Soviet Era Smoke Detector Torn Down, Revealing Plutonium

It’s widely known that a smoke detector is a good ionizing radiation source, as they contain a small amount of americium-241, a side product of nuclear reactors. But what about other sources? [Carl Willis] got hold of an old Soviet era smoke detector and decided to tear it down and see what was inside. This, as he found out, isn’t something you should do lightly, as the one he used ended up containing an interesting mix of radioactive materials, including small amounts of plutonium-239, uranium-237, neptunium-237 and a selection of others. In true hacker fashion, he detected these with a gamma ray spectroscope he has in his spare bedroom, shielded from other sources with lead bricks and copper and tin sheets. Continue reading “Soviet Era Smoke Detector Torn Down, Revealing Plutonium”

Retrotechtacular: [Walt] Builds A Family Fallout Shelter

In the 1950s it seemed likely that the Cold War could at any minute take a turn for the worse, and we might all be consumed in the fiery conflagration of nuclear war. Fortunately neither the leaders on our side of the fence nor those on the other were the dangerous unpredictable lunatics their opponent’s propaganda might have portrayed them as, and instead we continued on our way uneasily gazing at each other over the Iron Curtain.

For civilian America, the Government created a series of promotional efforts to prepare them for the effects of nuclear war and equip them with the means to survive. Some of them like the infamous “Duck and cover” film seem quaint and woefully inadequate when viewed with several decades hindsight, but others tried hard to equip the 1950s American with what looked like the real means to survive.

Our film below the break today is part of one such effort. The Family Fallout Shelter was a booklet produced in 1959 by the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization, and it described in detail the construction of a series of fallout shelters of differing designs.  There was a concrete underground shelter, a partially buried twin-wall shelter with infill, and the one shown in the film, a basement fallout shelter made from concrete blocks. Our narrator and protagonist is [Walt], a capable bespectacled middle-aged man in a check shirt who takes us through the shelter’s construction.

We start with him giving some friends a tour of the finished shelter, and we see its cozy furnished interior with bunk beds and all mod cons. We’re told it would make a useful extra spare bedroom, or a darkroom. Then we flash back to construction as [Walt] takes us through all the steps required to build your own basement shelter. As he says, it’s a project that could be attempted by almost anyone, and what follows is a pretty good introduction to basic bricklaying. We can’t help being concerned about the security of those unmortared roof blocks in the face of a Tsar Bomba, but fortunately they were never put to the test. We do find it amusing that this is presented by the National Concrete Masonry Association — how better to boost sales than get the populace to build extra brick walls in every home?

The film and booklet provide a fascinating window into some of the culture surrounding preparations for nuclear war in the early Cold War era. The ideas that it would be survivable, and that two weeks in a home-made fallout shelter would be sufficient to ensure that civilians would be safe are in stark contrast to the then-secret deep shelters and long-term survival plans that the governments of the time created for themselves. It would be interesting to know how many of these home shelters were built, and how many survive. Did you ever spend a night in a basement spare bedroom with a blast wall?

We’ll leave you with the film’s closing words from the Director of the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization.

No home in America is modern without a family fallout shelter. This is the nuclear age.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: [Walt] Builds A Family Fallout Shelter”

Retrotechtacular: Head Start On Tomorrow

In the 1950s and 1960s, the prospects for a future powered by nuclear energy were bright. There had been accidents at nuclear reactors, but they had not penetrated the public consciousness, or had conveniently happened far away. This was the age of “Too cheap to meter“, and The Jetsons, in which a future driven by technologies as yet undreamed of would free mankind from its problems. Names like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima were unheard of, and it seemed that nuclear reactors would become the miracle power source for the second half of the twentieth century and beyond.

The first generation of nuclear power stations were thus accompanied by extremely optimistic public relations and news coverage. At the opening of the world’s first industrial-scale nuclear power station at Calder Hall, UK in 1956, the [Queen] gave a speech in which she praised it as for the common good of the community, and on the other side of the Atlantic the American nuclear industry commissioned slick public relations films to promote their work. Such a film is the subject of this piece, and though unlike the British they could not muster a monarch, had they but known it at the time they did employ the services of a President.

