If you own a microwave, chances are you’ve unintentionally found yourself standing in front of it while your food was heating up. Whether you were distracted or just keeping a close eye on your plate, you probably wised up after a few seconds and quickly stepped aside, sparing yourself from any potential ill effects. But what if, in that brief moment, you were blasted you with enough radiation to wipe out a small city?
This may sound like science fiction, but just a few decades ago, one Soviet scientist took the full force of a particle generator and walked away without a scratch…at first. It wasn’t until hours later that the particles began to take their toll, leaving him with a series of strange, lasting effects that scientists today still don’t understand.
First introduced in the 1930s, particle accelerators have served as a major tool of scientific insight for nearly a century. By accelerating particles at near lightspeed and colliding them, these machines reveal how the very fabric of the universe functions around us.
Yet accelerators aren’t just used for observational purposes, as very early on physicists became aware that this particle-separating process could aide in the expanding nuclear field. As a result, particle accelerators played a major role in the development of atomic bombs during WWII.
Naturally, such powerful technology was highly coveted in its early days, and many global powers sought to harness these particles for themselves. Following the construction of the Cosmotron at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, other nations soon began creating accelerators of their own.
Brookhaven National Laboratory
Perhaps the most notable accelerator of the time was Russia’s U-70 proton synchrotron. Built in in 1967 at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino, the U-70 set the world record for beam energy and remains Russia’s most powerful accelerator.
The U-70 was particularly active in the late ’70s as Cold War tensions continued to rage between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. A powerful machine capable of accelerating protons to a final energy of 76 electronvolts, the U-70 served as a model of efficiency for the rest of the scientific community.
Yet in 1978, a problem occurred within the accelerator that left engineers scratching their heads. Apparently, a piece of equipment was malfunctioning, though no one could tell which pesky part was causing the issue.
With testing halted, a young technician by the name of Anatoli Bugorski decided to take matters into his own hands. Leaning over the accelerator, Bugorski lowered his head into the U-70 and scanned its interior for the malfunctioning part.
Just then, the accelerator’s safety mechanism failed, projecting a proton beam 76 GeV strong straight for Bugorski. A blinding flash of light followed, and before the scientist could lean out of harm’s way the beam entered his left nostril and exited out the back of head in just a fraction of a second.
Though he felt no pain, Bugorski and his colleagues knew that the dose of radiation he’d just received was easily the most any human had ever come in contact with. No one knew exactly what would happen, but given past experiments gone wrong, they had a pretty good idea…
Just kidding (that was Gamma radiation anyway). Yet proton radiation is nothing to sneeze at. Despite its benefits in the realm of cancer treatment and therapy, a small dose of proton radiation can have deadly effects on the human body.
To put the amount of radiation that Bugorski received into perspective, standard proton therapy typically delivers around 250 million electronvolts; Bugorski received 76 billion. The beam delivered between 2,000 to 3,000 grays of radiation — the average human can only survive about five.
With this in mind, the prognosis didn’t look promising for Bugorski. He was rushed to a nearby Soviet medical center, where the effects of the proton beam almost immediately began to show.
The left side of Bugorski’s face swelled beyond recognition, and the skin around the beam’s entry and exit points began to peel. Upon further examination, his bone and brain tissue had also been burned by the beam.
The swelling eventually subsided, though the afflicted side of Bugorski’s face remained paralyzed indefinitely. He also lost hearing in his left ear, leaving him with a form of acute tinnitus.
Helping Me Hear
Miraculously, however, Burgorski didn’t die as a result of his brush with the U-70’s proton beam. In fact, the Soviet scientist was able to return to work and even went on to earn his PhD!
The Globe and Mail
As of 2019, Anatoli Bugorski is still kicking, having lived well into his 70s. Despite suffering from the aforementioned disabilities as well as seizures, Bugorski’s mental capacity was never compromised and he was able to live a relatively normal life.
Most surprising of all, however, is the fact that Bugorski didn’t develop cancer from the high levels of radiation. Aside from the burns he sustained from the beam, his bone and brain tissue never showed signs of any significant damage.
While this unfortunate accident occurred well over four decades ago, it wasn’t until years later that Bugorski was allowed to speak about his injury. The Soviets were incredibly tight-lipped about their shortcomings during the Cold War, leaving Bugorski to seek treatment in secrecy.
Behind closed doors Bugorski was hailed as “a poster boy for Soviet and Russian radiation medicine,” though even so, he was still denied disability by the Soviet government. He made himself available for study to Western researchers as a result, though sadly he couldn’t afford to leave Protvino.
Fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it — researchers back in the U.S. didn’t need to bring in Bugorski to observe the effects of high-level radiation on the human body. Not long after the U-70 incident, a small-town Michigan boy made headlines for his unnatural fascination with the radioactive.
