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HOME-MADE PLUTONIUM: a reconstructed reconstruction

1948 reconstruction of Louis Slotin’s 1946 criticality accident (with physicist Chris Wright posing as Slotin)

Last week, after literally months of research and development, my graphic essay ‘The Blue Flash’ was published by BBC Future. Sitting somewhere between web-comic and illustrated essay, I developed the piece after seeing photographs of a reconstruction of Slotin's accident commissioned in 1948 by Los Alamos National Laboratories (formerly the 'Project Y' bomb development labs, where the accident took place). The photos were taken for scientific and historical reasons, rather than purely narrative ones. They contained objects that raised more questions than they answered and were taken from angles that didn't always support story-telling in the simplest way. For these reasons, and also because I can't help myself, I set out to reconstruct the reconstruction. Future have already kindly published a piece on how I created the drawings for The Blue Flash. But, because I can't help myself, and because there are those out there who can't either, here’s just a little bit more on how I went about reconstructing the reconstruction.

I obsessed over random objects that looked a bit like the plutonium core in the reconstruction photos. This is the stopper from a curtain rail at my dad’s care home. I didn’t feel like I could ask them for it and anyway it was a little too small.

I considered these mild steel hemispheres on eBay but they were expensive and looked heavy.

When I came across this foam ball in the street I pretty much knew I'd found my plutonium core.

A little silver spray paint fixed it up nicely.

IKEA furnished me with a pair of stainless steel mixing bowls - one small, one large - to form the basis of my beryllium reflectors.

Some work with a scalpel and a circle cutter, and some more silver paint made them look pretty satisfying.

A section of cardboard tube, some foam board and white acrylic paint went into making the bottom reflector stand.

My dear friend Michael Marriott patiently cut a thumb hole in the top reflector (not as easy as I’d imagined… stainless steel is hard!).

A bag of lentils provided ballast for the bottom reflector, as well as stabilising the plutonium core support (adapted toilet roll tube).

The square-section aluminium spacers (the safety device that Slotin reportedly removed on the day of his accident), eluded me for a long time but then I noticed these kitchen cupboard handles in the studio where I was building my mock-up.

I removed them with the flat-head screwdriver Michael M had lent me - the screwdriver that would also serve as one of my key props. I had spent a good deal of time worrying over finding a historically accurate screwdriver. I needed a long one, and one with a handle made out of contemporaneous material. I’d looked at ones with wooden handles but these had been hard to get hold of and I knew they'd be less fun to draw than one with a transparent plastic handle, like Michael's one. So I was happy when I noticed that the screwdriver in the 1948 photos had a very similar handle to Michael's one.

Other props included a hammer, a wooden-handled brush and an old coke bottle from eBay, all of which featured in the 1948 photographs. Bringing all of them together, it started to look quite convincing (at least for the purposes of drawing):

On the right of the picture is a volt meter lent that Michael M happened to have knocking around in his studio. This was a stand-in for a a neutron monitor, the the last item I felt was needed for narrative purposes. The monitor was a device that told the scientists how much radiation was coming from the plutonium core and that would provide an indication for the readers of what was going on. At least one model of monitor is named in the official reports on the accident but I could find no photographs of it online. The reconstruction photos had plenty of interesting looking devices in them, any (or none) of which might have been a neutron monitor. I was imagining a portable device, something hand-held, like the Geiger counters I'd seen in films. Michael's volt meter was at least made of a historically accurate material (anodised steel).

I'd been planning on having the dial showing with a needle moving up and down in the pictures, to give a sense of the growing danger as Slotin moved his reflector over the core. In this early drawing you can see that I'd included another historical radiation monitor (a portable one) and sound effect running through in the background - the 'KLIK-KLIK-KLIK' sound of the monitor slowing gathering pace:

Eventually, with help from my remarkable friend, artist and experimenter Tony Hall, I managed to identify that the ‘monitor’ was most likely comprised of a detector somewhere near the assembly connected to a signal amplifier. Here's one of the 1948 pictures with the labels he helped me figure out. I'm still not certain these are correct. According to Tony, the device on the table MIGHT be the detector, or the detector might be situated under the table.

The key point was that the 'detector' wasn't a single integrated device with a dial on it. In the end I decided to move the signal amplifier around to the other side of the table in my artwork so that I could include it in an opening shot of the assembly that would also include Slotin's body and the rest of the equipment. Because the amplifier has dials on it, this would, I hoped, satisfy the need for the presence of a 'monitor' without doing anything hugely inaccurate or heavy-handed. Here's the final artwork:

That's enough now, right? Thanks for reading. 🔨 🙏 🪛

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