Atomic energy research came to the forefront of public awareness
in 1945 following the detonation of the world's first nuclear
bombs. X-rays had been studied for decades and uses had been
developed for medical and industrial inspection purposes, but
the harmful effects of low level exposure over long periods
of time were still largely undetermined. Some people, like the
author of this report from a 1949 edition of Radio &
Television News magazine, believed "man's life is shortened
by exposure to any amount of radioactivity." That was a rather
extreme and alarmist statement to make in an article whose purpose
was ostensibly to encourage engineers, scientists, and technicians
to seek careers in the radio-electronics-nucleonics field.
Radio-Electronics in the Atomic Energy Program
By Samuel Freedman, W6YUQ
Developments Eng., DeMornay Budd. Inc.
There is just as much need for radio-electronic technicians
in the nucleonic program as there is for physicists, chemists,
Handling a shipment of radioactive isotopes
from behind a bank of lead bricks as a safeguard against exposure
to radioactivity. Background shows birds-eye view of Y12 electromagnetic
plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
The multi-billion-dollar atomic energy program, first revealed
in the form of the atom bomb in August, 1945, now provides astounding
opportunities for radio and electronic personnel.
At the March, 1949, exhibition of the Institute of Radio
Engineers, in the Grand Central Palace in New York City, a whole
section was taken over by manufacturers of nucleonic instrumentation.
These were principally comprised of a wide variety of Geiger-Mueller
counters, or radioactivity detectors, of which a few are shown
on the following pages. These instruments also included scaling
equipment, ionization chambers, and high-sounding apparatus
names, which, for the most part, turned out to be simple circuitry
and tubes well within the realm of understanding of most of
the readers of this magazine.
We are only at the beginning of a vast program that will
become as great as the rest of radio and electronics. This must
be so since radio-electronics-nucleonics are closely interrelated
and overlap in their personnel qualifications to such an extent
that they cannot be completely separated one from the other.
The radio engineer, service technician, and installer belong
in all three of these fields.
Fig. 1. - Self-diffusion technique, imparting
radioactivity to pieces of like material, then measuring chips
for presence of radioactivity with Geiger-Mueller detectors.
No single person can completely visualize the magnitude of
the overall program. For the past two years, the author has
been in frequent contact with extensive portions of this program's
physical installations and has also provided cooperation on
an industrial basis to many of its excellent personnel. If national
security is a factor in any discussion of this subject, it may
be said that our greatest protection lies in the fact that the
atomic energy, or more correctly, the nucleonic program, requires
laboratories, plants, quantity and high-calibre in personnel,
and financial outlay, plus the national policy that exists only
in the United States. This conclusion was reached after personal
visits to the following major activities, which represent only
a portion of the establishments and organizations devoted to
the furtherance of nucleonic developments in this nation.
The Oak Ridge, Tennessee, installations include: (a) The
gaseous diffusion plant, called K25; (b) The electromagnetic
plant, called Y12; (c) The Oak Ridge National Laboratory, called
X10; (d) The Oak Ridge Institute for Nuclear Studies; and (e)
The NEPA plant, the initials meaning "nuclear energy for the
propulsion of aircraft."
Besides the Oak Ridge activities, other laboratories throughout
the country include the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory at
Los Alamos, New Mexico; the Brookhaven National Laboratory,
Upton, Long Is.; the Argonne National Laboratory at Chicago;
the University of California at Berkeley; the Ryan High-Voltage
Laboratory, Palo Alto, California; the Atomic Energy Commission
at Washington, D. C., plus its various area offices of directed
operations; the Sandia Base, Albuquerque, New Mexico; and the
hundreds of universities, colleges, and other institutions of
higher learning that are devoting much study time and experimentation
to the problems of nuclear fission.
Added to the work of these laboratories are the activities
of many major industrial organizations, the most notable being
Carbon and Carbide Chemicals Corporation, General Electric Co.,
Westinghouse Electric, among others.
Fig. 2. - Some commercially-made Geiger-Mueller
counters for measuring radioactivity.
