Tales from the Atomic Age

Paul W. Frame

Professional Training Programs, Oak Ridge Associated Universities

Jáchymov:  Cradle of the Atomic Age

In a deep forest valley at the base of the Erz (ore) Mountains separating Bohemia and Saxony, in what is now part of the Czech Republic, exists a wondrous "Radium Palace." The small picturesque town in which this palace is located, Jáchymov, is known as the "Cradle of the Atomic Age."

Long, long ago, this region was ruled by the wolves and bears that roamed its virgin forests. But the discovery of silver deposits in the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century brought those days to an end. Overnight, the newly created town of Joachimsthal, the original name for Jáchymov, became one of the largest mining centers in Europe. The famous silver coins minted there were called "Joachimsthalers" or "thalers," and today the word lives on in a corrupted form: "dollar" (Tyler 1930).

The age of silver, and the thaler, was brief (ca. 1512- 1550). The silver deposits dwindled, and as they did, the miners encountered a mysterious black mineral whose presence indicated that more silver was unlikely. They called it "pechblende," which in German means pitch (black) mineral. It was a pun since "pech" also means bad luck (Keller 1993). Pechblende might have been unlucky for another reason—the region’s miners suffered an unusually high number of fatal lung disorders, a probable mix of silicosis, tuberculosis, and lung cancer (Stannard 1988). Agricola, an early sixteenth century physician, suggested that the cause of the deaths was the ore dust which "has corrosive qualities, it eats away at the lungs." Paracelsus, a contemporary of Agricola, said that it was due to metallic gases "which settle on the lung" (Caufield 1990). And while the miners usually attributed the disorders to evil spirits, they still thought it wise to reduce their inhalation of the ore dust. To this end, their wives became skilled at making lace veils that would be worn underground (Caufield 1990). Alas, the veils were not very effective; it was common for a woman to outlast multiple husbands.

Oddly enough, it would be these very pitchblende deposits that would bring prosperity back to Jáchymov some three hundred years later. In the mid-1800s, the pitchblende would be found to contain uranium, a material that became vitally important to Bohemia’s ceramics and glass industry as a coloring agent. And it was from the "worthless" residues of the uranium extraction process that Marie Curie isolated a miraculous new element: radium. Mixed with zinc sulfate, radium could light the darkness. In the hands of a physician, it could cure cancer. Packaged in bottles and boxes, or mixed in food and drink, radium and its decay product radon could deliver health directly to the consumer.

As a result, radium rapidly surpassed uranium (and everything else for that matter) in value, costing well more than one hundred thousand dollars per gram. And Jáchymov was possibly the world’s major source of radium ore.

It was then (1910-1912), when dollars flowed like the radioactive waters in the mine shafts, that the Marie Curie-Sklodowska Radium Palace was built (brochure ca. 1992). Visitors would come to drink and bathe in the waters, inhale the air, and be cured.

The Marie Curie-Sklodowska Radium Palace, Jáchymov

However, by the start of World War One, the golden age of radium in Jáchymov had come to an end. More competitive radium deposits had been discovered in the United States, and later, the Belgian Congo. But the good times would return—thanks to uranium and WWII.

At the start of the second world war, the region was still Europe’s major source of uranium and the Nazis needed uranium to support their atomic research. To supply it, French and Russian prisoners of war were put to work in the mines. After the war, when Jáchymov became part of the Soviet Union, it was the turn of a different set of POWs to work the mines, this time for the Soviet nuclear program (Goldschmidt 1990). And because of the region’s uranium resources, East Germany became one of the world’s three major uranium-producing countries. At one time, the mines and mills in East Germany employed about 150,000 workers (Keller 1993). So great was the Soviet Union’s demand for uranium that some homes in Jáchymov, whose walls contained significant quantities of ore, were reportedly destroyed so that the remnants could be sent off to a mill for processing (Thomas 1993).

Today, Jáchymov’s mines are inactive and the town’s quaint and beautiful homes are vacant and boarded up. It’s not that people don’t want to live in these buildings —they just aren’t permitted to. The homes’ builders had incorporated residues from the uranium extraction process into the plaster walls. The radium content of these walls often ranges from 400 to 3400 pCi g&1 (Thomas 1993), too high to permit occupancy. Nevertheless, Jáchymov still has plenty to offer.

Not only is the Radium Palace with its luxurious appointments and art nouveau style open, an additional more modern facility is also in operation: the Běhounek Sanatorium opened in 1975. Depending on the season, and whether you want a single or double room, the price (the most recent I have available) ranges from $42.50 to $78.00 per day (brochure ca. 1992). This extremely reasonable rate, which includes tax, becomes even more appealing when it is understood that it also includes three meals! Of course, you cannot put a monetary value on good health, and the main reason to go to Jáchymov is to take advantage of its unique medical treatments.

Medical treatments? There are, of course, special programs, e.g., "The Geriatric Cure," "Active Rest," and "Renaissance of Your Intimate Life." But most of us probably want the basics: 18 to 20 "tube" baths (20 minutes each) in water carefully maintained at 35-37 degrees C with radon concentrations between 120 and 150 thousand picocuries per liter (brochure ca. 1992). As the brochures note, this regime successfully treats "rheumatoid diseases of the soft tissue," "affections of the peripheral nerves," and "chronic inflammatory disease," among other things. However, it should not be imagined that the results are brought about by the radioactive water alone: "inseparable parts of the spa treatment include therapeutical physical exercises . . . individually or in groups in the gymnasium or in a pool." Sad to say, not everyone is won over. One visitor disparagingly noted that his stay "ended with a vision of a few fat gentlemen . . . doing exercises stark naked in a pool of hot radioactive water" (Goldschmidt 1990). Perhaps this skeptic simply was unaware of the x-ray therapy available: "4 to 5 local exposures with superficial dose between 0.5 to 1.5 Gy /50 to 150 rad." Then again, it might be that he didn’t know of the brachyradium therapy with "Jáchymov boxes": six- hour exposures with radium or 60Co-containing Plexiglas boxes resulting in "superficial doses . . . between 1.8 to 2.8 Gy (180 up to 280 rad)." At NO EXTRA CHARGE!

References

Brochure. Spa Treatment at Jachymov. Czechoslovak State Spa.

Caufield, C. Multiple Exposures: Chronicles of the radiation age. Harper & Row; New York; 1989.

Goldschmidt, B. Atomic rivals. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick; 1990.

Keller, G. Radiological aspects of former mining activities in the Saxon Erzgebirge, Germany. Env. Int. 19: 449-454; 1993.

Stannard, J.N. Radioactivity and health: A history. Battelle Memorial Institute; 1988.

Thomas, J. and D. Drabova. Wastes from the former uranium paint factory at Joachimstal (Jachymov) used in dwellings. Env. Int. 19: 509-512; 1993.

Tyler, P.M. Radium. Dept. Of Commerce I.C. 6312; 1930.