Idaho Falls: The Untold Story of America's First Nuclear Accident

Idaho Falls: The Untold Story of America's First Nuclear Accident

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by William McKeown

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When asked to name the world's first major nuclear accident, most people cite the Three Mile Island incident or the Chernobyl disaster. Revealed in this book is one of American history's best-kept secrets: the world's first nuclear reactor accident to claim fatalities happened on United States soil. Chronicled here for the first time is the strange tale of SL-1, a…  See more details below


When asked to name the world's first major nuclear accident, most people cite the Three Mile Island incident or the Chernobyl disaster. Revealed in this book is one of American history's best-kept secrets: the world's first nuclear reactor accident to claim fatalities happened on United States soil. Chronicled here for the first time is the strange tale of SL-1, a military test reactor located in Idaho's Lost River Desert that exploded on the night of January 3, 1961, killing the three-man maintenance crew on duty. Through details uncovered in official documents, firsthand accounts from rescue workers and nuclear industry insiders, and exclusive interviews with the victims' families and fri<%END%>s, this book probes intriguing questions about the devastating blast that have remained unanswered for more than 40 years. From reports of a faulty reactor design and mismanagement of the reactor's facilities to rumors of incompetent personnel and a failed love affair that prompted deliberate sabotage of the plant, these plausible explanations for the explosion raise questions about whether the truth was deliberately suppressed to protect the nuclear energy industry.

Author Biography: William McKeown has been a reporter and editor at newspapers in Idaho, California, and Colorado. His work has been recognized by the Associated Press, the Colorado Press Association, and the Best of the West journalism competition. He lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

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Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
McKeown does exposing how it was possible for the wealth of rumors and speculation to gain so much momentum.

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Idaho Falls

The Untold Story of America's First Nuclear Accident

By William McKeown


Copyright © 2003 William Thomas McKeown
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55490-543-0


Nuclear Apprenticeship

In late October 1959, United States Army soldier Jack Byrnes, twenty years old, set off from his hometown of Utica, New York. A trunk was tied to the roof of his black Oldsmobile; his wife, Arlene, was beside him in the front seat, and his son, Jackie, not yet two, was squeezed in the back among the couple's possessions. They were headed west to Idaho for a new adventure, a more promising future. A reel of eight-millimeter film the couple shot in Yellowstone National Park, not far from their new posting, snared them in celluloid. Jack is handsome and well built, his blond hair just starting to darken. Arlene, blinking at the camera, is thin, pretty, and vivacious. She dotes on young Jackie. Yellowstone is devoid of tourists. Old Faithful erupts on cue.

Born June 22, 1939, in Utica, John Byrnes III was the oldest of four children in a Catholic family. His father was a hard-working real estate salesman. By the early 1950s he was making a pretty good living—good enough to buy a cabin nestled amidst New York State's Finger Lakes. During summer and winter vacations, the elder Byrnes introduced his son— everyone called him Jack—to water sports and snow skiing, expensive pastimes even then. Soon Jack, a naturally athletic kid, was blasting watery arcs offshore from his dad's cabin and carving hairpin turns on the icy slopes of local ski hills. Bright and easily bored, the teenaged Byrnes didn't have a lot of interest in school. He liked girls, he liked driving fast, and he liked going out with his buddies to cruise Utica's hot spots and those in the nearby town of Rome.

"He was just a happy-go-lucky guy," recalls one acquaintance. "He was one of those daredevils. He'd try anything." Others, though, say the young Byrnes was more complicated than that, even in his adolescent years. Away from his friends, Jack was a serious, intense young man. He liked to do things his way, and when that didn't happen, his temper could flare.

During his high school years, he met Arlene Casier, who attended Rome Free Academy. Arlene, whose father had died, was living with her mother, a quiet, dignified woman. According to a good friend of theirs, both Arlene and Jack yearned for security and the good things in life, and both were in a hurry to get them. Byrnes, his father said years later, was a kid who wanted to grow up fast. At seventeen, he fudged his birth records and joined the United States Army. By the time he was nineteen, he had married his eighteen-year-old sweetheart and begotten a child.

