Homepage Forums Boy Scouts (Scouts BSA) Nuclear Science Merit Badge 4d Clarification

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  • #81946 Reply

    Roland Roberts

    So…I’m a counselor for this badge and I just had a scout give me an unexpected answer for requirement 4d.

    4d. Visit a place where radioisotopes are being used. Using a drawing, explain how and why they are used.

    His answer…his home. Because we talked about how Americium-241 is used in smoke detectors.

    My background is nuclear physics (PhD, 1994, U of Rochester, NY). My take on this answer is that it’s not what the requirement is asking or expecting. But…it’s hard to disallow given the wording. The preceding requirements all require a scout to learn about radiation safety and I’m pretty sure the intent of this requirement is so the scout can see those principles put into practice at a place that uses radioisotopes. I.e., the whole time-distance-shielding safety practices for an X-ray machine operator, etc.

    The wording of the requirement is sufficiently broad that it’s hard to disallow this answer, but the context makes me think I should. And the fact that I’m trying to arrange a group visit to a medical imaging facility means there’s no reason to not be able to do a “real” visit.

    But what do people here think?


  • #82118 Reply


    First thanks for all that you do for our boys.

    That boy’s idea is good. So, run with it. Talk about the time-distance-shielding involved in smoke detectors. Ask him how close and for how long one (or maybe one’s pet) would have to be to the Am-241 to get a harmful dose of radiation. Ask the scout what he learned about the safe manufacture, distribution, and disposal of smoke detectors.

    So, the drawing should include how to control for “human factors” in explaining their use (e.g., the drawing needs to include the warning labels, shielding, etc… as well as how Am-241 interacts with the environment and electronics of the detector).

    This is the trick of counseling. Every scout should approach the requirements a little differently. The counselors job is to guide each boy in getting the most out of each one without parroting what other boys do.

  • #82142 Reply

    Roland Roberts

    Well, we’ve already covered that Am241 is an alpha emitter. So the answer is you’d really have to eat it to do much harm which he knows from us talking about it in class. Which is kind of my point on why I’m inclined to disallow it.

    For this particular scout, he’s going down to the Naval Academy for an event this weekend (should be almost there by now…) where he will get a tour of their sub-critical reactor classroom. Which is another reason why I kind of frowned on this particular case. I know he’s going to have a much better answer for this one.

    And, there’s always a back story which is hard to get in. There has been a significant amount of “check-the-box” activity without a good indication of “I really want to know” work which is what I think the badges are about: explore your interest and learn something, not how fast can I check all the boxes. Yes, that’s always hard to judge and I’d rather give the benefit of any doubt to the scout.

    And the wording of the requirement starts with…”visit.” In the context of the other requirements, it doesn’t seem like going home (or to your friends house) fits with what this requirement is saying. And yes, I know that’s fuzzy.

    For this particular scout, I intend to ask him about his Naval Academy visit which seems like it fits the bill very well. But for the future, I’m not so sure the home smoke detector with a sealed Am241 source that can’t penetrate the smoke detector housing does much. In fact, it’s so “safe” the one I disassembled doesn’t even have the radiation hazard label inside…

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