The Radioactive Boy Scout (part 3)

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

Copyright © 2009 Charles Glassmire

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Jan. 2, 2010

 The Radioactive Boy Scout (part 3)

       David Hahn was collecting Radium. He was gathering old clocks and watches by visiting junk stores and antique shops, scraping off the radium paint from the dials (it made the watch dials glow in the darkness) and saving the tiny chips in plastic pill bottles. His Americium Neutron Gun was not powerful enough to change Thorium 232, (which he extracted from old lantern mantles,) into fissionable Uranium 233. Radium was a more powerful irradiator. You see, he needed Uranium to complete his dream of building a Breeder Reactor in his mother’s back yard. Then he could make all the elements in the periodic table.

      So on this late afternoon, David was driving his Pontiac through Clinton Township near Detroit, in order to visit his girl, Heather. Suddenly his Geiger counter on the dash sounded an alarm for dangerously high levels of radiation. He was driving past a small shop called Gloria’s Resale Boutique/Antique. Oblivious to any danger, he quickly parked the car and dashed into the shop, Geiger counter in hand.

      A puzzled attendant watched a teen-ager rush into his store with a wildly clicking instrument in hand, and quickly began waving the instrument along the shelves of the store. The young man slowly zeroed in to an antique table top clock in the rear of the shop. It had big glowing green hands and green numerals on the face. In the dimness at the rear of the shop, David saw a faint luminescence. He got excited and inquired about the price. It was very expensive. Gloria, the shop owner, wasn’t working that afternoon. Her telephone rang at home, and the clerk explained a polite young man wanted to know if she would reduce the price for the old mantle clock. She sold the clock to David for ten dollars.

      David rushed his precious find back to the potting shed; all thoughts of Heather vanished from his mind. He knew the radiation levels he was seeing couldn’t come from the simple painted clock face. There was something else involved. Something bigger.

      Carefully, he slowly opened the back of the clock and began to inspect the apparatus. There, hidden in a niche of the clockworks, he saw a small glass vial, which glowed rather brightly in the darkness. A kindly clockmaker, many years ago, had left a vial of Radium in the clock, so that the new owner could retouch the hands and face when the painted dial had lost its strength. The clock contained a full vial of Radium paint!

      David was ecstatic. He went back to Gloria’s and left her a note to the effect, if she received another “luminus” clock, he would pay any “some” of money to purchase another one.

      David concentrated the Radium, mixing the vial contents with his paint chips and heating the mix with Barium Sulfate. Evaporating the liquid, he now had a concentration which, unknown to him, was very dangerous. He put the new crystals into another lead brick Neutron Gun. Now when he bombarded the Thorium, it became “quite radioactive”. But the Uranium didn’t budge.

      One scientist helpfully explained that Uranium needed slower, thermal neutrons. David could have used water to moderate the speed of the particles, but Tritium was a more interesting moderator. It was used to boost the power of nuclear bombs to enhance the chain reaction. Tritium was used in glow-in-the-dark gun sights and archery bow sights. We can guess what happened next.

      David began purchasing the sights from sporting goods stores and mail order catalogs. He would remove the tiny amount of waxy substance containing the Tritium, then send the sight back to the store to exchange for a “good” one, using several false names. Finally he had enough to smear on the front of his new neutron gun. He now could bombard the Uranium samples with thermal neutrons; the U235 began fissioning. Slowly the pile of U0dust became more and more radioactive and the Geiger counter increased readings by the day. The inventory of new radioisotope fission products accumulated in the pile and sometimes into the air.

      Now David began to build the core of his Breeder Reactor. He didn’t have enough Uranium for a real critical chain reaction, but he wanted the radioisotopes to begin to interact with each other, to make something transform into something else. Oblivious to his own safety, he began mixing the Radium, paint chips and Thorium together with Aluminum and Beryllium powder wrapped in foil. He surrounded this mix with Thorium and UO2  wrapped in foil cubes, and stacked these in a checkerboard pattern he had seen in a college textbook. The whole “core” was held together with Duct tape. Now when he measured his “Breeder Reactor” with his Geiger counter, he was sometimes pegging the needle. He later said it became “…radioactive as heck.”

      One evening, David was returning from Heathers at a very late hour. He lazily coasted the Pontiac down his street, perhaps thinking of the next step in his experiments. Suddenly the Geiger counter went off, alerting to high gamma levels. David stopped the car, puzzled. He was still five houses away, down the street from his mother’s house, and still farther from the potting shed in her back yard.  Could it be that the instrument was signaling very high levels of radiation throughout the entire neighborhood? …

 (to be continued…)

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