Archive for August, 2010

Drink Radithor!

August 30, 2010

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

 Copyright © 2010 by Charles M. Glassmire


Aug. 30, 2010

Drink Radithor!

           After the Curies’ discovery, the new radioactive Radium seemed to take Paris by storm. It glowed spontaneously, had no source of energy, and there was this young woman scientist who was wont to remove a tube of the stuff from her smock pocket and dazzle the onlookers with magic that glowed in the dark! Soon Pierre discovered that the mysterious rays could destroy cancer cells. Now the fame of this material spread to other countries.  The medical profession quickly took up the cause of what seemed to be an amazing cure.

          Marie noted “one of our joys was to go into our workroom at night…the glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights…”

          Soon, in the early 1900’s, a thriving industry based on Radium began to bring products to market for health improvement, cosmetics and cancer prevention. An industrialist named Armet de Lisle started a factory to make medical products containing Radon and Radium salts, and the Curies advised him on their techniques for refining Pitchblend. They did not patent the processes they created, believing pure science should operate for the betterment of humanity. De Lisle did provide them with quantities of Radium salts for use in their work.

          Soon products with names like Tho-Radia, Undark, and Radithor began to move off the shelves. Radiation is good for you,

Ad for Tho-Radia

helps your complexion, gives you a healthy glow. Use Uranium blankets for arthritis, wear a radiation pendant for Rheumatism, take Thorium laced medicine to aid digestion.

          The Radiendocrinator   was a 3 inch gold case containing 250 microcuries of Radium (a serious quantity). One took it to bed and placed it over the endocrine glands! Alternatively, the maker advised men to “Wear the adaptor like an athletic supporter…putting the instrument under the scrotum as it should be. Wear at night. Radiate as directed…”

          One company sold a water cooler five gallon jug, to sit atop the office water cooler billed as “Natural Radon Water”.  There was one small detail. Radon has a half life of only three days. By the time the water hit the market most of the Radon was gone. But the list seemed endless, and the public marveled all the more at these strange new miracle substances. Radiation was new, exciting, and good for you.

          The entrance of fraudulent products into this market introduced a bizarre and ironic twist. Some companies sold

Ad for the Revigator

harmless false products containing no radiation and thus causing no harm. They were soon shut down by authorities because they did not contain the high doses of  radiation claimed on the package!  

          The new Radiation Industry quickly spread to the United States. In the U.S, Radium cures reached their maximum popularity during the 1920’s.  The Revigator, a crock pot lined with radioactive ore, produced radioactive water overnight. It was manufactured by a company of the same name, headquartered in San Francisco. Patented in 1912, sales were so brisk the company created branch offices across the United States. Sales reached several hundred thousand units.

          Do you have high blood pressure, goitre, stomach cramps, female trouble, kidney problems, constipation? Dr. C. Davis wrote in the American Journal of Clinical Medicine  that

          “Radioactivity prevents insanity, rouses noble emotions, retards old age, and creates a splendid youthful joyous life…”

          By the early 1930’s one could buy radium-containing toothpaste, beauty creams, chocolate bars, soap, ear plugs, suppositories and contraceptives.

          In East Orange New Jersey, a company sprang up with the name of the Bailey Radium Laboratories, Inc. They sold “Certified Radioactive Water” for drinking, under the trade name of Radithor.  The company head, “Dr.” William J. Bailey, made Radithor  by dissolving Radium in water to a very high concentration level. Mr. Bailey was a Harvard drop-out, who claimed (falsely) to be a medical doctor. The product was making him rich. He gave any doctor who prescribed Radithor  a 17% kickback on the price of each scrip. But Radithor was to have the dubious honor of causing at least one death.

A bottle of Radithor

          Enter Mr. Eben McBurney Byers. He was born in Pittsburgh Pa.’s North Side on Ridge Avenue, on the 12th of April, 1880. He was the son of Steel Industrialist Alexander Byers. Educated at Yale College, he gained the college reputation of a serious golfer and somewhat of a ladies man to boot. He went on to become the U.S. Amateur Golf Champion of 1906, and later became CEO of the Girard Iron Company, one of his father’s creations.

          In 1927 Eben chartered a private train to attend the Harvard-Yale football game. On the way home, perhaps a little dizzy, he fell from the upper bunk on the train and injured his arm. Suffering from pain,  he consulted Pittsburgh physician Dr. C.C. Moyar, who prescribed Radithor. It was supposed to cure by stimulating the endocrine system. Instructions on the bottle suggested patients drink from the bottle itself, and swallow an entire bottle after a meal. Eben did so, and felt very much better after the first bottle. So much better, in fact, that he decided if one bottle worked, many bottles would work even better. He began consuming three bottles of Radithor each day.

