Conservation DistList Archives [Date] [Subject] [Author] [SEARCH]

Subject: Radioactive graphite bricks

Radioactive graphite bricks

From: Sally Shelton <shelton.sally>
Date: Monday, May 3, 1999
Craig Deller <craig [at] deller__com> writes

>The reason I raised this question is that the radioactivity itself
>is the historically important part of these otherwise common
>materials since it was the first controlled nuclear reaction. Enrico
>Fermi and his staff sustained the reaction under the bleachers at
>the University of Chicago in 1944, (we all know the story) for the
>first time ever, and these are the graphite bricks he used, (along
>with other materials being held at Argonne National Laboratory).  It
>strikes me as a terrible ethical question. The actual
>decontamination would be carried out by Argonne, but I would like to
>get a discussion on such an issue.

Craig, there are precious few objects of that vintage that have
received a more or less known exposure to radiation from a known and
controlled event. From a scientific and historic point of view, I
think you would be compromising the importance of the bricks by
subjecting them to any decontamination process.

Obviously, that means that you put your resources into designing
safe storage, training staff members and limiting access. The bricks
are not worth compromising human health and safety. There are
several good designs around for safe storage of radioactive
materials, however, and you should not have to compromise either
human safety or object integrity.

No one attempts to "decontaminate" collections of radioactive
minerals and other geological materials, for example: efforts are
put into installing safe storage and training responsible staff
members. The radioactivity is an integral part of the specimen and
defines in large part its scientific value. There is an article in
Collection Forum (journal of the Society for the Preservation of
Natural History Collections), Fall 1994, Volume 10, Number 2,
entitled "Ionising Radiation Associated with the Mineral Collection
of the National Museum of Wales" By Michael P. Lambert of the
Department of Geology, National Museum of Wales, Cathays Park,
Cardiff, which should interest you. There is also a session
coordinated by Barbara Skryja at this fall's AASLH meeting on this

>From an ethical point of view, I don't think the question is so
terrible. Your graphite bricks are from one of the most important
events of this rapidly-waning century. Their radioactivity is
integral, not peripheral, to their importance. They are radioactive
specifically because of the event and use that made them
historically important, and furthermore constitute a research base
that can be returned to reliably over several years to measure rates
of isotope decay from a known, controlled and documented reaction.
They do pose a hazard to staff and researchers that must be dealt
with, but they need not be irretrievable altered or sterilized to do
so. Decontamination will reduce them to bricks from a historic site
with no further relevance to the history and development of science.

Sally Shelton
Collections Officer, National Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian Institution
Washington, DC  20560-0107
President, Society for the Preservation of Natural History

                  Conservation DistList Instance 12:84
                   Distributed: Tuesday, May 4, 1999
                       Message Id: cdl-12-84-001
Received on Monday, 3 May, 1999

[Search all CoOL documents]