The Big Rock Point nuclear power plant was completed in 1962 on the shores of Lake Michigan. Its owners, Consumers Power Company, were proud of their new facility, and commissioned a short film about it. The reactor had been supplied by General Electric, and fronting the film was General Electric’s established spokesman and host of their General Electric Theater TV show, the Hollywood actor and future President [Ronald Reagan].

The film below the break starts by explaining nuclear power as a new heat source powering a conventional steam-driven generator, and stresses the safety aspect of reactor control rods. We are then treated to a fascinating view of the assembly of an early-1960s nuclear reactor, starting with the arrival of the pressure vessel and showing the assemblies within it that held the fuel and control rods. Fuel rods are shown at their factory in California, and being loaded onto a truck to be shipped across the continent, seemingly without the massive security that would nowadays accompany such an undertaking. The rods are loaded and the reactor is started, as [Reagan] puts it: “The atom has been put to work, on schedule”.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Head Start On Tomorrow”

Lego Nuclear Reactor Uses Arduino

Before the NSA deletes this post, we’ll be clear: We’re talking about a model of a nuclear reactor, not the real thing. Using Legos, [wgurecky] built a point kinetic reactor model that interfaces with the reactor simulator, pyReactor.

Even without the Lego, the Python code demonstrates reactor control in several modes. In power control mode, the user sets a power output, and the reactor attempts to maintain it. In control rod mode, the user can adjust the position of the control rods and see the results.

If things get out of hand, there’s a SCRAM button to shut the reactor down in a hurry. The Lego model uses an Arduino to move the rods up and down (using a servo) and controls the simulated Cherenkov radiation (courtesy of blue LEDs).

We’ve been excited to see more high schools with significant engineering programs. This would be a good project for kids interested in nuclear engineering. It certainly is a lot safer than one of our previous reactor projects.

Lise Meitner: A Physicist who Never Lost her Humanity

It is said that the first casualty of war is the truth, and few wars have demonstrated that more than World War II. One scientist, whose insights would make the atomic age possible, would learn a harsh lesson at the outset of the war about how scientific truth can easily be trumped by politics and bigotry.

Lise Meitner was born into a prosperous Jewish family in Vienna in 1878. Her father, a lawyer and chess master, took the unusual step of encouraging his daughter’s education. In a time when women were not allowed to attend institutions of higher learning, Lise was able to pursue her interest in physics with a private education funded by her father. His continued support, both emotional and financial, would prove important throughout Lise’s early career. Continue reading “Lise Meitner: A Physicist who Never Lost her Humanity”

Making the Case For Nuclear Aircraft

At any given moment, several of the US Navy’s Nimitz class aircraft carriers are sailing the world’s oceans. Weighing in at 90 thousand tons, these massive vessels need a lot of power to get moving. One would think this power requires a lot of fuel which would limit their range, but this is not the case. Their range is virtually unlimited, and they only need refueling every 25 years. What kind of technology allows for this? The answer is miniaturized nuclear power plants. Nimitz class carriers have two of them, and they are pretty much identical to the much larger power plants that make electricity. If we can make them small enough for ships, can we make them small enough for other things, like airplanes?

Continue reading “Making the Case For Nuclear Aircraft”

Retrotechtacular: Breaking Atoms to Break the Ice


This documentary from 1959 gives a satisfyingly thorough look inside a nuclear powered icebreaking ship called Lenin. This actually set a couple of world’s-firsts: it was the first nuclear powered surface vessel and the first civilian vessel to be powered thusly.

The ship was built to clear shipping paths to the northern ports of Russia. Testing of both ice and models of the ship design point to the ability to break ice layers that are two meters thick. This requires a lot of power as ice-breakers generally use their hull shape and gravity to break the ice by driving up onto it to bend the ice to the breaking point. The Lenin achieved this power using its nuclear reactor to heat steam which drove electric generators. The energy produced drove three screws to power the vessel.

Of course this was back in the day when control panels were substantial, which you can get a peek at starting half-way through the twenty-minute film. This includes a demonstration of the ship’s network of radiation sensors which alert the control room, and sound a local alarm when they are triggered. During it’s 30-year operational life the vessel had a couple of accidents stemming from refueling operations. You can find more on that over at the Wikipedia page, but stick with us after the jump to see the vintage reel.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Breaking Atoms to Break the Ice”