After Jack's basic army training, Jack and Arlene plunged headfirst into the stressful world of military life, where the pay is low, moves are frequent, and extended family is always too far away. The couple quickly discovered just how little control they had over their new life. Their first posting in Newfoundland, a sea- and wind-battered province on Canada's east coast, could hardly have been more remote. During his stint in Canada, the Byrnes's first and only child, John—called Jackie by family members—was born. While adjusting to fatherhood, the young GI was assigned to mechanical training and spent his first year and a half in the military learning how machinery worked, how to maintain it, and how to fix it.

Sometime in 1958, Byrnes became aware of a new nuclear program run by the army at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, just south of Washington, DC. The army had built a small teaching reactor and was recruiting men from all three branches of the military service to learn the science of coaxing heat and electricity from atoms. The army planned to have the trainees operate a string of small, portable nuclear reactors that would be located in remote areas of the world. It seemed like an exciting prospect to Byrnes, certainly far better than fixing a tired generator at a bleak army base. He applied for the training program and was accepted. One of his classmates was Dick Legg, who had strolled into the nuclear world in much the same way.

* * *

Sailor Dick Legg, twenty-five years old, left for Idaho Falls, then a bucolic town with a population of about thirty thousand nestled on the banks of the Snake River, about the same time as Byrnes. The backseat of his car was filled with archery gear. No one sat in the passenger seat, but finding a girl would be a top priority after he settled in at his new posting. He, too, was excited about his move west. Although relocating to southeastern Idaho meant putting a lot of distance between him and his family in upper Michigan, Legg was an outdoorsman, and the landscape he saw flying past the car window as he drove confirmed that there would still be expanses of forests he could walk through with his bow at the ready.

Dick Legg was born in 1934, the youngest of Louis and Mary Legg's three sons. The family liked to say that the newest member of the family was the last of the three Ds: Don, Doug, and Dick. Louis Legg owned a small timber mill near the Huron National Forest. Legg and his brothers were bused, and later drove themselves, from their hometown of Roscommon, population five hundred, north to the larger town of Grayling to attend school. Legg, who showed no interest in sports, was a B and C student; smart enough, but distinguished mostly by his classroom antics, which earned him a reputation of being a class clown and a prankster. Legg's favorite way to spend his free time was to take off on his own into the wilds of Michigan. What he really liked—long before he had a driver's license—was careening in one of his brothers' cars down country back roads. Before he had reached his teens, Dick had taken up archery, and it became a passion. He often roamed the woods near his home with a bow in hand. Something about the solitude of the sport agreed with him.

As a teenager, Legg worked at his father's mill during summer vacations, helping run a massive blade through the stripped logs. The work put muscles on Dick, a source of pride for a guy who was touchy about his height of five foot six. But even with the muscles, Legg didn't easily attract women; he sported black-framed "geek" glasses, a pouty lower lip, and a large mole near his left nostril. But he did get attention, both wanted and unwanted, with his quick wit, smart-ass comments, and pranks. Legg's cousin remembers him as a jokester with a ready smile and, as the youngest in the family, a kid not weighed down by the expectations attached to his older brothers. The only major shadow over Dick Legg's young life was cast in 1949, when he was fifteen. His brother Doug was driving a new car down a back road at high speed when he lost control of the vehicle, crashed, and was killed.

After Dick graduated—with no great distinction—from high school in the mid-1950s, he drove to Grayling to enlist in the navy. Attending college apparently was never considered; there were no higher education degrees among the Legg men. But Dick's oldest brother, Don, had been in the service, and it seemed like a good place to learn a trade. Dick settled on the SeaBees, the navy's construction battalions, and was slotted to become a construction electrician. For the next two years, he shuttled around the eastern seaboard from one training program to another, learning the intricacies of electricity—how to harness it and how to fix the machinery when something went wrong. Then Legg learned that the army was looking for sailors and airmen to join its nuclear program; it sounded interesting. Like Byrnes, Legg was ambitious and confident—cocky even—in his abilities, and he didn't see a great future in being a run-of-the-mill electrician.

