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Students Build Reactor For Scavenger Hunt

Hemos posted more than 15 years ago | from the mmm-i-love-school dept.

Science 96

MattJ writes "At the end of this NYT story about a scavenger hunt at UofChicago, you discover two physics students got points for building a working nuclear reactor, in a day, from scratch. It's a bit scary how easy it was for them to actually produce plutonium. " Reminds me of some of things we did in Biochem. But the lawyer says I'm not supposed to talk about that.

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This is not a Nuclear Reactor (0)

Jess (11386) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885689)

The concept of a nuclear reactor requires that the system to go "critical" and have a self sustaining chain reaction. What they did is simply expose some thorium to a neutron source thereby causing a nuclear reaction. I cound not find any details about the neutron source. Any one know what it was? Did they rely on spontaneous fission of the thorium?

Re:This is more fun than you can believe (1)

rebrane (17961) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885690)

This is interesting to hear. Maybe Woodward just doesn't get it. :) I found the low-tech rather romantic (although if it weren't for AltaVista, we'd probably STILL be on the roadtrip). Woodward's turnout was remarkably low (we had maybe 30 dedicated people, tops), but I didn't see anyone but the Shoreland with a presence to totally dominate ours.

I'm curious as to which team you were on with 125 people. Maybe it's true that ScavHunt has been waning over the last few years.. fortunately, it's very far from burning out.

I'd disagree about your 'more fatiguing road trips' point. This road trip was, according to the 3rd- and 2nd-years who I accompanied, the biggest one in years. We had about 55 total items to collect, and the route was Chicago->Milwaukee->Green Bay->Mackinaw->Toronto->Detroit->Chicago, with several stops in between (such as Waldo). We stopped to sleep for 4 hours, -max-, and that was with two drivers. We almost killed each other the last day...

Yes, we had a couple of sweet-talkers.. that's how we got a vending machine, several hundred hub caps, our Resident Master to serenade us with NWA, etc etc etc. The 'covert' team didn't have that much to do this year mostly because of the legal troubles last year (Hitchcock ratted Woodward out.. the judges do not shine on them).. nonetheless, the official Ward T-shirt is emblazoned with the slogan 'DON'T ARREST ME'---although the reaction to that in the great white north made me think it was less than effective. :)

--neil, who left Casino Rama up five Canadian bucks

Not that unbelievable (1)

Crutcher (24607) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885691)

The article pretty much states that it is only a breader reactor, and as such, only makes plutonium. Now, I am not a physics major myself, but I know a few and my dorm did some research on this about a decade ago, (the cia was not amussed), and many schools have small experimental breaders for research purposes. Those reactors need fuel, and no mention was made of the grade. Ass for detection, spectographic analysis, or chemical detectors are both more than adequate for the purpose of detecting even VERY small ammounts of plutonium.

Longer article (5)

andyhat (9136) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885692)

At the Chicago Maroon (UofC student newspaper), there's a longer story about the scav hunt with more info on the reactor: http://www.chicagomaroon.com /articles/a926450700.shtml [chicagomaroon.com] .

Radioactive thorium found in smoke detectors! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885693)

Seriously. Go look at your smoke detector. What other device in your home has a stamp from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on it? I wouldn't be surprised if a few molecules of Pu were present in smoke detectors. Not enough to be useful, though, that is, if you could even separate them out.

Re:What amount of Plutonium is Safe? (1)

gavinhall (33) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885694)

Posted by Lord Kano-The Gangster Of Love:

>>IIRC a few pounds could poison the water supply of a city.

A few pounds of lots of stuff could poison a large city's water supply. A couple of pounds of ricin (from castor beans) can kill thousands of people. As Kurt Saxon said, if someone were to liberate a few ounces of ricin from the top of the empire state building, with the right wind a sizeable portion of Manhattan would be killed.

Chemically poisonous substances exist everywhere around us. But we know to avoid them. There are powerful carcinogens in the crankcases of our cars, but do we ingest them? Not usually. Do we drink paint thinner? No. Do we inject lysol? No.

The ignorance of the ordinary schmoe's only makes it inconvienent for the rest of us.

LK

Reminds me of a Readers Digest article... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885695)

There was a Reader Digest article a few months back which told about how this 14 year old Boy Scout build some nuclear thing in a shed in the back yard. He eventually got scared and dismantled the thing when his Geiger counter was registering the radioactivity one block away.

He went to quite a lot of work, buying a whole pile of smoke detectors, etc. to gather his materials.

I wish I could post a link, but I can't find the article on the RD web site.

Re:This is not a Nuclear Reactor (1)

AJWM (19027) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885696)

"This is not a Nuclear Reactor"
[...]
"What they did [...] thereby causing a nuclear reaction"

Hmm, if they put something together that caused nuclear reactions, sure sounds to me like it could be described as a nuclear reactor.

It just never reached breakeven.

plutonium (1)

Coventry (3779) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885697)

Plutonium isnt usually used in nuclear reactors, they prolly used uranium, or any other handy super-heavy element with radioactive tendancies...

The article does not describe what Kind of nuclear reactor they created - and with the time-frame of one-day, is was obviously a relatively small one. A small reactor isnt a danger, except in the local sense of radiation if it isnt properly sealed - this wasnt a water-cooled radioactive steam-releasing monster like chernobyl or anything - they didnt have time to build a water cooled reactor - which again, points to the reactor being very small...

