A gruesome accident

One of the more analyzed and described nuclear accidents was that of Stationary Low-Power Reactor Number 1 (SL-1) at the very beginning of 1961. The reactor was an army one, so it’s not terribly relevant to me. SL-1 was a strange concept from the start, a self-contained building, 14 meters high and 11 meters in diameter, meant to house a handful of soldiers in remote snowbound areas. Power and heat were provided by a tiny 3 MWe reactor. One of its operators suicided by pulling out a control rod. A couple of aspects of the accident will be covered in my book, but here I’d like to point to a wonderful recent book, Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear  Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima. Author James Mahaffey is a physicist and engineer with a number of perceptive books to his name. What I especially like about his work is a fluent and robust style, a pleasure to read in a field most distinguished by dryness and technical lingo. So let me present here one short passage (extracted from a fulsome coverage of the SL-1 accident) for your delectation, hoping to entice you to his full book:

Byrnes and Legg were killed instantly, not by the intense radiation surge, but by the explosive shock of two billion billion fissions, 15 megawatt seconds of energy, and an air pressure wave of 500 pounds per square inch. McKinley died two hours later of a massive head wound, inflicted by the concrete shield block as he was thrown backwards. All three men had fission products, built up by the reactor running at full power for two years and turned to nascent vapor in the sudden heat of prompt fission, buried deep in their bodies. There was no way to simply wash away the contamination. It seemed embedded in every tissue. Legg was pinned to the ceiling with a piece of the master control. The reactor internals were an unrecognizable tangle of twisted parts, and water, gravel, and steel punchings were scattered all over the reactor building floor. The crude steel building, which was meant only to house the equipment and keep the rain off, managed to prevent a scattering of radioactive debris, and outside it was hard to tell that anything had happened. The plant was a total loss, and everything would have to be carefully disposed of, leaving not a trace of radioactive contamination or subjecting any worker to an abnormal dose. The three bodies were so deeply and severely contaminated, they would have to be treated as high-level radioactive waste. Autopsies were performed quickly, behind lead shields with instruments on 10-foot poles.


Mahaffey, James. 2014. Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters from the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima. Pegasus, loc. 2816