Possible resolution to the 9 dead Russian hikers mystery

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

In 1959, nine Russian hikers died in an extremely unlikely set of circumstances. I shan’t rehash everything here, so do read the linked post. But I happened to be hanging out with my friend Greg last weekend and he imparted to me an interesting theory he had about what caused the deaths of the Russian hikers. It seems plausible to me, much more plausible than anything I came up with (and certainly better than the laughable alien theories).

Russia entered the nuclear era with a bang, not a whimper. They saw nuclear technology as the next revolution in generating electricity. As such, they strove to use it everywhere, even when the safety concerns would seemingly override the value of using nuclear (but that’s Communist Russia for you). In particular, Russia employed a great number of Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs). The particular model they used was about one meter by one meter by two meters, small enough to fit in pretty much any building. It generated energy not by conducting full-scale atomic fission like in a nuclear reactor but by harnessing the heat given off by the radioactive decay of Strontium 90. It’s the same technology we use to power our spacecraft which journey far away from the Sun (beyond the usefulness limit of solar panels).

The U.S.S.R. employed up to a thousand RTGs that we know of, many in remote lighthouses and navigation beacons. They are slowly being phased out with solar cells and battery packs today, but that technology wasn’t around in the 50s. All they had were the RTGs. And while the radioisotope source in the RTGs is theoretically well-encapsulated inside of a double layer stainless steel, aluminum, and lead casing, it’s easily possible for anyone with tools to gain access to the inside, inadvertently exposing themselves to a deadly dose of radiation.

With all of the background on RTGs taken care of, we return to the case of the nine dead Russian hikers. It is Greg’s theory that they stumbled across an RTG (which is not at all impossible given how widely they were used). The RTG was broken open, either by the hikers themselves, some outside actor, or a simple manufacturing defect. It was giving off heat and the hikers took it back to their tent to keep warm with, possibly mistaking it for some kind of heater. When they realized the true nature of it, probably after experiencing the onset of radiation sickness, they departed their tent in a hurry, stopping not even to put on their clothing.

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