Atomic America : How a Deadly Explosion and a Feared Admiral Changed the Course of Nuclear History
On January 3, 1961, nuclear reactor SL-1 exploded in rural Idaho, spreading radioactive contamination over thousands of acres and killing three men: John Byrnes, Richard McKinley, and Richard Legg. The Army blamed "human error" and a sordid love triangle. Though it has been overshadowed by the accident at Three Mile Island, SL-1 is the only fatal nuclear reactor incident in American history, and it holds serious lessons for a nation poised to embrace nuclear energy once again.
Historian Todd Tucker, who first heard the rumors about the Idaho Falls explosion as a trainee in the Navy's nuclear program, suspected there was more to the accident than the rumors suggested. Poring over hundreds of pages of primary sources and interviewing the surviving players led him to a tale of shocking negligence and subterfuge. The Army and its contractors had deliberately obscured the true causes of this terrible accident, the result of poor engineering as much as uncontrolled passions. A bigger story opened up before him about the frantic race for nuclear power among the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force -- a race that started almost the moment the nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The National Reactor Testing Station (NRTS), where the meltdown occurred, had been a proving ground where engineers, generals, and admirals attempted to make real the Atomic Age dream of unlimited power. Some of their most ambitious plans bore fruit -- like that of the nation's unofficial nuclear patriarch, Admiral Rickover, whose "true submarine," the USS Nautilus, would forever change naval warfare. Others, like the Air Force's billion dollar quest for a nuclear-poweredairplane, never came close. The Army's ultimate goal was to construct small, portable reactors to power the Arctic bases that functioned as sentinels against a Soviet sneak attack. At the height of its program, the Army actually constructed a nuclear powered city inside a glacier in Greenland. But with the meltdown in Idaho came the end of the Army's program and the beginning of the Navy's longstanding monopoly on military nuclear power. The dream of miniaturized, portable nuclear plants died with McKinley, Legg, and Byrnes.
The demand for clean energy has revived the American nuclear power industry. Chronic instability in the Middle East and fears of global warming have united an unlikely coalition of conservative isolationists and fretful environmentalists, all of whom are fighting for a buildup of the emission-free power source that is already quietly responsible for nearly 20 percent of the American energy supply. More than a hundred nuclear plants generate electricity in the United States today. Thirty-two new reactors are planned. All are descendants of SL-1. With so many plants in operation, and so many more on the way, it is vitally important to examine the dangers of poor design, poor management, and the idea that a nuclear power plant can be inherently safe. Tucker sets the record straight in this fast-paced narrative history, advocating caution and accountability in harnessing this feared power source.
The first major American nuclear accident wasn't at Three Mile Island in 1979 but rather at the military's National Reactor Testing Station at Idaho Falls, Idaho, in January 1961, killing three workers at the tiny reactor. Two of these men were later rumored incorrectly to have been rivals in a love triangle-which some conjectured might have affected their ability to work effectively and safely at the facility. Tucker (The Great Starvation Experiment) skillfully reveals the drama of the event. At the same time, he shows how the accident resulted from inadequate maintenance, poor training, negligence and ignorance. Tucker also profiles the inscrutable naval R&D power broker Hyman Rickover, who almost singlehandedly resurrected the potential of nuclear power after the 1961 disaster through a monklike and emphatic devotion to the highest skill in engineering and the best training. Today, trying to balance the realities of global warming with America's energy needs, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has received proposals for 32 new reactors-which makes Tucker's book vitally relevant. (Mar. 3)
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March 02, 2009
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Excerpt from Atomic America by Todd Tucker
PrologueJanuary 3, 1961A moment before his death, John Byrnes knelt atop the Army's SL-1 reactor, poised to pull the central control rod straight up. His supervisor, Richard Legg, was nearby. The third crewman, Richard McKinley, was pacing around the vessel head, between the movable shield blocks and the motor control panel. As the newest member of the cadre, just three weeks into his hitch in Idaho, McKinley was probably running tools and trying to learn what he could between errands. He must also have observed the simmering tension between his two crewmates.Legg and Byrnes had arrived in Idaho together, in October 1959, and had clashed since those first days. They had even come to drunken blows at a sleazy bachelor party the year before. But Legg had since surpassed Byrnes professionally and qualified as both chief operator and shift supervisor -- this was Byrnes's first shift as Legg's subordinate. Byrnes's steady record of disciplinary problems all but guaranteed that his professional progress in the Army was over. Byrnes hated Legg.The desolation surrounding them would have reinforced a dark mood, a landscape where even the place-names evoked solitude and despair. The Lost River Desert, the Snake River Plain, and the Craters of the Moon were all places the drafty government buses drove them through on their daily hundred-mile round-trip to the reactor. Much of the ground was covered in ancient black lava so hard and so thick that site engineers had trouble blasting through it even with shaped charges of dynamite as they busily erected experimental reactors up and down the plain. And January 3 was bitterly cold -- the overnight low in Idaho Falls was six degrees below zero. Over the decades as the story was retold, many would recall it being even colder.The reactor that Byrnes, McKinley, and Legg worked on was unglamorous and unloved even inside the fences of the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho. The Navy reactors, in contrast, run by the brilliant and tyrannical Admiral Hyman Rickover, were the pride of the base. Just three years earlier, Rickover had stunned the world when the nuclear-powered USS Nautilus had steamed under the North Pole. It was the stuff of Jules Verne, a development that promised to change the nature of warfare: a submarine that could stay submerged forever. The prototype for that reactor, S1-W, operated in a giant tank of water to simulate the submarine environment, just ten miles northwest of SL-1 but worlds away in terms of prestige and excitement. On the northern end of the sprawling Idaho reservation, jealous Air Force generals played catch-up, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a nuclear-powered jet airplane, a giant bomber that would stay aloft for years, if they could ever get the behemoth off the ground.The Army's goal for nuclear power was vastly more prosaic: small, semiportable power stations for remote bases. Of the more than twenty reactors in Idaho, SL-1 was the smallest, designed merely to generate 200 kilowatts of electricity.Professional disappointment was just one of many reasons the volatile Jack Byrnes might have been distracted that cold night. He was probably exhausted, having slept on friends' couches the previous two nights, as the latest fight between him and wife, Arlene Byrnes, ran its course. The fight had come at the end of their too-short holiday break, and Byrnes had returned to SL-1 to find a long list of maintenance he was supposed to complete under Legg's supervision, a list that ended with the start-up of the troublesome little reactor. Five hours into the watch, they had barely completed anything.At 7:00 pm, Arlene had called SL-1 and told Jack that she wanted a divorce. After a year of fighting and loneliness in the Lost River Desert, Arlene Byrnes had finally had enough. Their last conversation ended with a discussion of how to split his palt