the USA in cooperation with the Saudi’s at the time.

            =====

            The timeline of the collapse of the Soviet Union can be traced to September 13, 1985. On this date, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the minister of oil of Saudi Arabia, declared that the monarchy had decided to alter its oil policy radically. The Saudis stopped protecting oil prices, and Saudi Arabia quickly regained its share in the world market. During the next six months, oil production in Saudi Arabia increased fourfold, while oil prices collapsed by approximately the same amount in real terms.
            As a result, the Soviet Union lost approximately $20 billion per year, money without which the country simply could not survive. The Soviet leadership was confronted with a difficult decision on how to adjust. There were three options–or a combination of three options–available to the Soviet leadership.
            First, dissolve the Eastern European empire and effectively stop barter trade in oil and gas with the Socialist bloc countries, and start charging hard currency for the hydrocarbons. This choice, however, involved convincing the Soviet leadership in 1985 to negate completely the results of World War II. In reality, the leader who proposed this idea at the CPSU Central Committee meeting at that time risked losing his position as general secretary.
            Second, drastically reduce Soviet food imports by $20 billion, the amount the Soviet Union lost when oil prices collapsed. But in practical terms, this option meant the introduction of food rationing at rates similar to those used during World War II. The Soviet leadership understood the consequences: the Soviet system would not survive for even one month. This idea was never seriously discussed.
            Third, implement radical cuts in the military-industrial complex. With this option, however, the Soviet leadership risked serious conflict with regional and industrial elites, since a large number of Soviet cities depended solely on the military-industrial complex. This choice was also never seriously considered.
            Unable to realize any of the above solutions, the Soviet leadership decided to adopt a policy of effectively disregarding the problem in hopes that it would somehow wither away. Instead of implementing actual reforms, the Soviet Union started to borrow money from abroad while its international credit rating was still strong. It borrowed heavily from 1985 to 1988, but in 1989 the Soviet economy stalled completely.

            http://www.aei.org/issue/foreign-and-defense-policy/regional/europe/the-soviet-collapse/

          • DV82XL says:

            The point I was making was not if Chernobyl produced the collapse of the Soviet Union, but rather one could make a plausible argument that it could have been a consequence and the meltdown was caused on purpose to bring this about. It is pure induction from correlation, and as you have shown fails to take in other possible explanations.

            This was only to illustrate the shortcomings of this type of reasoning when used by itself.

          • Joris van Dorp says:

            I put up the story about the link between oil price manipulation and the Soviet collapse mainly because I’ve always found it a very intriguing piece of history. What I also find interesting is that Pres. Eisenhower purportedly told the Saudi’s (in the 1950′s I think) that the Saudi’s better develop their oil reserves and manage the world oil-price such that it would be optimal for the USA (and US oil producers), or otherwise, the USA would ‘unleash nuclear power’ upon the world and make oil obsolete! I couldn’t find a good source for that story, perhaps someone knows it?

            thanks,

            Joris

          • Rod Adams says:

            @Joris

            Robert Anderson was Eisenhower’s envoy in a situation similar to the one you describe. The story is in Daniel Yergin’s The Prize. You might be able to find a post or two on Atomic Insights that discuss it. I’m on a limited mobile device right now. I have a dog eared copy of The Prize in my library.

  8. Rick Maltese says:

    @mjd

    Do you have a link to the Kemeney report? Some of the quoted sections would be good for my blog Deregulate the Atom. http://deregulatetheatom.com
    Your selected sections are a great example of what are sometimes called the failure of bureaucracy.

    Is this the same report? Report Of The President’s Commission On The Accident At Three Mile Island http://www.pddoc.com/tmi2/kemeny/

  9. Robert E. Schenter, PhD says:

    Ra226 is an extremely valuable substance used for something not very well known.
    It is used as a target in a fission reactor system to make the most important therapeutic medical isotopes. These isotopes are Ac227/Ra223, Ac227/Th227 Ac225/Bi213 and Ac225 and
    are alpha emitters and are part of “Smart Bullet Systems” which kill cancer cells and HIV
    virus without harming healthy human cells.
    The method is called “Radioimmunotherapy(RIT)” or “Cell DirectedTherapy”.
    It has been very effective in “treating/curing” many forms of cancer especially recently.

    Bayer and Algeta have initiated billion dollar programs to use Th227 and Ra223 to do
    RIT for several forms of cancer.

    We made these isotopes in the FFTF and HFIR in the 1990s.

    They are currently only made in a small fission reactor in Norway.
    Unfortunately, not in the US.

    • Daniel says:

      @ Robert,

      Is the claim that made by some greens in Québec that all those precious medical isotopes need no longer be produced in nuclear reactors but simply in superconducting super colliders (SSC) facilities?

