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Idaho Falls: The Untold Story of America's First Nuclear Accident [Englisch] [Taschenbuch]

William McKeown , William McKewon
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April 2003
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 friends, 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.


  • Taschenbuch: 269 Seiten
  • Verlag: Ecw Pr; Auflage: Teacher. (April 2003)
  • Sprache: Englisch
  • ISBN-10: 1550225626
  • ISBN-13: 978-1550225624
  • Größe und/oder Gewicht: 21,2 x 14,3 x 1,9 cm
  • Durchschnittliche Kundenbewertung: 4.0 von 5 Sternen  Alle Rezensionen anzeigen (1 Kundenrezension)
  • Amazon Bestseller-Rang: Nr. 172.341 in Fremdsprachige Bücher (Siehe Top 100 in Fremdsprachige Bücher)

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Über den Autor und weitere Mitwirkende

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.

Leseprobe. Abdruck erfolgt mit freundlicher Genehmigung der Rechteinhaber. Alle Rechte vorbehalten.

It’s hard to say when it all went to hell.

The mug shots of Jack Byrnes and Dick Legg taken at the beginning of their last military assignments betray no hint of the elemental forces that would soon engulf them. Missing from the muddy black–and–white photographs is evidence of the reckless passions and base instincts of two saboteurs—or, conversely, the bewildered innocence of a couple of patsies— that would make them the main players in one of the most mysterious human dramas in industrial history. Sure, if you search their faces for telltale signs of character, you might glimpse something intense and smoldering in the deep–set eyes of Jack Byrnes; you might detect a slight, smug smile on the squarish face of Dick Legg. But that’s just mental rubbernecking. It’s been more than four decades since the photographs were snapped, and they don’t offer up much besides a musty smell and a record of bad haircuts. There’s no indication the two weren’t destined for long lives and ordinary deaths.

The passage of years and the death and silence of friends and family have left but the bleached bones of the two men’s histories. They left no diaries, no record of notable achievements, and few anecdotes to hint at the mix of characteristics that made up their personalities. When they arrived in 1959 in Idaho’s fertile Snake River Valley to take up what would be their final posts, Byrnes and Legg were still unformed, still works–in–progress, their individual potentials and futures as fuzzy as their service photographs. They were typical American boys on the cusp of manhood, at that age when character, talent, and limitations are just beginning to emerge. Born in the late 1930s in quiet American towns, the two played soldiers while real ones marched across Europe in World War II. As teens, they saw a great explosion in American power as those soldiers came home and rebuilt their country on the GI Bill, a package of government benefits that allowed soldiers to buy houses and attend college. Byrnes and Legg were young men of their time, schooled in the buoyant hopes of prosperity and order, confident that progress would give them better lives than their fathers, agitated by the sense of change and possibility that was sweeping America at the cusp of the 1960s.

The new god that emerged after World War II—the tripartite deity of industry, science, and technology—promised to make all these things possible, even for those of modest means and education. It was the atomic age, when Americans decided they had the knowledge, right, and wisdom to harness for other uses the terrible power released upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The atom had ended the war, smote the enemy. But surely its power could be tamed, used to power boats and planes, deliver unlimited electricity, revolutionize medicine. Atomic energy, America’s leaders promised, would checkmate America’s enemies while it bestowed on all others the gift of limitless energy. It was a seductive idea—using nondescript uranium ore to transform the world.

By the time Jack Byrnes and Dick Legg peered at the lens of a military camera, they had bought into this atomic–powered version of the American Dream. They were determined young men in a hurry, hungry for the good things in life, cocksure about their abilities and opportunities. For them and thousands of others, there was no better place to find the new America than at the National Reactor Testing Station, located on the vast expanse of sagebrush in Idaho’s Lost River Desert. Established in 1949, the classified site lay just west of the Snake River Valley and was a monument to the golden age of nuclear science. It was a place where American men fearlessly played with the atom. When Byrnes and Legg arrived, almost two dozen nuclear reactors dotted the desert floor, prototypes of machines that would revolutionize propulsion and energy—and life. Government–issued films of the time celebrated the “new hope of the atomic era” and hinted at the blessings it would afford. Standing before models of prosperous and gleaming cities, film narrators—invariably white men in crew cuts and black suits—championed the glorious changes nuclear power would introduce to the arts, humanities, and sciences. An article in a 1958 issue of National Geographic concludes that “abundant energy released from the hearts of atoms promises a vastly different and better tomorrow for all mankind.”

There were a few people who had doubts about the message. Ranchers and sheepherders in the American West were starting to voice concern about radioactive fallout from the nuclear weapons testing then being conducted in the Nevada desert, fallout that had made its way north to the Lost River Desert. Some experts and interest groups were raising questions about storing radioactive materials and locating nuclear plants near large cities. There were even some who scoffed at the rosy nuclear future portrayed in publications and documentaries at the time. But generally, the American people— and the folks in Idaho—believed the benefits of atomic energy outweighed the dangers it posed. For Byrnes and Legg, the lure of the atom had little to do with the promises and peril it posed to mankind. For them, it meant a paycheck and it meant a brighter personal future. They joined a select group of young engineers, construction workers, soldiers, and scientists flooding the wilds of Idaho to turn nuclear dreams into reality.

