Sunday, June 24, 2012

New thing #32: Glowing in the Dark

For a period of time our customers, concerned about the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima power plant, required our lab check all the components coming from the affected region. This was accomplished with Berthold LB124 Contamination monitors (CoMo). Now that the requirement was lifted, one of the monitors was being shipped to our office in Michigan. So on a recent trip to Germany, I was offered training on how to use it. In order to make the training more effective, what could be better than actually testing some radioactive material to see how the monitor would react?

Luckily the local university had a stash of cesium-137 on hand, so our colleague Effie loaded the CoMo into a blue plastic shopping basket and offered to take us there. We headed across a footbridge to a cobbled parking lot that had seen better days. Deftly skirting puddles from the recent rain, Effie apologized for her "small, old car". It turned out to be spotlessly clean and decked out with Deutsch flag mirror covers to show support for the upcoming Euro 2012 soccer quarterfinals. After a scenic drive up the winding roads through a nice residential part of the city, we arrived at the University of Coburg and met our guides, grad students Sabine and Anna. They gave us a short safety lecture ("don't touch anything") before leading us into a building decked out in the traditional academia d├ęcor of metal furniture, low ceilings and worn Formica floors. We entered a restricted access lab through a door marked with a hazard warning sign proclaiming that radioactive material was present.

I definitely experienced a flashback to elementary school at the sight of that sign. Back in the late 1960's, along with the annual fire drills and bus safety exercises, we would prepare for nuclear attacks. A relentless siren signaled our teachers to lead us to an innermost hallway, where we would crouch down low to the floor while covering our heads with our hands and arms. Even at a young age I wondered how this was supposed to keep us safe from a bomb blast. And I couldn't understand why anyone on the other side of the world would want to threaten my sleepy little town. To me, a country kid with no exposure to other cultures, it fostered a vague sense of mistrust towards foreigners that lasted until I became friends with an exchange student in high school. I feel so fortunate that I was able to broaden my horizon in the years since elementary school, since it's allowed me to meet and become friends with some really amazing people of all different backgrounds.

Back at the lab, Sabine and Anna showed us how to use the CoMo. It's an orange plastic box with a handle, roughly the size and heft of a steam iron. First you run a background sample to determine the amount of radioactive particles in the room. We are constantly surrounded by low levels of radiation from the sun, the ground, and human sources. The monitor registers these background levels so it can subtract it from the final measurement. Once you’ve got your baseline, you can test your parts. We swept some components that we brought with us from our lab. The monitor barely budged. The same was true when we measured our cellphones and wristwatches. Then Anna pulled a sample of cesium from a protective case. The actual amount of radioactive material in the sample was barely larger than the period at the end of this sentence. As soon as she placed it near me, the warning lights and bells on the CoMo began to sound. There was no doubt that it was working correctly, and even though I knew it was coming, I was so startled that I almost dropped the meter.

After the cesium was safely put away and the CoMo had been reset, I asked Sabine what I should do if I measured something back home that set off the monitor. She looked at me and blinked, and then said simply, “Leave.” Now that's good advice! Shut the door; get outta Dodge. And maybe call 911 on your way out. But don’t hunker down in the hallway with your hands over your head.

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