Re:Will the Gov ban it? (1)

whoop (194) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885698)

There's plenty of room to cut these out of date classes. More room needs to be put in place for Saving the Rain Forest 101, I Like Me, Guns are Bad mm'K, and the like.

Smart kids are put down/ostrisized, recognition for valedictorians (or other intelligence related things) are being eliminated, normal classes are being wiped out, the liberals want more touchy feely crap, etc. And congressmen wonder why we suck in all those world-wide tests...

Re:another possibility (1)

rebrane (17961) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885699)

No, although one of them was:

208. The fine people at _dELiA*s_ should wish your team luck on their website. Show us that they do. [240 points]

My team only got an e-mail from them; and slashdot is too little too late. *sigh*

--neil, representative of the Ward's roadtrip team

ObScavHunt: for a few pictures, see my scant few digital images of the roadtrip [k-r4d.com] and a few pictures from an observer [simplenet.com] .

Don't need power or magnets for an accelerator (1)

AJWM (19027) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885700)

You don't need power, just high voltage -- which you can get from a static generator like a van de Graaf machine. You don't need magnets, either, unless you want to bend the beam path.

The Scientific American "Amateur Scientist" column about 35 years ago had a "build your own accelerator" article. Small (couple feet high) van de Graaf as the voltage source and it accelerated protons at your target, -- which is going to work better on the light elements than the heavy ones.

Re:Radioactive thorium found in smoke detectors! (1)

Imabug (2259) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885701)

Smoke detectors generally contain small amounts of Am-241.
Thorium is easily obtainable from lantern mantles that you put into Coleman lanterns, which you can buy from any camping store.

Re:Will the Gov ban it? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885702)

Yeah... I think we should all be required to take bomb making classes in high school.

lantern mantles (2)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885703)

Those fabric-like mesh-bag mantles used for kerosene and gas lanterns contain thorium.

Experiment: stack a mantle and a key on a plate of film, stick it in a drawer for a week, then develop the film. Voila, a shadow of the key on the film, just like an xray

So I guess you can get radioactive material at the hardware AND camping goods store...

Re:More info, anyone? (5)

Ted Cabeen (4119) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885704)

Here are the explanatory posts by the two guys
who made the reactor on the University of
Chicago local newsgroups: Enjoy!
Alright, I just want to set a couple things straight, so here are some
responses to oft heard comments the last few days:

1. "I assume they used U-238 to get to Pu-239..." we did not start
with any uranium or plutonium, that would have ruined the fun, and the
point was to make fissionable materials. Our starting material was
thorium, which can be found at any hardware store. we happened to have
some in our dorm room... The final products were Uranium 233 and
Plutonium 238. I'm not going to spoon feed the decay chains to anyone,
you can figure it out yourself if you really need to.

2. "You endangered the life of my son!" We created a neutron source
using some shit we pulled out of a trash can. This source was safer and
less radioactive than the radioisotope Americium 241 found in the smoke
detector in each of your rooms.

3. "Someone said your roommate lost his job because he built a nuclear
reactor" Neither I nor my rommmate have lost our jobs since doing this.

4. "I hear you paid another group to steal Plutonium for you" We did
not steal Uranium or Plutonium from anywhere. Nor did we have anyone
else steal some for us.

5. "but to qualify as a true breeder, doesn't the reaction have to be
self-sustaining?" No. A breeder reactor just means taking advantage of
all those tasty neutrons flying off from whatever source you have, be it
a sustained fission reaction or a naturally radioactive source. The
best neutron source on campus would be the Physics Dept's neutron
howitzer. But since the howitzer produces neutrons from the decay of
Plutonium, you have to agree it would be silly to use it to try and make
plutonium.

6. "(I'll be really impressed if the two come up with a micro-fusion
reactor.)" We'd fly back next year just for that one...

- Juniper Tasks

Just some clarification for the readers who've forgotten their nuclear
physics:

U-235 is the fissionable used in the Hiroshima bomb and Pu-239
in the Nagasaki bomb. U-238 is used in fast breeder reactors
to make weapons grade Pu-239. (U-238 is also used in fission-fusion-fission
bombs, so technically it is fissionable with a net gain of energy
but you need really fast neutrons).

Thorium was to have been used in slow breeder reactor technology which
turns out U-233 as its fissionable. (Is Pu-238 fissionable at low neutron
energies with a net gain? The even Z makes me think not...)

I thought you had started with depleted uranium to make a fast breeder;
didn't know the thorium isotope available from hardware stores was the
one used in slow breeders.
Well, with a small sample of thorium and a neutron source, you can make
the U-233. But with a fully functioning breeder don't you need some of the
U-233 created to fission and transform the rest of the thorium without
running away and slagging the reactor or damping out so you never
end up with more thorium than whatever's directly exposed to your
neutron source? I suppose the nuclear engineering definition of a
breeder has to be more pragmatic.

Fred and Justin didn't begin with any uranium.
(Uranium, after all, ain't a commonly available thing.) They began with some
thorium and an alpha source, which they just happened to have lying
around. They used the alpha source to make a neutron source, and bombarded
the thorium. This induced a chain of reactions, the final products of
which were fissionable uranium and plutonium.