          Radium works like Barium or Calcium in the human body. When digested, it travels to the bone marrow and sits there to the end of its life. The main isotope of Radium (Ra226) has a half life of 1,601 years. Half of it disappears in that amount of time. So the atoms of Radium sit in the bone and bombard the local bone tissue with Alpha particle radiation. It is reasonably certain this agitation to the cells can ultimately induce cancer. (It is important to distinguish here from the modern Radium treatments for Cancer patients. These treatments can be quite effective, and we note that the Radium in these treatments never enters the body; thus no additional dangers are encountered by the patient).

          Radithor was a mixture of one microgram of Radium and one microgram of Thorium compounds (Thorium was cheaper), per bottle. It seemed to lessen Eben’s pain. He told his friends, and cases of Radithor  began arriving at his Pittsburgh address, at $30 per (depression era) case. Later he also shipped cases to his South Carolina address. Eben, at age 50, continued Radithor for quite some time. After about a year be began to lose the “toned-up feeling”. He began suffering severe headaches, and losing weight. Pain developed in other parts of his body, especially in the jaw. He lost several teeth. It was later estimated he had consumed over 1400 bottles of Radithor. Finally an expert was consulted and a diagnosis of radiation poisoning was issued.  By this time his bone structure was actually crumbling. Finally his entire jaw had to be removed. He died in great pain in a New York hospital at age 51, in March of 1932.

          The Herald Tribune accused Dr. Moyar of having several hundred patients suffering from Radithor effects. He denied these charges, claiming he himself consumed as much of the water as Byers took, and still felt quite healthy. He said Byers had died from blood complications which caused gout.

          When Eben’s case hit the New York newspapers, Bailey, owner of the Radithor Company, closed its doors and stopped manufacturing the product. There was an investigation and eventually a “cease and desist” order was issued by the FTC, long after the company had disappeared. Bailey was never charged for Byers’ death. Undaunted, he continued to market radioactive products, founding a new company in New York called the “Radium Institute”. He marketed radioactive belt buckles, paperweights and a mechanism to make water radioactive.

          Commenting on Eben Byers’ death, the Wall Street Journal  observed “The Radium Water worked fine until his Jaw came off.”

          And the Radium story has more to tell …

 (to be continued …) 



Mystery Rays

August 15, 2010

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

 Copyright © 2010 by Charles Glassmire


Aug. 15, 2010

Mysterious Rays

           Manya Sklodlwska (Curie) was born the last of five siblings in 1867 in Warsaw, which was then under the Czarist rule of the Russian Empire. Poland hadn’t been independent for almost a century. Her parents taught Physics and Chemistry, but it was illegal to teach Polish citizens, and forbidden even to speak their native language.

          “Constantly held in suspicion and spied upon, we children     knew that a single conversation in Polish, or an imprudent word, might seriously harm themselves, and also their families…”                      Marie Curie

            Her father read the classics to her some evenings, and her parents fostered her education in the sciences. She graduated from high school first in her class and received a gold medal, even though it required shaking the hand of the (Russian) Education Director. Being an intelligent woman in a man’s world, she was rejected from university study because she was female. She then studied at an illegal night school called the Floating University. The classes constantly moved location around the city to avoid the Czar’s watchful men.

          Finally, at age 24 and fleeing a broken love relationship, she traveled to Paris where her sister was studying to become a medical doctor, and enrolled in the University of Paris (Sorbonne). It was there in 1891, that she changed her name to Marie. Living in a flat in the Latin Quarter, she suffered from the

cold and sometimes fainted for lack of food.

           “…my situation was not exceptional; it was the familiar experience of many of the Polish students whom I knew…”

Marie wrote later.

          Her diligence eventually paid dividends, finishing first in her Physics course and being awarded a scholarship and some lab space to continue study. In 1894 she shared the lab space with a scientist studying magnetism, a topic of her own research. His name was Pierre Curie.

           “Our work drew us closer and closer, until we were both convinced that neither of us could find a better life companion…”  Marie observed.

           In 1895 they were married in a civil ceremony. She wore a simple blue suit which served later for many years as a laboratory

The Honeymooners

smock. There was no exchange of rings. They took their honeymoon by touring France on two bicycles, purchased with a wedding gift.

