Geek Trivia: Overdose of tragedy

What was the highest dosage of radiation ever suffered by a human being from a conventional nuclear accident -- the highest lethal rem count ever inflicted outside the detonation of a nuclear weapon?

What was the highest dosage of radiation ever suffered by a human being from a conventional nuclear accident -- the highest lethal rem count ever inflicted outside the detonation of a nuclear weapon?

On Dec. 30, 1958, technician Cecil Kelley was hard at work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico using chemical reagents to purify plutonium isotopes. In a tragic sequence of events, Kelley inadvertently created a brief nuclear criticality in one of the purification vats, leading to a radiation burst that dosed him with a staggering 12,000 rems -- more than seven times the highest dose suffered by any victim of the Chernobyl disaster.

The cause of the accident was deceptively simple: There was more Plutonium-239 isotope in the reagent vat than anyone suspected. When Kelley activated the vat's automated stirring mechanism, it brought sufficient amounts of Pu-239 together to create a short-lived nuclear reaction.

The vat went up like a flashbulb, blasting Kelley with an intense burst of nuclear radiation -- an estimated 900 rad from fast neutrons and 2,700 rad from gamma rays -- the highest recorded accidental human exposure in history.

(As a measure of scale, the 1945 nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki exposed some victims to monumentally higher dosages than Kelley, with some estimates placing dosages in the range of 200,000 rems. The explosive effects of the bombs, however, make accurate assessments of the dosages almost impossible.)

Kelley began suffering classic symptoms of acute radiation poisoning instantly, and he died 35 hours after exposure. Without resorting to graphic details, it's sufficient to say that Kelley's body exhibited some of the most extreme examples of these symptoms ever witnessed by physicians.

Dozens of scientists around the country received samples of Kelley's tissue. Those samples became some of the most infamous specimens in a controversial human tissue analysis project that examined the effects of radiation on more than 1,500 subjects over the course of several years.

Kelley's case remains one of the landmark medical examples of the effects of radiation exposure -- something to keep in the annals of nuclear research, medical science, and Geek Trivia.

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