David Hahn might have seemed like an average kid, but in fact, his mind was unlike most of his peers’. He was obsessed with scientific experimentation, and that would eventually lead to some very dangerous situations.
David’s passion came about when he was 10 years old and his grandfather gifted him a chemistry book. David was enthralled by its contents and he began dabbling with experimentation himself.
David wanted his experiments to be the real thing, not the kind of simple stuff he did during his grade school science classes. So, he bought beakers, bunsen burners, test tubes, and a plethora of other professional lab equipment. He was determined to teach himself the ins and outs of chemical reactions regardless of the potential hazards.
David was also heavily involved with the Boy Scouts, and he would frequently share his dangerous experiments with his fellow troopers. He actually blew a hole in his tent while camping one night using a personal stockpile of magnesium. David’s experiments were getting dangerous, but nothing prepared his family and his town for what would eventually occur…
You’d think most parents by this time would have taken away their child’s lab equipment after learning they were mishandling hazardous chemicals, but not David’s parents. To them, the small explosions and chemical spills were simply the results of a curious mind. However, they couldn’t have been more wrong.
David’s parents did force him to move his lab setup to their basement. They thought the move would hinder David’s enthusiasm, it did just the opposite; now their son had more room and privacy to conduct his dangerous experiments.
It didn’t take long before David caused an explosion using red phosphorous in the basement. David’s parents must have put a firm stop to his activities at this point, right? Nope. David simply moved his lab into a shed behind his house. Now he had the space to cause some serious problems…
David was fascinated by radioactivity, and now that he had an entire shed to himself, he planned to build something that would eventually send his entire town into a panic…
He wanted to build his own nuclear reactor! Now, this might sound completely insane (and it was) but to David, it was completely doable. All he needed was a way to obtain the radioactive materials to start his new project.
In 1994, when David was only 17, he posed as an adult scientist and began writing letters and making phone calls to places like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the American Nuclear Society inquiring about the materials he would need for his reactor. Unbelievably, no one ever asked about his credentials and David was able to learn exactly how to obtain and isolate radioactive isotopes. With that information, he could begin building his reactor.
David dismantled smoke detectors to obtain the chemical americium; he also obtained radium through antique luminous clocks and thorium from gas lanterns. He even spent $1,000 on lithium batteries to obtain that particular chemical, as well. He was quickly gathering everything he needed for his reactor. But, would it actually end up working?
Using all of the chemicals he obtained from basic household items, he was able to build a makeshift reactor core. Unbeknownst to everyone in his neighborhood, including his parents, there was a highly dangerous nuclear reactor sitting in his backyard shed. However, it wouldn’t be too long until the entire community knew about it…
Because David had zero experience working with nuclear energy, the level of radiation emitted by his reactor rose to dangerous levels. Using a Geiger counter, David was soon able to detect high levels of radiation five houses away from his shed. Luckily, he recognized his experiment was completely out of control and decided to shut the whole thing down. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be that easy.
David dismantled his reactor late one night and began loading it into the trunk of his car. He was trying to be as discreet as possible, but he was spotted by neighbors who called the cops, thinking he was stealing tires. When the police arrived, however, it wasn’t tires they found, but something much more terrifying.
The police initially thought David had an atomic bomb in his trunk! The bomb squad was called in, and to everyone’s relief, they were wrong. However, the team measured 1,000 times the amount of radiation that was considered safe! This triggered the Federal Radiological Emergency Response Plan. Then… all hell broke loose!
Because the shed wasn’t a federally recognized nuclear site, it took the Environmental Protection Agency nearly two months to begin their investigation. Eventually, when workers did examine its contents, they were stunned at what they found…
According to a memo written by the EPA, the chemicals in David’s lab presented an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health, welfare, and environment. There was also dangerous exposure to the nearby human population, animals, and the food chain. Needless to say, the people who lived in David’s community were not only outraged, they were now worried about their own health.
According to the EPA’s official assessment, David’s experiment with the nuclear reactor exposed 40,000 people to dangerous cancer-causing levels of radiation and cost $60,000 to clean up! This chaotic ordeal was how David earned the nickname “Radioactive Boy Scout.”
In 1995, one year after David’s nuclear reactor debacle sent shock waves through his town, the EPA offered to give David a full examination to see how much radiation he was exposed to, but David refused, fearful of what he might learn. David struggled in life as time went on. He joined the army where he served for several years but battled drug and alcohol addiction.
David’s obsession with chemistry certainly caused an uproar in his community. Even after the nuclear reactor incident, his passion for science didn’t diminish. In fact, he dreamed of building a light bulb that could glow for 100 years. Some people never learn!
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