Kodak Had Weapons Grade Uranium In Their Basement

Kodak’s strange entanglement with uranium and nuclear weapons.

Photo by bady qb on Unsplash

When you think about nuclear reactors and energy, the usual players will generally come to your mind. The United States, Russia…Kodak.

Hold on a minute. Kodak!?

Yup, Kodak had approximately 3.5 lbs. of weapons grade uranium in the basement of their Rochester NY headquarters for about 30 years. The idea of a corporation having a nuclear reactor or weapons grade uranium sounds bizarre today, but this story takes us back to a different time.

Nuclear energy and weapons were new and not entirely understood at this time. Please keep this in mind as best as you can as you digest all this information. At times this story will get so crazy you will either cringe or laugh.

This story will also show you a different version of Kodak. In our current time, the name Kodak is synonymous with failure of a sort — a failure to see the future. Kodak is the company that saw and totally missed the digital film revolution.

Today, Kodak is a regular star in case studies on how not to run a business. I know I personally read about 2 or 3 case studies on the company in business school. However, at one point in time, Kodak was a scientific giant with physicists on staff that were capable of deciphering evidence of the United States nuclear program.

Why Would You Have A Nuclear Reactor In Your Basement?

I’m sure that’s the question that’s been burning in your head since you read the title of this article. However, there’s a relatively good explanation.

First of all, the device was not technically a nuclear reactor, although it was reported in several outlets in the press to be just that. If you wanted to be exact in your reporting, the device in Kodak’s Rochester NY facility was a californium neutron flux multiplier (CFX).

Not The Flux Capacitor — JMortonPhoto.com; OtoGodfrey.com — wikipedia creative commons

Not the flux capacitor Marty McFly. A CFX was a device that was about the size of a refrigerator that emitted neutrons from an isotope Californium-252. The amount of neutrons was further magnified by using uranium plates. The scientists at Kodak were working with chemicals for some of their processes that had to be extremely pure. One of the best ways to test them was to bombard them with neutrons.

“Californium-252 is a poor man’s reactor.”
Ken Shultis, nuclear engineer at Kansas State University

The Kodak personnel were originally using research reactors at other facilities to test their chemicals, but eventually decided it would be better to have their own. The CFX only contained about 3.5 lbs. of weapons grade uranium. A full 100 lbs. would be necessary to make a rudimentary atomic weapon.

Although it was a very small amount, it was extremely pure grade. The plates reached a purity of 93.4%. According to a CNN report in 2012, Iran caught the world’s attention and sanctions by having enriched uranium to a 20% level.

Kodak also used the CFX for neutron radiography, which is a more sensitive version of an X-ray. According to the McClellan Nuclear Research Center, neutron radiography (NR) enables you to image light elements with low atomic numbers such as water, hydrogen, and carbon. It also penetrates heavier elements like lead and titanium.

X-Ray Of A Camera — McClellan Nuclear Research Center Website
Neutron Radiography Of A Camera — McClellan Nuclear Research Center Website

This also gives you an idea of the high end science Kodak did on a regular basis. Modern students, such as myself, may think of Kodak as a dinosaur nowadays. But in their time, Kodak was the high tech innovator of their day.

Kodak’s Odd History Of Nuclear Entanglement

Mushroom Cloud From Trinity Atomic Bomb Test — United States Department of Energy / Wikipedia Commons

In addition to the weapons grade uranium in their basement, Kodak also had an odd history with nuclear weapons. Its history begins at the very dawn of the nuclear age, the Trinity Atomic Bomb Test in Nevada on July 16, 1945.

An article in Popular Mechanics gives the detailed story of Julian Webb, a physicist that worked for Kodak. Webb was investigating a problem with X-ray film that kept getting destroyed. In 1945 the film kept having recurring issues with fogging.

Fogging was a term giving to black exposure spots on X-ray film that would render it useless.

X-ray film was just one of a number of films that Kodak developed at this time. This particular film was extremely sensitive to light, dirt, and any kind of scratches. It was also very sensitive to something else, nuclear isotopes.

Kodak figured this out the hard way. Much of the repurposed cardboard of the 1940’s came from plants where radium derived instruments were created during WWII. The cardboard became contaminated by the radium and when the film was put in the containers, fogging would occur.

Kodak would go on to create its own plants to make containers for the X-ray film in order to prevent this. Oddly, the fogging started occurring again in 1945. Webb would make it his personal mission to find the source of this contamination.