These are all tremendous undertakings. At Oak Ridge, Tennessee,
located eighteen miles from the city of Knoxville, near the
Cumberland Mountains, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park,
and the site of the Tennessee Valley Authority development is
a reservation comprising 59,000 acres and extending into two
counties. Employees, families, and the persons serving them
make a total of about 36,000 people.
At Los Alamos, New Mexico, in breath-taking scenery at an elevation
about 7,400 feet above sea level, there lies 68,000 acres of
canyon and mesa land. The laboratory is located about sixty
miles northwest of Albuquerque and about thirty-five miles west
of Santa Fe. Living in this vicinity are 8000 persons, people
located there solely because of the atomic energy program. An
investment of about $500,000,000 is represented by the project,
which is operated under the auspices of the University of California
as a contractor for the Atomic Energy Commission.
At Albuquerque, New Mexico, is the Sandia Base, located near
the foot of the Sandia Mountains about five miles out of the
city. Several thousand persons are engaged there in special
applications and developments related to the nucleonic program.
The premises at Brookhaven National Laboratory include all
of old Camp Upton of World War I fame, a vast establishment
which is still undergoing heavy expansion. The work of more
than fifty associated universities and colleges in northeastern
United States is coordinated at this point.
The Argonne National Laboratory in and about the Chicago
area is even larger and is a coordinating center for many Midwest
universities and colleges headed by the University of Chicago.
At Schenectady, N. Y., on a several-thousand-acre tract,
General Electric is building and operating the David Knolls
Laboratory under sponsorship of the Atomic Energy Commission
for the purpose of generating primary power for the creation
of electricity. This firm also has a hand in the operation of
the Hanford plant in the State of Washington for the production
of plutonium or for utilization of the plutonium process.
Westinghouse Electric is reported to be conducting work leading
toward the use of nuclear energy for the propulsion of ships.
The atomic energy program continues to operate with Federal
expenditures on the order of one billion dollars per year, four
years after termination of World War II. Emphasis is increasingly
being directed on applications in the fields of medicine, health,
agriculture, and industry. One of the outstanding aims of the
program is in connection with the production and distribution
of radio-isotopes, and fantastic and unlimited are the possibilities
and applications. To cite a recent example: When the microwave
waveguide firm of
DeMornay Budd Inc. encountered the problem of how to determine
whether gold plating on waveguides was of uniform thickness,
a professor at Columbia University suggested the adding of a
small amount of radioactive gold in the plating solution. The
idea then would be to measure the amount of radio-activity on
the surfaces of the waveguide by means of a conventional Geiger-Mueller
counter. Since radioactive gold has a half-life of 2 1/2 days
(it diminishes in radioactivity 50% during that time), it is
necessary only to make the measurements at the same interval
of time after plating for various samples.
It is also possible and feasible to determine the thickness
and quality of concrete and many other materials by measurement
of radioactivity in the radioactive material mixed in with such
Fig. 3. - Measuring mineral radioactivity.
When screen mesh is exposed, beta, gamma, and higher radiations
will be detected. When screen is shielded by metal slide, beta
component will not be detected. It can be used in field exploration
In the field of agriculture, plant growth studies can be
made by radio-chemical analysis of plants and soils to determine
the extent of the root feeding zone and the relative availability
of plant foods to sustain plants.
In the field of medicine, studies can be made of vulnerable
parts of the human body in connection with such diseases as
cancer and tumors, offering a measure of hope to people who
would otherwise be in despair. Drinking a safe liquid that contains
small amounts of radioactive material will trace the path of
the liquid and permit a comparison between persons of normal
health and those who are afflicted, attaining a degree of accuracy
in diagnosis that might otherwise baffle the medical profession.
This is called "tracer" work.
A study of the role played by radio-electronics in the atomic
energy program shows that there would be no such program without
the extensive use of radio or electronic devices and techniques.
