Carnival Glitter, a Boy Scout, and the Dragon’s Tail: Civilian Radioactive Incidents

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(Featured image: Still from The Atomic Café, Rosenberg reel.) 

For the last couple of days I’ve been reading about small strange incidents regarding exposure to radioactivity, especially non-military events, or the lesser-known stories on the periphery of larger disasters. It’s utterly fascinating stuff, regardless of your position on the development of nuclear technology.

This is not my area of study at all so I’ll let the scientists and modern historians do most of the talking. Here are summaries with links to great reads. I welcome corrections if I’ve biffed anything up.

Contamination at Goiânia:
716px-Logo_iso_radiation.svg.pngThe danger symbol shown here was developed in 2007 for use on equipment “where very strong radiation fields can be encountered if the device is dismantled or otherwise tampered with.” The sign would not be on the outer part of such a device, but inside, to be discovered if and when a person was attempting to dismantle the device but before the person was in grave danger, in order to warn scrap metal workers and the like to stop their attempts and leave the area. (Source)
In 1987, when scrap metal workers in Brazil dismantled a radiation therapy machine from an abandoned medical facility, they found a beautiful, glittering blue powder in the innermost chamber. The family and neighbors shared the sparkly powder. They did not know that the “carnival glitter” was actually cesium chloride. Read an account of the incident at The Last Word on Nothing.


Stills from The Atomic Café, reel on Russia and the Hydrogen Bomb.

article-0-196011F300000578-933_634x489David Hahn, aka, “The Radioactive Boy Scout”:
As a teenaged boy scout, Hahn attempted to build a breeder reactor in the garden shed. His ingenuity and resourcefulness toward procuring the necessary ingredients is astounding: buying hundreds of broken smoke detectors for a dollar a pop in order to obtain americium-241, posing as a high-school teacher or college professor while corresponding with scientists to obtain the necessary information, and so on. Unfortunately, he was irradiating the neighborhood, and the shed was later declared a Superfund site. Ken Silverstein broke the story in a Harper’s piece titled The Radioactive Boy Scout, and later expanded his research into a book of the same name. The troubled Hahn died in 2016 at the age of 39.

06 US Army training video 02Still from The Atomic Café, US Army training video

Louis Slotin and the Criticality Accident:
Physicist Louis Slotin, working in the Los Alamos laboratory, was involved in conducting “an experiment to verify the exact point at which a subcritical mass (core) of fissal material could be made critical by the positioning of neutron reflectors (source).” Slotin’s (unapproved) protocol involved using the blade of a screwdriver to keep the reflectors apart. He was known for his bravado and liked to perform this feat for others, referring to it as “tickling the dragon’s tail.” Eventually, Slotin’s screwdriver slipped, and the reflector fell into place around the core, and the dragon awoke.

Tickling_the_Dragons_TailRecreation (simulation) of the Slotin incident, showing the configuration of beryllium reflector shells before the criticality. Source

That’s all I’ll write here, because a Alex Wellerstein has written a great account of the accident for The New Yorker titled The Demon Core and the Strange Death of Louis Slotin. A historian of science, Wellerstein runs the fantastic and fascinating Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog. (Fun fact: I was grade school pals with Wellerstein, and it’s fair to say that we were all pretty nerdy. It’s wonderful to see what he’s been up to.)

Slotin_criticality_drawingSketch of Louis Slotin’s criticality accident. Source

“The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off”:
Eben Byers was known to drink two or three bottles a day of the patent medicine Radithor. In the 20’s, the unregulated days of snake-oil salesman and patent medicines, Radithor promised much even if it only delivered a bit of radium in distilled water. You can read about the unfortunate fate of Byers in this Wall Street Journal piece, but if you’re on a small device or find that scan difficult to read, this NeatoRama article will do the trick. Here’s a Popular Science piece on radioactive patent medicines in general.

There are, unfortunately, many more stories, and I invite you down the wikipedia rabbit hole: from the radioactive re-bar used in Taipai apartments and other scrap metal incidents, to the three divers at Chernobyl. (And by the way, contrary to nearly all the popular online reports, the divers didn’t die right after their brave feat.) Here’s a list of many others. If you want a more visual experience, check out The Atomic Café. (PS: I’m saving the WIPP site as well as the Elephant’s Foot at Chernobyl for a stand-alone posts, because they both have a special place in my heart.)

Featured image:
Still from The Atomic Café.
Adee, Sally. “Contamination in Goiânia.” The Last Word On Nothing. 28 Mar. 2011. Web. 13 June 2017.
The Atomic Café. Dir. Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty, and Pierce Rafferty. The Archives Project, 1982.

Bryson, Bill. Short History of Nearly Everything. Chicago: Black Swan, 2016.
Silverstein, Ken. “The Radioactive Boy Scout.” Harper’s Magazine. Harper’s Magazine Foundation, Nov. 1998. Web. 13 June 2017.
Wellerstein, Alex. “The Demon Core.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 21 May 2016. Web. 13 June 2017.
Winslow, Ron. “The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Fell Off.” Scribd. The Wall Street Journal, n.d. Web. 13 June 2017.

Citing this page:
Solomon, Alana. “Carnival Glitter, a Boy Scout, and the Dragon’s Tail: Civilian Radioactive Incidents.” Ortolana Studio & Press. Ortolana Studio & Press,  June 13 2017.

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