* * *

In early 1959, Legg and Byrnes arrived at Fort Belvoir to begin the training course in the nuclear program. Although they would later prove to be a fateful pairing, the two men didn't appear to have interacted much during their training in Virginia. One classmate recalls that few of the men socialized, as there just wasn't enough time. Byrnes and Legg, along with fifty-eight other men, were thrown into an intensive training course, with only four months devoted to academic courses before undertaking another four months of hands-on training in specialty duties at the fort's small training reactor, dubbed SM-1.

Ed Fedol, a fellow trainee at Fort Belvoir, recalls the facility's crash course on nuclear power: "We only had four months of academics: nuclear theory, nuclear engineering, some mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, radiological engineering," he says. "It was rather heavy. It was a tough four-month grind. Then you went through four months of specialty training. You were either going to be a mechanic, an electrician, an electronics technician, or a health physics person. After that, you went through four months of reactor operator training."

Fedol, like Byrnes and Legg, learned about the program somewhat incidentally. Like all the young men who enrolled in the Fort Belvoir training school, he had developed his own version of an atomic future, one that was invariably rosy: "I thought, 'This is a brand-new field, this is a way to get promoted.' I was twenty-five. I had done four years in the navy, from the age of seventeen to twenty-one. I was out for two years, and then I was broke and hungry and went into the army, and I had been in for two years. And here I'm thinking, 'This is a way to get promoted pretty quick.'"

Martin Daly, also a graduate of the program, says the young recruits might have lacked college degrees but they were subjected to the most intense, real-life training their instructors could devise. "The last part of the course, the operations phase, started at a control-room simulator located at the school," Daly recalls. "Yes, we had a full-blown nuclear power plant control-room simulator back in the '50s. The instructor had the ability to introduce any number of problems at any time and observe the reactions of the operator. We had to spend many hours in the simulator before we ever were allowed to sit at the controls of a real nuclear reactor. We also had to memorize the schematic piping diagram and electrical diagram of the entire power plant. We had to know the location and function of every valve, every pipe, and every device in the entire plant. When we finally got to work in the plant, we were assigned to work with experienced people as equipment operators. The equipment operator works in conjunction with the control room to see that the plant always ran smoothly and to correct any malfunction immediately.

"Finally, as a control room operator, we were put under enormous pressure to perform," Daly says. "Working with a live nuclear reactor, we had to perform cold startup procedures, system shutdowns, and recover from SCRAMS [emergency shutdowns]. We also had to learn to recover from loss of commercial power, synchronize with commercial power, deal with runaway turbines, and supervise wastewater treatment. And all of this while keeping an accurate log of every move we made while on shift."

Both Byrnes and Legg did well in training, though no one remembers them as standing out from any of the other men in the class. But their instructors decided that they had potential. Having passed the psychological test required of all trainees, the two, their bosses reckoned, were ready to take the next step and become licensed reactor operators. For that they would need to go to Idaho's Lost River Desert, to the National Reactor Testing Station, where the army had built a small nuclear reactor called Stationary Low-Power Unit 1, commonly referred to as SL-1.

* * *

Forty-one miles west of Idaho Falls, the Lost River Desert has always been one of those just-passing-through places in the American West. At the peak of summer, the sun and heat are relentless, and shade is as scarce as water. When the sun drops at dusk over the dry mountains to the west, the desert radiates an unsettling power as it gives up the heat of the day. In the dead of winter, the desert, assaulted by wind-driven snow, seems to stretch out endlessly.

Even fourteen thousand years ago, when the climate was cooler and the landscape was dotted with shallow lakes and forests, prehistoric humans didn't linger in this northeast corner of the Snake River Plain, a band of flat land that curls across southern Idaho like a crooked grin. Molten rhyolite bubbled up from the planet's core, flowed out of fissures like black tongues, and then retreated, creating tubes, or caves, of fantastic forms. Under the extreme pressure, the desert's surface cracked wide open and volcanoes pushed their way upward. Three mark the desert floor; the largest, Big Southern Butte, rises up almost two thousand feet.

The desert, implacable in its harshness, withstood the first incursions of the white man. Fur trappers passed through in 1818 but quickly decided the barren landscape harbored more hazards than pelts. In the 1840s, westbound emigrants crossed the desert on a cutoff from the Oregon Trail; still-visible wagon tracks that head toward the sunset indicate they didn't stay long. Gold and silver strikes in 1860 attracted miners to the mountains north of the desert, but they saw no riches in the sagebrush they traversed carrying their supplies.

