6 Times Nuclear Scientists Caused Major Nuclear Incidents Almost

first_img Watch: Dolphin Leaps Feet Away From Unsuspecting SurferNASA Says 2 Asteroids Will Safely Fly By Earth This Weekend Much like rocket science, nuclear physics is super hard. One of the biggest concepts scientists need to consider is criticality — or the threshold of control of a nuclear reaction. Because atoms in radioactive material are unstable and degrade, they can naturally cause their neighbors to do the same. And because nuclear material is usually quite dense, there’s usually a certain mass beyond which the material will be such a good insulator of the radioactive breakdown products, that the whole block becomes unstable and will rapidly begin increasing in temperature and radioactive output.Thing is, this number is super variable based on how well the object is insulated. There are devices that can produce extra neutrons which glom onto other atoms and increase their instability as well as neutron reflectors which simply help insulate the material’s natural output. We didn’t always know this, however, and even when we did, in the early days of researching the stuff, scientists often accidentally caused criticality and nearly killed themselves or blew up their labs. These are their stories.Los Alamos LaboratoryCredit: Wikimedia CommonsThe Los Alamos lab was one of the main sites for the work on the Manhattan Project. It was also the location of several of the first injuries and nuclear criticality accidents in history. The first of which came when Otto Frisch, an Austrian physicist, leaned over a nuclear device for just a few seconds. He just barely saved himself by noticing that red lamps which would normally flicker when exposed to the device, where glowing steadily — indicating that his body was reflecting neutrons and potentially causing criticality.“If I had hesitated for another two seconds before removing the material … the dose would have been fatal,” he later said. Thankfully, he only received a large dose of radiation.Unfortunately, Harry Daghlian wasn’t so lucky. He accidentally dropped a chunk of tungsten carbide, a very dense and effective neutron reflector, onto a sphere of plutonium. The resulting blast of radiation, though brief, was enough to eventually cause his death.That sphere later became known as the “demon core” during another major incident the next year. Physicist Louis Slotin had encased the core in two hemispherical chunks of beryllium. A simple screwdriver kept them separated enough to avoid causing the core to go critical, but the tool got knocked away, causing the device to vomit radiation into the room. Slotin quickly separated the shell, saving the lives of the other scientists in the room, but he, unfortunately, died a few days later from radiation poisoning. More than a decade later, Cecil Kelly accidentally triggered criticality in a vat of plutonium solution. While working on a research project investigating new methods of purifying plutonium, Kelly stirred the tanks containing the solution. The plutonium was just enough that the substance went critical for a tiny fraction of a second, but that was enough to hit Kelly with a fatal dose as he screamed for help.The Othersvia Los Alamos National LaboratoryIt’s no wonder why Los Alamos was such a hotbed for these incidents, in the early years we just didn’t know enough and that was the purpose of the research there. But, there have been plenty of incidents at other facilities as well.Another, accident similar to the one that claimed Kelly’s happened in 1964 at a recycling facility for nuclear waste. An operator at the Wood River Junction facility accidentally mixed uranium solution with uranium fuel and managed to create a burst of radiation more than double the one that killed Cecil Kelly. He died two days later.Another in the former soviet union claimed the lift of a shift supervisor at a plant. Two workers had been working with plutonium in a container that was shaped the wrong way — and yes, even the exact shape of the vessel you’re using matters. They caused an initial incident, triggering an evacuation of the plant. As the supervisors returned to screen the area, it is suspected that the shift supervisor attempted to pour the solution down the drain, triggering another incident and his own death a short while later.It sucks that so many great minds left us, in part due to mistakes. This stuff is super dangerous, obviously, and not to be taken lightly. But it is thanks to the efforts of these folks that we know as much as we do about nuclear effects in general. Besides, the lives claimed by nuclear experiments are far and away dwarfed by the number of chemists who have died from accidentally licking something they shouldn’t and biologists getting themselves eaten, injected with venom, or exposed to some pugnacious bacteria. Honestly, given how rapidly criticality can get out of hand, it’s a stunner that we don’t have craters at a lot of these sites.Find out if nuclear fusion could be commercially viable in 15 years. Learn why nuclear pasta is the strongest known material. See how a nuclear battery could power spacecraft. Read up on all nuclear news here.Let us know what you like about Geek by taking our survey. Stay on targetlast_img read more