There is just as much need for radio-electronic technicians
as there is for physicists, chemists and members of the medical
profession. The instrumentation branch of the Atomic Energy
Commission is one part of it. To the extent of several million
dollars a year the program has initiated and supported the development
and production of Geiger-Mueller and ionization chamber types
of survey instruments. It has also supported the development
and production in industry of scaling equipment to permit higher
counting rates in the presence of strong radioactivity. Such
circuits have made possible a much more precise determination
of radioactivity, regardless of magnitude, than the clicks or
counts of a Geiger-Mueller device can make recognizable to the
human ear and brain. For instance, it is now possible to record
radioactivity by means of scaled-down circuits where the ratio
is stepped down 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048,
or 4096 to 1, depending on selector switch setting.
In the laboratories are found fast transient cathode-ray
oscilloscopes; microwave absorption sets in the new art of microwave
spectroscopy for molecular analysis; waveguides energized by
a series of high-power microwave tubes in combinations called
microwave linear accelerators; and all kinds of circuitry and
devices which operate much faster than human reaction time,
and protect personnel by making it possible for them to work
at safe distances from dangerous amounts of radioactivity.
Fig. 4. - Passage of radioactive liquid through
the digestive system, blood stream, and tissue lesions differentiates
between various tumors, which are measured by radioactivity
Techniques developed in connection with radar for generating
short pulses of tremendous peak power have many applications
in the field of nucleonics. They require pulses much shorter
than those used during World War II in connection with fast
transient phenomena. They also require pulses of much greater
peak power than were ever used in radar work for energizing
microwave linear accelerators, in order to give matter an acceleration
approaching that of light itself inside guides or cavities.
In fact, it may make other techniques, including the cyclotron,
van der Graff generator, or comparable devices, obsolete. At
the Ryan High Voltage Laboratory, the author saw a new microwave
linear accelerator using 5000-watt average power klystrons,
with cavities replacing grids, used in a combination to develop
over 1 1/2 billion watts peak power on 2855 megacycles in a
waveguide. The Atomic Energy Commission invites proposals from
anyone for new applications of radio and electronics to facilitate
The field of nucleonics knows no bounds since it recognizes
all matter, whether gaseous, liquid, solid, to be nothing more
than quantitative arrangements of positive, negative, and neutral
charges in atoms, which are, in turn, combined to form the molecules
of matter. It requires unlimited development to construct or
artificially create molecules now rare in nature, from those
natural materials that are plentiful.
Although it is still very early to hazard such guesses or
make such prophesies, it is believed that old age is caused
by the cumulative effects of cellular destruction resulting
from day-by-day exposure to ever-present radioactivity. No matter
how slight, radioactivity may be detected virtually everywhere,
including interstellar space, as it emanates from the sun. When
science can find feasible forms of protection against exposure
to the radioactivity released in atomic energy experimentation,
they may also find the key to long life among human beings and
animals. It may give man a life span so long that he will be
more likely to die from accidents than from old age.
More recent claims that man can safely withstand a certain
amount of milliroentgen units per hour, day, week, or lifetime
have had to be modified and the speculated amounts reduced.
Medical men are reluctant now to say with certainty what this
can be. Where such statements have been made in public gatherings,
the speaker often changes his figures or qualifies his statements
when the technical audience has questioned him in detail. The
author feels that man's life is shortened by exposure to any
amount of radioactivity and that, furthermore, this radioactivity
may be attributable to other than naturally or artificially
fissionable uranium used in the atomic energy program. There
is no disputing the fact that high radioactivity exposure produces
premature death in man. Cells are destroyed by exposure or damaged,
and, thereafter, cannot maintain ideal health life.
Fig. 5. - Radioactive fertilizer permits
many unusual studies of soil and plant growth, which will, in
time, tend to revolutionize the current practices in the science
of agriculture .
Although the nuclear physicist likes to call it "particles"
or "rays," radioactivity may be associated with wavelength and
frequency as electromagnetic radiations. Certainly, if the wavelength
is sufficiently short or the frequency sufficiently high, we
have radioactive radiations. It is conceivable that harmonics
of longer wavelengths or lower frequencies used in x-ray and
even radio applications can fall into that region. It is already
known, for example, that cathode-ray television viewing tubes,
such as are used for screen projection by the application of
high anode voltages in excess of 20,000 volts, can produce x-ray
effects. This is but one step removed from gamma radiations
encountered in radioactivity situations.
