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Category → radiation

Nuclear Waste Signage Must Last 100,000 Years: Will the Messages Be On Sapphire Disks With Platinum Print Or Pieces Of Broken Pottery?

Sapphire disks with platinum script or pottery sherds: Which material will tell future generations of about nuclear waste repositories? Credit: Sarah Everts/Wikimedia Commons.

Humans have been around for 50,000 years and the nuclear waste we’re producing today is going to be harmful for 100,000 years. So how do we create signs that alert our descendents about enormous underground nuclear waste repositories when we don’t know what language they will speak?

“A vast underground space with all sorts of curious objects inside… This sounds exactly like where future archeologists are going to want to go digging,” said Cornelius Holtorf, an archeologist at the Linnaeus University in Sweden, who spoke at a Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) session. The session focused on how one formulates a warning message with a 100,000-year lifetime when humans have never built anything that has lasted one-tenth of that time. If we say ‘don’t dig here,’ you can bet that it will only make the site more enticing, Holtorf said.

Linguists, archeologists, scientists, engineers and historians have been tackling the issue for decades. Some potential solutions sound a tad wacky: Namely the idea to create an atomic priesthood that carries on an oral tradition about the waste. Other solutions sound temptingly techie, but perhaps a tad expensive: Continue reading →

Radioactive Artifacts – A Radium Reprise

This WW2 radium-painted watch sold on eBay last month for $650. Credit: eBay.

Two weeks ago I wrote a post about the wide variety of radioactive artifacts found in museums, such as uranium glassware, radioactive minerals, Pierre and Marie Curie lab memorabilia and Manhattan project relics.

I decided to give radium-containing artifacts their own post, in part because the radium isotope Ra-226 appears in such a curious variety of items from 1898 through to the 1960s. Pretty much anything that needed to glow in the dark got coated with radium paint during that era.

For example, a National Parks Service bulletin warns museum curators to keep an eye out for radium-containing chamber pot lids, light-switches, doorknobs and religious statues. (I searched long and hard, and sadly in vain, for an image of a radium glow-in-the-dark Virgin Mary or Shiva or Jesus.)

Of course glow-in-the dark-radium paint is best known for making watch and compass faces as well as cockpit gauges visible at night. Continue reading →

Radioactive Artifacts

One of the first devices to measure radioactivity built by Pierre Curie. Credit: Mütter Museum

How do museums deal with radioactive artifacts?

The question first popped in to my head when I was standing at the entrance of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, looking at a device built by Pierre Curie in the 1880s to measure radioactivity.

Given that the device—a piezoelectric quartz electrometer—had spent decades measuring radioactivity, I guessed it probably was or had been radioactive itself.

Then it occured to me that the devices used by Pierre and Marie Curie aren’t the only kind of radioactive artifacts found in museum collections.

German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth discovered uranium in 1789, and by 1830 the radioactive element was being used heavily as a yellow-green colorant in all sorts of glassware (before people even knew what radioactivity was).

By the early 20th century, uranium oxide was used to color the incredibly popular orange-red ceramic Fiesta tableware favored by Andy Warhol and many others. And radium-226 was used to paint watches, aircraft gauges, door knobs, religious icons, light switches and even chamber pots so that they glowed in the dark.

Two uranium glasses from the blogger's personal collection.

Radioactivity also became a health fad. Look no further than the “Lifetime Radium-Vitalizer Water Jar,” from the 1920s, which added radiation to water by means of a chunk of uranium ore at the bottom of the vessel.

In addition to quack health products, radioactive artifacts are sometimes natural history museum minerals as well as relics and equipment from the Manhattan project and all subsequent nuclear testing.

Since we are all exposed to low-levels of radiation daily–heck, our own bones emit radiation to those around us–the issue is whether a particular artifact emits enough radiation to present a health hazard to museum staff and the public.
Continue reading →