Neighborhood Up in Arms over Home Cyclotron Civil engineer and nuclear technician Albert Swank Jr. wants to build a circular particle accelerator, or cyclotron, in his garage in Anchorage, Alaska. But some of his neighbors aren't too comfortable with the idea...
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Neighborhood Up in Arms over Home Cyclotron

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Neighborhood Up in Arms over Home Cyclotron

Neighborhood Up in Arms over Home Cyclotron

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And how would you feel if you found out your neighbor planned to install a nuclear particle accelerator next door? Well, some residents of Anchorage, Alaska, learned that an engineer down the street planned to do just that. Their response? Well, it's a predictable `Not in my back yard.' The conflict that followed could be described as a neighborhood nuclear meltdown. Here with more is DAY TO DAY's tech contributor Xeni Jardin.

XENI JARDIN reporting:

Fifty-five-year-old civil engineer Albert Swank Jr. is a man taking a stand.

Mr. ALBERT SWANK Jr. (Civil Engineer): It's a zoning issue. It's a civil rights issue. It's a constitutional issue.

JARDIN: The issue is a particle accelerator, or cyclotron, he wants to install at his Anchorage, Alaska, home where he runs an engineering business. That's the same building where he built a smaller cyclotron when he was 17. And for him, getting this cyclotron is a personal quest.

Mr. SWANK: My father was a terminal-cancer patient that I cared for for many years. He worked side by side with me while I was building my first cyclotron. He is basically the individual that created who I am.

JARDIN: Swank believes the cyclotron could be used to help cancer patients like his dad, so he's arranged to receive a used device donated by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. It's used to produce radioactive substances that can be injected into a patient undergoing a PET scan. PET stands for positron emission tomography, and it's kind of like an X-ray. Swank's cyclotron weighs more than 20 tons and stands about six feet tall by eight feet wide. In addition to the medical applications, he hopes to use it to teach young people about science. But that hasn't convinced all of his neighbors. Allen Tesche, a local assemblyman, says they have a nickname for the device.

Assemblyman ALLEN TESCHE (Anchorage, Alaska): They call it Swank's high-energy accelerator for tomography, S-H-A-F-T.

JARDIN: SHAFT. Yeah, that's right, and they think it's one bad mother. Tesche speaks for those in the community who believe it will bring danger.

Assemblyman TESCHE: They just are having a hard time believing that somebody thinks they can get away with locating a $2 million, 16,000,000-electron-volt accelerator, a cyclotron, in their garage.

JARDIN: Tesche and others fear the cyclotron could expose people nearby to radiation leaks, and the large amount of electricity the cyclotron consumes could drain available power for the neighborhood. He's introduced an emergency ordinance banning the use of cyclotrons in homes. In a letter to lawmakers, the neighborhood council compared potential damage from a cyclotron mishap to the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident.

Dr. ROGER DIXON (Head, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory): As far as being anything like a nuclear reactor, they are not.

JARDIN: Roger Dixon of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab--funded by the US Department of Energy--oversees the highest-energy particle accelerator in the world, about four miles in circumference. Fermilab's Dixon says concrete walls or lead sheets are typically used to prevent beams produced by medical cyclotrons from escaping.

Dr. DIXON: Probably the worst thing that can happen is a person trying to operate it could electrocute themselves.

JARDIN: Some of Swank's neighbors are unconcerned that the device would threaten the community. Veronica Martinson has lived next door for 36 years.

Ms. VERONICA MARTINSON (Anchorage, Alaska, Resident): I watch everything that goes on in my neighbor. What goes on, I know.

JARDIN: She has a long-standing relationship with Swank and his family and thinks having his cyclotron next door could be a good thing.

Ms. MARTINSON: He wants schoolchildren to come over and view this and maybe get some kind of liking for science, you know, where these kids will turn out to be our next great scientists.

JARDIN: But those opposed say even if Swank's intentions are good, that won't protect them from risk. For instance, what's to ensure someone won't break in and grab radioactive material? Tesche says it's not the cyclotron that has him upset; it's the fact that Swank plans to install it in a residential area.

Assemblyman TESCHE: We in Alaska embrace technology. We love it. We would like to see this technology in our local hospital where it belongs. We don't need cyclotrons operating out of a back alley in somebody's garage.

JARDIN: Johns Hopkins University declined to speak on tape for this report, but a spokesperson said they agreed to donate the used cyclotron to Swank's engineering firm with the understanding that it was to benefit the citizens of Alaska and provided he had permission from authorities. As it stands, state health officials have suspended Swank's permit to operate a cyclotron at his property, but he still plans to remove it from Johns Hopkins in January, then ship it by truck and barge to Alaska. Before then, the city will hold hearings to determine whether Anchorage will get the SHAFT. For NPR News in Los Angeles, I'm Xeni Jardin.

BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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