Then carne January 3, 1961, a day that foreshadowed the dimming of the atomic dream, even if it remains a curiously obscure date to all but a few nuclear insiders. That afternoon, Byrnes arrived at a small experimental army nuclear reactor for his shift with Legg and a trainee, Richard McKinley. The three were scheduled to perform routine maintenance work. Nothing suggested that it would be anything other than an ordinary night.

But just a few short hours later, the ordinary became extraordinary. The events that unfolded in the crude silo of Stationary Low–Power Unit 1 on that January night would spawn more than four decades of scandalous rumors and speculation in the closed world of the nuclear industry. That one cataclysmic night would underscore the fragile line between the fallibility of man and the complexity of an intricate science. It would also reveal, but only much later, how a government shaped by a pervasive Cold War mentality would protect the then–fledging nuclear industry from public scrutiny.

While there were markers on the road leading to the chaos and calamity of that night—men with increasingly tumultuous personal affairs and a reactor with malfunctioning equipment—it was impossible to predict how these elements would collide in such a mysterious, unprecedented manner. Despite a nuclear testing facility that housed highly sensitive, top–secret equipment and some of the brightest minds of that generation, there was no way to measure, test, or imagine what would happen in the frigid southeastern Idaho desert on that January night. There was no way to predict the disaster.


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Die hilfreichsten Kundenrezensionen
Lange vor dem Reaktorunfall im Kernkraftwerk Three Mile Island (1979) gab es in den USA schon einmal einen Unfall in einer kerntechnischen Anlage. Die Ereignisse rund um diesen Unfall im Versuchsreaktor SL-1 in Idaho Falls am 3. Januar 1961 bilden den Hintergrund für eine spannende tragische Geschichte um zwei der drei Mitarbeiter der letzten Schicht.

Eine Mischung aus Zeitzeugenberichten, offiziellen Dokumenten und Zeitungsartikeln ergeben gut zusammengefasst ein flüssig lesbares Buch, in welchem versucht wird, über 40 Jahre nach dem Ereignis Klarheit in die Sache zu bringen. Wie kam es zu dem Unfall? Wie sicher war der Reaktor? Konnte er bewusst oder unbewusst manipuliert werden? Und: Gab es persönliche Probleme zwischen dem Schichtleiter und einem seiner Mitarbeiter, die zu solch einer Manipulation führten?

Neben detailierten Beschreibungen des Unfallhergangs und seiner Folgen sowie einem Einblick in die Gefühlslage der Zeit (die wahrgenommene Bedrohung durch die UdSSR und die empfundene Erwartung in eine hochriskante Technologie) wird auch von den Schwierigkeiten im Umgang mit der Strahlung berichtet, wie z.B. bei der Beisetzung der radioaktiv verseuchten Opfer oder der Analyse und Demontage des Reaktorgebäudes.

Wer sich nicht zu schade dafür ist, ein paar Vokabeln nachzuschlagen, der kommt auch mit einem durchschnittlichen Schulenglisch gut durch eine wirklich spannende Story - schade trotzdem, dass diese Geschichte bisher nicht ins Deutsche übersetzt wurde ...
War diese Rezension für Sie hilfreich?
Die hilfreichsten Kundenrezensionen auf (beta) 4.0 von 5 Sternen  39 Rezensionen
87 von 91 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
2.0 von 5 Sternen Idaho Falls 10. September 2010
Von Bud Russell - Veröffentlicht auf
The author does a good job with the Accident victims autobiographies, psychology, injuries, and burial preparations.
However his account of the Accident victim's rescue is insulting of the Rescue Team and inaccurate.

The insults include "nerdy engineers"(p.99), "bourbon and water downing bosses"(p.95) and individuals who were"forced to conduct a rescue operation even though they were unprepared"(p.95). In fact they were some of the most courageous, intelligent, experienced, innovative and caring individuals I have ever known. The 4-man rescue team was composed of the following individuals:

Paul Duckworth, the SL-1 Operations Supervisor, who may have been a WWII South-Pacific Campaign ship commander at age 19 and owned the powerful Model 88 Oldsmobile used to race the Rescue Team to the Accident site.

Sidney Cohen, the SL-1 Test supervisor, a WWII, 2nd-wave Normandy Invasion infantryman at age 17 and a "Life Master" bridge player.

William Rausch, the 28-year old SL-1 Assistant Operations Supervisor who had been a Merchant Marine ship engineer with experience in recovery of a fatal shipboard boiler room explosion.

Ed Vallario, the 33-year old SL-1 Health Physicist who was the first team member to be notifed of the post-Accident lethal radioctive conditions and missing operators because he was the designated technical contact for concerns of the SL-1 plant operators and NRTS security and firemen that evening.