          Having earned a degree in Physics, Marie was now pursuing her Doctorate and she urged Pierre to do so. He was an experienced researcher of some 15 years, and in March of 1985 he was awarded the Doctorate.  She chose to study the mysterious rays given off by Uranium salts as her thesis topic; this phenomenon was first reported by Becquerel in 1896. He noted they appeared to be like X-rays, and he soon became Marie’s thesis advisor. Pierre soon found her studies much more interesting than his own, and joined her in her investigations.

          Pierre had invented an instrument which measured the ionization of air. They could quantify the ray emissions by measuring the charged air around the samples. Studying the mineral Pitchblende, they soon found Pitchblende gave off four times more rays than the Uranium it contained. This meant there must be something else in the sample giving off additional rays!  And it was far more active than elemental Uranium. She soon discovered that the element Thorium also gave off these rays. The physical nature of these emanations was a challenging mystery.

          In 1898 they published the existence of another active element which Marie named “Polonium”, after her native Poland. She began to refer to these unknown emissions as “radiation”. Soon elements which gave off the rays were spoken of as “radioactive”.

          The research involved manual grinding of Pitchblende into a powder. They were unaware of the physical effects of radiation, and their hands began to show the effects. The mysterious element made up only a tiny percentage of the pitchblende ore, making it necessary to grind tons of the material for refining.

          Finally in 1902 they announced isolation of one tenth of a gram of the new material, named radium (chloride). It was to be eight more years before Marie was able to isolate the Radium metal itself.  In a darkened room, the material was found to give off a strange and fascinating blue-white glow.

          In 1903 the Royal Swedish Academy awarded the Curies and Becquerel the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discoveries. Marie became the first woman ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize. Soon she was awarded her Doctorate by the University of Paris. The financial proceeds from the award allowed them to expand their research and increase efforts.  Their fame now spread throughout the scientific world. In 1904 she gave birth to her second daughter.

          Pierre was showing an increasing deterioration of his health. He became weak and petitioned for a leave from teaching due to health reasons. His weakened body probably saw the effects of close work with radioactive materials. In 1906, on the way to a meeting in Paris, he was crossing the street in the rain, and slipped on the cobblestones. He fell under the wheels of an approaching team of horses hauling tons of materials, and tragically lost his life.

          She was devastated by the loss and described herself then as “…an incurably and wretchedly lonely person…”. The Sorbonne Physics Department gave her the chair occupied by Pierre, and as the first female professor at the University of Paris, the appointment allowed here more authority in supervising her laboratory and research. Now Polish scientists began to ask her to return to Warsaw to do her research.

          In 1911 she was awarded a second Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the separation of Radium. She established the government funded Radium Institute in 1914, where study continued on the strange metal, and it fostered four more Nobel Prize winners, including her daughter Irene.

          Fascinated by the glow of this material, Marie began to store tubes of it in her lab desk to show visitors, and she often carried

Radium Photographed by its own light.

around test tubes full in her pockets because of the pretty light it gave off.  There were no safety precautions. She began to show a familiar weakness and a painful distortion of her hands as time wore on.

          The penetrating power of these rays through the human body was recognized early on by Becquerel. It was known these rays could make the bones under the skin visible on a photographic plate, and Marie established portable X-ray units during World War I in armored vehicles , using tubes of Radon gas (given off by Radium decay) to examine war wounded. The Radon tubes came from her own industrial plant which manufactured Radium products.

          Society became quickly fascinated with the uses for this amazing new glowing material. It seemed to have a magical source of energy to emit light with no known power source. An industry quickly sprang up selling various Radium products to an eager public, which we will discuss next.

          Marie Curie died on July 4, 1934, a victim of aplastic anemia. This disease is one of the symptoms of radiation poisoning.  However, the effects of the Mystery Rays of Radium were only beginning to be felt upon society…

 (to be continued …)

SL-1: Aftermath

August 1, 2010

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

Copyright © 2010 by Charles Glassmire


July 31, 2010

SL-1: Aftermath

           Examination of metal parts from the bodies and other evidence soon determined that the SL-1 reactor had gone “prompt critical”. This sudden release of a burst of thermal neutrons had occurred within a tiny fraction of a second, actually estimated at about  4 milliseconds ( 4/1000 of a second). But it was to take almost two years of investigation by a team of physicists and engineers before the strange sequence of events and mechanics of what had happened that cold night were finally known.

