1979-10-02 – Oak Ridge – What has happened to the survivors of the early Los Alamos Nuclear Accidents

1979-10-02-oak-ridge-what-has-happened-to-the-survivors-of-the-early-los-alamos-nuclear-accidents

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LA-UR-79-2 so 2
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·No. 836 RJ
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TITLE: WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE SURVIVORS OF THE EARLY LOS ALAMOS
NUCLEAR ACCIDENTS?
AUTHOR(S): Louis Henry Hempelm~n, LASL Consultant
Clarence c. Lushbaugh, Oak Ridge, Assoc. Universities
George L. Voelz, LASL
SUBMITTED TO: Conference for Radiation Accident Preparedness,
Oak Ridge, TN, October 19-20, 1979
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B• acceptance of tills article, the publ1stwr rncogn11es that the
U.S. Governnient -~1a1ns a none> The plutonium sphere in both accidents
weighed 6.19 kilograms. In the first accident, designated LA-1, the tamper
material used to surround the sphere was tul”.gsten carbide (WC) bricks,
while that. in the second accident, designated LA-2, was beryllium in the
form of hemispheres. On both occasions there was a prompt supercritical
excursion believed to have been caused by the increased number of neutrons
reflected back into the sphere by the tamper material. During the period
of the exponentially increasing chain reaction, the assembly was engulfed
by a clearly visible blue glow of intensity ionized air caused by electrons
and soft x-rays. In the LA-1 accident, which occurred dt night in a well
illuminated laboratory, the flash lit up o. newspaper being read by a
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security guard 10-12 feet away with his back to the assembly (Gase 2). In
LA-2, in a sun-lit room, the glow was seen by five of the seven persons
f::icing the assembly. Data from other published experiments on high
intensity radiation sources suggest t.hat a particle beam does not become
visible until the radiation intensity is of the order of 6 x 10
7
R/ second. ( 3)
In the LA-1 accident,(lt) tungsten carbide (WC) bricks, each weighing
4.4 kilograms, were stacked around the carefully machined sphere. Two
similar but slightly modified experiments with WC bricks had been
successfully carried out the day of the accident. Tlie fatal experiment
scheduled for the next morni.ng called for five bricks of WC on each side.
Instead of waiting until the scheduled time, the physicist-operator (Case
1) began the ex,..eriment on the night of Augu::t 21, ·1945 at 9:55 p.m. wit,h
only a military guard (Case 2) in the laboratory. \~hile the guard was
seated at a desk 10-12 feet away the operator added the WC bricks to the
assembly. Four- layer,g of briclcs were in place and the final brick for the
fifth layer was being carried to its place when the operator noted that the
·.eutron flux was increasing rapidly. He attempted to withdraw the final
brick (Figure 1) but it slipped out of his hand an~ fell onto the center of
the assembly. The operator immediately pushed the final brick off the
assemtly with his right hand and dismantled the assembly to the point 8hown
in Figure 2. The operator estimated th::it he remained in the vicinity of
the reactor for at least ten minutes. ( 3) When seen at tha hospital 30
minutes after the accident, he complained of numbness and tingling of his
swollen hands.
In the LA-2 accident on May 21, (5 6) .
1946, ‘ the physicut in ch=irge
(Case 3) who was about tu leave for the Bikini test wa~ indoctrinating his
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security guard 10-12 feet away with his back to the assembly (Gase 2). In
LA-2, in a sun-lit room, the glow was seen by five of the s~ven persons
facing the assembly. Data from other published experiments on high
intensity radiation sources suggest that a particle beam does not become
visible until the radiation intensity is of the order of 6 x 107
R/second.( 3)
In the LA-1 accident, C
4
) tungsten carbide (WC) bricks, each weighing
4.4 kilograms, were stacked around the carefully machined sphere. Two
similar but slightly modified experiments with WC bricks had Deen
successfully carried ot:t the day of the accident. Tbe fatal experiment
scheduled for the next morning called for nve bricks of WC on each side.