Re:In related news... (1)

SoftwareJanitor (15983) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885705)

Wonder GM still uses the Small Block engine? (debut 1956)

They still make original style SB Chevy V8's for the aftermarket (Goodwrench 305 and 350). The current production V8's (Corvette, Camaro and full size trucks) are still similar to the original smallblock but no longer as parts-compatible as the prior generation production was. BTW, the debut for the original smallblock (265ci displacement) was with the 1955 model year, which debuted in 1954.

Re:This is more fun than you can believe (1)

rebrane (17961) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885706)

i see. yeah, 100 people pitching in a little bit is a reasonable estimate (which Woodward totally fell short of, which is probably why we lost). between 100 residents you could put together a pound of hair pretty easily (#98).

did they try to get us to sleep on the roadtrip? i don't know.. twice we'd get to a city at 5 am and our first item on the agenda was a place that opened at 8 am, so we caught a few Z's in vain then. but i'm not sure that was intentional.. we didn't follow the planned agenda that well, but we kicked ass anyway. :)

the scavhunt must've been quite a different beast before altavista. i don't know -how- i'd have been able to find all the roadtrip items without it.. i suppose i'd get on the horn right at 8 am and start pestering various information numbers. ech. i much prefer the more efficient method that's devoid of human contact. :)

the sweet-talkers earn an impressive number of points, it's certain.. well, them along with the covert ops team (their duties are interchangable with alarming frequency). that's where the sweetest plums lie.. ah, carting a vending machine into Ida Noyes hall was as satisfying as seeing the other teams' eyes bug out. :)

--neil

Patented automobiles (1)

Mudhiker (15850) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885707)

Dood! There are hundreds if not thousands of patents on today's automobiles. Sometimes companies actually use the number of "new" patented features as an advertising gimmick. But, they sometimes share patented technologies, especially when they have to do with safety or meeting california's efficiency laws. There's more to cars than Need For Speed man. ;-)

Re:This is not a Nuclear Reactor (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885708)

Yep, a radioactive decay reactor is a reactor too.

You seem to be only thinking of nuclear reactors useful for power generation from Uranium or Plutonium.



Re:More info, anyone? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885709)

Lets remember that the article says "A small amount". They probably managed to make less than a gram of plutonium.

Re:What amount of Plutonium is Safe? (5)

Psion (2244) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885710)

That's actually an exaggeration started by Helen Caldicott and perpetuated by anti-nuke activists like Karl Grossman. I suggest an interesting article by Ilya Taytslin to be found at Dr. Caldicott and the Truth About Plutonium. [labyrinth.net.au] The article largely discusses the space probe Cassini and the uproar over it's use of an RTG power supply, but the points made are generally applicable.

I was in his scout troop... (5)

Pathwalker (103) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885711)

I went to the same high school as Dave, and I was in his scout troop (troop 371).
Dave (or Glow Boy as we called him, not Radioactive Boy like the Harper's article says :-) was obsessed with radioactive material, and didn't care about taking any safety precautions (he used to carry chunks of Americanicum around in his front pocket without any shielding)

I've heard several stories from him on how he got caught. One was that he got caught when he was pulled over by the local cops who thought he was stealing tires from cars. The looked in his trunk and freaked out when he warned them it was radioactive. Another was that a chemical spill sensor at a railoroad crossing kept going off at the same time every day (when he was heading to school).

Very strange guy... I got a letter from him a while ago - he's writing a book, and apparently a movie is in the works.

This is more fun than you can believe (5)

GlobalEcho (26240) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885712)

I went to U of Chicago, and was there when the Scavenger Hunt started. Our team lost badly my first year, took first prize the next two years, and took second my last year. I haven't gone since '91, but I still follow it a little.


As pointed out elsewhere here, the nuclear reactor is entirely believable. I might point out that the chief danger from plutonium in small amounts is not its radioactivity, but its poisonousness. Even 1 gram could kill a heck of a lot of people.


Like the article hints, you don't win these days without setting up a LAN and using some database technology. There are too many items to track otherwise. The big items everyone remembers, but there are lots of little 5- and 10-pointers, like ostrich eggs or whatever, that tend to get forgotten. Read the list [uchicago.edu] , and you'll be amazed, but some teams get almost everything within 72 hours.


Back in my day, we got an airplane, a one-ton animal, a telephone pole, and a marching band. We found a collector of turn of the century train cars from the Chicago Elevated to loan us an El car, but we couldn't get permission from the city to take such a heavy load on the streets.


Teams that really contend for the top prizes are made up of 100 or more people, of whom at least 25 must be willing to dedicate the ENTIRE 72 hour period to collecting and building. Usually, you specialize, putting your smooth talkers onto tasks like wheedling Olympic medalists into loaning their medals, your skilled researchers onto finding the answers to obscure questions like the location and population of Waldo, your exhibitionists in the latex paint-on pants, etc.


I have never done anything more fun in my entire life.

Re:More info, anyone? (2)

Jess (11386) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885713)

"U-238 is used in fast breeder reactors to make weapons grade Pu-239"

Actually, most of the weapons grade plutonium was produced in thermal reactors, not fast breader reactors.

"...didn't know the thorium isotope available from hardware stores was the one used in slow breeders."

Thorium is thorium no matter where you get it.

Re:More info, anyone? (1)

SEWilco (27983) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885714)

Nah, it did not produce useful power. If it did, the application to construct a reactor would have been forwarded to the state utility regulatory commission, and action by them would have taken too long... :-)

What amount of Plutonium is Safe? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885715)

I thought that stuff was the most toxic stuff in the world. Is any amount safe to store in a dorm room?

