The Demon Core – 14lbs of Plutonium

The Demon Core – 14lbs of Plutonium

September 12, 2019 100 By William Hollis


The date is August, 1945, and deep in the
United State’s top-secret nuclear laboratory at Los Alamos, a fourteen pound sphere of
plutonium sits inside a lab awaiting its insertion into the world’s third war-time nuclear bomb. Yet it will no longer be needed, as after
suffering dual atomic bombings and now facing an invasion fleet of a million Soviet soldiers,
Japan has at last surrendered, bringing the Second World War to an end. Over 200,000 Japanese had died already to
the two nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and many more would die in the months and
years to come from the deadly radiation. The fourteen pound sphere of plutonium was
meant to be the heart of the third atomic bomb, but is no longer needed. Yet the beating heart of an atom bomb would
still claim more human lives before being disassembled. Plutonium was first discovered on December
14th, 1940 by a team of American researchers at the University of California in Berkeley. The new element had been produced during deuteron
bombardment of a uranium target- the uranium sample began to rapidly emit electrons which
produced a new element, who’s own nucleus would then emit a single electron and become
Element 94, Plutonium. Originally the researchers planned on submitting
a research paper to the scientific journal Physical Review in March 1941, but when it
was discovered that a special isotope of the new element, plutonium-239, could undergo
fission and be used in the construction of an atomic bomb, the paper was withdrawn and
all research immediately fell under the umbrella of what would become the Manhattan Project. The US wasn’t at war yet, but with researchers
around the world racing to discover the atomic bomb, it could ill afford to fall behind or
let other nations get wind of the discovery. Plutonium would prove to be essential for
the building of the first atomic bombs, but production of usable plutonium was slow- very
slow. It wasn’t until construction of a revolutionary
new type of plutonium production reactor in 1943 that the new element began to be produced
in quantities suitable for the building of an atomic bomb. The door to a working nuclear weapon had at
last been opened, and it would never be closed again. By summer of 1945 World War II was all but
over, and it was thought that America would not need to deploy the newly developed and
widely feared atomic bombs. Yet by August it was clear that Japan would
not surrender, its Bushido culture viewing the unconditional surrender demanded by the
Allies as an unbearable disgrace. They would rather go down fighting to a man,
and with Japan’s military leadership firmly in control of the civilian government, it
seemed to all that a hugely bloody invasion of Japan would be needed in order to finally
bring peace. For their part, the Soviets were already massing
huge concentrations of troops, recently freed from the war in Europe, along their border
with China as they prepared to strike into Japanese-held Manchuria where over a million
Japanese soldiers still waited. Once Manchuria was neutralized they would
then look east towards an invasion of Japan itself. The realization that Japan was between a rock
and a hard place gave some pause to American leadership on the use of atomic bombs, but
ultimately it was decided that the war needed to end as expediently as possible, and so
on August 6th, 1945, Hiroshima went up in nuclear flames, the victim of the first atomic
bombing in history. Initially the Japanese government refused
to believe the reports coming from Hiroshima. The total destruction of the city by a single
bomb was unbelievable, and thus when warnings came from the US that they would deliver a
second atomic bomb if Japan did not surrender immediately, they were largely ignored. Three days later Nagasaki joined Hiroshima
in the ashes of history, and tens of thousands of people died in a flash of light. America immediately threatened the use of
a third nuclear weapon, and shortly after Japan sued for peace. Back home in the secret laboratory of Los
Alamos, the fourteen pound plutonium heart of what would have been the third wartime
nuclear weapon sat in a lab, now unneeded for its original purpose. Codenamed ‘Rufus’, the sphere would go from
wartime use to peacetime nuclear research in a matter of days, as there was still plenty
that scientists did not understand about nuclear weapons and the materials that made them up. Rufus, as it was known, would quickly earn
a much more sinister nickname- that of the Demon Core. The first lethal accident caused by the core
happened just two days after the cancellation of the demon’s core bombing run and less than
a week after Japan’s surrender. In Los Alamos scientists were conducting experiments
to measure the threshold at which plutonium would become supercritical. This was the point where a fissile material,
such as plutonium in this case, accumulated in a small enough volume so that each fission
event of the material would produce a neutron that would in turn strike another fissile
atom, and cause another neutron to be created which would then strike another fissile atom. This chain reaction is key to nuclear detonations,
but without the very specific circumstances needed for an actual detonation, will instead