      Who can answer this important claim ?

  10. Kroll says:

    reminds me of galen winsor and his “nuclear scare scam”. by the way anybody knows what happened to him? Cant find any information about him.

  11. Robert E. Schenter, PhD says:

    Ra226 even today is a very valuable material. It is used as a target in fission reactor systems
    to make the alpha emitting isotopes Ac227/Ra223,Ac227/Th227, Ac225/Bi213.
    These isotopes are used very effectively for the treatment of several forms of cancer.
    The approach (“Smart Bullets” -”Radioimmunotherapy”) has the advantage of killing
    the cancer cells without harming the healthy cells.

  12. Robert E. Schenter, PhD says:

    Daniel, Using an SSC is an extremely impractical and costly way to make medical isotopes.
    High Energy Physicists don’t have a clue how to make medical isotopes effectively.
    Unfortunately, there is only a small handful of isotope production physicists in the US.
    The maximum isotope production occusr for neutrons with energies between .025Ev and 10keV.
    Not hundreds of MeV protons or electrons. You would need to make neutrons with the SSC
    and then slow them down to thermal and epithermal energies. Also, the flux levels of the neutrons will be much lower than a typical thermal fission reactor such as HFIR(USA) , MURR(USA) or ATR(USA).

    Claims that SLAC could effectively produce isotopes to cure cancer by the “Greenies”
    is pure nonsense and typical of the false “facts?”
    they are issuing. Unfortunately, many of the bureaucrats that fund these programs
    have no technical knowledge of isotope production and don’t ask the “experts” about it.

  13. Stephen Jones says:

    Great video.

    Glowing in the dark seems the thing that is most associated with all things radioactive and nuclear in the minds of the public.

    I must say I’ve never really understood why if radium is emitting alpha, beta or gamma rays why that would make it glow in the dark with visible light. Or is it just particular solutions of radium salts that do? If anyone can explain this I would be very grateful.

    • Brian Mays says:

      Radioluminescent paint consists of radioactive material mixed with a luminescent crystalline powder. Zinc sulfide powder often is used. It’s the powder that emits the light, not the radioactive material.

      At sufficient intensity and high-enough energy, however, beta and gamma radiation can produce visual sensations in the eye, caused by Cerenkov radiation, that result in the person sensing a blue or white light. In the case of radium, the effect is primarily caused by beta radiation (i.e., high-speed electrons), but the gamma rays from radium’s daughters also contribute to the effect.

      • Stephen Jones says:

        Thank you very much. At the end of that video we get to see a small piece of radium. Then it seems like they turn the lights out and we can see it glowing – is that special FX.

        The final image of the radium spitting out sparks is surely not real is it?

  14. mjd says:

    After my initial attempt to post to the forum, for some reason it didn’t appear to post at first, don’t know why as no indication of a problem; several hours later it showed up. Later I realized that my initial post attempt wasn’t really adding anything to the discussion, as it didn’t offer a solution. I’d guess that “How did our relationship with radioactive material sour?”, in your line of work Rod, actually may mean “How did our relationship with commercial nuclear power sour?
    The short answer is the nuke industry’s long mindset love affair with plants too expensive to build and construction projects too big to manage. All compounded by a dysfunctional regulatory agency.
    There were clear warnings however “mindsets” by definition can prevent some people from thinking out-side-the-box. It’s rather unfortunate too as the US already had nuke plants successfully running out-side-the-box of the commercial nuclear power’s huge active safety system designs.
    Here are some warnings that came out of an event that almost got everybody’s attention.
    From page eight of the Kemeny Commission Report:
    Quote
    “ATTITUDES AND PRACTICES
    Our investigation started out with an examination of the accident at Three Mile Island (TMI). This necessarily led us to look into the role played by the utility and its principal suppliers. With our in-depth investigation of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), we gained a broader insight into the attitudes and practices that prevail in portions of the industry. However, we did not examine the industry in its totality.

    Popular discussions of nuclear power plants tend to concentrate on questions of equipment safety. Equipment can and should be improved to add further safety to nuclear power plants, and some of our recommendations deal with this subject. But as the evidence accumulated, it became clear that the fundamental problems are people-related problems and not equipment problems.

    When we say that the basic problems are people-related, we do not mean to limit this term to shortcomings of individual human beings — although those do exist. We mean more generally that our
    investigation has revealed problems with the “system” that manufactures, operates, and regulates nuclear power plants. There are structural problems in the various organizations, there are deficiencies in various processes, and there is a lack of communication among key individuals and groups.