AOL (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885716)

When we thought we were free of 'em here... Jeez, they are like the plague! Their writing of style (the 'kiddie' one like above) and the 'Anonymous Coward' mode blew his cover.

Now GET OUT YOU AOLER!!!!

A gram, haha (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885717)

FBI agents would be all over tha place if they managed to produce a gram. How about a couple of hundreds atoms?

Re:In related news... (2)

Per Abrahamsen (1397) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885718)

You are allowed to recreate patented processes (without a license) for the purpose of understanding them.

Re:What amount of Plutonium is Safe? (2)

tgd (2822) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885719)

There are probably fifty things in an average house that are as equally capable of killing someone if ingested. Just don't inhale it, or eat it. They were converting some portion of another material into uranium and plutonium. I'm no nuclear engineer, but I know the reaction has to do with slow moving neutrons, and they've got to pass through a certain amount of material before they lose enough energy to get trapped in the nucleus and change the material. Any faster and they'll fission the nucleas.

(Please correct me if I'm wrong you nuclear engineer types...)

Thus the production was probably theoretical, and not actually tested for (although if theory says its there, you're pretty safe in assuming it is there). With the plutonium confined to the interior of the sample, you're not going to ingest it.

I also don't think its quite as dangerous as tree-huggers typically make it out to be. The warning on the Lysol toilet mint I put in my john the other day was a lot scarier!

Re:More info, anyone? (2)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885720)

If you read the article carefully, they only produced a trace amount. Producing a trace amount is relatively easy; they could probably do it with just a piece of uranium (which wouldn't have to be high-grade) and a particle source. Of course they'd only produce a few atoms of plutonium. This isn't the same as building a reactor that can provide power or can produce any visible quantities of anything.

It's like asking someone to build a rocket, they build a one foot model rocket, and you see headlines of "College Students Beat NASA--Make Rocket In Dorm Room Based on Same Principles as Million Dollar Launch Vehicle".

Re:Will the Gov ban it? (1)

red_dragon (1761) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885721)

So what if they only got 100 atoms of plutonium? The fact that they knew how to make it by learning it in college is comparable to knowing how to make a pipe bomb by reading about it on the Internet. It doesn't matter if their reactor was a viable working one. Come to think of it, it would take me a while to get all the materials to make a pipe bomb. The fact is, the Government is trying to ban knowledge, and we all should be against it.

Re:Don't worry (1)

Ares (5306) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885722)

Until someone comes up with a quick gender-neutral way to refer to an unknown individual, I think most people will continue to refer to said person as male.

Re:In related news... (1)

SoftwareJanitor (15983) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885723)

What would constitute a "major" patent in anti-lock brakes, which have been available for a lot more than four years? Sounds like more of a minor refinement than a major thing to me. I still stand by my opinion that the patent office is issuing patents for things that are too obvious, too similar to existing patents or too vague.

Re:More info, anyone? (1)

slashdot-me (40891) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885724)

> You need a certain MASS of plutonium to get a reaction...
Whatever. You probably need a couple of pounds to make a self sustaining reaction [boom]. It appears that this device used an alpha source to prod the reaction along. They makde a little bit of uranium and plutonium. If you can make a little you can eventually make a lot.

http://www.ryans.dhs.org

Building, Thinking, Banning (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885725)

Students learn to think in school. Government and businesses ban it!

Re:This is not a Nuclear Reactor (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885726)

Radioactive decay is also a nuclear reaction, so, by your criteria, absolutely everything is a nuclear reactor. A nuclear reactor usually means a device causing either fission or fusion, which this UC thing wasn't.

Re:More info, anyone? (3)

Ted Cabeen (4119) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885727)

That's exactly it. They created a few atoms of plutonium and had the necessary equipment from the physics department to detect it.

Here's an updated URL for the article:
http://search.nytimes.com/search/daily/bin/fastweb ?getdoc+site+ site+26193+3+wAAA+nuclear%7Ereactor%7Estudents [nytimes.com]

I love going to the UofC. :)

Re:Will the Gov ban it? (1)

SEWilco (27983) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885728)

I liked that the original link in the /. article produced an article about Clinton's gun control efforts. Nothing in the article about Clinton controlling nuclear devices...

Re:More info, anyone? (1)

Tallus (3094) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885729)

Our starting material was thorium, which can be found at any hardware store.

'scuse my ignorance , but how come you can by thorium in a hardware store - nuclear grade toilet cleaner?

IANAL, but read the whole amendment... (1)

dillon_rinker (17944) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885730)

IANAL, but it seems that you overlooked the last clause (pointless verbiage removed):
...with the intent that...information be used for...a Federal crime of violence

In other words, it is illegal only if the person who disseminates the information intends it to be used for a crime. If it is used strictly for informational purposes, it appears to be legal.

Presumably this would be used to prosecute people who are not directly involved in a bombing but who provided useful information to the bombers, with the knowledge that the bombers WOULD commit a crime. It would allow prosecutors to charge bombing conspirators with yet another violation of the law.

I still think it's a bad thing. If a law (like conspiracy, or RICO, or aiding and abetting, etc) isn't preventing violence, how would another law help? I would tell the bozos in Congress to fund enforcement of laws currently on the books rather than making more laws and spreading law enforcement resources even thinner.

