October 20th, 2005

These are notes on James Acord, that I hope to flesh out, later.

Acord began the painstaking work of carving his reliquary in 1980, but it wasn’t until 1986 that a friendly tip led him to a source of uranium: Fiesta Red, the antique orange dinnerware with the uranium-containing glaze. In no time at all, Acord had accumulated substantial quantities of Fiesta dinnerware and even devised a technique for extracting and concentrating the glaze. Desirous that the uranium content of his precious concentrate be analyzed, Acord went to the State of Washington’s Radiation Control Program. But instead of analyzing his uranium, they confiscated it! Adding insult to injury, they informed Acord that any future attempts to separate the glaze would be construed as processing and require a license! The application alone would cost $27,000 and if the license were granted, the annual fees would exceed a quarter of a million dollars.

The alternative wasn’t much better. Unless he were licensed, he could possess no more than 15 pounds of Fiestaware at any one time. Furthermore, chemical separations would be forbidden and a license would have to be obtained by anyone purchasing Acord’s work. Sales prospects looked grim!

Even so, Acord continued work on the reliquary, and by 1988 it was almost complete. Five foot high, a stepped base supports a gradually tapered column. From the top of the column, like a fossil out of bedrock, emerges the skull of a horse. Philip Schuyler, author of the quintessential New Yorker articles on Acord, speculated that it might be a knight from a gargantuan chess game. But Acord said no – he just liked the way it looked. All it lacked was uranium.

In late 1988, Acord got his big break. The NRC ruled that the 15 pound limit applied to source material, not the dinnerware itself. Free to complete his sculpture as long as it contained no more than 20% glaze, Acord encapsulated his Fiestaware in a stainless steel vessel and sealed the container in the base of the sculpture. The reliquary was complete. He called it “Monstrance for a Gray Horse.”

Prompted to find other uses for his remaining stockpile of Fiestaware, Acord created the “Atomic Fiesta Plasma Reactor.” The reactor consists of stacked Fiesta Red dinnerware submerged in a 30 gallon fish tank and it takes advantage of the differing vapor pressures of ordinary and heavy water. By continuously bubbling air through the tank, the light water is preferentially evaporated while the naturally-occurring heavy water is concentrated. Acord calculates that in several thousand years the heavy water content will be sufficient for the reactor to achieve criticality. The precise moment will be identified by the sudden appearance of floating fish – fried, ready to eat.

The Fiesta Plasma Reactor (now decommissioned) made its last appearance in 1988 at a special showing of Acord’s art. The exhibit marked his decision to leave Seattle for the greener pastures, figuratively speaking, of Richland Washington, site of the Department of Energy’s Hanford reservation.

See also: u.art

1 comment(s)

  1. comment by xradiographer on Wednesday, Nov 8th, 2006 1:42 pm

    James Acord: Atomic artist a Nuclear News interview

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