America's Deadliest Nuke Disaster

By Winchester, Simon | Newsweek, April 4, 2011 | Go to article overview

America's Deadliest Nuke Disaster


Winchester, Simon, Newsweek


Byline: Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester on the mysterious mishap that killed three men in 1961 Idaho.

In a scattering of graveyards around the U.S.--one of them at Arlington Nation Cemetery in Washington, D.C., the others in New York and Michigan--are three bizarre tombs, each of which holds a lead-lined coffin buried extra-deep and covered with many feet of concrete. The graves hold the still highly radioactive remains of three young servicemen, named Richard Legg, John Byrnes, and Richard McKinley, who died in this country's only fatal nuclear accident--a total fuel meltdown that occurred when an atomic reactor went suddenly and disastrously critical.

The accident--though some credible accounts hint it might have been a murder-suicide--occurred at an experimental reactor in the great, top-secret expanse of what was then known as the National Reactor Testing Station in eastern Idaho.

The ill-fated reactor, known as SL-1, was a prototype for a Pentagon plan to power all of its early-warning DEW-line radar bases with small atomic-generating stations. It was a relatively simple structure, just a nine-ton cluster of uranium fuel rods huddled around a single control rod--the slow removal of which allowed a controlled chain reaction that boiled the water to drive a turbine generator.

On Tuesday, Jan. 3, 1961, the three young operators were called in to restart the reactor after its 11-day holiday shutdown. The rules demanded that the control rod be slowly pulled out by four inches--but for some unexplained reason, Byrnes pulled it up swiftly by more than two feet, causing the reactor to surge instantly to a state known as prompt critical--to, in effect, blow up.

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