The Radioactive Boy Scout (part 2)


Tales from the Nuclear Age:

Copyright © 2009 by Charles Glassmire


Dec. 21, 2009

 The Radioactive Boy Scout (part 2)

           Pyrophoric Phosphorous will ignite spontaneously in air. David had removed a sample from its protective container and, in the open air, it can release flammable gases, especially when pounded with a screwdriver. Thus occurred a violent explosion in Ken and Kathy’s basement. David was blown to the floor, unconscious. Finding him there, they rushed him to the hospital where he was treated for chemical burns. His eyes were flushed to remove caustic materials, and he finally recovered, although he was treated for many months for small pieces of plastic container which had embedded themselves in his eyes.

          Kathy put a stop to all experimentation in the house. In addition, they forbad David from being in the house alone, even when they were only going a short distance to the store. The concern was that he would level the house. They locked him out when they left, and noted the time of their return so he could re-enter. Kathy began searching David’s room for hidden chemicals and apparatus, which she promptly destroyed and discarded.

          Not to be deterred, David simply transferred his laboratory to his mother’s house in Golf Manor. (not, of course, mentioning the prior incident.) There was a convenient potting shed in her back yard, and Patty was happy to keep him occupied there. David was happy to be away from the prying eyes of the world, and free to do his experiments. It was not mischief; he simply was driven to continue his passion for collecting elements.

          David was now determined to do things “safely”. He sometimes wore a gas mask while working, and often discarded his clothes and shoes when he emerged from the potting shed. Patty and Michael admired the long hours he spent working, but thought his safety procedures a bit odd. When David explained his work to Michael, he admittedly did not follow much of what was “explained”. David told Michael that the World would run out of oil soon, and “… I want to do something about that”.

          David had to earn 21 merit badges for the Eagle Scout rank. He was awarded the Atomic Energy merit badge in May of 1991 at age 14. The scout merit badge pamphlet revealed that Americium 241, one of the desired elements he needed to procure, could be found in smoke detectors. He had no financial backing, and no legal means to procure radioactive isotopes. So he invented cover stories. Later on, he purchased a Geiger Counter kit cheaply, assembled the parts and mounted the Geiger Counter on the dashboard of his Pontiac 6000.

          David wrote to dozens of smoke detector manufacturers. He said as a high school physics instructor, he needed a large number of detectors for a school demonstration. One company sold him one hundred broken detectors at a price of one dollar each. He didn’t know where the isotope was in the unit, so he wrote to another company asking questions. One customer service woman wrote back and said she’d be glad to help with his “project”. She told him a miniscule amount of the isotope was contained in a small gold button in the unit. Gold was used so it wouldn’t deteriorate and release the Americium. David quickly assembled the buttons, extracted the Americium chemically, and welded a pile of the miniscule bits together with a blowtorch.

          Americium 241 decays by emitting Alpha particles, a rather heavy charged particle easily detected by his Geiger Counter. He drilled a small hole in a lead block, inserted the Americium into the hole and, voila, had a crude “gun” emitting collimated Alpha particles. But Neutrons were what was needed to irradiate lighter elements, and change them into heavier ones by capturing a Neutron in the nucleus. He knew Aluminum atoms absorb Alphas and release Neutrons. So placing a sheet of Aluminum foil in front of the lead block produced a stream of neutrons coming out of the Aluminum. Now he could irradiate other things, and make some of the desired new elements. David had his newly made “neutron gun”, and he was ready to irradiate the world!

          Instead of choosing relatively harmless non-radioactive elements, David wanted to make some fissionable elements, in line with his plan of building a Breeder Reactor.  (A Breeder reactor starts with U235 and a little Plutonium, and when the Uranium is exhausted, it has created lots more Plutonium than it started with. So it “breeds” its own fuel in a very economical way.)  David had wanted to irradiate Uranium 235, since it would have the “biggest reaction”. But his experiments with Pitchblend and UO2 had proven futile. He couldn’t separate out Uranium, let alone the highly fissionable U235 isotope.

          The next possibility was fissionable Thorium 232. This element has a high melting point, and so was used in the mantle of older gas lamps (the part that surrounds the flame and glows when lit.)  Purchasing many hundreds of mantles from commercial companies, David reduced them to a pile of ash with his trusty blowtorch.  Now he had to isolate out the Thorium 232 from what was probably a pile of Thorium Oxide. He knew the element Lithium could pull off the Oxygen from the ash. So from his savings, he purchased $1000 worth of Lithium batteries. Cutting each one open with wire cutters, he extracted the Lithium. Wrapping the whole mess in a ball of foil, he heated the mix and nicely extracted the Thorium. It had a surprisingly high purity. In fact, David didn’t know it but his Thorium extract was very concentrated, and many times more radioactive than was permissible for possession by a U.S. citizen under regulations of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  He tried to irradiate this with his Neutron Gun, which would change it to fissionable U233, but his gun wasn’t strong enough to make detectable U233.

          Plutonium can’t be purchased. It’s man made, usually in a running reactor. So next he turned his attention to Radium. It wasn’t fissionable but he’d been collecting old clocks and watch dials for years. Radium was used to make the clock hands glow in the dark. He was chipping off the paint from old watches and saving the bits in plastic pill bottles. This was a very labor intensive process until one day, he was driving the Pontiac over to see his girl. Suddenly the Geiger counter on the dash went crazy. The dial indicated gamma levels unheard of in civilian usage. He was passing a store named “Gloria’s Resale Botique/Antique”. Quickly he parked the car and dashed inside breathless with the Geiger Counter still sounding the danger alarm …

 (to be continued…)


One Response to “The Radioactive Boy Scout (part 2)”

  1. radon wilmington Says:

    Radium releases radon gas which at the very least it will give you lung cancer (if you don’t get cancer from the Radium in the first place!)

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