The American Museum of Science & Energy is today’s No. 1 Oak Ridge, TN tourist destination. But from 1941 to 1949 Oak Ridge was a town that did not exist. It was one of the top secret facilities for creating the “Manhattan Project” atom bomb used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was the site of a working nuclear reactor for producing fissionable isotopes of uranium.
The gates to both the city and the Manhattan Project’s laboratory museum opened the same day: March 19, 1949. The town quickly became a tourist spot. The museum was sponsored by the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies, now Oak Ridge Associated Universities. Then called the American Museum of Atomic Energy, it profiled the peaceful uses of atomic energy. Housed in a former World War II-era cafeteria, it created and sold “Irradiated Dimes.”
• The dimes are the product of a special isotope cabinet, not a nuclear reactor.
• The radioactivity lasted about four minutes.
• Irradiated dimes are chemically different from others.
• Only silver dimes could be irradiated.
• More than one million dimes were created from 1949-1975.
Were the dimes a radioactive danger to the public?
“I grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee,” says DeeDee Halleck in Perpetual Shadows: Representing the Atomic Age. “… As a child, I sensed that neither of my parents liked the fact that Oak Ridge was identified with atomic weaponry — especially since the government had actually used the bomb during World War II. The national celebration, so prevalent in Life magazine’s version of post-war America, did not extend to that part of Tennessee. Maybe Oak Ridge knew too much … After [my mother] died, we discovered in her safe deposit box four irradiated dimes, one for each of us. I shudder to think of the damage this “fun house” souvenir may have done to young ovaries and testicles in close proximity to children’s pockets.”
“The coins are not ‘hot,’” states Dr. Paul Frame, Ph.D., a health physicist with the Oak Ridge Associated Universities and author (with William Kolb) of Living With Radiation: The First Hundred Years. “It is impossible to say exactly what the activities would have been at the time that the dimes were irradiated since I have not seen the results of any analyses that were done then.
“But it is possible to hazard a guess, and I did some back-of-the-envelope type calculations. While the results suggest that the maximum induced activity would have been on the order of 20 microcuries (and this would decay away quickly), it is probable that the actual activities were quite a bit lower. Keep in mind that I had to make wild guesses as to what the irradiation times and the neutron fluence rates were.”
The dimes were discontinued in the late ’70s, after the government changed metal composition in the coin, causing them to “hold on to radioactivity longer,” says American Museum of Science & Energy museum exhibit manager Lenell Woods.
related post: “Did Early Polio Vaccine Cause Cancer?”
Sources: www.canadian numismatic.org/ebulletin%5CEBulletinVol3No05January26_2007.pdf
Living With Radiation: The First Hundred Years.
William Kolb and Dr. Paul Frame (self-published ISBN 060806162x)
Perpetual Shadows: Representing the Atomic Age
Wide Angle – Volume 20, Number 2, April 1998, pp. 70-76
The Johns Hopkins University Press