The demon core was a 6.2-kilogram (14 lb; 1 st), 3.5-inch-diameter (89 mm) subcritical mass of plutonium which went briefly critical in two separate accidents at the Los Alamos laboratory in 1945 and 1946. Each incident resulted in the acute radiation poisoning and subsequent death of a scientist. After these incidents the spherical plutonium pit was referred to as the "demon core."
The demon core was used in the first atomic bomb test to be conducted after World War II, five weeks after the second fatal accident. It performed normally and with the same explosive yield as the next core used in this set of two tests.
Manufacturing and early history
The third core, like the second core dropped on Nagasaki, consisted of three parts: the two hemispheres and a ring, designed to keep neutron flux from "jetting" out of the joined surface between the hemispheres during implosion. The refined plutonium was shipped from the Hanford Site in Washington state to Los Alamos; an inventory document dated August 30 shows Los Alamos had expended "HS-1, 2, 3, 4; R-1" (the components of Trinity and Fat Man) and had in its possession "HS-5, 6; R-2", finished and in the hands of quality control. Material for "HS-7, R-3" were in the Los Alamos metallurgy section, being hot pressed and nickel plated, and would also be ready by September 5th (it's not certain whether this date allowed for the unmentioned "HS-8"'s fabrication to complete the fourth pit). On August 10th, General Groves wrote to General Marshall, chief of staff of the Army, that:
The next bomb of the implosion type had been scheduled to be ready for delivery on the target on the first good weather after 24 August 1945. We have gained 4 days in manufacture and expect to ship from New Mexico on 12 or 13 August the final components. Providing there are no unforeseen difficulties in manufacture, in transportation to the theatre or after arrival in the theatre, the bomb should be ready for delivery on the first suitable weather after 17 or 18 August.
Marshall added an annotation, "It is not to be released on Japan without express authority from the President", as President Truman was exerting his exclusive authority to order the drop, and was waiting to see the effects of the first two drops. On the 13th the third bomb was scheduled: "[On] Thursday [August 16] it [the third bomb] would be in readiness; the 19th it would be dropped." Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945. Caught by news of the war's end while in preparation for being couriered to Kirtland Field, the third core remained at Los Alamos.
On August 21, 1945, the plutonium core produced a burst of neutron radiation that led to Harry Daghlian's death. Daghlian, a physicist, made a mistake while working alone performing neutron reflection experiments on the core. The core was placed within a stack of neutron-reflective tungsten carbide bricks and the addition of each brick moved the assembly closer to criticality. While attempting to stack another brick around the assembly, Daghlian accidentally dropped it onto the core and thereby caused the core to go critical, a self-sustaining prompt critical chain reaction. Despite quick action in moving the brick off the assembly, Daghlian received a fatal dose of radiation. He died 25 days later from acute radiation poisoning.
|Name||Origin||Age at accident||Profession||Dose||Aftermath||Reference|
|Haroutune "Harry" Krikor Daghlian, Jr.||New London, CT||26||physicist||200 rad (2.0 Gy) neutron
110 rad (1.1 Gy) gamma
|died 25 days after the accident of Acute Radiation Syndrome, haematopoietic focus|||
|Pvt. Robert J. Hemmerly||Whitehall, OH||29||Special Engineering Detachment (SED) guard||8 rad (0.080 Gy) neutron
0.1 rad (0.0010 Gy) gamma
|died in 1978 (33 years after accident) of acute myelogenous leukemia at the age of 62|||
On May 21, 1946, physicist Louis Slotin and seven other Los Alamos personnel were in a Los Alamos laboratory conducting an experiment to verify the exact point at which a subcritical mass (core) of fissile material could be made critical by the positioning of neutron reflectors. The test was known as "tickling the dragon's tail" for its extreme risk. It required the operator to place two half-spheres of beryllium (a neutron reflector) around the core to be tested and manually lower the top reflector over the core via a thumb hole on the top. As the reflectors were manually moved closer and farther away from each other, scintillation counters measured the relative activity from the core. Allowing them to close completely could result in the instantaneous formation of a critical mass and a lethal power excursion. Under Slotin's unapproved protocol, the only thing preventing this was the blade of a standard flathead screwdriver, manipulated by the scientist's other hand. Slotin, who was given to bravado, became the local expert, performing the test almost a dozen separate times, often in his trademark bluejeans and cowboy boots, in front of a roomful of observers. Enrico Fermi reportedly told Slotin and others they would be "dead within a year" if they continued performing it.
While lowering the top reflector, Slotin's screwdriver slipped outward a fraction of an inch, allowing the top reflector to fall into place around the core. Instantly there was a flash of blue light and a wave of heat across Slotin's skin; the core had become supercritical, releasing a massive burst of neutron radiation. He quickly knocked the two halves apart, stopping the chain reaction and presumably saving the lives of the other men in the laboratory, though it is now known that the heating of the core and shells stopped the criticality within milliseconds of its initiation. Slotin's body's positioning over the apparatus also shielded the others from much of the neutron radiation. He received a lethal dose of 1000 rads neutron/114 rads gamma in under a second and died nine days later from acute radiation poisoning. The nearest person to Slotin, Alvin C. Graves, was watching over Slotin's shoulder and was thus partially shielded by him, received a high but non-lethal radiation dose. Graves was hospitalized for several weeks with severe radiation poisoning, developed chronic neurological and vision problems as a result of the exposure, and died 20 years later of a heart attack probably caused by complications from radiation exposure.
