A Los Alamos Story Worthy of Stephen King

Ever heard of The Demon Core? It was named by Los Alamos scientists — who are generally not a superstitious lot — after it claimed multiple lives, in a series of strange and horrible accidents. Discover a legend of science... that's worthy of a horror movie.

When I was reading Stephen King stories, I was constantly amazed at the things he made scary. It was like reading the legend of the monkey's paw over and over again, with increasingly weird objects. His most famous evil objects are the hotel in The Shining and the car in Christine, but as he goes on, he manages to evil up a toy monkey, a painting, and a laundry press machine. When I read about The Demon Core, my thoughts automatically turned to King's work.

The Demon Core was a hunk of plutonium that was being used to refine the atomic bomb, just after it had been used in Japan. The plutonium in the core was P 239, a neutron-rich and unstable isotope. Neutrons were popping off it regularly. For the most part, they shot out of the core. Occasionally, they'd hit another atom and cause it to break down, giving off neutrons as well. As long as the rate of that reaction was low, it wasn't too dangerous to be around the core. The scientists at Los Alamos had to determine at what rate the reactions would get out of control. They did this by slowly stacking blocks of a substance that reflected neutrons around the core. The reflected neutrons would go back into the core and cause a higher reaction rate. As more and more of the core was surrounded, more neutrons bounced back. In turn, more reactions happened, and the scientists would monitor them with a Geiger counter.

A Los Alamos Story Worthy of Stephen King

One of the first reactions tests was conducted, unofficially and without other scientists present, by a gifted 24-year-old physicist named Harry Daghlian. He had built up walls around the core, monitoring it all the while, and then placed a brick on top of the walls. The reaction started cranking up to critical levels, and Daglian hurried to withdraw the brick. He dropped it on the core, causing it to be completely surrounded with the reflective substance. The radiation being given off skyrocketed, and Daghlian grabbed the brick. He dropped it again, right in the same spot. Unable to grab it again, he started taking apart the walls. By the time he had taken apart the structure, it was too late. He went into the hospital, and died of radiation poisoning about a month later.

Making a suitably large sphere of plutonium required the labor of entire industrial facilities. There was no known substitute for the material, and its top-secret nature made it tough to put in industrialized safety guards, especially for what was thought to be a freak accident. So a year later, Daghlian's friend, Louis Slotkin, was doing the same experiment, except with a different neutron reflector. He was experimenting with two half-bowls, and using a screwdriver to lever them more open and more closed, monitoring the radiation being released each way. He was supposed to be using safety wedges to keep the bowls slightly apart. For some reason, he didn't. They crashed together, and Slotkin, too, got a lethal dose of radiation.

After that, the core got a reputation, and acquired its name. It was eventually detonated in 1946, near the Bikini Islands. Several staff members, who were near the scene of one or other of the Los Alamos test accidents, died early of radiation-related diseases. Of course, there are always going to be accidents at any site. The fact that this kind of weaponry was new and the equipment was rough contributes. But when two friends both disregarded basic safety precautions, and were both claimed by the same core, it's not surprising that it gets a name. It's only surprising that it never got a short story.

Top Image: Department of Energy

Via Neatorama, Physics Central and Tales from the Nuclear Age.