The electromagnetic spectrum in kilomegacycles (millions
of kilocycles) is roughly as follows: Radio band - 0.00001 to
1000; infrared region - 1000 to 375,000; visible light region
(all colors) - 375,000 to 750,000; ultraviolet region - 750,000
to 22,500,000. X-rays change into radioactivity as frequency
keeps increasing from 22,500,000 to beyond 50,000,000 kilomegacycles.
Adding considerable impetus to the atomic energy program
is a Federal regulation promulgated last year, whereby anyone
finding a deposit containing twenty or more tons of uranium
ore is eligible to a reward or bonus of $10,000. Aside from,
or in addition to, this incentive, the government has obligated
itself for a period of ten years to pay $3.50 per pound for
uranium ore. It will also buy lower grade ores at a corresponding
reduction in price. Since the establishment of this regulation,
the New York office of the Atomic Energy Commission has received
1900 samples for analysis. These have been of no important value,
however, because they evidently had not been checked for radioactivity.
Uranium is still the only satisfactory source of fissionable
material in nature which makes possible the release of large
amounts of energy in accordance with Einstein's great discovery
of the formula E = mc2, where energy E
equals mass m, multiplied by velocity - the velocity of light,
c, squared. Mass and energy are interchangeable. Today we hear
of the term "critical mass," which must be exceeded to produce
the required release of energy for useful applications, and
which is assurance to us that the earth will not disintegrate
and destroy us.
The growth of nucleonics depends on a more active and extensive
participation by men now engaged in the fields of radio and
electronics. It is necessarily progressing at a slower pace
than would otherwise be true, despite heavy Federal expenditure,
because of a dependence on the too limited supply of physicists,
augmented in part by chemists and medical doctors. These men
have had to take time out for research, development, and production
of the radio-electronic apparatus necessary to facilitate their
work, even though these activities are only incidental to their
principal efforts and interests. Those engaged in radio-electronics
can be of invaluable help in relieving these scientists of such
tasks, and also by performing the work better and cheaper because
of their greater familiarity and experience with electronic
circuits, equipment, and gadgetry. No work is available to radio-electronic
men which can do more, or as much, to benefit mankind and bring
about a better and safer world to live in, and their participation
will insure the use of atomic energy in the more important non-military
applications, rather than as an instrument of war and destruction,
One of the greatest causes of war is the fact that nations
poor in natural resources must fight to survive against nations
rich in natural resources. The field of nucleonics offers the
greatest hope in making available to all nations natural resources
necessary in this modern age. If necessary materials are not
indigenous in the resources of some particular nation, then
nucleonics in its ultimate development can make possible their
artificial creation or production, by utilizing materials at
hand by nuclear processes. It is exactly comparable with radio-electronics
where the basic items such as inductors, resistors, and condensers
can, by their number, size, and manner of arrangement or connection,
become either a television receiver, a mobile radio station,
a broadcasting station, a diathermy apparatus, or an electronic
Nucleonics work is not complicated, though there is much
yet to be discovered about it. Radio-electronic men at all levels,
from operator to engineer, have as much reason to be in that
field as has any physicist or doctor; they are definitely going
to be there, quite soon, too, and in such numbers as dwarf the
total now working in the over-all fields of radio and electronics.
Although such technicians may know a good deal less about
nucleonics and related fields than the comparatively few scientists
who are now close to the problem, it remains a fact that these
same scientists have only a limited knowledge themselves of
the field, and much still remains to be developed. Consequently,
they are not so far ahead that radio and electronic personnel
will be handicapped by entering into the work at this late date.
Several outstanding participants in the atomic energy program
today are radio-radar technical personnel who came from the
M.IT. Radiation Laboratory after it closed down at the war's
end. It is such men, implemented by still more radio-electronic
technicians, who are in a position to make heavy contributions
toward furthering the work of the nucleonic program.
Although these men were still in the minority when the author
visited Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Sandia, time is on their
side, and their ideas on what needs to be done and obtained
will expedite progress when their skills are fully recognized
Posted July 7, 2015