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The Rarest Steel




The first detonation of an atomic bomb in 1945 changed the world irrevocably. Starting with that first mushroom cloud and increasing with each subsequent nuclear bomb explosion, background radiation seeped into our atmosphere and environment. That insidious radiation has found its way into everything around us, including the metal ores we process into steel.


Low Background Steel is a highly prized material in scientific and industrial applications due to its exceptionally low levels of radioactive contamination. This steel is crucial for sensitive instruments, detectors, and equipment where even trace amounts of radiation can interfere with measurements or experiments. However, producing truly low background steel is an immense challenge in the post-atomic age.


The traditional steelmaking process involves forcing air into molten iron to burn off impurities. Any steel made after the first atomic detonation contains at least some small amount of background radiation from that air flow, even if pure oxygen is used instead of ambient air. As the nuclear age progressed, the background levels only increased further with each subsequent weapons test.


One of the last remaining sources of virtually radiation-free low background steel lies underneath the waves - in shipwrecks from the pre-atomic era. Submerged ships that went down before 1945 offer a finite supply of metal uncontaminated by nuclear fallout. However, this vital resource comes with immense ethical and legal caveats as a grave robber's prize.


Some of Britain's most celebrated warships from WWII have already been illegally salvaged and cannibalized, with the remains of thousands of sailors still buried within their rusted hulls. As many as 40 of these submerged WWII-era ships in the Pacific have been partially or totally destroyed by salvage pirates seeking low background steel, which has become a target for grave robbers.


There is a potential positive end in sight for this unethical and unsustainable situation. The amount of background radiation in the atmosphere has been steadily decreasing since the 1963 Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Current levels are roughly 5% of what they were 60 years ago when nuclear testing was still occurring frequently above ground.


Assuming a future without any further nuclear detonations, either accidental or intentional, background radiation levels will eventually diminish back to pre-atomic levels across the planet. At that point, newly produced steel will once again be sufficiently low background for even the most sensitive of applications. The great value and risk associated with salvaging pre-1945 shipwrecks for this dwindling resource will finally fade away.


Low background steel's crucial role in advanced technology underscores how the nuclear era has left a lingering, global mark on our civilization and environment. But the end of this legacy contamination may be merely a matter of time if we can collectively commit to leaving the atomic age behind permanently.

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