Saturday, August 16, 2008

A nuclear power plant in larval form

Paul Schick saw my previous post about the Indian Point nuclear power plant, and sent me the above photo of the plant under construction. Very cool. You can clearly see it's the same place - 50 years ago.

He also included these interesting comments:

For your information/amusement/use, here is a picture of the original Indian Point plant under construction, taken with a Brownie-style camera on a grade-school field trip (the date is date of processing/printing.) You can see a sliver of the river in the background, the source of cooling water, not far away at all. It was the heady days of Reddy Kilowatt, with up-and-coming power from the Friendly Atom promising someday to be too cheap to meter. And it was all believable because progress was inevitable, and besides, we already had something else too cheap to meter - New York City did not meter residential water at the time. And with the USA responding to the hard kick in the pants named Sputnik that had come a few years before, nothing was impossible.

With one exception. A couple of years later, a touring lecturer (perhaps on behalf of the Atomic Energy Commision) came around and delivered an atomic-power spiel during a school "assembly". Among other things, he demonstrated a Geiger counter chattering on a mineral sample. But at the end of the lecture he revealed that it was actually a sham - the clicking noises came and went as he manipulated a ring thingie on the "probe", and the sample was not particularly radioactive. We were very disappointed in him - to the great consternation of the teacher in charge, there was even some booing and hissing. So one thing was in fact impossible - for whatever weird reason, it was impossible for the lecturer to carry a few thorium-oxide mantles for camping lanterns, which could be bought at any camping-supply department or store at the time, and which would easily cause a Geiger counter with the proper window for alpha rays (now alpha particles) to chatter sufficiently for a school lecture.

Note also that later on, the physics community bitched and moaned loudly enough about 'incorrect usage' that "atomic" power would come to be known as "nuclear" power, and by the same token, the regulatory branch of the Atomic Energy Commission, when it was split up, was called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

That reminds me of my dad's watch. He had worn it for years...until he was using a Geiger counter in a lab class one day at NC State. The Geiger counter went crazy when he touched it, and he realized his watch had a radium dial.

It probably wasn't particularly dangerous to wear a radium dial watch. The Radium Girls who painted the dials and were sickened by the radiation actually ingested the paint. Dad was a poor grad student at the time, who didn't have a lot of money. Nevertheless, he took the watch off and left it on the lab bench for other students to use for timing experiments. Wearing an even mildly radioactive watch every day was a greater risk than he wanted to take.

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