Re:Don't need power or magnets for an accelerator (1)

zenophile (18890) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885731)

You don't need power, just high voltage -- which you can get from a static generator like a van de Graaf machine.

Well, it takes power to establish the high voltage in the first place. Actually the power required goes like the square of the voltage.

Also, if you are using the HV to accelerate something, you will have to supply power, because the battery or whatever it is that's creating the electric field is doing work on the particles it accelerates, and that energy has to come from somewhere. Otherwise, if what you say is true, your powerless accelerator would make a nice engine for a perpetual motion machine...

BTW, I work in the physics dept. at the Univ. of Michigan [umich.edu] , and Fred Niell, one of the students who built the reactor, is coming to graduate school here in the fall. I am gonna treat that guy with respect!

Re:More info, anyone? (2)

Pepe Rodriguez (23980) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885732)

The guy says at the end that there were only trace amounts of plutonium. I get the feeling that 'Working" has erroneously replaced "Scale Model" here. They probably had a model that if scaled up would work. You need a certain MASS of plutonium to get a reaction. So the idea of a small nuclear reactor is somewhat silly. Since you would need at least enough space to hold the 15(?) pounds of plutonium.

Re:Will the Gov ban it? (1)

SoftwareJanitor (15983) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885733)

And congressmen wonder why we suck in all those world-wide tests...

I read 'congressmen wonder' as 'congressmen feign ignorance', personally.

Re:Will the Gov ban it? (4)

scheme (19778) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885734)

Lessee... kids got instructions on how to make bombs on the Internet... kids make bombs... kids kill a bunch of people... Government bans said instructions from the 'net. College students learn how to make plutonium in school... college students make a working nuclear reactor, in a day, from scratch... will government ban that from schools?

Look it wasn't a working breeder reactor. It took Thorium to Uranium and then to plutonium. It took Justin and Fred(the guys who built it) about 2 days to build it. However they started with 4 grams of thorium(alpha source) and got about 8000 atoms of uranium(neutron source) after a day and about 100 atoms of plutonium. Plus it took more energy to sustain the reaction then it producded. All in all, it wasn't a viable way of producing large quantities of uranium or plutonium since you have to separate a very messy mixture.

Re:Don't worry (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885735)


Actually, this hasn't been true for about 15 years (In american English anyways).

It's *no longer* considered acceptable to refer to an unknown individual, as male. Either gender specific references have to be removed, or he/she's have to be included.

In some other languages (like French), this is still the case though.

Some people are a little to sensitive about it though...

Re:What amount of Plutonium is Safe? (2)

scheme (19778) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885736)

hus the production was probably theoretical, and not actually tested for (although if theory says its there, you're pretty safe in assuming it is there). With the plutonium confined to the interior of the sample, you're not going to ingest it.

Actually the were able to conform decay from the uranium atoms that they predicted were produced. So given the physics involved, there was no reason to assume the plutonium atoms were not being produced. Of course they only had about 8000 atoms of uranium so they couldn't have more about a few thousand plutonium atoms. You would get more radiation from a particle shower coming off of a cosmic ray hitting the atmosphere so it is relatively safe.

Re:More info, anyone? (1)

hab136 (30884) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885737)

Yeah, really.. if this is true (i.e. not some dumb reporter fooled by punk kids), then it should its own article on page two at least, not two paragraphs at the end of some other article.

Re:Vaguely reminiscient... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885738)

I just thought you all would like to know that my brother (Justin) and Fred might be doing an article for Scientific America. It's in the "talking stage". :)

And to whomever admired the techno music that they were playing at the time, you should hear Justin play it here at home!

hannah

Not an accelerator (1)

scheme (19778) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885739)

My guess is that the dumb shit reporter couldn't tell the difference between an accelerator and a reactor. You *can* produce plutonium with an accelerater, just not very much. During the Manhattan project this approach was examined but it just wasn't capable of producing the volume of fissionable material needed for a bomb.

The thing was not an accelerator. I was there and talked to Fred and Justin about it. First of all, there was no power going into the shed they had it in, an accelerator requires alot of power to run plus there were no magnets around.

Link doesn't seem to work (4)

kramer (19951) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885740)

This [nytimes.com] one appears to work.

Re:Great... I want to be back in school! (0)

PatMouser (1692) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885741)

Well... the interrupt would be pretty spectacular.

The Government IS BANNING IT! (1)

TheSync (5291) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885742)

On tuesday, an amendment banning distribution of information on making explosives, destructive devices, and weapons of mass destruction was added to the sure-to-pass Juvenile Crime Bill.

Amendment SP353 to S.254

Sec 402 Criminal Prohibition on Distribution of Certain Information Relating to Explosives, Destructive Devices, and Weapons of Mass Destruction.

(2) Prohibition - It shall be unlawful for any person - (A) to teach or demonstrate the making of an explosive, a destructive device, or a weapon of mass destruction, or to distribute by any means information pertaining to, in whole or in part, the manufacture or use of an explosive, destructive device, or weapon of mass destruction, with the intent that that teaching, demonstration, or information be used for or in furtherance of an activity that consitutes a Federal crime of violence;

[The Senate doesn't have the guts to have this amendment on their site yet, go to the GPO Congressional Record [gpo.gov] and search on 1999 CR for S5385, then look in that result for Section 402 for the down and dirty]

Re:In related news... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885743)

You kidding right? Or are you just that ignorant.I have a cousin that 4 years ago received a *major* patent in the area of anti-lock brakes. I have more then a couple relatives in the detroit area in the automobile engineering business. There are new innovations all the time, just because its not noticable to you does not mean it doesnt exist.