result in the release of large amounts of radiation and extreme heating. These initial experiments to measure the criticality
threshold of plutonium had a foreboding nickname- “tickling the dragon’s tail”. This was because the physicists knew that
if they were not careful and awakened the terrible beast from its slumber, they were
going to be severely burned. On the night of August 21st, 1945, physicist
Harry Daghlian would do just that, and in turn the dragon would claim his life. That night Daghlian returned to his lab after
dinner and began criticality experiments on the demon core alone, which was in clear breach
of safety protocols. The only person with Daghlian was a security
guard seated a dozen feet away, but with no knowledge of physics himself, the guard’s
job was merely to ensure only authorized personnel entered the lab. As Daghlian worked he surrounded the demon
core with bricks made of tungsten carbide- the core was constantly emitting neutrons
but with nothing to bounce them back there was no risk of going supercritical. The bricks of tungsten carbide however acted
as a mirror of sorts, bouncing the shed neutrons back at the core, which would cause the reflected
neutrons to knock other neutrons loose from the fissile plutonium. Each brick added around the sphere would slowly
edge the entire material closer to a supercritical reaction. With the reflective bricks built up around
the core, his equipment warned him that if he added any more bricks to the wall surrounding
the demon core, it would go supercritical. Thus Daghlian began to remove one of the bricks
away- the sleeping dragon had been prodded and though briefly roused, it still slumbered. As he moved the brick away though he accidentally
dropped the brick on top of the plutonium sphere, and in doing so immediately induced
supercriticality. A flash of blue light and a wave of heat bathed
the laboratory, and Daghlian immediately snatched the brick away, stopping the chain reaction. Unfortunately, it was too late. The dragon had woken and in the brief second
it had been roused from its slumber it had already delivered a lethal dose of radiation
to Daghlin. His hand, which initially felt tingly and
numb, quickly became severely burned and then swelled up and blistered over After weeks of severe pain and nausea, Daghlin
was dead, and the Demon Core had achieved its first kill. A year later, physicist Louis Slotin was demonstrating
a similar criticality experiment to a group of researchers. The criticality experiments were crude, even
for their time, and known to be extremely dangerous- Enrico Fermi himself had warned
Slotin would be “dead within a year” if he continued conducting these dangerous experiments. On that fateful day Slotin’s demonstration
was as crude as it was reckless- instead of using tungsten carbide bricks to reflect neutrons
back at the core and achieve criticality, a beryllium dome had been created which could
be fitted over the core. Slotin began to lower the dome over the sphere,
the neutrons fired off by the demon core bouncing back at it and feeding the nuclear chain reaction. Slotin knew that in order to prevent the mass
from going critical though he would need to maintain just a small gap at the bottom and
not lower the beryllium dome entirely- this would allow just enough neutrons to escape. Thus Slotin used a screwdriver to prop up
the dome from the bottom, and ensure it could not cover the core completely. Scientist Raemer Schreiber turned from the
experiment to see to other matters, ignoring what had become a routine demonstration by
now. As he turned away from Slotin though the entire
room was filled with a blue flash and a wave of heat- the screwdriver Slotin was using
to prop up the beryllium dome had slipped, encasing the core completely and letting it
go supercritical. Slotin immediately flipped the dome off, but
just like Daghlin before him- it was too late. Everyone in the room received a massive dose
of radiation, but Slotin, being so close to the demon core, received a fatal dose. Slotin was rushed to the hospital where he
went through bouts of nausea and vomiting, and then seemed to recover. However within days he began to lose weight
and experienced severe abdominal pain. Slowly he began exhibiting signs of mental
confusion as his body literally began to break down from the inside out. To make matters worse, his insides had suffered
what doctors called a “three-dimensional sunburn”, as the flash of radiation severely
burned Slotin’s body, in parts down to the bone. Nine days later, Slotin was dead, the second
victim of the Demon Core. New procedures were immediately implemented
to halt the reckless ‘hands on’ criticality experiments, and new rules forced scientists
to use remote control machinery from a distance of hundreds of meters. The demon core, which was initially slated
to be used in Operation Crossroads- the nuclear tests set to begin a month later at Bikini
Atoll- was instead melted down and reintegrated into the US nuclear stockpile. Built for massive destruction, the demon core
was once more cheated its ultimate destiny, but it had already gotten its revenge in the
deaths of two brilliant scientists. Why do you think scientists didn’t take better
safety measures after Daghlin’s death? Let us know in the comments! And as always if you enjoyed this video don’t
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