Are You Telling Me That This Sucker’s Nuclear? Adventures in Atomic Tourism
2012 Column Contest Winner
Anne Wheeler used to live in the Pacific Northwest and have purple hair and piercings, but now works for “The Man” at a white-shoe law firm in the South. To balance this assault on her soul, and free the ‘90s Goth girl within, she spends her free time working as a cemetery tour guide and exploring the vestiges of the Atomic Era.
Boy Scout Merit Badge:
BY ANNE WHEELER
Hi Readers! Welcome to the third and final installment of the Boy Scout Merit Badge in Atomic Energy saga! As some of you know, the Boy Scouts of America used to offer a merit badge in Atomic Energy. There are six requirements for attaining this badge, and believe me—the relatively small number of steps is a bit misleading. I mean, I’ve spent three columns now on this stuff.
The sixth requirement for the merit badge in atomic energy is a doozy. There are ten choices, and I, channeling my nineteen-sixties Boy Scout within, must complete three of them for full credit. And I’ll tell you right up front—this is where the merit badge project train goes completely off the tracks, like in Back to the Future III when the DeLorean, pushed by a steam-powered locomotive, reaches 88 mph right before plummeting/time travelling, into/across Shonash/Clayton/Eastwood Ravine only to reappear steampunk as fuck in front of Marty and Jennifer in 1985. Except we’re just plummeting. I think.
Anyway, here are the ten individual components of the final sixth requirement, followed by my attempts/non-attempts at each. With my annotations of course.
Do any three of the following:
1. Build an electroscope using simple material. (What the hell is “simple” material? Do you think I have any lying around my house?) Show your merit badge counselor how it works. Put a radiation source inside the electroscope and explain to your counselor any differences observed. (Also importantly, what is an electroscope?)
2. Make a simple Geiger counter (this is something I can build? I don’t know that I trust myself to build something designed to detect radiation. Like at all.) and tell your merit badge counselor which parts are the detector, the amplifier and the indicator. Tell your counselor which types of radiation the counter can detect and how many counts per minute of what radiation you have detected in your home with the Geiger counter.
3. Build a model of a nuclear reactor (!!!) showing the nuclear fuel, the control rods, the radiation shielding, the moderator, and any cooling material. Explain, to the satisfaction of your merit badge counselor, how a nuclear reactor could1 be used to transform nuclear energy into electrical energy, or to make things radioactive.
4. Using a Geiger counter (that you’ve built or borrowed) and a radiation source, show your merit badge counselor how the counts per minute change as the radiation source gets closer to the detector. Place at least three different kinds of material between the source and the detector and explain to your counselor any differences in the counts per minute. Tell your counselor which material you would recommend to shield people from radiation and why.
5. Using fast-speed film (I don’t know what this is. Will my iPhone do it? What about Instagram?) and a radiation source, conduct an experiment using the principles of autoradiography and radiography and show the results to your counselor. Explain in your own words, to the satisfaction of your counselor, what happened to the films and how someone could use this technique in medicine, research or industry. This seems way too hard.
6. Using a Geiger counter (that you’ve built or borrowed2 ), find a radiation source that your merit badge counselor has hidden under a covering. Repeat the experiment with your counselor for at least tthree other locations under the cover and draw on a map (representing the cover) the movement and location of the source. Explain in your own words, to the satisfaction of your counselor, how someone could use this technique in medicine research, agriculture or industry.
7. Arrange, with the assistance of your merit badge counselor, to visit a dentist, physician, veterinarian or hospital where X-ray equipment is used. Draw a floor plan of the room in which the X-ray unit is used, showing where the unit, the operator of the unit and the patient would be when it is used. Show your floor plan to your counselor and be prepared to discuss with him the radiation hazards from the X-ray equipment.
8. Make a cloud chamber, using simple material. (Again, with the “simple”, Boy Scouts?) Show your merit badge counselor how the chamber can be used to see the tracks caused by radiation and explain in your own words, to his satisfaction, what is happening.
9. Arrange with the assistance of your merit badge counselor, to visit an industrial plant or research laboratory, where radio-isotopes are being used. Explain, by drawing a simple diagram, how and why the radioisotope is used.
10. Obtain samples of irradiated seeds and plant them, with a control group of non-irradiated seeds of the same type, and grow both to maturity under the same conditions. Observe and catalog any differences and be prepared to discuss the effects of irradiation of seeds with your counselor.
Alright. Let’s talk about each of the individual chunks. Step One involves building an electroscope; I don’t even know what this is. Google says it’s apparently an early scientific instrument used to detect an electric charge on a body. That clears it right up. Anyway, building an electroscope doesn’t really sound fun, and I don’t have any “simple” on-hand so I’m going to skip this one.