Instead of waiting until the scheduled time, the physicist-operator (Case
1) began the experiment on the night of August 21, 1945 at 9:55 p.m. with
only a military guard (Case 2) in the laboratory. While the guard was
seated at a desk 10-12 feet away the operator added the WC bricks to the
ass~rnbly. Four layers of bricks were in place and the final brick for the
fifth layer was being carried to its place when the operator noted thRt the
neutron :’lux was increasing rapidly. He attempted to withdraw the final
brick (rigure 1) but it slipped out of his ha~d and fell onto the center of
the assembly. The operator immediately pushed the final brick off the
assembly with hi.s right hand and dismantled the assembly to the point shown
in Figure 2. The operator estimated that he remai~ed in the vicinity of
the reactor for at least ten minutes. { 3) When seen at the hospital 30
minutes after the acciddnt, he complained of numbness and tingling of his
swollen hands.
I th n e LA – 2_ ace 1 d en t on Ma y 21 , 19 4 6 , ( 5 ‘ 6 ) t he p l1 ysic1. st i. n charge
{Case 3) who was about to leave for the Bikini test was indoctrinating his
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successor (Case 4) in his new duties. An experiment had not been
scheduled, but the physicist decided that the best indoctrin~tion wovld be
an impro!llpt;,1 test, even thou~h six other people were in the laboratory.
The tamper material consisted of two concentric hemisnherical shells of
beryllium which had b~en shown to bring the assembly to criticality when
the bottom hemisphere measured 13 inches (O.D.) and the upper one nine
inches in diameter( 5)(Figure 3). In the presence of a small neutron source
6 ( 10 neutrons/sec.), the physicist-operator nlaced the upper nine inch
hemisphere on one inch aluminum shims above the lower hemisphere containing
t.he plutonium sphere. Then, holding the upper hemisphere with h1 s left
thumb placed in an opening in the polo..· point, the operator removed the
shies and allowed on·:! edge ~f the upper hemisphere to be in contact with
the lower hemisphere (Fip;ure 3). Still holding the upper hemisohere, he
placed a screwdriver under that part of the upper hemisphere not in contRct
with the lower hemisphere. He was working the screwdriver out from under
the hemisphere (Figure 4) when it slipped, with the resultant criticali~y
excursion . C5 ) The operator threw the shell to the floor immediately, and
all personnel left the scene of the accident 3.S rapidly as possible. One
of the lesser exposed experimenters (Case 9) returned briefly to the
vicinity of the asse:nbly to drop ~r1me film bad. The:r.a
\oierc no significant physical findings, but the blood picture was distinctly
abnormal. There was a pancyto?enia with a leukocyte count of 2300 cells
per cu mm, a hematocrit of 24%, and a platelet count of 136,000 per cu mm.
Althou~h no leukemic cells were seen in the peripheral ~load smears, many
myeloblastic cells wer·e found in hyperplast i c bone marrow. 11is disease w2s
diagnosed as acute myeloblastic leuk~rnia. During the nex: six months, the
i)atient responded well to chemotherapy with Purinethol ~nd repeated
transfusions. Despite symptomatic improvement, the pancytopenia persisted.
By Nover.iber, 1976 it h2.d bec:>me cle3.!” that. the disease was no longer
being controlled by Purinethol alone. Comb] ned chemotherapy ui th
vincristine, prednisone, and adriarrycin was begun, and this ind _..ced a
satisfactory remission after some initial problems with bleeding Rnd fever.
In July, 1977 the patient’s condition began to deteriorate. The leukocyte
count at this time was 8400 cells per cu mm, the hemoglobin w:is 10 g.rns%,
and the platelet count 33, 000 per cu mm. Many immature granulo~ytes,
incl•1ding myeloblasts, were seen in the peripheral blood smear.
The patient improved somewhat after additional chemotherapy, but his
-::linical course was steadily downhill. His last huspital admission was in
December, 1977. At that time he had a platelet count of 3000 ce~ls per cu
mm and suffered frorn combined renal and hepatic fa ii ure. He died January
28, 1970 at age 62, 33 years after· the accident. A.t autopsy the diagnosis
of acute myelogenou3 leukemia WJS confirmed. There was extensive leukemic
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involvement uf all organs and multiple hemorrhages in the heart and lung.
