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The Mystery of the Trowel – Solved

Uncovering the real story of Joe Ball’s trowel required research at the Department of Energy’s archives, where I could get more information about the AEC’s move from Washington, D.C., to Germantown, Md., in 1957. The AEC’s move was precipitated by the Soviet Union development of thermonuclear weapons. To survive a 20 megaton blast over the capital mall, AEC offices needed to be at least 20 miles away. Germantown was selected over 50 other sites.

This Cold-War move coincided with new initiatives by the AEC to promote civilian nuclear power plant construction. Thus, the dedication ceremony became a chance to highlight the atom’s contribution to national defense and its potential peaceful applications.

The AEC created a ceremony heavy in symbolism. Electricity from batteries charged by eight military and civilian power reactors lifted a curtain on a commemorative plaque in the new building lobby. A time capsule was placed behind the cornerstone packed with military and civilian artifacts, such as pictures of the Nautilus and scraps of linen wrappings for the Dead Sea scrolls dated by radiocarbon techniques.

As I found out from the DOE archives, AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss wanted even more symbols for the dedication ceremony. He asked for a trowel with some historical significance and Argonne National Laboratory obliged, including, as mentioned in Part I, creating a blade made from uranium. AEC officials liked the trowel and planned on giving speeches about its symbolism to local groups.

But there was a problem.

The uranium metal had been reused for many years in other experimental reactors, most likely in the CP-2. The uranium was still radioactive, enough that an Argonne official told the AEC to use only the handle and not touch the blade. Hoping to preclude objections from the White House, the AEC medical staff reassured the Secret Service that the trowel was a “unique opportunity” for Eisenhower “to demonstrate under completely safe conditions the proper way to perform an operation involving radioactive material.”

AEC assurances didn’t work. Ike’s staff refused to allow the president to touch anything radioactive. Stymied, the AEC substituted three silver-plated trowels. The uranium trowel was dropped from the ceremony and the silver-plated trowels that history records were used instead. The fate of the symbolic trowels – of which there were either two or three – were mostly lost to history, with one spending decades in storage at Eisenhower College’s old campus.

Joe Ball’s unusual auction win find reminds us why we love artifacts—their stories are fun. They teach us about the society that made them. The CP-1 trowel was born out of an optimism in the possibilities of the atomic age, but even in the 1950s radiation concerns proved powerful. Today most people likely sympathize with the White House’s fear of radiation, and the trowel probably seems like a questionable use of radioactive material.

And so Argonne’s creation reminds us how the nation had changed in the last half century in shifting to a more sober attitude toward nuclear hazards.

Joe Ball has graciously agreed to loan the trowel to the NRC , where it is now displayed in our lobby.

Tom Wellock
NRC Historian

11 responses to “The Mystery of the Trowel – Solved

  1. Sonal Patel December 5, 2012 at 5:47 pm

    Excellent. Thanks for those–there must be treasure trove of great historical stories like these; keep these coming.

  2. LINDA SEELEY November 29, 2012 at 11:57 am

    where’s the radioactive trowel?

  3. jtinaustralia November 28, 2012 at 6:41 pm

    This is an amazing and fascinating story – perhaps someone from the NRC could post a follow up explaining why the trowel was no longer radioactive, for the non-scientists among us. Thank you to Mr Wellock for the diligent research and let’s have more of this on the NRC blog in the future!

    • Moderator November 29, 2012 at 12:32 pm

      Thanks for your interest in this story. At this point we assume that the trowel is radioactive, but that its beta radiation is blocked by the Plexiglas display case. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection took readings outside the display case and found no detectable radiation. So the trowel is safe for display purposes. Mr. Ball did not remove the Plexiglas cover to have the trowel surveyed directly, but the trowel blade is likely still emitting low levels of beta radiation. Since Argonne has a duplicate copy of the trowel in their museum, I contacted them to find out the radioactivity of their trowel. They had taken a survey of it in 2010. At that time, it registered 40 millirems per hour of beta on direct contact with the blade and 2.5 millirems when measured about one foot away.

      Tom Wellock

  4. fresh November 28, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    What is the radioactivity level of the trowel?
    Proceeding without data is just foolhardy.

  5. Ben Hoganson November 28, 2012 at 11:42 am

    Good work on this research!

  6. Martha Wilhelm November 28, 2012 at 8:44 am

    Thank you for your research and story of the trowel!

  7. James Greenidge November 28, 2012 at 8:29 am

    Good educational article!

    Re: “To survive a 20 megaton blast over the capital mall, AEC offices needed to be at least 20 miles away. Germantown was selected over 50 other sites.”

    I’m truly trying to understand the rationale for that. If we reach a point where an H-bomb explodes over Washington D.C., the location of other federal offices would seem the last concern in anyone’s mind. I really believe a hint of nuclearphobic jitters had a hand in that site decision, very much along the lines of why another major federal agency, the Center of Disease Control was hauled away clear to Atlanta; you still hear rumors that it was because pols in Washington got ansy about a “bug house” being in the neighborhood.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

    • fresh November 28, 2012 at 5:03 pm

      Separation of risks is a very logical strategy. Just like nuclear plants shouldn’t be located next to each other.

      Fear of a justifiable risk is not a “phobia”, its good thinking.

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