Atomic America: How a Deadly Explosion and a Feared Admiral Changed the Course of Nuclear History

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9780803234024: 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. The army blamed “human error” and a sordid love triangle. Though overshadowed by Three Mile Island, SL-1 remains the only fatal nuclear reactor incident in American history.
  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 rumors suggested. Poring over hundreds of pages of primary sources and interviewing survivors revealed that the army and its contractors had deliberately obscured the true cause of the accident, which resulted from poor engineering as much as uncontrolled passions.   The National Reactor Testing Station, where the meltdown occurred, had been a proving ground where engineers, generals, and admirals attempted to realize the Atomic Age dream of unlimited power—amid the frantic race for nuclear power between the army, the navy, and the air force. The fruit of those ambitious plans included that of the nation’s unofficial nuclear patriarch, Admiral Rickover, whose “true submarine,” the USS Nautilus, would forever change naval warfare. But with the meltdown in Idaho came the end of the army’s program and the beginning of the navy’s long-standing monopoly on military nuclear power. Atomic America provides a fast-paced narrative history, advocating caution and accountability in harnessing nuclear energy.

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About the Author:

Todd Tucker served as an officer with the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarine force and is the author of The Great Starvation Experiment.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prologue

January 3, 1961

A 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 paltry Army paycheck.

So at 9:00, it may have been difficult for Byrnes to focus on the task at hand. The procedure for reassembling the control rod drive mechanism called for lifting the rod "not more than four inches." Byrnes was no nuclear engineer, but he was a well-trained Army specialist -- he knew that the central rod in SL-1, by virtue of its position in the core, was enormously powerful, capable of starting up the reactor all by itself. If having his hands on that rod wasn't nerve-wracking enough, Byrnes might also have been uneasy to have Legg hovering so closely behind him. Self-conscious about his height at five foot six inches, Legg was constantly physically asserting himself, challenging any and all to wrestling matches and goosing his comrades at inappropriate times. Hunched over the control rod, straining with effort, Byrnes would have made a tempting target for one of Legg's pranks. And Byrnes's task would not have been easy, even without Legg looming behind him. The rod was heavy: eighty-four pounds. What's more, the boron strips inside the core were crumbling, occasionally jamming the control rods in their channels and making them almost impossible to move, a problem that had gotten worse in recent months. Sometimes even the drive motors couldn't move the rods, and oldfashioned Army ingenuity would be applied to the problem, usually in the form of a pipe wrench.

At 9:00 pm, three hours remained in the shift, three hours that must have stretched out like an eternity before Jack Byrnes. There were many things that might have been running through his exhausted mind -- perhaps even the terse warnings of the procedure he was about to perform. Despite four decades of speculation, however, no one will ever know exactly what he was thinking at the moment he tightened his hands around the rod, and pulled.

At 9:01 pm, January 3, 1961, a nuclear reactor exploded in Idaho, killing three men who now lie buried in lead-lined caskets. It remains the only fatal reactor accident in American history.

The details released to the newspapers immediately after the explosion were deliberately vague, not so much because of Cold War secrecy, but more in an effort to spare the three widows the gruesome details of their husbands' deaths. The interim accident report published in May 1961 by the Atomic Energy Commission was less coy, as it straightforwardly described the position of the three radioactive bodies immediately after the explosion:

The #2 crew member was struck on his back and legs with water and/or steam causing him to be thrown against a shield block and landing in the vicinity of the instrument wells. The #1 crew member was also struck with water and/or steam and was thrown back against another shield block striking his head first. Simultaneously, the No. 7 shield plug assembly impaled the #3 crew member and pinned him to the bottom of the fan floor a distance of approximately 13 feet above the reactor head.

The #3 crew member, Richard Legg, had been standing over the rod 7 plug assembly when the explosion occurred. The plug assembly was a metal shaft placed over the control rod, but it was not the control rod itself that impaled Legg, as was often stated later. The shield plug was ejected from the core at eighty-five feet per second, entered Legg's body through his groin, exited near his shoulder, and propelled him straight up to the ceiling where he dangled for six days. The impaled body was so radioactive that it took engineers that long to design a safe way to remove it. When they did finally bring Legg down, they were shocked to see that despite the time that had passed, the body was perfectly preserved. It was so radioactive that the sterilized flesh had not decayed.

