Nuclear ambitions

An Alaska man wants to set up a particle accelerator that may fight cancer, but his community wants to pull the plug


This is a love story between a man and a machine.

It's obsessive and unrequited, this affair, a tale where the themes of pursuit and persistence rival that of Moby-Dick. The Ahab is Albert L. Swank Jr., a cyclotron his white whale.

After 15 years of looking for a nuclear particle accelerator, something the Alaska man hopes could fight cancer in his state, Swank thinks the cyclotron of his dreams could be right here in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins -- free for the taking.

But between Swank and sweet scientific satisfaction stand a series of increasingly tricky obstacles -- the least of which is the logistics of moving the 20-ton device more than 4,000 miles.

There are pesky state officials who refuse to give him a permit.

There's the even peskier Anchorage Assembly holding an emergency meeting next week to ban cyclotrons.

And then there are his Anchorage neighbors, very pesky folks indeed. They fear that Swank, who holds an engineering license but no college degree, will pull a mini Three Mile Island when he moves the radiation-producing machine into his home, which sits just steps from the city's best-loved park.

"Alaskans are tough. I have a beard. I like to shoot guns. I kill animals -- what's a few gamma rays to a big macho guy like me, right?" says Anchorage Assemblyman Allan Tesche, author of the proposed cyclotron ban. "But seriously, if [cyclotrons] are not operated correctly, they're dangerous.

"Is this guy a safe and qualified operator of this machinery, such that we can all be assured there will not be a discharge of some radiation?"

Swank redefines undeterred.

In a deep voice that carries little patience for those who question his mission, the 55-year-old brushes off his critics and calls the proposed ban "absolutely hilarious."

His father's death from cancer in 1981 sparked his quest to bring Alaska its first cyclotron. Without one, the state has no means to manufacture the radioactive isotopes hospitals need to inject into patients to conduct PET scans, a sort of X-ray that detects cancer.

To create the substances hospitals require, cyclotrons whip particles around at extremely high speeds. The radioactive result lasts only a short time, so in an isolated state like Alaska, it's imperative that production happen nearby.

To claim the bulky machine, which Hopkins bought for just under $1 million in 1979 and retired in 2000, the hospital only asks that Swank remove it and haul it at his own expense. He shrugs off the inevitably high price tag for the cross-country journey by truck and barge.

"What is one life worth? What is one child's education worth? What is one hour of a patient's suffering worth?" he says.

Though they recognize the nobility of Swank's intentions, a contingent of his Anchorage neighbors wants those lifesaving works done somewhere with more industrial credibility than Swank's tiny home in his tidy neighborhood.

People, incidentally, only found out about Swank's impending cyclotron when he posted a business sign outside his home. Everyone was ready to protest the sign itself -- not allowed in a residential area -- until they realized what it advertised was potentially a bigger no-no.

The address, Tesche and others point out, is a half-mile from "three schools, three churches and hundreds of residences," not to mention the Delaney Park Strip, Anchorage's "equivalent of Central Park." The hearing on Tesche's ban is set for Tuesday.

"It's very clear that medical cyclotrons don't go into residential neighborhoods," Tesche says. "In my view it is a monstrously inappropriate use."

Kathy Weeks, the president of Swank's neighborhood association who lives just a block away from him, worries a mishap could bring "death or blindness and/or sterility."

"Accidents can happen," agrees Bonnie Harris, another neighbor. "Radiation isn't something you know is happening. It has no odor. You can't see it. By the time you know you got it, you got it."

But not everyone has issues with a little home-cooked science. The founder of the Society for Amateur Scientists, a group whose motto is "Helping ordinary people do extraordinary science," is all for stay-at-home cyclotrons. It's about as dangerous as welding, Shawn Carlson says.

Scolding Swank's hometown, Carlson says, "They need to get educated about the real dangers of radiation and not restrict people from doing things because they themselves have unwarranted fears."

Carlson, who holds a doctorate in nuclear physics, adds: "If he's an adult and he's sane and has a legitimate reason for working with one, I see no problem."

The true risk of a cyclotron probably lies somewhere between Chernobyl and power tools. Hopkins professor of radiology and oncology Richard L. Wahl says, "Like any medical equipment, it has to be installed and operated carefully."

Hopkins, Wahl says, kept the cyclotron in a room "almost directly under the dome, a few feet from a corridor where hundreds of people walk every day." No one went blind or became sterile.

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