"Just because you don't understand it doesn't mean it makes no sense; and just because you don't like it don't mean it ain't no good." S.T.

Re:More info, anyone? (1)

geoGIF (19699) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885744)

>>...didn't know the thorium isotope available
>>from hardware stores was the one used in slow
>>breeders."
>
>Thorium is thorium no matter where you get it.

Chemically (i.e. only taking into account QED), thorium is thorium no matter where you get it. The same could be said for hydrogen, or carbon, or any element. From a nuclear point of view however, there can certainly be differences between atoms that are chemically (electrically) identical. We call these different flavors of atoms, isotopes. They have different atomic masses and some are unstable (i.e. radioactive). The message stated that he didn't know the thorium isotope available from hardware stores was the one used in slow breeders. This is a perfectly valid, logical, and sensible observation. Saying, "thorium is thorium no matter where you get it," is simply missing the point.

Re:Link doesn't seem to work (3)

paRcat (50146) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885745)

How 'bout this one instead...

http://search.nytimes.com/search/daily/bin/fastw eb?getdoc+site+site+26193+3+wAAA+nuclear%7 Ereactor%7Estudents

Re:In related news... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885746)

Dont mistake Patent for "innovation" my father who was a stylist for GM has a bout 2 dozen patnts for grill, hubcap, taillights and other asthetic features.

The "garden weasle" has a few patents

on a side note: an aquaintance of mine was lured from his job as a project manager at a jet engine manufacturer working on afterburner development to work for Ford designing hatchback hinges Quote "I just used the design from last year"

Wonder GM still uses the Small Block engine? (debut 1956)

Great... I want to be back in school! (0)

tgd (2822) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885747)

And I thought hacking together DEC mainframes, or three-phase power circuits was cool.

Nuclear reactor? Why didn't I ever think of that!

Don't worry (1)

marcus (1916) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885748)

The male forms of words have long been acceptable as a viable method of addressing an undefined individual or group. If you meant no offense, then it is their problem to grow up and realize that rather than be childish and 'offended' when none was intended.

The odd twist is that some males will get upset if you try to address them as 'doodette' and at the same time they will expect the females to appreciate being addressed as 'dood'. So the tender offendees do live on both sides of the sex fence, just shrug 'em off.

Re:More info, anyone? Critical mass (1)

BogoNick (17940) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885749)

If I remember correctly, it's all about critical mass. If you have pure enough samples, the moment these materials reach critical mass/density (i.e, the fission bomb makes up of two halves which are joined when it hits the ground), the thing goes haywired.

Re:What amount of Plutonium is Safe? (1)

GlobalEcho (26240) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885750)

Well, as I understand it, plutonium is not dangerous for its radioactivity. The main trouble is that it is chemically poisonous. Like lead, but worse. So while all the idiots go running around worrying about the radioactivity, the real danger remains unacknowledged. IIRC a few pounds could poison the water supply of a city.

The Tayltslin/Caldicott article, BTW, repeats this mistake, in addressing the dangers of plutonium only in terms of radioactivity. In that sense it's every bit as much trash as the paranoid environmentalist crap it's trying to refute.

Incidentally, the students made just a few atoms of plutonium, not enough to be dangerous to anybody.

Re:Will the Gov ban it? (2)

Big Ruff (28749) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885751)

Well yes, how else do you make a 'healthy' society?

no more bomb making instructions, no more chemistry in high school (hell chem is worse that inet instructions), no more physics.. lets see, oh yah.. no more learning history (to much violence in the past).. hell at this rate we should be bonified government zombies in just a few years!

Thorium is thorium - a mix of isotopes (1)

AJWM (19027) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885752)

Naturally occuring thorium (as found in, e.g. thorite) is, like most things, a mix of isotopes. Given how hard separating isotopes is, I sincerely doubt that anyone is enriching thorium in any particular isotope for any particular purpose.
So basically, thorium is thorium no matter where you get it -- the same mix of isotopes.

(There are probably minor exceptions -- thorium found in, say, pitchblende or uranite might have a *slightly* different isotope ratio because of the influence of other elements/decay products.)

Will the Gov ban it? (3)

red_dragon (1761) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885753)

Lessee... kids got instructions on how to make bombs on the Internet... kids make bombs... kids kill a bunch of people... Government bans said instructions from the 'net. College students learn how to make plutonium in school... college students make a working nuclear reactor, in a day, from scratch... will government ban that from schools?

Re:In related news... (0)

SoftwareJanitor (15983) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885754)

no extra-credit was granted due to patent infringement...

What in any current automobile is even close to patentable? There hasn't been any real innovation in the automotive field in years. If anyone is getting patents, its another sign of how screwed up our patent system is.

More info, anyone? (2)

Lagged2Death (31596) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885756)

I'd love to read more details about this. I'll have to admit I'm skeptical (Where do you get enough high-grade fissionable material to make plutonium without the NRC knowing about it? How do you verify the presence of plutonium in your dorm room without irradiating yourself? Did this thing produce useful power, or just plutonium? etc.) But the NYT article does not go into much detail about the technical aspects. Does anyone know where we can read more?

Chemistry 101 (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885757)

When we hear the word "nuclear" or something "nuclear" may be something powerful or can enoromously create power of such magnitude.

