I was going to tell you some more about crystals and crystallography but that will have to wait for a while. Instead I am going to tell you some of what I think about garden shed nuclear experiments. In case you have come here hoping to read how to make your own reactor, then I have to apologise and tell you that for a series of reasons (including security reasons and a lack of time/space here) it is not possible for me to give you a how to guide to build a reactor in the space we have today.
The way that David Hahn and the Swede were discovered were very different. David gave himself a fright and then in his panic he attracted the attention of a random policeman, while the Swedish man wrote a letter to SSM asking if it is legal to build nuclear gadgets at home. Before we go any further I would like to stress that almost all nuclear and radioactive activities and equipment are regulated by criminal law in all the countries I have heard of. The IAEA have said publicly that they want the penalty for the illegal possession of some nuclear materials to be as high as murder, so we are dealing with “serious stuff” here!
David Hahn wanted to breed uranium-233 which is fissile from natural thorium-232 which is not fissile but just fertile. Fertile means that an isotope can be converted by a simple nuclear reaction into an isotope which either is (or decays into) a fissile isotope.
What David did was to burn up a large number of gas mantles to obtain thorium oxide; he then cut up a large number of lithium batteries to get the lithium. Then using the lithium he converted the thorium into the metal. I think that this was never needed, many reactors using metal oxides as fuels or as targets for radioisotope production. While neutrons can react with oxygen to form radioisotopes such as nitrogen-16 (by a np reaction) this is normally not a major problem.
David then tried to bombard his thorium with neutrons which were from a homemade neutron source. He used a combination of radium-226 and beryllium. This is a horrible mixture; the radium is properly one of the most radiotoxic isotopes in the world while the beryllium is the most toxic non-radioactive element. It causes a series of horrible diseases including a horrible lung rotting disease!
Radium-226; Properly the nastiest radioisotope in the world!
When David was doing his experiment he noticed that the radioactivity level of the thorium target was increasing, this increase in radioactivity prompted him to get into a bit of a panic. What was likely to be happening was during the pyrochemical processing of the thorium dioxide he would have separated the radium-228 and radium-224 from the thorium. These two radioisotopes would have then started to reappear because of the alpha decay of the thorium-232 and thorium-228.
When I get around to it I will plot some graphs of the radioactivity levels as a function of time in a sample of thorium which has been purified. But that will have to wait for another day.
The Swede was spotted in a different way, he wrote a letter to SSM asking for legal advice regarding his home made reactor. I have read the reactor builder’s blog and he does seem to be having some trouble with some concepts.
I am doubtful that even if he had been left to get on with his experiments that he would ever have managed to get his reactor to work. From the little information I have obtained from his blog it looks like he was trying to build a similar gadget to David’s one. It looks like he wanted to build a subcritical reactor which would be driven by an external neutron source.
He describes how he wanted to dissolve radium in 96% sulphuric acid, I think that this was a bad idea for several reasons. Firstly radium is horrible and radiotoxic, while secondly radium sulphate is very insoluble. One of the classic ways to extract uranium is to boil up uranium ore in sulphuric acid, the uranium dissolves while the radium together with the barium will form an insoluble sulphate. For those of you reading in America sulphate = sulfate, and sulphuric acid = sulfuric acid.
I have written some more about barium and radium sulphate, if you want to read about how it applies to this case then go here.
Then the mixed barium/radium sulphate is dissolved, I think in the interests of public safety I will not tell you how to do it here!
So the choice of reagents for the dissolution of the radium was a poor choice, I have also noticed that an ash tray was close to the cooker. I know that you all know that smoking is a dirty habit but smoking anywhere near radium is a very dirty habit. The problem is that in a radium contaminated environment such as an old uranium mine that the air contains radon-222. This ‘evil creeping death gas’ might be able to diffuse through rocks into caves and houses. But the real villain is the polonium-218 and the other radon daughters. These tend to stick to dust and smoke particles.
If you were to breathe radon contaminated but totally dust free air then it would not be good for you but compared with smoke mixed radon daughters the dust free radon air is positively health giving! What happens with tobacco smoke is that the particles get coated with the radon daughters and then they stick in the lungs. The smoke thus acts like glue to stick these nasty alpha emitters into the lungs. As a result a combination of smoke and radon has a far greater baneful effect on the lungs than the sum total of the two if they are done separately in time and space.
Before you are inclined to feel sorry for the Swede bear in mind that while he did stop to ask if home made reactors were legal, he did not think to ask until he had already started his experiments. I suspect that if a random person in Sweden was to write a letter to SSM asking if it was legal to build a nuclear reactor in the basement, then they would get investigated. But if the person had neither acquired nuclear/radioactive materials nor had started to try to build a reactor then they might at worst get their home searched, but I think that after a stern warning that SSM would send him on their merry way.
I do not quite know what the text of the warning would be but maybe the following might be a good one
“The unauthorised construction and use of nuclear reactors in the home is dangerous and may result in a large fine or lengthy imprisonment. I strongly suggest you take up some alternative recreational activity such as …………..”
I once had my lab inspected by a team of UN inspectors who wanted to check that I was not doing some undisclosed nuclear activity in my lab. I found the UN inspectors to be a courteous and professional group of men. What they did was to look in my lab at what sort of equipment I had, they wanted to ask me what sort of chemistry I was doing and to take a gamma spectrum to check what sort of radioisotopes were present in my lab (They found nothing as I have next to no radioactivity in the lab).
While I have no experience of being investigated for illegal back street nuclear reactor operation, I suspect that SSM might use similar tools such as the portable gamma spectrometer to check what radioisotopes were present in the man’s flat. I would also expect them to take some samples in the form of wipe samples to allow for different tests to be done later. One option would be to use an alpha/beta scintillation type contamination meter to search the surfaces in the man’s flat for hot spots of activity. When a hot spot is found it would be logical to sample it and then use a more sensitive and selective counting method to evaluate the sample.
Filed under: actinide, actinides, Chemistry, crime, crime and punishment, home experiments, neutrons, nuclear, nuclear chemistry, Nuclear fuel, nuclear physics, nuclear technology, radiation, radioactivity, radium, radon, SSM, stupid science, Uranium, used nuclear fuel