The personnel in the room were:
|Name||Origin||Age at accident||Profession||Dose||Aftermath|
|Louis Alexander Slotin||Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada||32||physicist||1,000 rad (10 Gy) neutron
114 rad (1.14 Gy) gamma
|died 9 days after the accident of Acute Radiation Syndrome, gastrointestinal focus|||
|Alvin C. Graves||Austin, TX||34||physicist||166 rad (1.66 Gy) neutron
26 rad (0.26 Gy) gamma
|died in 1965 (19 years after the accident) of myocardial infarction, with aggravating "compensated myxedema and cataracts", while skiing|||
|Stanley Allan Kline||Chicago, Illinois||physicist||died in 2001 (45 years after the accident); refused to take part in studies|||
|Marion Edward Cieslicki||Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania||23||physicist||12 rad (0.12 Gy) neutron
4 rad (0.040 Gy) gamma
|died of acute myelocytic leukemia in 1967 (21 years after the accident)|||
|Dwight Smith Young||Chicago, Illinois||51||photographer||51 rad (0.51 Gy) neutron
11 rad (0.11 Gy) gamma
|died of aplastic anemia and bacterial endocarditis in 1973 (27 years after the accident)|||
|Raemer Edgar Schreiber||McMinnville, Oregon||36||physicist||9 rad (0.090 Gy) neutron
3 rad (0.030 Gy) gamma
|died of natural causes in 1998 (52 years after the accident), at the age of 88|||
|Theodore Perlman||Louisiana||23||engineer||7 rad (0.070 Gy) neutron
2 rad (0.020 Gy) gamma
|"alive and in good health and spirits" as of 1978|||
|Pvt. Patrick J. Cleary||New York City||21||security guard||33 rad (0.33 Gy) neutron
9 rad (0.090 Gy) gamma
|killed in combat in Korea in 1952 during the Korean War|||
Two machinists in another part of the building were not treated: Paul Long and another, unidentified.
After Slotin's accident, hands-on criticality experiments were stopped, and remote-control machines were designed by Schreiber, one of the survivors, to perform such experiments with all personnel at a quarter mile distance.
Demon core in use
The demon core was put to use for the Able detonation test of the Operation Crossroads series at Bikini Atoll on July 1, 1946. Its yield was 23 kilotons of TNT (96 TJ), the same as the next core used in the Crossroads pair of bomb tests.
Paul Mullin wrote a play based on the last nine days of Slotin's life, named the Louis Slotin Sonata. It premiered in 1999 at Circle X Theatre in Los Angeles and went on to win the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for Outstanding World Premiere.
The 1989 film Fat Man and Little Boy portrays, in a character named Michael Merriman (played by John Cusack), a fictional composite of Harry K. Daghlian and Louis Slotin. The character dies of radiation poisoning after two neutron-reflection hemispheres, which are separated by a screwdriver, connect accidentally.
The story of the second accident involving the demon core (entitled "Risky Radiation") was featured in an episode of Dark Matters: Twisted But True, and the first accident mentioned.
Episode 21, season 5 of Stargate SG1 Meridian portrays an incident in which an alien civilization accidentally triggers a similar reaction with a fictional element "naqahdriah" and several scientists are killed while character Daniel Jackson is exposed to fatal levels of radiation.
- Wellerstein, Alex. "You don't know Fat Man". Restricted data blog. Retrieved 2014-04-04.
- Coster-Mullen, John (2010). Core Differences, from "Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Inside Story of Little Boy and Fat Man". Retrieved 3014-04-04. An error: the illustration caption states the Fat Man core was plated in silver; it was plated in nickel, as the silver plating on the gadget core blistered. The disk in the drawings is a gold foil gasket.
- Wellerstein, Alex. "The third core's revenge". Restricted data blog. Retrieved 2014-04-04.
- Miller, Richard L. (1991). Under the Cloud: The Decades of Nuclear Testing. The Woodlands, Texas: Two Sixty Press. pp. 68, 69, 77. ISBN 0-02-921620-6.
- Hempelman, Louis Henry; Lushbaugh, Clarence C. and Voelz, George L. (1979-10-19). "What Has Happened to the Survivors of the Early Los Alamos Nuclear Accidents?". Conference for Radiation Accident Preparedness. Oak Ridge: Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. LA-UR-79-2802. Retrieved 5 January 2013. Patient numbers in this document have been identified as: 1 - Daghlian, 2 - Hemmerly, 3 - Slotin, 4 - Graves, 5 - Kline, 6 - Young, 7 - Cleary, 8 - Cieleski, 9 - Schreiber, 10 - Perlman
- 1978 estimates from Hempelman
- Dion, Arnold. "Acute Radiation Sickness".
- A Review of Criticality Accidents, Sept 26, 1967, LANL
- Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (May 15, 1997). "Seeking Light: Manhattan Project Murder Mystery". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 May 2011.
- Welsome, Eileen (1999). The Plutonium Files. p. 184. ISBN 978-0-385-31402-2. Retrieved 18 November 2012.
- Clifford T. Honicker (1989-11-19). "America's Radiation Victims: The Hidden Files". New York Times. p. 11.
- Alsop, Stewart; Robert E. Lapp (March 6, 1954). "The Strange Death of Louis Slotin". Saturday Evening Post 226 (36). pp. 25ff. Retrieved 2014-04-03.
- Clifford T. Honicker (1989-11-19). "AMERICA'S RADIATION VICTIMS: The Hidden Files". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 2011-04-23.
- 1978 estimates from Hempelman
- Larry Calloway. "Nuclear Naiveté". Albuquerque Journal.
- unknown. Louis Slotin. Retrieved 2014-04-04. Apparently authored by the second of the two machinists in the building when the accident occurred; an eyewitness report of the accident.
- Miller, Richard L (1991). Under the Cloud: The Decades of Nuclear Testing. The Woodlands, Texas: Two Sixty Press. pp. 69, 77. ISBN 0-02-921620-6.
- Paul Mullins. "Louis Slotin Sonata".