Number Two is essentially building a Geiger counter, which who even knew this was something that I, or the 1965 Boy Scout version of me anyway, could build?! I mean really. However, from what I can tell, nuclear-related things are a bit harder to procure in 2013 than they were in 1965. Maybe if I worked somewhere even remotely sciencey, this wouldn’t be the case, but all I have access to at my job are oodles of super fly office supplies. The booklet suggests ordering a Geiger counter “kit”, and includes several mail-order addresses, kind of like the mail-order-sea-monkeys-at-the-back-of-Teenage-Mutant-Ninja-Turtles-thing from my childhood. But I do my mail-ordering online.
I visited my local hardware store (yes, we still have a few) and Radio Shack (which has basically turned into the Walmart of cell phones and cell phone accessories, if you haven’t been in awhile) but didn’t really find any “kits.” So I turned to my friend the Internet. Now, there are Geiger counter kits available, but they’re pretty expensive, and then I’d still have to build the actual device.
I took a look at normal, ready-made Geiger counters and they were even more expensive. Like hundreds of dollars, or sold “as is” (which I think is something you really don’t want in a Geiger counter). This project got expensive really quickly. And I’m pretty cheap. So, I’m just going to tell you about Geiger counters and add one to my Amazon Wish List and maybe Ethyl, fairy-godmother of the nerds, will get it for me.
Geiger counters work mainly because of the Geiger tube. The Geiger tube is filled with an inert gas. The inside of the tube is coated with metal and has a negative charge (cathode). An electrode runs down the middle of the tube and has a positive charge (anode). Normally, no current flows between the cathode and the anode.
When ionizing radiation is present, the gas molecules are ionized. This sets the ions moving toward the cathode and the electrons to move toward the anode, causing other atoms to be ionized as they bump off of them in the process. In my brain, this is kind of like a tiny game of bumper cars. The ionization causes a cascade of ions toward the cathode and a cascade of electrons toward the anode, which creates a brief current between the cathode and the anode. This sudden current reflects the intensity of the event in an electrical pulse. When connected to a speaker, this creates the click that you’ve heard in every radiation-related movie and Fallout. Phew.
Step Three asks that I build a model of a nuclear reactor. And I did! Now, I know this is hard to believe, but I didn’t have any professional help with this, from construction to the photographs. I built it all with my own two hands!
Let’s talk about what’s going on in the picture. First, we have the reactor core in the red French press. The glass pitcher is the housing/radiation shielding. It’s hard to see, but inside the reactor core we have black, colorfully lidded chalkboard markers (black with colorful lids) as fuel rods. Attached to the plunger/lid we have the control rods represented by glue sticks.3 The ingenious part about this is that the plunger/lid actually let’s me raise/lower the fuel rods to control the reaction just like in an actual plant! (Remember, we talked about fuel/control rods and criticality in this column.)
From there I have a copper wire running through a turbine (overturned Fiestaware bowl—all sorts of turbine-turning is happening underneath, promise), a heat exchanger (copper wire and yarn twisted together) a pump (salt shaker) and back to the reactor core (French press).
In a boiling water reactor (the kind I built) the separate system of water (yarn) is essentially used to cool the water that touches the reactor core, so that it can go back through the pump (salt shaker) and into the reactor core (French press) again, and then the whole process starts over again. This separate system of water comes in (as yarn) at the bottom right of the image next to the pump (pepper shaker). The pump (pepper shaker) pushes water through the heat exchanger (copper wire and yarn twisted together) and is then sent to the cooling tower (hi-ball glass), where it cools, and then rejoins the cycle with the addition of fresh water. Oh, and there must be a radiation leak in my setup, going by the giant crawfish and zombie hanging-out behind the cooling tower.
The only thing particularly “nuclear” about the whole nuclear power plant is that nuclear reactions are being used to generate the heat. That’s it. This could just as easily (obviously with different results) be another heat source—solar, coal, wood, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos—essentially anything that makes heat for steam and/or super hot pressurized water to turn the turbine. That’s about it kids.
I’m onto you, Number Four. I know you just want to know that I know what’s down with shielding radioactivity. Now, I’m not actually going to complete this step because I don’t have a Geiger counter. And I’m not going to build or borrow one, so stop asking. The appropriate type of shielding material depends on the type of radiation we’re trying stave off. As I’ve shown below, alpha radiation can be stopped with paper, beta radiation can be stopped with aluminum and gamma radiation can be stopped with lead.