Creating a nuclear reactor has been a dream of many college students. Naturally occurring radioactive isotope are found in nature, in addition slow moving neutron can also be found. The idea of building a "nuclear reactor" is common. Some nuclear reaction with great dilution is like a chemical reaction.

I guess what they create is like a 0.000000000001M of some nuclear reaction. This isn't much. I dealt with such great dilution at school all the time.

Re:The List (5)

slashdot-me (40891) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885758)

http://student-www.uchicago.edu/orgs/scavhunt/list 99.txt

It's really fscking long, so I won't post it directly.

http://www.ryans.dhs.org

Re:Bitch, Bitch, Bitch (0)

Restil (31903) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885759)

WHAT IS THIS!!! You call this a Nuclear reactor?!?!? This is simply UNACCEPTABLE. Now go out there and find me a RESPECTABLE nuclear reactor, and don't come back here again until you do!






:)

-Restil

Re:Will the Gov ban it? (1)

HiThere (15173) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885760)

That's right. All you could reasonably get out of this is a site specific radioactive dust for contaminating areas. You'ld need to spread it some other way (like with a firecracker). And that would take months, probably.

Hello (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885761)

Hello. My name is Pietr. I am student
of physics. My friends and I like very
much to build breeder reactor. Can you
tell us the instructions please. We are
doing project for school and need plutonium.
Thank you very much.

D'oh! (0)

Mudhiker (15850) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885762)

Forgive my sexist assumption. There are women on slashdot. D'oh!

Radiation. Yes, indeed. (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885763)

You hear the most outrageous lies about it - half-baked gogglebox do-gooders telling everybody it's bad for you.... pernicious nonsense!

There was a fellow at Los Alamos, I think, who said "I will eat as much Pu-239 as you will eat nicotine." He's still alive, and isn't telling whether anyone's taken him up on the challenge.

Beryllium is more unpleasant, molecule for molecule, than plutonium - if you happen to get the powder into a wound.

Re:Thorium is thorium - a mix of isotopes (1)

geoGIF (19699) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885764)

Actually, according to WebElements [shef.ac.uk] , there is one, and only one, naturally occuring thorium isot ope [shef.ac.uk] : Th232. So, apparently, naturally occuring thorium is not a mix of isotopes, but one isotope.

There are other "man-made" radioisotopes [shef.ac.uk] . A couple have fairly long half-lifes (in the thousands of years). The longest (Th230) is about 75,400 years. But that's a mere blink of the eye, in cosmological and geological terms, which explains why there's only a single naturally occuring isotope (all others have long since decayed into something else). The probability of finding a significant number of "natural" atoms in the entire earth of any isotope of thorium other than Th232 is probably very, very small (but nonzero).

Re:More info, anyone? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885765)

My guess is that the dumb shit reporter couldn't tell the difference between an accelerator and a reactor. You *can* produce plutonium with an accelerater, just not very much. During the Manhattan project this approach was examined but it just wasn't capable of producing the volume of fissionable material needed for a bomb.

cant wait until next year (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885766)

I didn't even know about this cool activity when I accepted admission to UofC, this rocks! I can't wait!
Sean

Re:Great... I want to be back in school! (0)

RattRigg (4253) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885767)

Could make a very useful UPS

Re:Hello (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885768)

Yeah right! You too can come be a physics major at the University of Chicago! It is your destiny! (Wait...)

B.A. 1997

Re:Reminds me of a Readers Digest article... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885769)

The article was originally published in Harper's (the Reader's Digest version may not be as complete). I haven't seen a Harper's web site, but a lot of libraries subscribe to it.

Re:Headline: Fred Neill and Justin Kasper kidnappe (0)

PHroD (1018) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885770)

lest we forget The Manhatten Project? :)

pff...a COLD fusion bomb...thats kinda lame...like that awful TV movie w/ Rob Lowe, "Atomic Train" :P


"There is no spoon" - Neo, The Matrix

Re:More info, anyone? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885771)

The neutrons given off by fission are usually fast, the neutrons which induce fission you usually want to be slow. So, you need a moderator. Light water works not too bad, heavy water works a bit better. Having some means of enhancing the density of neutrons near the core is also handy (called a reflector), and beryllium is great for this. Not only that, but you can make a neutron source from the beryllium by bombarding it with alpha particles. Thorium would be easier to start a cycle from, but no need to try to find depleted uranium, any old uranium will do just fine for breeding plutonium. You can pretty much build this thing from bits and pieces (of theory and application) of two Canadian reactors: CANDU and SLOWPOKE. CANDU burns natural or not very enriched uranium, uses a heavy water moderator. It gets lots of its overall energy from burning bred in plutonium. SLOWPOKE is a subcritical assembly, light water moderated, beryllium reflector which runs on weapons grade or 20% U-235. Very safe, one moving part (control rod on a cable). Building a reactor is not a big deal.

another possibility (3)

Mozo (22007) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885772)

Perhaps one of the items on the list was "Get a national newspaper to print that you have made a nuclear reactor".....

(Or maybe "Convince a local newscast to run a story about hackers stealing AOL credit card information from a web page and threatening users if they didn't forward the message to 10 people.")

In related news... (2)

FatSean (18753) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885773)

A group of community technical college students succeeded in building a Mercedes Benz 420 E-Class. Unfortunately no extra-credit was granted due to patent infringement...