          This reactor accident was unprecedented in the history of the nuclear industry. These were the first industrial casualties in the existence of the Atomic Energy Commission. The Commission Headquarters immediately appointed an investigations committee, and a separate technical advisory committee, all arriving by January 4. The Joint Committee on Atomic Energy sent one of its staff to be an independent investigator. Some Atomic Energy Labs sent their own personnel to help uncover the mystery. Military representatives arrived from al three services. Army volunteers came from a special Chemical Radiological Unit based at the Dugway Proving Grounds to assist and learn from the event. Radiation fields inside the containment building were still very high.

          Since all the personnel had been accounted for as beyond saving, the  new task was to determine if the reactor was stable, or capable of additional problems. The cause of the accident was still mysterious. Most of the water had been evaporated from the core by a burst of heat. It was now re-condensed several inches deep on the reactor building floor. Water is a neutron moderator. This means it slows down neutrons to a slow speed where they can fission a Uranium 235 nucleus. So the more water present in the core the higher the core reactivity and the more fission heat is generated. Examinations by a remote video camera, and supporting calculations soon showed the core was stable without the water moderator in place. This was a small bit of good news and also a credit to the reactor designers. The nations Press had arrived en masse.

          Aircraft radiation monitors reported the roof of the reactor building was intact, which was a small miracle in itself. This reactor was built before the days of industrial containment vessels. Now a days all American reactors are built inside a steel containment “cage”. This is a several inch thick steel bottle designed strong enough to trap any exhaust gases, explosions and other radiation events, so that nothing is released to the environment. New Containment vessels are now designed to even resist the impact of a jet airliner crash. But the SL-1 building was little more than a large circular housing around the reactor. It was amazing the structure had resisted the forces in play. The survey Aircraft reported that a cloud of Iodine 131 had escaped and floated downwind, but was quickly dispersed by the winds and decayed to harmless levels. No other escaped isotopes were detected in the surrounding desert and highways.

          But the fundamental mystery remained. What was the cause of this event? Inside, the SL-1 was a disastrous mess. Timed by Health Physics personnel, cleanup crews of volunteers wearing dosimeters dashed in, received their quarterly dose of radiation and retired from radiation work for three months. Holes were drilled into the bottom of the core to photograph the core elements. It was determined that some of the Uranium fuel had melted from the burst of intense heat. It was decided the entire reactor should be disassembled and examined piece by piece in Hot Cells. The Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Project (ANP) had been recently shut down, and unemployed technicians from that project were able to utilize the giant Hot Cell remote exam rooms to study the pieces.

          After months of cleanup work, it came time to remove the core pressure vessel via a crane. Engineers worried about

SL-1 Core Pressure Vessel

disconnecting the array of piping which connected the core pressure vessel to the rest of the building. This would involve long hours of welding in a radiation environment. There was not a large supply of welders to take the dose. Then photography revealed that the piping and metal connections to the building were already severed! The pressure vessel was already free floating in position.

          The ceiling of the reactor room was examined closely, and deep gouge marks in the ceiling, nine feet above the core, matched the pattern of rods protruding out of the top of the pressure vessel itself. Thus the entire steel reactor pressure vessel containing the core had been exploded upward out of its position with great force, severing all piping connections, hitting the ceiling of the building and then falling back into its resting place!

          Scratches on the guide tube of the main control rod showed it had been quickly extracted by the technician working there, to a length of 23 inches out of the core instead of the required 4 inches. This was unprecedented, pushing the core into instant super critical condition. This had caused an instant burst of fission neutrons and released a hugh amount of fission heat. The core coolant water instantly flashed into steam, expanding and hitting the inside top of the pressure vessel with the large force of a water hammer. This impact had blown the pressure vessel upwards to impact the ceiling, severing all metal supports, piping and electrical connections, and killing the technician working there before falling back to rest. All within a small fraction of a second. Calculations later verified the accuracy of this scenario .

          There are some who say the control rods had a documented history of sticking when withdrawn, and the technician had jerked too hard on the rod. A cladding had been welded to the side of the rods, and as it aged it had changed dimension slightly, interfering with easy sliding of the rods in their holes. There are those who say that procedures had not been well documented by the operator, and the military crews had been inadequately trained. There are some who say a technicians companion had played a physical joke from behind him at a critical moment, causing a reflexive muscle jerk on the rod. And there are some who say that the rod was intentionally jerked up beyond its safety limits by a technician whose wife had deserted him and told him to never come home again. This then becomes a tale of the first suicide by nuclear reactor in the brief history of the nuclear age …

 (to be continued …)