The step asks which type of material I would use as a shield. Well, I suppose I would use lead because that protects me from gamma, beta and alpha radiation; the whole gang of radiation baddies. And isn’t this what they use in X-Ray rooms anyway? Problem solved. But wait; doesn’t lead exposure come with its own set of issues? You know, you’re not supposed to eat lead paint and all? Do I need to be shielded from my shield? Whatever; I’m standing by my heavy metal/neurotoxin.
We’re just going to straight-up skip Number Five.
Number Six involves what I like to call, “radioactive hide and seek.” Or maybe “atomic geocaching.” Either way, I’m not going to do it. The idea of making a map from a radiation source hidden and moved around under some sort of cover seems kind of… not safe?
Number Seven asks that I visit a dentist, veterinarian, hospital, essentially anyone with an X-Ray setup. We’ve all done this before. We know what this looks like, blah, blah, blah, I’m not listening anymore. Fun fact: There are way more places with X-Rays in use now—county courthouses, airports, schools, meat-packing plants… basically you can’t spend a day without being somewhere where X-Rays are used in 2013.
As for Number Eight, cloud chambers (particle detectors) are cool and all, but why would I want to make one? And it seems to involve a lot of dry ice. Dry ice is pretty expensive and I remember getting burned pretty good by it in high school when I worked at a grocery store that sold the stuff. For some reason, they let the baggers knock the dry ice off the block and deliver it to the cashiers for weighing and sale. Kind of seems like you shouldn’t let sixteen-year-olds handle dry ice even with the giant “ice gloves” and a hammer. Sort of related, my sister once had to go to the emergency room because she froze/burned her stomach with one of those cans of compressed air. My mom and dad were so mad! Man. Anyway, I did not make a cloud chamber for completely reasonable reasons related to dry ice and canned air. And laziness. But here’s a bit about them anyway.
Cloud chambers were prominent from the twenties through the fifties when they were replaced technology-wise (not awesomeness-wise) with the bubble chamber (I don’t know what that is.) Carl Anderson discovered the positron, and Muon in cosmic rays, winning the Nobel Prize in Physics, using the cloud chamber. Yay! Carl.
Number Nine wants me to visit an industrial plant or lab where radio-isotopes are used. I don’t want to. I have a friend that works in a lab that uses them. Does that count?
The last choice asks that I plant some irradiated seeds along with some non-irradiated seeds of the same type and note the differences in the seeds, growth and fruit. Though I’m not really going to grow anything, because I’m not really what you’d call a “gardener,” I did find out some pretty interesting information about irradiated seeds. First of all, nearly all of the irradiated seeds available to me on the Internet are for educational purposes. There are all sorts of kits for elementary school teachers to perform this exact experiment. I thought this was a bit odd that I couldn’t just buy plain old irradiated seeds by the packet on Amazon. I mean I could but they come from places like Big Brother Bio-Tech instead of Happy Perry’s Rutabaga Farm—just not my jam.
From what I understand, this is how irradiated seeds work: a normal seed or “germplasm” to the cool kids is zapped by a dose of radiation. This basically mixes-up the genes inside the genome. Kind of like making a forced hybrid. I don’t know why, but I think this sounds fantastically cool, and all sorts of mad scientisty. This makes the plants slightly different from each other. In my brain all I can see are Mendel’s peas even though that’s not quite what we’re talking about here. This is all so wicked cool in my book. Irradiation is also used in other agricultural applications, but the rest of them aren’t nearly as Veggie Tales meets Island of Dr. Moreau, so they won’t be discussed here.
And that’s that!
So, how’d I do? Can I go ahead and click Buy It Now for my merit badge on eBay? I think I’m going to go ahead and click.
Tune in next time for more atomic tourism adventures. Of the non-merit badge achieving sort.
1 I’m guessing this is where The Radioactive Boy Scout went wrong; instead of “could” he went with “will”.
2 Where are all of Geiger counters for let? Is there a Geiger counter library I don’t know about? Or is it like Netflix?
3 These are normally very vertical. Because if they bang-into each other, very bad things can happen. I know it’s not quite the same thing, but the Demon Core is a great example of a nuclear “banging” accident. The Demon Core was a piece of plutonium that killed people in two separate accidents. The first accident happened when the scientist working with it accidentally dropped a tungsten carbide brick on the core, causing it to briefly attain criticality, releasing a burst of radioactivity. The scientist died 25 days later. In the second accident a screwdriver slipped (it was the only thing “shielding” the scientist—I know, I know) and the top reflector shield fell into place, causing the core to go supercritical. The scientist died nine days later. It is suspected that several others in the vicinities of the incidents also died ultimately from the accidents (cancers, etc.). The Demon Core was destroyed at Los Alamos labs, in the Able detonation, the first atomic bomb test after WWII. So, my “rods” should be straight. And don’t bang nuclear stuff together.
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