5 items from the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

A look at five items from the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Automobile License Plate from Nagasaki, Japan, 1945. (Courtesy of Museum of Nuclear Science & History)

Editor’s note: The fourth Sunday of each month, Journal Arts Editor Adrian Gomez tells the stories behind some of the hidden gems you can see across the state in “Gimme Five.”


New Mexico is at the center of nuclear history, which can be fascinating and controversial.

Tucked way in the far Southeast Heights in Albuquerque sits the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History, 601 Eubank Blvd. SE.

The museum provides an objective, accessible window into the past, present and future of nuclear science.

The museum houses everything from the very origins of atomic theory, the complexity of the political scenarios contributing to World War II, the height of the Cold War, to modern-day advances in nuclear medicine – and even begins to speculate about the future of this fascinating and exciting field.

James Stemm began as a curator at the museum this year.

He enjoys history and recently took time out to pick out five pieces at the museum that visitors should see.

Each is chock-full of its own personal history.

Three Mile Island Souvenir Lamp, 1970s. (Courtesy of Museum of Nuclear Science & History)

1. Three Mile Island souvenir lamp, 1970s.

Stemm says the accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in 1979 was the worst accident in the history of the nuclear power industry in the United States.

“A series of design errors, mechanical failures and mistakes by the reactor operators resulted in a partial melt down of a reactor core,” he says. “The accident galvanized opposition to nuclear power plants in the United States. This lamp and other souvenirs of the plant were sold at the power plant’s visitor center prior to the accident.”

The lamp and other souvenirs of the nuclear power industry are on display in the museum’s “Energy Encounter” exhibit.

Radithor Bottle, 1918-1928. (Courtesy of Museum of Nuclear Science & History)

2. Radithor bottle, 1918-1928.

Stemm says the early 20th century saw a widespread fad for the use of radioactive materials in many everyday items and in patent medicines.

People were encouraged to drink water infused with radium as a restorative and cure for a wide variety of diseases.

“Radithor is a notorious example of this type of pseudoscientific medical quackery,” he says. “Sold between 1918 and 1928, Radithor was a mix of distilled water and at least one microcurie of radium. It was marketed in ways similar to energy drinks today. The 1928 death from radiation poisoning of one of the most prominent users of Radithor helped bring about the end of the radium fad. The bottle itself still emits very slight traces of radiation more than 100 years later.”

The museum’s Radithor bottle can be found in the “Radiation 101” exhibit which explores the many natural and human-made sources of radiation that surround us every day.

Automobile License Plate from Nagasaki, Japan, 1945. (Courtesy of Museum of Nuclear Science & History)

3. Automobile license plate from Nagasaki, Japan, 1945.

Stemm says the burned and distorted license plate was recovered from the ruins of Nagasaki by an American naval officer in late 1945.

“After the end of World War II, the U.S. military studied both Hiroshima and Nagasaki in great detail to determine the exact effects of the atomic bombs dropped on the cities,” Stemm says.

The license plate is now display in the museum’s memorial for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki located at the center of the museum at the end of the exhibits detailing World War II and the development of the atomic bomb.

Deuterium Oxide Sample, Norway, 1930s. (Courtesy of Museum of Nuclear Science & History)

4. Deuterium oxide sample, Norway, 1930s

Stemm says deuterium oxide, or heavy water, is a form of water that contains primarily the deuterium isotope of hydrogen.

It is found naturally in very small amounts in normal water. Deuterium can be separated through electrolysis or distillation. Heavy water can be used as a moderator in nuclear reactors.

“This vial of heavy water was produced at the Norsk Hydro plant in Norway before World War II. This was the world’s first commercial scale heavy water production facility and could produce 12 metric tons of deuterium per year,” he says. “During World War II, the Germans captured the Norwegian heavy water production facilities for use in their nuclear program. Allied bombing and commando raids destroyed most of the Norwegian heavy water production by 1943, greatly slowing the progress of the German nuclear program.”

The vial is currently displayed in the museum’s “Dark Cube” exhibit which examines the German nuclear program during World War II.

Chernobyl Cleanup Worker’s Medal. (Courtesy of Museum of Nuclear Science & History)

5. Chernobyl Cleanup Worker’s Medal

Stemm says after the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, thousands of military and civilian personnel were involved in the decontamination and cleanup of the accident site and the surrounding area.

“These workers, called ‘liquidators’ were awarded this medal for their efforts,” he says. “The center of the medal depicts alpha, beta and gamma radiation paths over a drop of blood signifying the human impact of the accident.”

The text around the medal reads, “participant in liquidation of the Chernobyl NPP accident consequences.” This is the source of the “liquidators” nickname for the workers.

The medal is displayed in the museum’s “Energy Encounter” exhibit along with commemorative memorabilia of the Three Mile Island accident.

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