Tragedy at a Nuclear “Playground”

Originally appeared in The Daily.

The Idaho Falls meltdown killed three, but American nuclear experiments continued


According to the United Nations, the plume of radiation from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi reactors has already started hitting the United States, starting with Alaska and reaching California this weekend. The doses of radiation will be minute, scientists say — ranging from completely undetectable to detectable but harmless, similar to the amount one gets from eating a few healthy supermarket bananas. In other words, when it comes to radiation exposure, the American West has had worse.

The most famous nuclear event in American history happened on the East Coast in March 1979, when a reactor at Three Mile Island in central Pennsylvania partially melted down and forced the evacuation of 140,000 people. The disaster so rattled America that no nuclear plants were commissioned for decades afterward. But the worst meltdown by far took place 18 years earlier, outside Idaho Falls, Idaho. In comparison to the gush of radiation from Idaho Falls, Three Mile Island’s radiation was a mere spritz. Idaho Falls is the only place where anyone has died in a nuclear-reactor incident in the United States.

In 1961, at the height of America’s love affair with the atom, the government maintained three major sites for its experiments. One was in the Nevada desert. Another was in the South Pacific, where scientists blew up atomic weapons and vaporized untold thousands of rattlesnakes and tropical fish. The third, the National Reactor Testing Site, was in the Lost River desert outside Idaho Falls. From 1949 onward, nuclear engineers gathered there to tinker with uranium rods to make electricity that was, in their favorite phrase, “too cheap to meter.” They were especially keen to design small, portable reactors to power remote Arctic radar stations, so the military could know when Soviet missiles were on the way and promptly vaporize Moscow in retaliation.

In all, they built 52 reactors. Forty miles was far enough from Idaho Falls that scientists could try dangerous experiments. Even a catastrophe would render uninhabitable only a patch of desert, with negligible public-health effects. They achieved spectacular successes — by 1951, they had harnessed a nuclear reaction, producing enough electricity to light a Christmas tree — and ridiculous failures, including 27 meltdowns, nine of them intentional, just to see what would happen. When William McKeown, who wrote a book about the disaster, interviewed scientists active during these cowboy days of nuclear engineering, they said wistfully that Idaho was their “playground.”

The nuclear horseplay turned fatal on Jan. 3, 1961. A 2-year-old reactor called SL-1, for “Stationary Low-Power,” was producing about a thousandth of the power of that Three Mile Island would when it opened 13 years later. In December, scientists took SL-1 offline for maintenance, and on the evening of Jan. 3, three technicians — John Byrnes, Richard McKinley and Richard Legg — prepared to fire it back up. Byrnes, the oldest at 27, was an Army specialist with grudges in the workplace, problems at home, and a fondness for the nightlife and for driving his Oldsmobile drunk. The decision to put him in control of a nuclear reactor proved questionable.

Nuclear power, like coal or diesel, works by creating heat to make electricity. But instead of burning fossil fuels, nuclear power uses the breakdown of radioactive elements like uranium, producing heat quickly — sometimes so fast that the reactor goes out of control and melts down, breaching its protective layers and causing the types of explosions now occurring in Japan. To keep the reaction controlled, the nuclear material at SL-1 had a rod in its center to moderate the breakdown, like an ice cube thrown into a pot of water to keep it from boiling.

Byrnes pulled out that control rod just a little too far. The reaction went wild, and within milliseconds, the core’s power jumped from a thousand times smaller than Three Mile Island to 20 times bigger. The coolant heated to 4,000 degrees, vaporized, and sent the 12-ton reactor 9 feet into the air, spewing steam and killing Byrnes instantly by driving a rib into his heart. He was, in that respect, lucky. Legg was on top of the structure. A shield plug blew loose and drilled into his crotch, through his torso and into his shoulder, throwing him upward and pinning his body to the ceiling. Below, McKinley suffered massive wounds to his face and hand and lay groaning on the floor for two hours before dying.

Radiation alarms quickly let others know something was wrong, but it took five full days for crews to figure out how to enter the contaminated building to remove the bodies — and even then, the corpses hummed with radioactivity and could not be autopsied except with scalpels attached to the end of long poles. Legg was so radioactive that body parts had to be removed and buried as toxic waste in the desert. All three were put to rest in lead-lined coffins.

But the immediate worry was ensuring that the explosion hadn’t scattered radioactive material across the desert. It had. The biggest concern was radioactive iodine, which lodges in thyroid glands and causes cancer, especially in children. In the next few days, the clean-up crew sent a posse to kill wild jackrabbits and test their thyroids, which revealed greatly increased radioactivity. They then checked local cows and found that their milk made the Geiger counters tick furiously. Ultimately, the scientists determined that SL-1 had blown 4.7 times as much radioactive iodine into the air as Three Mile Island would (but still 88,000 times less than Chernobyl).

Over the next two years, the government buried SL-1 and chalked up the incident to lessons learned. The main lesson was to make the reactors foolproof and ensure that a single mishandled control rod would not result in meltdown. Officials also reviewed training for technicians and emergency procedures. But the public reaction was muted. The incident failed to scare the public away from nuclear power — mostly because, unlike Three Mile Island or Fukushima, the Idaho Falls nuclear site was so remote that the incident irradiated only a few hundred square miles of desert. Bad for the sagebrush and jackrabbits, perhaps, but not for humans — or the nuclear industry.


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