    We are convinced that if the only problems were equipment problems, this Presidential Commission would never have been created. The equipment was sufficiently good that, except for human failures, the major accident at Three Mile Island would have been a minor incident. But, wherever we looked, we found problems with the human beings who operate the plant, with the management that runs the key organization, and with the agency that is charged with assuring the safety of nuclear
    power plants.

    In the testimony we received, one word occurred over and over again. That word is “mindset.” At one of our public hearings, Roger Mattson, director of NRC’s Division of Systems Safety, used that word five times within a span of 10 minutes. For example: “I think [the] mindset [was] that the operator was a force for good, that if you discounted him, it was a measure of conservatism.” In other words, they
    concentrated on equipment, assuming that the presence of operators could only improve the situation — they would not be part of the problem.”
    End quote
    Read that carefully and let the key points soak in; people problems and mindsets.
    From page twenty five of the Kemeny Commission Report:
    Quote
    “Nevertheless, we feel that our findings and recommendations are of vital importance for the future of nuclear power. We are convinced that, unless portions of the industry and its regulatory agency undergo
    fundamental changes, they will over time totally destroy public confidence and, hence, they will be responsible for the elimination of nuclear power as a viable source of energy.”
    End quote

    Let that one soak in… a crystal ball? Not really, but apparently too subtle to be of any use.

    TMI was a wake-up call, but the industry didn’t wake up. The whole industry missed the opportunity to address the root cause of the problem. In hindsight I suspect some of it was the result of trying to save the huge capital investment involved in the already running plants and the plants under construction, so “reinventing the wheel” was not considered. All the currently running nuke plant designs originated from an initial bad concept that fell out of the Shippingport Plant demonstration effort back in the 50’s. The project was simply to demonstrate that nukes could be used to make electricity and supply it to the electrical grid, and it did that. But then they took Admiral Rickover’s simple passive safety system Naval Reactor’s submarine design, and hay-bailed on the active safety systems, to make it safe for land use in populated areas. And that hay-bailed demo plant design somehow got “a cast in concrete mindset” as the standard concept. Anyone familiar with the new ESBWR and AP1000 designs, compared to the navy plants, sees them looking more like Rickover’s original NR design. But it doesn’t matter; too little – too late, too much momentum against them and they have a non-economically feasible price tag for a public utility. For me, an analogy to what was done to the nuke plants post TMI would be if, after the Hindenburg blew up, that industry decided to kept the H2 concept and add super appendix R requirements (fire), Environmental Qualifications, more seismic strength, anti-lightening protection, security, improved pilot training, add Emergency Operations Facilities to landing strips, etc, blah, blah, blah. And nobody involved ever said “WAIT, using hydrogen in this application is a stupid idea in the first place.
    Some of the post-TMI “fixes” were needed, e.g. improved Symptom Based Emergency Procedures vice Event Based, improved EOFs, etc. The simple fact remains that all the engineering and hardware costs required to protect those active safety systems are a significant contributor to the initial costs and design change over run costs. Sometimes it seems like “If we can dream it up, we’ll regulate it”. My understanding is that there are now even designs with not only three, but four trains of active safety systems. Just what are they selling, a Ponzi scheme?
    All extremely complicated technologies eventually run into their first event of extreme crisis. The Navy’s loss of the USS Thresher and NASA’s loss of the Apollo 1 crew come to mind. How a particular technology responds, in the long term, to that event is a testimonial to the strength of the people involved and the program they put together for self evaluation. It’s obvious to me that within those two organizations, when the voice said “What we’re currently doing is a stupid idea in the first place”, that someone in a position to make a difference was listening. I have no doubts about the strength of most of the people involved in commercial nuclear power, however I can see events with evidence of what the space shuttle Columbia accident investigation board called a “normalization of deviance”, driven by the shear cost of these big units. But from my cheap seat view, the programmatic problems are endemic from A to Z, i.e. there is no consistent non-changing national policy on new nukes and spent fuel, the designers and operators mindset on plants too big to succeed; and then there are the regulators at the NRC. On that subject, if anyone is actually driving this train, they should look at how navy plants are regulated. So if a sane voice is actually out there, it would be better served barking at the moon.

    One of my final thoughts on this subject is on the concept of “Corporate Safety Culture”. In the corporate commercial nuke world it’s an oxymoron; but more the nature of the beast than an inherent fault with people. When this much money is involved in the decision making process, and a business profit must be made, sooner or later an (unknown) unacceptable risk will be taken based solely on economic reasons, think CR3 Containment fiasco. All these current nuke plants should be run by a single non-profit organization and policed by the “cream-of-the-crop” of Licensed Operators. It’s not that strange of an idea, think US Navy nuke program. And the next step is to rapidly replace these “tired old plants” with a single design passive safety system SMR. Of course that would take some unlikely national Executive and Congressional courageous leadership from folks whose very jobs are dependent on money from the very corporate interests who don’t want to see that happen.

