There was this nuclear weapons test that killed two physicists without ever exploding.

World War II was the first time we had proof that atomic nuclei could be broken down; and the devastating effects of nuclear weapons on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to one of the critical times in history — the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. After WWII, the research on nuclear weapons went on at a top-secret Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico. Within a year of research, the radiation of a nuclear core of plutonium claimed the lives of two renowned physicists — without ever going kaboom.

The Tale Of The Demon Core

On Tuesday, August 21, 1945, just weeks after Japan surrendered to the Allies, and ending WWII, nuclear scientists were still busy testing nuclear weapons in a top-secret research facility just outskirts of Los Alamos, New Mexico. They were working on a spherical mass of radioactive plutonium — weighing 6.4 kilograms (14 pounds) and measuring 9 centimeters (3.5 inches) in diameter. That seems quite small for a destructive mechanism like a nuke, huh?

Image: Los Alamos Research Center / Getty Images Plus

Before the war ended, it was slated to be used in combat had Japan not surrendered. Although it was no longer needed for combat, yet scientists continued testing it to further the United States’ understanding of nuclear weapons, and to give them a comfortable lead in the nuclear arms race during the Cold War, eventually.

The radioactive core of a nuke goes supercritical upon explosion. This sets off an atomic reaction releasing massive tons of energy all at once — accelerating the atomic explosion. That’s exactly what scientists did with the bombings on Japan: they used smaller explosives on the core to reach critical mass, but were curious to learn more about the exact point a core goes critical. If the radioactive core is surrounded with reflexive materials, it would make neutrons bounce on themselves until it went critical, then measure that point. That’s exactly what scientists were testing on the night of August 21.

The First Incident

The first victim was renowned physicist Harry Daghilan. He once entered the lab to conduct research on the plutonium core, only to be accompanied by one security guard. He was using tungsten carbide bricks as the reflexive shield around the core. Unfortunately, he accidentally dropped one of the bricks on top of the core, and in an instant, it went supercritical. The lab was suddenly filled with a blue light. Though he managed to remove the brick off the core, he was too late and had been already shrouded with lethal radioactive dose — he died 25 days later. Luckily, the security guard was shielded from radiation by Daghilan, and survive, he died at age 62.

This radioactive plutonium core, also known as “Rufus,” and would later be known as the “Demon Core,” had just killed one of the world’s best physicists. This gave rise to amendments in laboratory safety protocols, but test on the core continued; and for nine months, scientist conducted their research without any incidents — until another Tuesday, May 21, 1946.

The Second Incident

Image: The New Yorker

The second victim was Canadian physicist Louis Slotin who worked on the Manhattan Project, and a lead researcher on working demon core. He held the reputation on handling dangerous amounts of plutonium, and was the world’s best on the topic at the time. Slotin devised a technique of adjusting beryllium domes over the demon core until it reached critical. This involved holding the dome steady with one hand and carefully adjusting the gap with the other hand with a screwdriver.

Unfortunately, Slotin slipped and the core went supercritical in an instant. Slotin, together with seven other scientists in the lab were exposed to gamma radiation just as the blue light did in Daghilan’s case. Slotin quickly remove the half-sphere beryllium and stopped the reaction. Once again, it was too late. In a fraction of a second, he was shrouded with lethal radiative dose. Raemer Schreiber, another physicist who was in the lab, recounted that Slotin’s words were calm.

“Well, that does it,” Slotin said. He died nine days later.

Fortunately for the rest of the scientist in the lab, Slotin’s body shielded them from the lethal radiation dose, and they all survived. It was at this point that the core was dubbed the demon core. It’s core was emitting higher radiation doses, and was immediately melted down.

Coincidentally, both incidents happened on a Tuesday, and on the 21st day of the month. Huh? And its even said that both physicists died in the exact same hospital room. But the weird and eerie part of the story isn’t about their death; these two physicist died without placing their own safety first, instead, being war-driven just for the government to get ahead in a global arms race.

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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Mon, Aug 05, 2019.


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