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
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.
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, etc.
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
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
Fig. 2 - Some commercially-made Geiger-Mueller counters
for measuring radioactivity.
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.
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
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
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.
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 work.
Fig. 4 - Passage of radioactive liquid through the digestive
system, blood stream, and tissue lesions differentiates between various tumors,
which are measured by radioactivity indicators.
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 materials.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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 control
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 May 27, 2022
(updated from original post