By the 1880s, industrious Mormon farmers were flooding into southern Idaho as a result of increasingly crowded living conditions in Utah. They settled along the eastern and southern edge of the Snake River Plain. Here they could use the river to irrigate the crops of potatoes, sugar beets, seed peas, and wheat they grew in the region's light soil, which was enriched with volcanic ash and trace minerals. Other settlers—ranchers and sheepherders—claimed land in the mountainous valleys to the north, where the water flowed freely. By the early twentieth century, much of the Snake River Plain, from eastern Oregon to Yellowstone country, had been transformed into a green patchwork of farms and quiet Mormon towns. Just one scrappy town—folks called it Arco—had carved out a tenuous hold on the western fringe of the Lost River Desert. The town owed its dusty existence to only one thing: its residents—never more than a few hundred—who were adaptable. They'd moved the town three times since its founding in 1882, chasing whatever kind of fortune-seeker happened to be passing through at the time. But the desert itself remained untouched, its thorniness no enticement to humans. Until the military decided it was the perfect place to install a nuclear testing ground and practice blowing things up.

* * *

When the easterners—Jack Byrnes with his family and Dick Legg on his own—finally arrived in Idaho's Snake River Valley, they were awed. On the eastern horizon, Wyoming's Teton Range—at that distance barely an inch high—thrust skyward, jagged and one-dimensional. Only a wisp of cloud at the summit hinted at the winds that raked the range's granite flanks and loaded snow into cornices as menacing as a cocked gun. To the west of the valley, past the interlocking blocks of cropland and the Snake River, lay the Lost River Desert, a vast sweep of sagebrush and black lava beds pocked by the occasional crater. And over their heads was a sky they'd never seen before. By day, it was an endless sweep of delicate blue; at night, the stars glinted like stilettos. Under that sky, during that fall of 1959, a promising future seemed waiting to be claimed.

Idaho Falls, the settlement straddling the turbulent Snake River, took the arrival of outsiders like Byrnes and Legg in stride; it was used to change. Picturesque but plucky, it ebbed and flowed with the fortunes of its residents. Its resilience had caught the eye of concrete, steel, and lumber manufacturers, all of whom brought their industries to the area. So when men from across the country answered the call of the atom and descended on the city, the reaction of the locals was for the most part no more than a collective shrug. The presence of military personnel and scientists signaled just another transformation of a city that had gotten used to reinventing itself over the course of almost a century.


Excerpted from Idaho Falls by William McKeown. Copyright © 2003 William Thomas McKeown. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

William McKeown has been a reporter and editor at newspapers in Idaho, California, and Colorado. His work has been recognized by the Associated Press, the Colorado Press Association, and the Best of the West journalism competition. He lives in Colorado Sp

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Idaho Falls: The Untold Story of America's First Nuclear Accident 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
AlchemystAZ More than 1 year ago
First, forget all the phony Anonymous ratings. Whether or not there was a tragic love triangle as a cause, this book describes the incident and aftermath in horrific detail. Speculation is identified and so are the mistakes. It would make a terrific movie.
Truckin2010 More than 1 year ago
I have always been interested in the Nuclear Energy Age, and the crteation of nuclear power plants since I was young boy. And, ever since the Chernobyl disaster I have been drawn to learn about our drive to develop and use Nuclear reources. After writing a retrospect paper in college about the Chernobyl disaster, my dad told the story about the Idaho Falls accident. And, his memories about the story told about the disaster. Recntly, I read more about the disaster in the book, "We almost lost Detroit". A true stroy about the deveopment, turmoil and final days after the Enrico Fermi Nuclear power plant accident in laguna Beach, Michigan. Also, a must read! I don't think there is that will share worse than the thought of a goverenment private industry nuclear power plant being built in the bark yard of your community. And, not being told that you're living near ticking time bomb with explosive force and fallout of over a hundred Hyroshima bombs. Idaho Falls is prime exampple of what we don't undedrstand about Nuclear energy. Why, we are much off not experimenting with it.
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