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, etc.
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 materials.
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.
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 indicators.
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 nucleonic progress.
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 control device.
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 and utilized.
Posted July 7, 2015