Ha ha ha New York Times...

Re:This is more fun than you can believe (4)

rebrane (17961) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885774)

I'd leave this article alone if it wasn't for the high score.. as is, I can't resist.

100 people?! a LAN and 'database technology'?! what do you think this place is? northwestern? MIT? hell no! as far as that manpower, the winning team (Burton-Judson) had less dedicated members than you're saying need to stay up for 3 days, and nobody but the Shoreland even came CLOSE to having 100.. and the Shoreland got third!

I can only speak for my own team, but all WE had was a box of index cards, a whole lot of copies of the list, and a dozen people with FEVERISH dedication. The Ward, as the score list will testify, wasn't exactly the pinnacle of organization, but that was the paradigm we used for our roadtrip team, which whomped the asses of the other roadtrip teams (and the nation of Canada ;). It only took two people to arrange a real live vending machines which sold Flamin' Hot Cheetos, Jolt Cola, and condoms. Division of labor? Minimal! The whole point of the ScavHunt is that it's FUN, it's HARD, and it's CRAZY.. and EVERYONE GETS WET..

Perhaps you've had contact with BJ and have learned of their 24-hour-manned internal database; I wouldn't know. But I'd wager they were closer to 24-hour-manned battle-scarred checklists and boxes of hastily scrawled index cards.

(By the way, Waldo is in Wisconsin, between Milwaukee and Green Bay. Its population is in the 400s. And it doesn't look it. :)

-- neil, still recovering from roadtrip (and from eating a few dozen packets of ramen flavoring)

The List (1)

a.out (31606) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885775)

Could someone post the list of 300+ items from the hunt?

If you've got it mail it to me and I'll put it somewhere. (After I see Star Wars tonight )

The coolest part (1)

Nightpaw (18207) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885776)

I was there; it was cool. It was a just a sheetrock hut with bumble-bee tape around the outside, some equipment and equations scribbled on the wall inside. The best part, though, was the boom box playing techno music they had in there.

Vaguely reminiscient... (1)

RawkettPenguiN (24437) | more than 14 years ago | (#1885777)

Pitr from User Friendly, right?

Maybe not, but I thought this post was funny, actually.



--

neutron dose (0)

morbid (4258) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885778)

I hope they built it behind 6-ft thick concrete walls and that the safey systems were fail-safe.

Yeah, right, and I have an anti-matter powered warp engine in my airing cupboard.

Re:What amount of Plutonium is Safe? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 15 years ago | (#1885779)

Yes, it is a poison and you have to inhale it to make it work really nice. Those guys though had not enough to harm an ant with a weak heart. Say even I agree here, totally safe; a nice experiment though. Must have been fun.

Re:This is more fun than you can believe (1)

GlobalEcho (26240) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885780)

I was on the Broadview teams in the late 80's. Maybe the definition of "team" was a little looser back then. You didn't have to list everybody who worked on the Hunt (I don't know if you do now), so I'm counting everybody who helped out, even if they just spent a few minutes clipping their nails (one item was an ENTIRE CUP of nail clippings). Add in a few parents and siblings, and you get well over a hundered people. We would get about 25 not doing anything else that weekend, and 30-40 going to the judging to help out with the "group" activities.


I was never a road-tripper, but I had gathered from the Maroon article that they had tried to make you guys sleep on the road trip this time. Maybe that was just prophylactic propaganda. BTW in my day, the Web didn't exist, and we had to do research the hard way ;-) I remember a question about the Ira J. Whatever memorial walkway and who Ira J. was. We ended up bugging his widow. Doh!


I always considered the sweet talkers the most important part of the team...I'm not good at it, but it's amazing what they can convince somebody to do.

Re:Radioactive thorium found in smoke detectors! (1)

John Campbell (559) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885781)

I've got a glow-in-the-dark EXIT sign from a theatre I helped remodel that has an NRC stamp on it.

Re:This is more fun than you can believe (1)

GlobalEcho (26240) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885782)

Damn, I'd moderate this post up, if it wan't in reply to one of my own.
It's good to hear from a real team member from a modern winning team.

Back in my day, when Broadview and Model UN were winning, we used an Appletalk network and a Filemaker database to keep track. Let's just say I'm impressed that you guys did so well with lower tech, and somewhat surprised that IT has regressed in the affair since 1990. Maybe we had overkill.


Our winning teams had about 125 people helping out in one way or another, about 25 not doing anything else that weekend, and 5 or so going completely without sleep. Some things were different (some incentive to steal things, more dangerous road trips, fatigue-wise, no Olympics, and less nudity). I'm curious, did you not assign a couple skilled sweet-talkers specifically to, well, the sweet-talking? Not my cup of tea, of course. I was usually on the "covert" team doing things that typically involved avoiding security personnel.

Congrats on your work!

Bitch, Bitch, Bitch (2)

whoop (194) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885783)

When I read some of this stuff on Slashdot, I ask myself, why are people so bitchy?

The project was for a scavenger hunt, only $500 for first place, and this is just one item on the list. Their goal was not to power all of Chicago or the world, or to produce bombs with this device. And with this fact, people bitch and moan because it isn't a "real" reactor, or they didn't make enough plutonium...

Sheesh.

Re:cant wait until next year (1)

jorje (2443) | more than 15 years ago | (#1885784)

Same here. Maybe there will be some time for fun after all. I'll see you next year!

Eli
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