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One Dead, Three Injured in Lab Explosion Involving Cold Fusion Experiment

January 3, 1992

MENLO PARK, Calif. (AP) _ An experiment involving controversial cold fusion exploded, killing one scientist and injuring three others in a blast that sent glass and metal flying.

No measurable amounts of harmful chemicals or radioactivity were released in Thursday’s explosion at SRI International, a private laboratory, fire officials said.

Menlo Park Fire Capt. Jim Lichtenstein said today that the surviving scientists told investigators an automatic pressure-release valve wasn’t functioning properly on an experiment canister.

″One of the experimenters tried to open it manually to release the pressure valve and that’s when it blew up,″ Lichtenstein said. ″We’re pretty sure that’s the cause of the explosion now.″

None of the four scientists was wearing protective gear, company spokesman Dennis Maxwell said.

Maxwell said the explosion wass ″pretty contained. There was no structural damage to the building and it was over very quickly.″

″It was short and intense. None of the windows in the lab were shattered or anything,″ he said. There was no fire.

The scientist who was killed was identified today as Andrew Riley, 33. He suffered massive head injuries and upper body injuries, said San Mateo County chief deputy coroner Steve Hortin.

Stuart Smedley, 48, and Michael McKubre, 43, suffered face and arm injuries from flying glass, metal and other material and were released late Thursday from Stanford University Hospital, a spokeswoman said. The other injured researcher also was treated and released, although his name was not released.

Maxwell described the experiment as related to cold fusion, but not an attempt to create energy.

In fusion, which powers the sun and stars, energy is released through the joining of atoms, as opposed to nuclear fission, in which atoms are split. Hydrogen bombs depend on fusion reactions, while conventional nuclear plants are powered by fission reactions.

Fusion long has been sought as a potential source of cheap, safe and virtually inexhaustible energy, but most scientists believe it can be achieved only at extremely high temperatures.

Small explosions were previously reported in experiments by electrochemists B. Stanley Pons and British colleague Martin Fleischmann. They attributed the explosions to cold fusion, and announced in March 1989 that they had achieved and sustained a fusion reaction in a laboratory beaker at room temperature.

But their claims met widespread skepticism. Scientists at the California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other labs couldn’t reproduce the results, although some scientists have since claimed to see some positive results.

Maxwell said the experiment was one of three that had been going on at the lab for months. It involved deuterium oxide, a radioactive substance known as ″heavy water,″ and a metal electrode.

The researchers had placed a large test tube-sized piece of metal in a canister the size of a thermos - a typical set up for a cold fusion experiment. Firefighters removed two other canisters that contained similar experiments that did not explode.

Authorities sealed off the area surrounding the second-floor lab and evacuated about 60 employees from the building. The lab was to stay sealed at least until today, said Lt. Jon Easterbrook of the Menlo Park Fire Department.

SRI began as the Stanford Research Institute in 1946, but it is not part of Stanford University. It is located in Menlo Park, adjacent to the university, about 30 miles south of San Francisco.

The non-profit SRI has 2,500 employees and does research, development and consulting to businesses and governments worldwide, Maxwell said.