In the 1950s and ‘60s the U.S. Department of Energy, under the auspices of the “Atoms for Peace” program, built some 140 gamma irradiator devices which they distributed to schools around the country, the notion being that students might use them to learn about the wonders of nuclear science. Apparently wanting to give these devices the most awesomely terrifying name ever, they called them “Gammators”. Roughly the size of a pony keg, each Gammator weighed about 1,850 pounds and contained 400 curies of cesium-137 – a radioactive isotope that, among others things, has been identified by government analysts as being an especially suitable material for use in a “dirty bomb”.
Which explains why (particularly given our post-9/11 terror concerns) the Department of Energy has been going around to our nation’s high school and university science labs trying to round these things up. Over the last decade or so, crews from Los Alamos have removed Gammators from a number of sites across the country, including several in the New York City area (see page 2 of PDF).
It’s not entirely clear, however, whether or not the government has gotten all of them. Records on the number of devices originally put into circulation seem a bit hazy, with numbers ranging from around 120 to 140 or so. In 2004, Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey asserted that six Gammators had, in fact, gone missing. He released a letter from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission acknowledging that Gammators thought to have been given to “Montville Township High School in NJ, Aberdeen High School in MD, Mother Cabrini High School in New York City, Long Island University in Brooklyn, NY, New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury, NY, and an unknown entity named ‘Nippi’ located in either NY or NJ” had yet to be recovered.
In other words, there’s potentially still a fair amount of cesium floating around out there – and much of it, it seems, in the tri-state area. And while we’re not particularly worried about terrorists, say, raiding Montville Township’s science stockroom for dirty bomb material (they’d probably be better off just stockpiling smoke detectors), there’s something undeniably delightful (in a dark, creepy DeLillo-esque sort of way, of course) about knowing that these once-forgotten, now-again-relevant Cold War relics are possibly lurking in the back of a high school’s supply closet just a couple of blocks away.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying we think it could be kind of fun to try to track one of these things down. We’re going to start with Mother Cabrini and see where that leads. We’ll blog as we go, posting updates on our findings or lack thereof. Think of it as a typical magazine story – only done piecemeal, and with all the tedious research parts left in!