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1961 Nuclear Power Plant Accident

Date: 03-28-09
Host: Ian Punnett
Guests: Todd Tucker

Historian Todd Tucker spoke about a tragic episode in the U.S. military's race to develop nuclear power, examined in his new book Atomic America.

Tucker said three branches of armed forces (and some civilian organizations) had set up experimental nuclear reactors at the National Reactor Testing Station in rural Idaho. While the Navy was having success with a nuclear power plant to allow their submarines to stay submerged for months at a time, the Air Force was trying to overcome insurmountable engineering obstacles and build a nuclear powered jet, he explained.

Not to be outdone, the Army began developing a portable nuclear reactor, the SL-1, that could be used to power radar stations and bases in the Arctic Circle. The Army had already constructed a proof-of-concept prototype at Camp Century, a nuclear powered facility built beneath the icy surface of Greenland, Tucker pointed out. However, the Army's SL-1 reactor had at a critical design flaw that would prove deadly for three people on the night of January 3, 1961.

During a routine maintenance procedure, a single control rod was raised "too far and too fast," Tucker said, resulting in a massive explosion that destroyed the reactor and killed operators Jack Byrnes, Dick Legg, and Richard McKinley. Each victim was buried in heavily-shielded, lead-lined casket, after the head, arms and hands had been removed, he added.

Flood Update

Appearing briefly at the start of the program, investigative reporter Bob McNaney provided an update on the Red River Valley flood.

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