Did you know that pieces of World War II battleships ended up in hospitals and labs?

HMS Prince of Wales, a World War II battleship whose wreck was illegally scavenged for its special steel
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Last week’s Did you know? (Read our earlier article) was about how parts of the German battleship Tirpitz ended up being used for road construction in Norway. Today, we’ll share another story of old warship pieces ending up in strange places. As it happens, parts of ships from both World Wars can now be found in hospitals, laboratories and nuclear power plants.
Some pieces of scientific and medical equipment used in labs, nuclear plants and hospitals need to detect the radiation coming from people or objects with great accuracy, and background radiation can mess up the results. This can be prevented by surrounding the room with thick metal sheets to block that radiation, but suitable metals for the purpose have been in short supply since August 6, 1945, when the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated in the Trinity test. The explosion, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the over 500 atmospheric test detonations during the Cold War have thrown a variety of radioactive isotopes previously unseen in nature into the atmosphere. This is a problem because modern steelmaking involves blowing atmospheric air through the molten iron, which deposits some of these isotopes into the steel, making it ever-so-slightly radioactive, which is enough to mess with instruments.
A “body counting room” built entirely out of pre-World War II steel in Denver, Colorado
(Photo: Library of Congress)
Enter steel from World War I and II battleships. These were made before the first atomic explosion, and are therefore free of radioactive contamination. Additionally, a ship’s hull is already thick enough and can be easily cut up into room-sized pieces ready for use. Steel from both legally scrapped ships and likely illegal salvage, mainly from the Pacific, has ended up in such special rooms as “low-background steel,” and it’s been speculated that the market demand was a contributing factor to the desecration and disappearance of several ships holding the remains of dead servicemen.
The Chinese dredge ship Chuang Hong 68, known to have engaged in the illegal salvaging of World War II wrecks
(Photo: Atlas News)
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that demand for such steel is lower than ever before since the start of the Cold War. Atmospheric radioactivity has been slowly decreasing, and is now approaching natural levels; given some more time, normally made steel might be suitable once again.

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Soldiers decorate a Christmas tree in Germany, December 1944
(Photo: U.S. Army)
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