Case 11:
This 34 yee1.r old phys ici:-;t recei vcd ths hir,hest dose of any of the
survivors ( ~ee Table 2). lie was partly shielded by Case 3 as a result of
which his hee1.d, neck, upper torso, and right arm had a larger dose than the
rest of the body.
After recovery from a six month episode of weakness following
exposure, Case 4 resumed his scienti fie duties. Except for mild
hy i::-~rt- ~.n::iion, which predated the dCCident, he appeared to have recove,.,ed
cam~letely from the effects of the exposure. In December, 1955 (nine years
after the accident) he h3d a moderately severe myocardial infarction from
whi.::i1 he appeared to recover wi thot.:t complications. Al though his strength
returned gradually, he did not feel normal and had difficulty controlline;
his weight. These signs and symtoms, together with an elevated blood
cholesterol (48a mg) and a low PBI (1.2 mg;i), led to a diagnosis of
myxedema, which was treated with thyroid hormone. On this replacement
therapy, the patient’s condition improved ~nd he returned to n~ mal
activity. Although his blood pressure had fallen to normal after the heart
atta~k, his heart gradually increased in size until in 196~ roentc;enograp!1s
indicated it to b~ 17% above the upper limits of normal. In the summer of
1966 (20 years after the accident) he suffered a fatal heart attack at age
54.
At autopsy his heart was greatly enl::irged. Severe arteriosclerosis
was observed in hi~ coronary arteries as well as in the aorta. There were
multiple fresh ::.i1d healed infarcted areas in the myocHrdium. The thyroid
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gland was so atrophied that it was difficult to identify. The normal
thyroid tissuF> had been replaced by dense scar tissue in Hhich there were
multiple foci of lymphocytes ?’ld plasma cells. There were a few atrophic
thyroid follicles scattered throughout the scar tissue and in the lymphoid
follicles. The testes were atrophic; microscopically they showed atrophy
and hyalinization of the tubular epithelium and .-. great increase in the
interstitial fibrous tissue.
Case 6:
This 54 year old technician received a substantial dose of neutrons
and gamma rays (see Table 2). Considering ‘;.he magnitude of the dose, it is
surprising that this man experienced no acute symptoms and \-Fl!’ able to
res•JIDe his custom of taking 20 mile week-end hikes within c.wo weeks after
the accident.
Case 6 enjoyed vigorous good health for 27 ye~.~ following the
accident. In 1973 and again in 1974 (when he was in his 80′ s} he was
hospitalized for acute enteritis (diverticulitis !Ind spastic! colitis) and
severe second~ry anemia (2,500,000 cells per cu mm). On each occasion his
cond itic;. improved after repeated transfusions.
In the summer of 1975 the patient was ho~pi tali ze1 for severe anemia
and congestive heart failure. The ~nemia was first thought to be hemolytic
in nature. He hac! a marked eosinophilia (up to 2300 cells per cu mm) and
his inte~sely hyperactive bone marrow contained many erythrold precursors.
An interesting incidental finding was a monoclonal galTl!Dapathy with marked
increase in the IgG component. At this time it was thoueht that he might
have autoimmune hemolytic anemia about tC’ enter an aplast.ic crisis. His
condition improved after several transfusions.
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In the fall of 1975 Ca3e 6 was again hospitalized for weakness due to
severe anemia (1.7 million cells per cu mm). Physical findings were in
kecpi ng wi. th hi 3 age, except for enlargement of his heart and 1i ver. His
leukocyte count was 17 ,500 cells per cu mm with a ;,ormal differential. His
bor:8 marrow was moderately hypercellular with an increase in the
myelobla~itoid cells showing some shift to the left. There were many
immature -1hi te cells and orthochromic normoblasts. There was no increase
in plasma cells. The megakaryocytes were smaller than normal and increased
in number. In addition to the monoclonal gammapathy, Dence Jones proteins
were now present in the urine.
