National Museum of Nuclear Science and History
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Will there ever be an atomic museum that can please everyone? Probably not, but the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History is trying hard to get there.
It opened in the late 1960s as the Sandia Base Weapons Museum before it became the Cold War-calibrated National Atomic Museum. Many of its early hellfire artifacts are still on display. Outdoor exhibits include an atomic cannon and the only B-52 to actually drop a live nuclear bomb. Indoors are weapon oddities such as an atomic mortar, a nuclear bomb-in-a-backpack, and an atomic torpedo. None of these extremely-short range concepts for weaponry were ever used (or at least not by anyone who survived to report how great they worked).
But the days when a child could buy an irradiated "atomic dime" in a nuclear museum gift shop are over. This museum has broadened its scope along with its name; exhibits now include everything from nuclear medicine to a Lego model of the first atomic pile. It doesn't all carry the same high yield of entertainment, but there's more than enough of everything to keep it interesting.
(The gift shop does have a commendable selection of vintage nuclear souvenirs such as flash goggles, Geiger counters, dosimeters, and gift items such as Little Boy and Fat Man wine bottle stoppers, and atom bomb earrings.)
Volunteers walk the museum floor, answering visitors' questions. Dave, who worked in a nuclear weapons R&D lab, showed us an exhibit of radioactive products and gadgets from the early 20th century: X-Ray Soap, Radium Starch, and a fluoroscope that was strapped to a patient's head so that a doctor could look inside.
"It was a radiomania craze," Dave said. "It was before everybody learned that it would kill you."
The museum receives a decontamination check twice a year (we were told), but people who live in paralyzing terror of the unknown may want to avoid certain exhibits, such as the radioactive Fiestaware that triggers ominous clackity-clacks from a carefully positioned Geiger counter.
We stopped at an exhibit on plutonium, and Dennis, another human helper, told us that the element had an undeserved bad reputation.
"You can hold Plutonium-239 and -244 in your hand," he said. "You don't want to eat it, but you can." In the future, Dennis said, we'll need plutonium power or we'll have global brownouts. Hydroelectric and wind turbines won't cut it. "And," he added, "on any space voyage past Mars, solar panels are worthless."
There's a delicate balance at work in here, as fine as the settings needed to keep a nuclear bomb core from exploding in the back seat of a transport car (which is another exhibit in the museum). You might get nervous looking at the actual dented casings of atomic bombs that accidentally fell out of a plane. Yet you'll feel relieved seeing a cutaway model of a sturdy reactor containment dome. A shoe store x-ray machine for customer feet may make you uneasy, but an array of enthusiastic products -- such as "Atomic Blast" moonshine and a "luminous uranium" fishing lure -- reveals the sweeping potential of nuclear science.
Perhaps all of the diversity at the museum is a good thing. The more familiar we become with radioactivity, the less scary it will seem. Nuclear power isn't done with us yet. A renewed friendship with Mr. Fission may indeed light the world some day; we'll be mollified if he just puts atomic dimes back in the gift shop.