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.