An alternative title for this piece might be – Seeing the art that already exists in radioactive materials.
Until today, I had never heard of James Acord, a sculptor who devoted more than 20 years of his life to sustained efforts to create art from radioactive materials. The first part of that struggle involved 12 years and reams of paper that eventually became a part of an art exhibit as he followed the rules to obtain a radioactive materials license from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The US NRC finally granted Acord a possession license; he celebrated that achievement by having the license number – WN-I0407-1 – tattooed on the back of his neck.
I regret having never met the man or heard of his efforts to help an expanding number of people understand the geometric symmetry and beauty that he saw in the materials used to create nuclear energy. It would have been fun to talk to someone else who recognizes the incredible material beauty and geometric structures that seem to be inherent parts of causing and controlling atomic chain reactions.
Acord’s story is, on one level, a tragic one – he ended his own life in January 2011 at age 66 after a long struggle with schizophrenia. That disease could not have been helped by his frustrating struggles with government rules and by his focus on creating art that was personally, vice commercially pleasing.
Despite his tragic end and apparently lengthy periods of unhappiness, Acord was able to create some fascinating and haunting works of art. He spoke to interested audiences around the world and put together conferences for nuclear scientists and engineers to help them see the connection between material-focused sculpture and the work that they did every day.
In 2010, Acord gave an invited speech to The Influencers, an annual arts conference held in Barcelona, Spain. The conference focuses on visionary projects that explore the marriage of arts and activism. In that speech, he described his effort to become technically competent in nuclear engineering and nuclear science that was a part of his effort to be the first – and perhaps only individual to obtain a radioactive material handling license.
He talked about how the art of sculpture has always reflected the materials used by the society where the art was created. As participant in the Nuclear Age, he thought it was an important contribution to his art form to find a way to access and use nuclear materials in his artwork. He also talked about how inspired he was as he learned more about the beautiful pieces of material art inside nuclear reactors that few people ever see.
Towards the end of the speech, he dropped a bomb by stating that he had successfully produced plutonium, a material that is illegal for anyone to possess. He got a chuckle from the audience when he pointed out that this was the first time he had admitted that fact in public and that he had been careful to do it outside of the United States.
He then went on to describe the apparatus that he used and how he wanted to display his device as a work of creative art. (He mentioned the great care with which he shielded the device; from his description, it sounded like the shielding would have added to the beauty since it included thick leaded glass.)
His homemade device reminded me of the laboratory apparatus that Enrico Fermi used in the mid 1930s to determine the effect of neutron bombardment on a whole range of elements. Acord used smoke detectors, emeralds, paraffin and Fiestaware to accumulate essentially the same elements as Fermi’s neutron generator.
Acord started his creation by attacking common smoke detectors with a rock. He extracted Am-251, which has a 432 year half life and decays by alpha emission, from several destroyed smoke detectors. He put the AM-241 onto a stand that focused the alpha particles into crushed emeralds, which contain a large amount of beryllium.
During a creative February in 1932, (almost exactly 80 years ago) James Chadwick used beryllium to prove the existence of neutrons, the key to atomic chain reactions and the philosophers stone that enables atomic alchemy.
Aside: The most common isotope of beryllium has atomic weight of 9 amu with a nucleus that includes 4 protons and 5 neutrons. When hit by an alpha particle (which is a helium nucleus with 2 protons and 2 neutrons) beryllium-9 has a reasonable probability of turning into carbon-12 (6 protons and 6 neutrons) plus an extra neutron. Since there were a total of 7 neutrons involved when the beryllium nuclei was hit with an alpha particle and C-12 only needs 6 neutrons, one is set free. You can see an animation of the reaction at CambridgePhysics.org. End geeky aside.
As Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie determined in early 1932, passing neutrons through paraffin slowed them down and gave them a higher probability of interacting with other nuclei.
In 1942, Glenn Seaborg discovered that neutrons can convert a predictable portion of uranium into plutonium. (Of course, another predictable portion will fission, releasing concentrated energy and additional gamma and neutron radiation.)
Acord obtained the necessary uranium for his plutonium production device by crushing FiestaWare plates and using the fact that uranium oxides are heavier than clay to separate the uranium from the colored pottery. In his Influencers video, Acord describes his action as “panning” for uranium.
The purpose of Acord’s creation was to demonstrate what he considered to be the illogical policy of shielding nuclear knowledge from public view. He also wanted to show how damaging it is to the development of nuclear energy applications that governments have put such tight restrictions on nuclear materials. As Acord pointed out, (incredibly expensive) efforts to keep nuclear knowledge from the public have not made the world a safer place.
The necessary information is freely available to anyone who really wants to use it to cause harm. Instead, obscuring nuclear knowledge prevents the public from making intelligent technology tradeoffs and providing useful input to atomic decision making.
The Influencers audience was suitably impressed by Acord’s talk and asked penetrating questions that illustrate just how much work nuclear advocates need to do in our efforts to share our nuclear fascination with the rest of the world.
One questioner asked Acord if he was worried about his health as a result of handling radioactive materials. Acord answered by stating that sculpture is a risky occupation with frequent exposure to fine particles, welding vapors, asbestos, and other hazardous materials. He told the audience that he took sensible precautions to protect himself and his audience from the negative effects of radioactive material. He emphasized that it was just one of many risks of his normal occupation – and not all that high on his priority list.
Another asked if Acord was worried that revealing the specifics of his device might cause authorities to decide to remove smoke detectors from the market. Acord said he did not expect that to be the response. However, just imagine how many people might have an elevated risk of death if that was determined to be an appropriate response by radiophobic regulators.
I am happy to have spent a little time this weekend learning more about a man whose work may yet have a positive impact on the way that people approach and understand radiation, radioactive materials and nuclear technology.
Here are embedded videos of Acord’s 2010 speech at The Influencers.
James Acord: Remembering the artist and his work