William Gammill, the 32-year old, on-duty, AEC Site Survey Chief and a certified Health Physicist who volunteered to assist the rescue team

In 1962 all five men received medals and national recognition for "heriosm in saving human life" from the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission.

The author doesn't even include either Mr. Rausch or Mr. Gammill as Rescue Team members and only provides a complimentary autobiography for Mr. Vallario. Mr. Rausch may have received the greatest radiation dose because his assignment was to confirm the immobile victim, who was closest to the destroyed reactor vessel, was deceased and the only Rescue Team member to see a "bundle of rags" hanging from the reactor room ceiling which was determined by the next reactor room entry group to be the 3rd victim. The author credits Mr. Vallario with making "the recommendation to the other rescue team members to go into the reactor room to find the men regardless of the potentially lethal radiation conditions"(p.100) which doesn't make sense because he was not the senior member of the rescue team and there was no time for a group conference. In addition the author didn't interview the only surviving Rescue Team member, Mr. Rausch.

The Rescue Team members unflinchingly took on an unprecedented and impossible task which they voluntarily executed skillfully without hesitation in about an amazing 60 minutes. The rescue may have been more appropriately accomplished by a full complement of on-duty NRTS firemen, security men, and health physicists or the off-site military officers.

Some of the rescue event accounts in the story are inaccurate but of minor consequence compared to the Rescue Team insults.

This reviewer is a retired (1995) nuclear fuel projects manager with AEC, ERDA & DOE prime contractors including a junior engineer position at the SL-1 plant at the time of the Accident.
39 von 43 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
3.0 von 5 Sternen Memories of Realities 16. Mai 2009
Von A. D. Rossin - Veröffentlicht auf
Format:Kindle Edition|Verifizierter Kauf
I did the calculations and wrote the Safety Analysis Report for the SL-1 reactor. It was called ALPR back then. I did the "worst case scenario" and we studied it. Our design and tools used common sense equipment recognizing what could possibly go badly wrong. Several years later I was shocked to see the headlines of the Chicago Tribune reporting the explosion at SL-1. No secret! Years of studies afterwards revealed that the military operators had made handling tools of their own that short-cutted our common-sense approach. One of these shortcuts turned out to be a weak link in a system that had its own inherent vulnerabilities. I'll read the book. But I doubt that any new secrets are revealed. The AEC extensively revised its safety criteria after the accident. All public information.
25 von 27 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
4.0 von 5 Sternen Important lesson from history 10. Dezember 2003
Von Ein Kunde - Veröffentlicht auf
McKeown does a good job of pulling together the many strands of this story, giving just enough technical detail to know what went wrong, and enough (relevant) human interest to keep the story interesting.

Yes, it's true that Idaho Falls isn't exactly a brand-new 'revelation', but few outside the nuclear industry have heard about it, or know its significance. McKeown shows that the ultimate cause was a failure by the designers of the reactor to take into account Murphy's Law - if something can go wrong, it will. This is a common thread running thru nuclear incidents ranging from Windscale to Chernobyl. With some energy experts now calling for us to embrace nuclear power again in order to meet energy demand without triggering excessive global warming, McKeown's book is a very timely reminder of why and how things went wrong 50 years ago, and what we need to look out for the second time around (if nuclear power is granted one)
36 von 41 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
2.0 von 5 Sternen Sloppily done and biased. 28. September 2010
Von Stewart Gammill - Veröffentlicht auf
My father, William Gammill, was the first health physicist on site. He was one of the ones to actually go into the reactor building in an effort to save the operators; an action for which he and four others received a Carnegie Heroes Medal. To portray them as McKeown did was insulting and false,anyone that called him "nerdy" or worse clearly didn't know anything about him. They performed with heroism that few of us will ever match. He and William Rausch were still alive during the period that the book was written yet was not even mentioned and neither were interviewed. Very sloppy indeed.

This reviewer is the son of William P. Gammill and remembers well the night that his dad went rushing out into the night not knowing whether he was going to be returning. I also discussed the book with him before his death in October of 2008. Shame on McKeown.
21 von 25 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
4.0 von 5 Sternen Fascinating 14. Februar 2004
Von Victor Allen - Veröffentlicht auf
In the interest of full disclosure I will say up front that I am not in any way connected to The Site (locals' name for the facility out on the desert now called the INEEL) I have friends who work there and friends who would love to see it shut down.
That said I think McKeown does an excellent job in telling what's known about the SL-1 accident (if that's what it was) and the rumors that surrounded it. I found it an first-rate read (I read it in two days) and very informative.
McKeown goes to great lengths to delineate between what can be and is known and what is rumor and supposition. He also repeatedly explains (which keeps me from giving the book a 5th star) how different attitudes were then, particulary among the personel working at and responsible for the facility. This is the excuse given and accepted by the author for the lack of disclosure at the time. There's nothing here about what changed, or more importantly, what didn't change, as a result of SL-1.
Its unfortunate that the story of this incident is completely unkown by the general public. Both the heroism of those there immediately after the incident and the behavior of those in charge should be common knowledge. Reading this book goes a long way in correcting that.
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