The Untold Story Of Demon Core- How It Killed Two Scientists?

by Kareena Dodeja

The Untold Story Of Demon Core- How It Killed Two Scientists?

April 12, 2021

History tells us stories of wars and violence, so we have heard about the infamous Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks on Japan, the deadliest to this date. What is unheard of is ‘demon core,’ the one story that we are unaware of. The demon core was deadly and one of the stories that will leave you in chills.

Let us date back to August 13, 1945, when ‘demon core’ was initiated to be unleashed onto Japan who was under distress from the previous attacks on August 6. The attacks are one of the scariest we have ever seen. ‘Little Boy’ was detonated over Hiroshima and ‘Fat man’ was soon to follow.

We have heard about these two nuclear bombs used in the war which claimed over 200,000 lives but there could have been a third strike if things didn’t go awry. This is mindboggling to think about years later what could have been if there was a third attack. Japan was quick to surrender on August 15 when they realized that Nagasaki and Hiroshima caused so much chaos.

The Japanese Radio broadcasting had recorded a speech of Emperor Hirohito conceding to Allie’s demands. What is interesting is that this was the first time that the public had ever heard one of the emperor’s voices. The scientists at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico known as Project Y found this event to be significant for them. The story is about to take a turn from here.

Third Time Lucky Or Unlucky?

The scientists were working on the third atom bomb which was a 6.2-kilogram sphere of plutonium and gallium which was enough to end Japan on the whole but it was not needed after all. If the conflict was continued, the plutonium core would have been inside the second Fat Man ready to be detonated above Japan four days later. Isn’t that surprising to think what if it did?

Fate had another story to tell. The Los Alamos device was named ‘Rufus’ and it had remained in the facility for testing. During these tests, the leftover nuke became known as the demon core. This mission to detonate Japan did not happen as they surrendered two days after canceling the demon core. But demon core found a way to kill anyway as it was stranded at Los Alamos. The first accident took place just a week after Japan’s surrender,

The scientists were aware of the risks while conducting criticality experiments which mean that they were measuring the threshold at which the plutonium would have become supercritical to the point where a nuclear chain reaction would unleash a blast of deadly radiation, according to an article in Live Science.

The Manhattan Project scientists were the brains behind the plan. The Los Alamos was a part of their mission of finding out how far could demon core go till a dangerous reaction was triggered. The scientists had a nickname for the experiments, ‘tickling the dragon’s tail’ despite knowing that dangerous outcomes were possible.

The nightmare had begun. On the night of August 12, 1945, the Los Alamos physicist, Harry Daghlian got caught in an unfortunate incident. He had returned to the lab after dinner to experiment alone with no one around just the security guard which was a breach of safety protocol. He worked on the plutonium sphere and surrounded them with bricks made of tungsten carbide which reflected neutrons shed by the core back at it which were one step closer to being in a criticality.

He kept building it up with bricks around the walls of the core till the neutron-monitoring equipment was an inch closer to being supercritical any moment. He was about to pull a brick away when accidentally he dropped it on top of the sphere which led to supercriticality. It blew up a glow of blue light a wave of heat. He was quick on his feet to remove the brick but it was already too late.

Daghlian felt a tingling sensation on his hand- it was the radiation. His hand was burnt and blistered all over; he fell into a coma after weeks of nausea and pain. He passed away 25 days after the accident, unfortunately. The security guard had received a non-lethal dose of radiation but demon core doesn’t stop here.

The Demonic Core Strikes Twice

They conducted safety procedures after Daghlian’s death but no change could prevent the accident from the happening year the following year. On May 21, 1946, physicist Louis Slotin was conducting the criticality experiment by lowering a beryllium dome over the core. Like previously, the neutrons reflected at the core pushing it towards criticality.

Slotin was careful to ensure the dome called as the tamper was not fully covered by using a screwdriver to maintain a gap. It could act as a crucial valve to enable the neutrons to escape; it sort of worked but quickly escalated. The screwdriver slipped and the dome dropped, the demon core in a beryllium cover had bounced back too many neutrons back at it.

The other scientist, Raemer Schreiber who was working in the room heard the thud of the dome dropping and felt the heat and a blue flash as the demon core had reached supercritical for the second time. It wasn’t a good sign. Schreiber wrote in a report that the blue flash was visible in the room as it was well illuminated from the windows and the overhead lights. The duration of the flash was not more than few tenths of a second as Slotin quickly flipped the tamper piece off.

It was too late as Slotin and seven others in the room were exposed to the burst of radiation. Only Slotin received the lethal dose which was greater than Daghlian had been inflicted. He was nauseated and seemed like he was recovering but he soon started losing weight and showed signs of mental confusion. The press release by Los Alamos described the condition as three-dimensional sunburn.’ He passed away nine days after the accident.

The End Of The Demon Core

New safety protocols were placed in testing criticality experiments with scientists forced to use remote control machinery. They stopped calling the plutonium core ‘Rufus’ as it was now called the ‘Demon core.’ Following the two accidents, the core’s increase in radiation levels was harmful. It was planned to be used in Operation Crossroads, the first post-war nuclear explosion demonstration at the Bikini Atoll but it was canceled.

Well, it was melted down finally and integrated into the US Nuclear stockpile to be recast into cores if necessary. The deaths of the two scientists could not be compared to the attacks at Japan if they went through with the third attack. It would have led to major chaos and loss.

What might be a weird fact is that the deaths of both scientists happened the same way and on Tuesdays on the 21st of the month. It gets weirder; they passed away in the same hospital room as well. Slotin’s first words after the incident were simple, ‘well, that does it.’ He even comforted Daghlian in the hospital because he knew what was coming. Scientists weren’t able to protect themselves from radiation poisoning despite knowing the danger and risks.



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