Five go mad on radium

I do love the science sessions at Auckland Writers and Readers Festival and this was a winner. The title of this post is a tribute to Wallace Chapman who has been my favourite host of the Festival. There was absolutely no doubt he had read the book, and he managed to share his enthusiasm for it  – and also succeeded in involving the crowd in the presentation – revealing lots of interesting knowledge and experience out in the audience.

He was reading Paris by Edward Rutherfurd at the same time as Mad on radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age by Rebecca Priestley but soon was only reading Mad on radium because it “drove a bus through some of the received wisdom” about New Zealand in the atomic age.

Rebecca, Wallace – and sometimes the audience – discussed radioactive water in Rotorua that was once considered therapeutic. Wallace exclaimed:

This is our history, and yet I can hardly believe it.

Rebecca PriestleyApparently radium conveyed cleanness, and was touted as an ingredients in various products from cleansers to toothpaste.

Rebecca explored Kiwi connections to the Manhattan Project and other nuclear research. Ernest Rutherford and “Rutherford old boys” like Ernest Marsden were the reason New Zealand managed to be involved in these enterprises.

Uranium fever sounds unbelievable, but in the 1950s it was a big deal – a “potential new industry on the West Coast” – especially when a couple of old Coasters discovered deposits. It turned out to be uneconomic to extract.

X-rays in shoe stores – remember those? Quite a few audience members did. And others knew about New Zealand’s first nuclear reactor. This subcritical reactor lived at the University of Canterbury’s engineering department. It was popular at Uni open days. It was disassembled in 1981 when it was decided nuclear power wasn’t needed yet.

Nuclear power was being considered in the 1960s, but went off the agenda with Maui gas discoveries and Huntly’s coal deposits  proving to be larger than first thought.

How did the anti-nuclear movement in New Zealand take shape? The first protest march was in 1947 – down Manchester Street in Christchurch. French testing in the Pacific and new knowledge about caesium and strontium in fallout getting into people’s bones solidified public opinion.

Will we consider nuclear power again? Maybe, if it becomes more economic suggest Rebecca:

New Zealand is probably the best place in the world to go ahead with renewable energy resources.

I am mad keen on this book and the combination of science and social history.

One thought on “Five go mad on radium

  1. keenanj 19 May 2013 / 10:43 pm

    yes, what a crazy old history that was, using xrays to measure feet in shoe stores was one of my favorites!

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