Nuclear Safety: A Cautionary Tale

Marissa Newby

The story of Anatoli Bugorski and, ultimately, why it is a bad time if you put your head into a particle accelerator.
Joint Institute for Nuclear ResearchSergey Pyatakov

Emphasis on Accelerator

Particle accelerators are, fundamentally, exactly what the name implies. Particles move quickly in order to accomplish certain goals, develop research, and encourage scientific fact-finding missions. Not to oversimplify this extremely complicated process and what we’ve been able to develop from it, but in the interest of not losing you, that's the gist.

Some phases of particle acceleration produce gamma rays and other forms of radiation after passing particles through electromagnetic or electric fields that speed them up. Keep the radiated part in mind as we discuss the events that would change the course of his life. When you take a high-energy proton beam to the face, you learn a lot about safety regulations and the importance of industry standards.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Bugorski was working at the Institute for High Energy Physics on the morning of July 13, 1978. The section was down for maintenance and had, supposedly, been locked out for this required maintenance. Typically, there is a warning system attached to working areas for hazards, radiation and particle accelerators. However, unbeknownst to Bugorski, that warning system had been turned off previously and he was entering an area where the accelerator was still fully functioning.

Correcting the problem in the accelerator required Bugorski to put hit head inside of the tube in order to see some parts of the machine. Contrary to what you might be thinking, particles in most phases are invisible and high-energy particle acceleration does not equal high-volume particle acceleration. The control room operating the accelerator had not warned Bugorski, nor did they realize the maintenance was being conducted. During the course of repair, he leaned down into the tube and felt a blinding, searing pain in his head. Bugorski did what anyone would do in this situation and…finished his work, journaled the outcome and went home to rest. Obviously.

Moscow and the Aftermath

The following morning, Bugorski woke after what I can only assume to be a restless night and decided it was probably time to seek medical attention. Over 200,000 rads of charged particles had travelled through the back of his skull and exploded from his nose. The interesting part about being irradiated is that the injuries and exposure symptoms generally do not present until several hours after the event. The irony of catching the highest, most concentrated beam of protons ever to enter a skull in known human history is that the kinetic prowess is what spared his life. The beam was so fast and so energetic that it passed through his head without lingering to do a massive amount of tissue and bone damage as collateral.

He was taken to the hospital in Moscow where he was cared for by staff who was familiar specifically with nuclear casualties. The Soviet Union would demand secrecy about the accident and Bugorski was treated for his injuries. They assumed he would die. However, a few days after the incident the burning and peeling would subside and the damage would be revealed. His hearing was permanently damaged in his left ear, his skin was burned and he had permanent facial paralysis. Aside from the occasional seizure, Bugorski seemed, miraculously, pretty ok. He ultimately managed to continue working and finished his PhD. Eventually, his story would surface, reluctantly and the accident helped guide future safety requirements and engineering systems.

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Marissa, a graduate safety practitioner and paramedic, has been writing and editing fiction and non-fiction work for 15 years. She delivers researched and sourced news concerning world events, public health, public safety and emergency management.


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