Plutonium Core Accident: Explosions, Consequences, And Risks

The “plutonium core accident” refers to two fatal radiation accidents involving a subcritical mass of plutonium known as the “demon core” These accidents occurred during the testing of the core as a fissile component of an early atomic bomb. Learn more about the “plutonium core accident” and its implications on the development of nuclear weapons at vninvestment/

Plutonium Core Accident: Explosions, Consequences, and Risks
Plutonium Core Accident: Explosions, Consequences, and Risks

I. Manufacturing and Early History

The Birth of the Demon Core

The Manhattan Project, a top-secret wartime endeavor, brought together some of the world’s greatest scientific minds to develop the atomic bomb. Among them was Louis Slotin, a Canadian physicist who played a pivotal role in the creation of the “demon core,” a subcritical sphere of plutonium.

A Perilous Design

The demon core’s purpose was to serve as the fissile component of an atomic bomb. However, in its early stages, it was far from being safe or stable. The core’s design lacked proper safety features, making it highly susceptible to accidental criticality, a condition in which a nuclear chain reaction begins.

Louis SlotinPhysicistManhattan Project
Alvin GravesPhysicistLos Alamos Laboratory
Harry DaghlianPhysicistLos Alamos Laboratory
  • The core was roughly 3 inches in diameter.
  • The material was a plutonium-gallium alloy.
  • It was surrounded by beryllium oxide to reflect neutrons.

II. First Incident

First Incident
First Incident

The Los Alamos Laboratory

The first incident occurred on August 21, 1945, at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico. A team of scientists, led by physicist Louis Slotin, was conducting experiments with a plutonium core. The core was subcritical, meaning it could not sustain a chain reaction on its own. However, the scientists were using a neutron source to bombard the core, which increased its reactivity.

Criticality Accident

During the experiment, Slotin accidentally dropped a neutron source onto the core, causing it to go critical. The core emitted a burst of radiation, which exposed Slotin and several other scientists to high levels of radiation. Slotin died nine days later from acute radiation poisoning.

ScientistExposure (rem)Outcome
Louis Slotin1000+Died
Alvin Graves100-200Survived
Samuel Singer100-200Survived

III. Second Incident

Second Incident
Second Incident

The second incident occurred just over 9 months later, when a screwdriver was accidentally dropped into the core during an experiment on May 21, 1946. The sudden influx of neutrons caused a criticality spike that released a fatal burst of radiation. This time, Louis Slotin was holding the core and absorbed the brunt of the radiation, while Alvin Graves, standing nearby, also received a lethal dose.

Again, Slotin used his body to shield his colleagues from the deadly radiation, saving their lives at the cost of his own. His heroic actions prevented a much greater tragedy. Paramedics rushed Slotin to the hospital, but despite prompt medical attention, he succumbed to his injuries just 9 days later on May 30, 1946.

Aftermath and Legacy

  • Changes in safety protocols
  • Development of criticality control terminology
  • Suspension of fast critical assembly research
  • Legacy of the victims

Alvin Graves also suffered severe radiation injuries and died on February 8, 1947. The deaths of Slotin and Graves had a profound impact on the development of nuclear safety protocols, leading to a better understanding of the hazards of working with fissile materials.

IV. Legacy


The Plutonium Core Accident left a lasting legacy, shaping safety protocols and nuclear research practices.

  • Changes in safety protocols
  • Development of criticality control terminology
  • Suspension of fast critical assembly research
  • Legacy of the victims

V. Safety Recommendations

Safety Recommendations
Safety Recommendations

In the aftermath of the Plutonium Core Accident, a series of safety recommendations were put forward to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future. These recommendations included:

  • Establishing clear safety protocols for handling fissile materials
  • Developing training programs for personnel working with radioactive materials
  • Implementing strict quality control measures for all nuclear components
Establish clear safety protocolsDefine procedures for handling, storing, and testing fissile materials
Develop training programsEducate personnel on radiation hazards and safe handling practices
Implement quality control measuresEnsure the integrity and reliability of nuclear components

These recommendations helped shape the modern safety standards for handling and testing nuclear materials, and have contributed to preventing similar accidents from happening again.

VI. Conclusion

The Plutonium Core Accident serves as a grim reminder of the immense power and associated risks of nuclear materials. The incidents highlighted the critical need for stringent safety protocols and the importance of fully understanding the behavior of fissile materials. The legacy of the victims and the lessons learned from these accidents continue to shape nuclear safety practices today.

Related Articles

Back to top button