During his research, Webb found the fogging originated in the packaging as he expected. However it wasn’t a result of radium, which was a naturally occurring isotope. The fogging was due to a new radioactive material never encountered before — an artificial radioactive material.

Webb even found out exactly which plants the fogging originated at — plants in Indiana and Iowa next to rivers. The most startling find was that the radioactive material didn’t come from the plant itself, it originated from the river. This radioactivity would increase whenever it rained. The original contamination date was August 6, 1945.

Whether Webb knew about the Trinity Tests in 1945 was unknown, but he had connected the dots by 1949 in a report he wrote.

“The most likely explanation of the source of this radioactive contaminant appears to be that it consisted of wind-borne radioactive fission products derived from the atom-bomb detonation in New Mexico on July 16, 1945.”

According to the article in Popular Mechanics, there was debate within the community conducting the atomic bomb tests whether Nevada was a good test area. Stafford Warren, the Manhattan Project’s chief radiological safety officer recommended a distance of 150 miles between the test area and population locations.

The Trinity Test site was only 100 miles away from Las Vegas. In addition, the winds in that section of the country were known to carry across the United States. Webb found the fallout results in 1945 and knew exactly where they came from by 1949.

The story only gets weirder from here.

In January 1951 a geiger counter at Kodak’s headquarters in New York registered readings 25 times higher than normal during a snowstorm. It turned out that on the 27th of January the first nuclear test occurred at the Nevada Proving Grounds location.

Distance From Proving Grounds To Kodak (shows how far the fallout traveled)— Google Maps Image

In 1952, Kodak notified the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) about its findings. The commission dismissed Kodak’s concerns, even allowing Kodak to give a press release about radioactive snow. Kodak was told that the radiation in the snow wasn’t harmful to humans or animals, which it relayed in the press release.

Kodak would eventually go on to threaten to sue the United States government for the nuclear tests due to the damage it was causing to their X-ray film. The U.S. government and Kodak eventually worked out a deal where the AEC would notify Kodak of future tests so precautions could be made to protect the film. In return, Kodak was to keep silent about the nuclear testing.

I know what you’re thinking right now. Health concerns, shmelth concerns — you’re damn nuclear fallout keeps ruining our film! Stop it or we’ll sue!

In the same article, Popular Mechanics interviewed Stephen Schwartz, a nuclear weapons expert and author. Shwartz and the author of the article noted that at this time period the personnel at Kodak were just doing their job and didn’t know any better. They knew the nuclear radiation affected their film, but that’s about it.

Connections between cancer and Iodine-131, a radioactive element in the fallout, were not made until 1997.

In that time period of war and cold war, there was an aura of secrecy as well. There was also a trust in the government that isn’t as present today. If the government told you something wasn’t harmful, in those days you would generally believe them. Today, you would be more likely to question their findings.

The Fate Of Kodak’s Uranium

Kodak’s CFX — Picture From Kodak’s Decommission Plan Of The CFX
“In 2003, Kodak decided that there were alternative, more cost-effective means to perform the specific analysis, and communicated with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that it would not renew its license to operate the device. In 2006, the Californium source was removed and transferred to another licensed recipient for reuse. The Uranium was removed in 2007 and transferred to a federal government facility under the close management of several federal agencies.”
Chris Veronda, Kodak’s manager of corporate communications

According to the email above to the Huffington Post, Kodak eventually found more cost effective ways to do the processes the CFX was being used for. A detailed plan was required by the federal government to deactivate the device and remove the uranium.

Armed guards eventually transported the material to a federal facility in South Carolina. The exact method of transportation wasn’t explained explicitly, but the Democrat & Chronicle explained a similar process in which uranium was removed from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This used fuel was accompanied by two armored cars and a helicopter carrying armed security personnel.

Nowadays, things have changed dramatically. It’s highly unlikely a private firm would ever be granted an allowance the way Kodak was in 1974. It also is a demonstration of the resources and capital that Kodak had back in the day. This former behemoth once employed over 145,000 people worldwide and was one of the original companies in the Dow Jones Index 100. Today Kodak is a shell of its former self.

This story is also a reminder of a time when the government played risky games with nuclear fall out. A rich company could have their own weapons grade uranium in their basement. It was also an age where a government official could tell the public that radioactive snow was nothing to worry about and be believed. It seems like it would make an interesting movie, but who would ever believe it.

Thank you for reading my ramblings. If you enjoyed what you’ve read, please share. Also be sure to check out the Popular Mechanics article I referenced, it’s an amazing read.