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How Did Our Relationship with Radioactive Material Sour?

Rod Adams's picture
President and CEO Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.
  • Member since 2006
  • 969 items added with 323,566 views
  • Feb 25, 2013

My lovely wife, knowing my atomic energy obsession, thought that I might enjoy watching Romance of Radium a 1937 movie short (10 minutes) from MGM Studios that TCM (Turner Classic Movies) is occasionally running to fill time between full length movies.

It was utterly fascinating to me to watch how the filmmaker portrayed Henry Becquerel’s discovery of radiation, the Curie’s effort to refine radium, and the way that hunters in the Belgian Congo discovered one of the world’s richest sources of pitchblende because it was known to the local inhabitants as a soil with remarkable curative powers. This film was so well received that it earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short Film (one reel).

Watching this film through the lenses of a nuclear energy professional who has spent decades being taught that it is worthwhile to use precious resources to reduce radiation exposure to a level as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA) – with an unreachable goal of zero – it is interesting to think about the way irrational radiation phobia has developed over the last 3/4 of a century. It is almost unimaginable that society has moved away from widespread recognition that radioactive substances are highly beneficial if treated with the proper care and respect to a widespread response of fear and trembling at tiny doses of ionizing radiation.

There are some hints in the movie about how the fears developed; the writers could not resist using phrases like “extremely dangerous” or pointing out how some people who were exposed to large doses due to ignorance of the side effects suffered negative health consequences. However, the movie provides abundance evidence that by 1937, about four decades after Becquerel’s discovery, people had learned to avoid the risks well enough to take full advantage of the benefits associated with the intense radiation that naturally emanates from tiny quantities of radium.

The final scene in the movie provides some real food for thought. The last couple of minutes explain the precautions associated with moving a small vial of radium from its lead lined storage vault to a studio set up to capture an image of the glowing substance as a climatic shot for the movie. As the set up continues, it is quite a contrast to watch how the photographer dresses and shields himself in comparison to the way that the experienced scientist protects himself as he extracts the material from its storage containers to display for the camera.

Aside: My wife was the one who noticed and pointed out the contrast. She found it quite amusing to think about the difference between the nervous amateur and the calm professional. End Aside.

I imagine most of my colleagues and all of the people whose fear of radiation stokes their opposition to using nuclear energy would be surprised to learn that radium’s curative powers made it the world’a most valuable substance, with a value of $750,000 per ounce – in 1937 dollars. People who have been forced to leave their homes and businesses in the Fukushima prefecture, which were made slightly radioactive due to the presence of small quantities of cesium, should wonder about how Romance of Radium concludes with prediction that “centuries from now it will still shine upon some future civilization, saving through the ages countless thousands of human lives.

Is impossible for anyone to characterize this information-filled work of cinematic art as propaganda produced by a powerful nuclear energy industry. There was no nuclear energy industry in 1937; the film was made a year before the basic process of fission had even been discovered in the laboratory. The primary reason there was a commercial interest in radium was that it demonstrated the ability to provide positive health benefits by curing infection, and increasing the strength of our ability to combat illness through what is now understood to be a biological mechanism called adaptive response.

Here is a homework assignment for some of the more mathematically oriented radiation professionals out there. I think there is enough information provided to produce a rough dose estimate for some of the example exposures in the film – like Becquerel’s habit of carrying a vial of radium in his coat pocket. It would be interesting to compare some of those doses against current regulatory limits or against the ALARA “best practices” that result in enormous expenditures to reduce exposures as measured in the discredited collective dose unit of “man-rem”.

PS – I am also interested in finding a better copy of the film than the one that I embedded for this post. It should be in the public domain; it is 76 years old.

The post Romance of Radium – How did our relationship with radioactive material sour? appeared first on Atomic Insights.


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