    Footnote
    For those folks who still think TMI killed the demand for nuclear power in the US, here are some easily verifiable facts. The orders for nuke plants in the US peaked at what would have been a total of just over two hundred plants in 1975. By 1978, one year before TMI, about 50% of those had been canceled. To paraphrase a politician… “It’s the economics (of huge and/or active safety system plants), stupid!” That and misleading future electrical power need projections.

    • Rich L says:

      If a major accident was destined to happen, the nuclear Industry should be glad that it happened at TMI. After Leaving TMI I was a contractor solving problems at five other NPPs, all in the papers for their problems. The thing that struck me the most, and this was ten years after TMI-II, was the laissez faire attitude about the plants personnel. Several plants had NEVER performed any form of monthly, quarterly, or even annual/refueling interval calibration/preventative maintenance checks on the entire Balance-of-Plant ( BOP – non nuclear support systems) NONE. Their attitude was when it broke – Fix it. At Rancho Seco in 1986 I discovered that they even applied this same lack of preventative maintenance to the Integrated Control System (ICS). It had not been verified to be in calibration since the Bailey representative had calibrated/adjusted for proper operation at the initial startup (1975?). They had no readily available record of data for the thousands of settings on this control system. (For non B&W operators, this controls the entire steam plant, feed water system, turbine/generator and has auto runbacks for the Reactor. At the typical coal power station all they have is the Bailey ICS to control the entire plant.) When a BOP system was out of calibration the technician went out in the plant with the manual and “did-his-best” no procedure, no checklist, no plant review committee review/approval – just get it working again. This same attitude was prevalent, through the manager level, at each of those plants I worked at. Many of which had 8 – 10 years of INPO 1′s for their “Excellent” operational status, prior to the problem I went there to solve. The other common thread among these bad actors was that their senior managers were rarely ex Navy let alone ex military, and in talking to the ex Navy personnel I learned that they did not advance very far in the company. At one plant, more than 75% of managers and higher graduated from the same university – which had no nuclear program! It was well known “If you did not graduate from ___ you do not have a chance for a promotion.” They did hire the ex captain of the Navy Nuclear Power School – to get off of the INPO problem list in Training. He never got a promotion after that though.

      The Construction Startup managers at TMI were ex Navy Nav-Ships Nuclear Shipyard managers/directors and basically duplicated the Navy Program for TMI. MetED copied the same program for their maintenance program and maintained BOP systems at the same high standard as Safety Related systems – less the SR paperwork. No other plant I worked at had this level of a maintenance program, procedures, or control over BOP systems. I firmly believe if the accident had happened at Rancho Seco, for example, in 1979, after the Kemeny and Rogovin commission were through the US nuclear program would be over.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @mjd

      Though your comment is lengthy, it is full of meat about a lesson that may not have been learned, but really must be learned if we are going to move forward.

      I am not sure I agree with the part about the need for a “single design passive safety system”; even the program where I cut my nuclear teeth has more than one design, though all have always had a great deal of inherent passive safety due to moderate sizes, negative temperature coefficient of reactivity, and plenty of heat removal capacity that requires no electricity.

      I am also not sure that the country needs to be served by one NR-like organization; it is a very big place and might be better served by having several organizations with similarly trained and qualified leadership structures. Non-profit organizations do not automatically make better decisions and are not automatically less interested in money; their budgetary limits can be far worse than those associated with organizations that are focused on long term profits. For example, how likely do you think it is that Apple Computer would make a bad decision BECAUSE they were worried about the cost of starting over when a design exhibited weakness during the testing phase? Do you think ExxonMobil would fail to invest a sufficient quantity of money in blowout prevention; especially after learning how much a supplier shortcut?

      Just in case you do not know my professional background and my focus toward easily operated, passively safe machinery, you might want to visit http://atomicengines.com. My current employer is also quite focused on building resilient machinery with operator focus and passive safety as a fundamental starting point. http://www.babcock.com/products/modular_nuclear/

  15. Robert E. Schenter, PhD says:

    Daniel, Another article came out today(physicsworld.com) illustrating why the “Greenies”
    “don’t have their heads on straight”. The article is titled “Gold nanocages could image
    and treat tumors”. The gold nano cages will contain radioactive Au198(2.694d) which plays a very important role in the process. Au197(stable) has very large thermal and epithermal neutron
    Au198 production cross sections making it ideal for production in fission reactor systems not SSCs. Au198 has been made very effectively before in these systems.