The company that gave us the Instamatic has acknowledged that for 30 years it operated a small nuclear reactor in a basement on its corporate campus in Rochester, New York, unbeknown to almost everyone save a few scientists and engineers.
Kodak, which began operating the device, called a californium neutron flux multiplier (CFX), in 1974, insists there was nothing unsafe about it.
None the less, it came pre-loaded with nearly 1.5kg of uranium enriched up to a level of 93.4 per cent, which is just about right for an atomic warhead.
The size of a fridge, the device was kept in a basement behind 2ft-thick concrete walls and was operated remotely. While Kodak apparently did not deliberately seek to keep its existence a secret – it claims it was mentioned at least twice in published company research – it did not exactly advertise it either. Seemingly neither the authorities in Rochester nor state-wide knew it was there.
"It's such an odd situation because private companies just don't have this material," Miles Pomper, a senior research associate at the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington DC, told the Democrat and Chronicle, the Rochester newspaper which carried the first report about the reactor.
The company finally "decommissioned" its in-house reactor under federal government supervision in 2007 and the uranium was sent to a safe site in California. For more than three decades it had been used by a tiny cadre of staff to help test chemicals for impurities and perform neutron radiography, a form of imaging.
Experts say that Kodak, which filed for bankruptcy this year, had one of only two CFX reactors ever made. The other belonged to the US Department of Energy. However, the government has issued special licences to a small number of private companies over the decades to operate other kinds of mini-reactors, including Dow Chemical and GE.
Kodak insists it did away with its unusual piece of kit because it had found cheaper and easier ways to perform the same tasks. It had nothing to do with security concerns, the company insisted.
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