Charge demon

Charge demon

The experiment began on May 21, 1946, in a secret laboratory three miles from Los Alamos, in the state of New Mexico, in the same place where the atomic bomb was first created. Luis Zlotin, a Canadian physicist, showed his colleagues how to bring the nucleus of an atomic bomb to a subcritical state.

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The core itself “radiated heat” (radioactive) and was a usual metal hemisphere with a plutonium cone in the center. It was going to be used as a material for the creation of another atomic bomb, but after the bombing of Nagasaki such a need disappeared - the war was over.

In those days, Zlotin was the most outstanding expert in plutonium handling. A year earlier, he worked on the creation of the atomic bomb, and one of the photographers even captured it in the process - in an unbuttoned shirt and welding goggles, he stood next to a bomb, in which all entrails were literally turned out. At that time, the manufacture of atomic bombs was for the most part connected with such “artisanal production,” almost everything was done manually.

The experiment itself was simpleand was as follows: Zlotinus took the hemisphere from beryllium, which was a neutron reflector, and slowly lowered it to the core, stopping exactly at that moment when the hemisphere was almost in contact with plutonium.2

The beryllium sphere reflected neutrons emitted by plutonium, thereby triggering a short nuclear chain reaction. Zlotinus held the reflector in his left hand. In his right hand he held a screwdriver, which had to be pushed between two hemispheres. While Zlotinus omitted the beryllium hemisphere, his colleague Roemer Schreiber briefly distracted from the experiment, believing that the experiment at this stage is not remarkable. At this very moment, Roemer heard a loud sound behind him - Zlotin's screwdriver slid off the reflector, and the whole hemisphere collapsed onto the core. When Schreiber turned, he saw a flash of blue light and felt a wave of heat on his face. A week later, he wrote an incident report:

“Despite the fact that the room was well lit, the flash of blue light was clearly distinguishable ... The flash duration was only a few tenths of a second. Zlotin responded very quickly and dropped the reflector from the core.It was around three in the afternoon. ”

The soldier who was guarding the precious plutonium was also in the room at the time of the experiment, but did not have a clue about its essence. However, when the nucleus began to glow and the scientists began to shout loudly, he abruptly ran out of the laboratory and climbed the nearest hill. In the course of subsequent calculations, it turned out that the decay reaction was about three septillons - a million times less than in the case of the first atomic bomb, but this was enough to release a large amount of radiation. This radiation excited electrons in the air, which, as the excitation decayed, emitted high-energy photons, which became the cause of blue light.3

An ambulance was called, and almost the entire laboratory was evacuated. The scientists, who were waiting for help, tried to figure out how much radiation they managed to pick up. Zlotin made a sketch depicting the position of each person in the laboratory at the time of the release. He then measured the level of radiation on objects near the core - on a brush, bottle of Coca-Cola, a hammer, and a measuring tape.

However, this turned out to be a daunting task - the device itself was rather “dirty”, since it, like all the other objects in the room, was also exposed to radiation. Zlotinov instructed one of his colleagues to measure the radioactive background with a film dosimeter — this required almost getting very close to the still hot core.4

Dosimeters also did not provide any useful information, and the attempt to use them in the report was considered as evidence that people, being exposed to this level of exposure, “are not able to make rational decisions”.

The observers of the experiment were sent to Los Alamos Hospital. Zlotina gagged once before the examination and a few more times during it, and a few more times in the next two hours, but the next morning the gagging urge stopped. His condition was generally satisfactory. However, his left hand, which at first was just numb and slightly tingling, became more and more painful.

At the time of the experiment, Zlotin’s left hand was closest to the nucleus, and scientists later determined that this hand had more than 50,000 rem of low energy X-rays.The total dose that Zlotinus received was 21 hundred rem of neutron, gamma and X-rays (five hundred rem of a radiation is considered lethal for humans).

The hand eventually gained a waxy cyanotic appearance and blistered. Doctors who watched Zlotin kept his hand in a bucket of ice to relieve pain and inflammation. His right hand holding a screwdriver had the same symptoms, but suffered less.

Zlotin called his parents in Winnipeg, and the army paid for their flight to New Mexico. They arrived four days after the accident. On the fifth day, the number of white blood cells Zlotina was significantly reduced. His temperature and pulse constantly fluctuated.

“On the fifth day, the patient’s condition began to deteriorate rapidly,” the medical report said. Zlotina was tormented by nausea and abdominal pain, he also began to lose much weight. He suffered from internal radiation burns - one of the doctors called this situation a "three-dimensional sunburn." On the seventh day, Zlotinin experienced bouts of "tangled consciousness." His lips turned a bluish color and were placed in an oxygen tent.

In the end, Zlotinus fell into a coma.He died on the ninth day after the incident, at the age of 35. The cause of death was recorded as "acute radioactive syndrome." His body was transported to Winnipeg, where he was buried - in a closed army coffin.

Zlotin was only one of two people who died from radiation in the laboratory of Los Alamos, while she was under the control of the army. From 1943 to 1946 there were two dozen other deaths - car accidents, careless handling of weapons, suicide, one drowned man and another fall from a horse.

Four people died from poisoning with Muscat wine mixed with antifreeze. Only one Zlotin and his colleague Harry Daglyan became a victim of dangerous conditions associated with the work on the project "Manhattan". Nine months before the accident with Zlotin, Daglyan worked with the same plutonium nucleus, and performed a slightly different experiment in which tungsten carbide blocks were used instead of the beryllium hemisphere.

He dropped one of the blocks on plutonium, and the nucleus briefly passed into a critical state. Daglyan died of radiation sickness a month after the incident.

After an unsuccessful demonstration Zlotin, Los Alamos stopped working with subcritical masses of plutonium.Such experiments have always been considered dangerous - he himself Enrico Fermi warned Zlotina that he would "die within one year" if he continued his work. However, the Second World War required urgency, albeit to the detriment of security.

Manual subcritical masses could be easily and quickly modified and used for military purposes. But by the time Zlotinus died, such a rush was useless. The times of the Cold War were disturbing, but they did not require such sacrifices.

A note written after the accident suggested that the following experiments should be carried out using a remote control, and “the law of inverse proportionality should be more widely squared” - to the fact that a slight increase in distance significantly reduces the radiation power.

The subcritical mass of plutonium, which destroyed Dagljan and Zlotin, was first called Rufus, but after these two incidents it was given the name Charge-Demon. While the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and killing tens of thousands of people, did not receive such attention and remained nameless.

This, perhaps, is the difference between intentional and unintentional harm, between the nucleus of an atomic bomb - a weapon of mass destruction, and the core reserved for the field of experiments.

Prior to the incident, the Los Alamos leadership planned to send the core to the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands and blow it up to more than a thousand observers (at a safe distance) as part of Operation Crossroads, the first post-war series of atomic bomb tests. (Zlotinus also wanted to go there and watch the explosion; he planned to teach at the University of Chicago when the test cycle comes to an end.)

After the incident, however, the core was still too hot and radioactive for use. He was going to blow up in the third test "Crossroads", but the test was canceled. As a result, the core still came to an end, but in a much more prosaic form — in the summer of 1946 it was melted and cast into a new bomb.

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