Hemolytic anem’ a was ruled out by appropriate laboratory tests and
multiple myeloma was excluded by the normal appearance of the bones on
roentgenograms. It was sug~ested that the patient had a benign garn~apathy
so!’let.i.mds seen in older people, but the exact nature of the refractory
anemia was not known. !\fter four transfusion’1 the patient’s condition
improved ~rnd he was dischargec on n1edication including pyridoxine, folic
acid, and predniRone.
In December, 1975 the patient was readmitted to the hospi tRl because
of increasing weakness and spiking fe•er. His condition had deteriorated
markedly and he was found to have hear’t failure and E. Coli septicemia.
The patient had a heart at.tack while in the hospital and died just before
Christmas, 1975 at age 83 (29 years after the accident).
At autopsy, a vegetative bacterial endocarditis was found as well as
E. Coli septicemi::i and cardiac and splcnic infarcts secondary to emboli.
Microscopically, the bone marrow was moderately hyperplastic with a marked
increase in red cell precursors and some increase in plasmn cells. The
autopsy gave no clues as to the nature of the anemia.
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Case 7:
This 21 year old soldier was exposed to an intermediate dose of mixed
radiation (se~ Table 2). When last examined 23 months after the accident,
there were no significant physical or laboratory findings.
killed in combat in Korea in 1952 at age 27.
Case 8:
Thi.s m3.n was
This 23 year old college graduate received a relatively small dose of
mixed radiation (see Table 2). After the war he returned to graduate
school and became an important executive in industry.
Case 8 enjoyed excellent health until 1964 (18 years after the
accident). At this time he developed what was first thought to be acute
sinusitis. Whe!’: antibiotics failed to relieve his syrnr ‘,oms, hemotalogi.cal
studies revealed a leukoc)te count of 300 ,000 cells per cu rn:n with many
blast cells seen in the blood smear. His bone marrow was hypercellular and
contained many irnr.1::iture myeloid cells. A diagnosis of acute myelogenous
leukemia was made and he was started on 6 mercaptop1Jrine ( 6 MP) therapy.
He 11;:id a S3tisfactory remission for five months. At this time his
medication was changed to methotrexatc. At first he seemed to respond, but
soon his condition worsened. In March, 1965 his lymph nodes and spleen
were pal p::ible, and he developed a superficial ulcer on his pal at~. His
leukocyte count was 22,700 cu per m.-nj his hernatocrit was 21.5%, and his
platelet count was 16,000 per cu mm. Many immature granulocytes and an
occasion:-1.l myelobl;:i.st were seen in the blood smears.
and megakarocytes were rarely seen in the bone marrow.
Erythroid elements
After’ ari unsatisfactory trial with prednism1e and vincristine, the
p;:itient entered the hospital of the Brookhaven National Laboratory in
April, 1965 for treatment with extracorporeal irradirttion (e.c.i.) of
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his blood. Shortly ;iftcr admi::lsicn he developed a severe headache with
neurological si~ns which were completely relieved by intrathecal
methotrexatc. Following daily e.c.i. trentmcnts, the leukocyte count (then
79,000) fell r::>oidly and stabilized at 30,000 cells per cu mrn. nis spleen
decreased in !-1ze and the pati,rnt felt bP-tter. In May, 1965 subcutaneous
nodules developed and his spleen and liver became larger. He was givec two
ser;_es of treatments with tritiatcd thymidine in addition to the e.c .i.
H; s leukocyte count fell to 800 cells per cu mrn and the lymphoid masses
shrank in size. His clinical condition went downhill rapidly and he died
after a gres anj a review of the prubl em.
Ann. Tnt…__tir~rl~ 3.Q.:279, 1952.
2. Strattr~n WR: i-. rc·1iew uf critic;::iJity accidents, Uriclas.sified
Report. Nu. 1.LJ.lli, Los AlamofJ Scienti fie Laborat:Jry, Lus Alamos,
NM, Sept. 22, 1967.
3. Huffm:in JG and Hempel:nann UI: Esti.:nRtion of whule body doses in
accidental fissiu11 bursts. Amer, Journ, Roent.geD.Q..L Rad. Thcr