[ RadSafe ] Man installs a nuclear particle accelerator in his home

Fred Dawson fd003f0606 at blueyonder.co.uk
Mon Dec 5 16:13:39 CST 2005


Albert Swank Jr., a 55-year-old civil engineer in Anchorage, Alaska, is a 
man with a mission. He wants to install a nuclear particle accelerator in 
his home.

But when neighbors learned of plans to place the 20-ton device inside the 
house where Swank operates his engineering firm, their response was swift: 
Not in my backyard.

Local lawmakers rushed to introduce emergency legislation banning the use of 
cyclotrons in home businesses. State health officials took similar steps, 
and have suspended Swank's permit to operate cyclotrons on his property.
"Some of the neighbors who are upset about the cyclotron have started 
calling it SHAFT -- Swank's high-energy accelerator for tomography," 
attorney Alan Tesche said. "Part of what's got everyone so upset is we're 
not sure when it's going to arrive on the barge. We know Anchorage is gonna 
get the SHAFT, but we just don't know when." Tesche is also the local 
assemblyman who represents the area where Swank and his cyclotron would 

Johns Hopkins University agreed to donate the used cyclotron, which is 
roughly six feet tall by eight feet wide, to Swank's business, Langdon 
Engineering and Management.

The devices are relatively scarce in Alaska, and are used to produce 
radioactive substances that can be injected into patients undergoing PET 

Short for positron emission tomography, a PET scan is similar to an X-ray. 
During the imaging procedure, radioactive material administered to the 
patient can help medical professionals detect cancerous tissue inside the 
body. The substance typically remains radioactive for only a couple of 

For Swank, the backyard cyclotron is a personal quest: He lost his father to 
cancer years ago, and he says his community needs the medical resource. He 
also wants to use it to inspire young people to learn about science.

"My father worked with me while I was building my first cyclotron at age 17 
in this same home, and he encouraged all of the educational pursuits that 
resulted in who I am," Swank said.

"Because of that and my desire to not see other cancer patients suffer -- if 
I can use this technology to prevent one hour of suffering, or stimulate one 
young person's mind to pursue science, I will devote every resource that I 
possess to that."

Swank maintains the device is not dangerous for nearby residents.

But assemblyman Tesche says noble intentions don't outweigh potential risks 
and nuisances. He and others fear a particle accelerator could pose hazards 
such as radiation leak risks to nearby residences. They also think the large 
amount of electricity it consumes could drain available power in the 

"We in Alaska embrace technology, and we love it -- but we would like to see 
this in a hospital or industrial area, where it belongs," Tesche said. "We 
don't need cyclotrons operating out of back alleys, or in someone's garage."

In a letter to the city assembly, the South Addition Community Council 
compared potential damage from a cyclotron mishap to the Three Mile Island 
nuclear reactor accident.

"Cyclotrons are not nuclear reactors," explains Roger Dixon of the Fermi 
National Accelerator laboratory or Fermilab in Illinois, funded by the U.S. 
Department of Energy. "Probably the worst thing that could happen with small 
cyclotrons is that the operator might electrocute themselves."

At Fermilab, Dixon oversees the world's highest-energy collider, about four 
miles in circumference. It smashes matter and antimatter together so 
scientists can study the nature of energy.

Dixon told Wired News that shielding from concrete walls or lead sheets is 
typically used to prevent the electrical beams produced by smaller 
cyclotrons from escaping.

"Our neighbors here at Fermilab like us," said Dixon. "But then, our 
particle accelerator is not installed in a living room."

Some of Swank's neighbors are not worried. Veronica Martinson, a homemaker 
who has lived next door to Swank for 36 years, thinks a cyclotron next door 
might be a good thing.

"Albert was a star science student when he was a child," Martinson said. "He 
wants schoolchildren to be around this, so they'll learn how this works, and 
be curious about physics. One of them might turn out to be our next big 

Johns Hopkins University public affairs officer Gary Stephenson says the 
institution agreed to donate the used cyclotron to Swank's engineering firm 
"with understanding and assurances that it was to benefit the citizens of 
Alaska for medical needs," and only with proper permission from local 

Despite having had his operating permits suspended, Swank plans to remove 
the cyclotron from its current site at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore on Jan. 
23, then ship it by truck and barge to Alaska.

But the Anchorage Assembly plan to hold an emergency public hearing on Dec. 
20 to determine whether he will be permitted to install the device at his 
lifelong residence.

Fred Dawson

More information about the RadSafe mailing list