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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 reforms. SL-1 affected the DNA of the industry in utero, transforming the very philosophy of nuclear engineering. Questions as fundamental as the number of control rods necessary to run a plant safely were settled at SL-1. The dream of miniaturized, portable nuclear plants died with McKinley, Legg, and Byrnes.
Today, people on both sides of the nuclear power debate anticipate an atomic renaissance in America. Chronic instability in the Middle East and fears of global warming have brought together an unlikely coalition of conservative isolationists and fretful environmentalists, all of whom argue that emission-free nuclear power, already quietly responsible for nearly 20 percent of the American energy supply, is ready to take on more of the nation's energy burden. Over one hundred nuclear plants generate electricity in the United States. Thirtytwo 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 understand the real reasons, technical and otherwise, a nuclear reactor exploded in 1961.
Understanding the dominant theory of the explosion does not require a familiarity with nuclear physics. Within days of the incident, rumors of infidelity and a love triangle sprang to life, stories of an aggrieved husband who used a control rod as a peculiarly modern murder weapon. There was just enough truth in the story, and it explained the tragedy so neatly, that it rapidly obscured the underlying issues at SL-1. One of the young crewmen was, in fact, unstable and had a collapsing marriage. But why was he allowed to perform dangerous maintenance with so little supervision? The rapid, manual raising of a single control rod did cause the devastation at SL-1. But why would a reactor be designed so perilously close to criticality? Why would procedures actually dictate the manual lifting of that rod? The story of the love triangle and murder-suicide has been handed down faithfully by people in Idaho, the military, and the nuclear industry. Like all good folklore, it embodies the bedrock principles of those who keep it alive, even, or perhaps especially, where it diverges from the facts. And while the story has proven to be extremely durable, it is an inadequate description of what really caused America's only fatal reactor accident, and what lessons should be learned.
The complete story of SL-1 is neither a murder mystery nor a love story. It is more than an engineering case study as well, an incident that cannot be explained completely with flux diagrams and reactivity calculations. The story of SL-1 is a war story, a tale of a bloody, costly struggle between the three branches of the United States military. It happened at a time when nuclear annihilation was a frighteningly real possibility: January 3, 1961, was eight months after Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union, and three months before the Bay of Pigs invasion. The military was preparing to fight a nuclear world war that many viewed as inevitable, and nuclear power was seen by each branch as a way, quite literally, to increase its power. Massive budgets were at stake, but it was more than that. The generals and admirals all believed passionately that survival was at stake both for their service, and for the nation. In this struggle for nuclear supremacy, the Army skirmished on the fringes, but the Navy and the Air Force were in a fight to the death, as the flyers argued convincingly that airpower and only airpower could save America from the communist menace. And while many of this war's battles took place in Idaho, it began, as so many American wars have, with an attack on a ship.
Copyright © 2009 by Todd Tucker