Nuclear power was the younger sibling of the atomic bomb, and both were children of the Manhattan Project. The first nuclear reactors had been a means to an end, the production of plutonium for weapons. After the war, among the scientists and engineers who designed the bomb there was an almost spiritual desire to create something productive from their monumental work, something that would balance the tremendous destructive power they had unleashed over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If the atomic bomb was the ultimate weapon, a risk to civilization itself, then atomic energy must be an energy source of unlimited beneficence, the power to uplift all of mankind. Billions of dollars would be spent to prove it true.

But SL-1 was a military reactor, as nuclear power in its infancy was almost exclusively a military enterprise. In those early days, only federal dollars and the urgency of military requirements could support the vast investment necessary to make nuclear power a reality. In addition, the line between nuclear power and nuclear weaponry was blurry, just as it is now, making the military reluctant to relinquish its hold on the nation's nuclear reactors, no matter how often the spirit of "Atoms for Peace" was invoked. Each military service made the case that it urgently needed nuclear power. The Army wanted portable, tireless power plants for Arctic radar bases, the first line of defense against a Soviet air attack. The Air Force wanted a supersonic bomber with unlimited endurance, the ultimate weapon in a world where airpower was ascendant. And the Navy wanted to fulfill the dream of a "true submarine," a ship that would live beneath the waves. Each service was convinced that without perfecting a mission for the Atomic Age, it would become obsolete. Interservice rivalry is a grand American tradition, but in those tense early days of the Cold War, the stakes had never been higher.

The explosion at SL-1 led to the end of the Army program, happened within weeks of the end of the Air Force's atomic plane, and opened the door for the Navy's long-standing, jealously guarded monopoly on military nuclear power. The civilian industry has for more than a generation been staffed largely by Navy veterans, and the Navy philosophy has, in large part, become the industry's philosophy. On March 28, 1979, Three Mile Island became a virtual brand name for nuclear disaster, resulting in showy but shallow ref...

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Book Description Bison Books. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Paperback. 304 pages. Dimensions: 8.9in. x 5.9in. x 0.7in.On January 3, 1961, nuclear reactor SL-1 exploded in rural Idaho, spreading radioactive contamination over thousands of acres and killing three men. The army blamed human error and a sordid love triangle. Though overshadowed by Three Mile Island, SL-1 remains the only fatal nuclear reactor incident in American history. Todd Tucker, who first heard the rumors about the Idaho Falls explosion as a trainee in the navys nuclear program, suspected there was more to the accident than rumors suggested. Poring over hundreds of pages of primary sources and interviewing survivors revealed that the army and its contractors had deliberately obscured the true cause of the accident, which resulted from poor engineering as much as uncontrolled passions. The National Reactor Testing Station, where the meltdown occurred, had been a proving ground where engineers, generals, and admirals attempted to realize the Atomic Age dream of unlimited poweramid the frantic race for nuclear power between the army, the navy, and the air force. The fruit of those ambitious plans included that of the nations unofficial nuclear patriarch, Admiral Rickover, whose true submarine, the USS Nautilus, would forever change naval warfare. But with the meltdown in Idaho came the end of the armys program and the beginning of the navys long-standing monopoly on military nuclear power. Atomic America provides a fast-paced narrative history, advocating caution and accountability in harnessing nuclear energy. This item ships from multiple locations. Your book may arrive from Roseburg,OR, La Vergne,TN. Paperback. Bookseller Inventory # 9780803234024

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Book Description University of Nebraska Press, United States, 2010. Paperback. Book Condition: New. 226 x 150 mm. Language: English . Brand New Book ***** Print on Demand *****.On January 3, 1961, nuclear reactor SL-1 exploded in rural Idaho, spreading radioactive contamination over thousands of acres and killing three men. The army blamed human error and a sordid love triangle. Though overshadowed by Three Mile Island, SL-1 remains the only fatal nuclear reactor incident in American history. 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 rumors suggested. Poring over hundreds of pages of primary sources and interviewing survivors revealed that the army and its contractors had deliberately obscured the true cause of the accident, which resulted from poor engineering as much as uncontrolled passions. The National Reactor Testing Station, where the meltdown occurred, had been a proving ground where engineers, generals, and admirals attempted to realize the Atomic Age dream of unlimited power-amid the frantic race for nuclear power between the army, the navy, and the air force.The fruit of those ambitious plans included that of the nation s unofficial nuclear patriarch, Admiral Rickover, whose true submarine, the USS Nautilus, would forever change naval warfare. But with the meltdown in Idaho came the end of the army s program and the beginning of the navy s long-standing monopoly on military nuclear power. Atomic America provides a fast-paced narrative history, advocating caution and accountability in harnessing nuclear energy. Bookseller Inventory # APC9780803234024

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