Idaho's deadly nuclear accident serves as focus for history

The SL-1 nuclear accident in 1961 in Idaho was a great story I never delved into as the energy reporter at the Idaho Falls Post Register.

The basic story was how steam explosion caused by a nuclear reaction at a small test reactor at the site now called the Idaho National Laboratory. The explosion destroyed the small reactor and killed three military technicians.

For Idaho Falls, the story was one of courage of the “heroes of SL-1, who bravely entered the reactor for short periods to limit their exposure to the high levels of radiation at the site to try to save the men. I knew several of these men and the macabre story of how they had to cut off the most radioactive parts of the three men’s bodies and bury them at the site.

The rest went into lead-lined caskets for burial. Then there was the sensational story said to be behind the accident. Some blamed a love triangle between two of the men and a woman with one apparently so mad he jerked the control rod out of the reactor causing the explosion.

Historian Todd Tucker demonstrates in his wonderful new book “Atomic America: How a Deadly Explosion and a Feared Admiral Changed the Course of Nuclear History,” that the love triangle myth is likely untrue because another one of the men had his hand on the control rod when the explosion was triggered.

Tucker uses the SL-1 story as his narrative device for telling the early history of nuclear power and the race for control of this new technology between the Army, Navy and the Air Force.

The Navy won the race, Tucker said because of its troublesome but meticulous Admiral Hyman Rickover. Rickover was in charge of the Navy’s nuclear program and a major figure in the early days of the Idaho National Laboratory.

Rickover was almost paranoid about nuclear safety issues and because of it the Navy’s nuclear program remains one of the safest industrial programs in the history of the world. It began at the INL because Rickover built its prototype for first nuclear submarine, the Nautilus on the Idaho desert along with its later prototype for the aircraft carrier Enterprise’s two nuclear reactors.

The Idaho Chemical Processing Plant recycled uranium and plutonium from Navy reactor fuel and the Navy still plays a role storing much of its old fuel at the INL.

Tucker, a former Navy trainee at the INL, heard the stories about SL-1 that prompted his research. What he found was that the Army’s poor design and quality control was the real cause of the accident and led to its losing its own reactor program.

At the same time the Air Force was developing at the INL a nuclear powered jet engine, a hair-brained idea to keep bombers aloft 24/7. It even got a bomb-proof hanger build long before it even perfected the jet engines, let alone a plane that wouldn’t irradiate its crew.

Only Rickover’s program, built on a nearly pathological focus on safety, survived. His basic reactor designs became the basis for the modern nuclear power industry, which has been unable to meet his high safety standards but still has a remarkable record.

Tucker tells a great yarn that Idahoans will enjoy no matter what you think about nuclear power.

Barker writes like a trainee

"Tucker, a former Navy trainee at the INL"

Rocky, those "trainees" are sailors. A Naval Officer in Tucker's case.

I bet you were a real hit when you were there "reporting" on the INEL regularly. How about doing a bit on EBR-1 and reminding us of the benefits of nuke power?

Rocky, you make it sounds as if the SL-1 accident ended the Army's efforts in nuke power. I hope you know that's not true (despite the tone of the above blog). You make it sound like the accident ended "the military race". The Army's nuke days went well into the 70's (77) and included the smallest operational (*successful*) design. But never mind writing about the "whole story". We wouldn't want the impression you were writing an accurate article anyway (not even mentioning your typos and grammar errors on your 'draft' copy here).

I'll have to read Tucker's book. But I doubt there was "a race" amongst the branches. Assuming the "race" is Tucker's lore as opposed to yours Barker.

They each had their own objectives and uses of nuke power. Was it race for the Air Force to create a carrier power plant?

As for your opinion that the USAF efforts for a"hair-brained" aircraft- the B-36 actually flew with an operational reactor onboard. For that timeframe, a long-range/high-power/high-payload bomber almost required experimenting with nuclear power.

But no matter...I'm sure you were bent over a time deadline to post your blog.


Here's a companion book of the same story written in 2003:

There are several books published about the Army's nuclear power program too.

If that were true he'd have a name tag and no parking space...

There is no life in is a mirror site on god's server. You were dreaming but it is over. Go to your residence and await our commands and THEN we will restore control...


Interesting .. I will have to read both books. I grew up in Idaho Falls and remember the incident. My memory has it when I was in high school... obviously incorrect. If the 1961 date is correct I would have been in the 8th grade. I remember rumors that there was a plume of radioactivity rising from the site. Small "s" because capital "Site" was how we referred to the whole complex. We heard that there was an ambulance buried intact because of contamination. I also remember my dad commenting that "those bastards at the Site" are quaking this week because Rickover is in town. Interesting times. The joke in town was that the Gov't was going to use the hangar for the nuclear airplane as a lambing shed. On the whole, I think we would have been better off if we were more reliant on nuclear power, and "those bastards at the Site" did a hell of a job.

udapimp go win some awards

Rocky has more writing awards than you can shake sticks at, if he occasionally makes a minor error its an aberation, udapimple.

also reporters right now are expected to write more in one day than they used to write in a week, have a heart, the recession hit them hard and they're just staff, not the financial geniuses who brought the economy down.

Stop it!

Blackfeet (aka Mrs. Barker???), you're cracking me up!
The funny award goes to you.

"occassionally makes a minor error"
That's funny!

Rocky frequently makes minor errors- I'll venture to say in any writing of sizable length.

And occassionally he makes grave errors.

Here's a good example on his own published bio:
"He is environmental reporter for the Idaho Statesman, where.."

Let's see kids, can you find the error?
(not counting the shamless typo, assuming he meant 'shameless').

His writing errors are only part of the story. His one-sided reporting and lack of reasoning makes his writing almost unbearable to read to the point of being funny. That's the main reason I read it now- it's a good chuckle.

As for feeling sorry for Statesman writers, Blackfeet, do you realize IF they got decent writers maybe their readership would increase and your bleeding heart could instead empathize with real victims of the recession.

Again, WE common posters are not being paid for this stuff and noone expects us to use spell check, or proofread our ramblings. A newspaper journalist... C'mon.

I do have some awards already. Does that make me special? I have the Little League Particaption Award on my mantel. I have the blue ribbon for the 100yrd dash from 5th grade. I have lots more too! nanner nanner.

Did Rocky leave them at a Super 8 in Bozeman?

There is no life in is a mirror site on god's server. You were dreaming but it is over. Go to your residence and await our commands and THEN we will restore control...