The Radium Trials

September 28, 2010

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

 Copyright © 2010 by Charles Glassmire


Sept. 28, 2010

The Radium Trials

           On May 18, 1927, a young attorney from Newark New Jersey, Raymond Berry, filed suit against the United States Radium Corporation, on behalf of a former Radium watch-dial painter employee, Grace Fryer. He had taken the case on contingency, and four other watch-dial painters quickly joined the lawsuit as they were already suffering severe medical complications. Their names were Katherine Schaub, two sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice, and Edna Hussman, who collectively became known in the (fascinated) press as “the Radium Girls”.

          The company employed young women to manually paint glowing radium compounds onto the faces of watches, so they would glow in the dark. The girls were encouraged to twirl the brush in their mouth to sharpen the point, thus swallowing a small amount of paint. The litigants alleged their medical problems resulted from Radium radiation. The lawsuit asked for damages of $250,000 for each of the five injured women workers.

          One reason the press was so “fascinated” by the case was due to the interest of one of the most powerful New York newspapers,  The New York World (a Pulitzer founded newspaper.) One of the editors was a “journalist” named Walter Lippmann. He had earned the reputation of being a notorious muckracker, contributing much to the success of the paper. The case was brought to his attention by an organization called the National Consumers League.  The League was created in the year 1899 to combat labor injustice, and particularly the use of child labor in industry. (At this time, one of its board members was a woman named Eleanor Roosevelt.) The League’s chairman was Katherine Wiley. She was interested in the Radium case, and called it to Lippman’s attention. Perhaps she was aware of the power of the press to dictate what America was thinking.

          Four Radium workers had already perished in the period from 1922 to 1926. One was a sister of the two sisters now enjoined in the lawsuit. The expired woman’s dentist had treated her dental problems while alive, and he had removed her jawbone during the final months of life. Suspecting an industrial disease, he wrapped the jawbone with photographic film, and after a week of exposure, was perhaps not surprised to find the imprint of the jawbone shape on the exposed photographic film. This indicated the jaw was radioactive and suggested Radium Necrosis. During the trial the body was exhumed, autopsied, and confirmed to be highly radioactive.

          New Jersey had a statute of limitations for worker damages of two years. This could mean the two years Grace Fryer had spent seeking an attorney for the case had exceeded the required filing date. The company argued the filing was too late and should be dismissed. The women’s attorney countered that the company had conducted a campaign of disinformation, calling the women victims of Syphilis, or Phospho Jaw, ( a common 18th century disease from an industry which manufactured kitchen matches.) Because of this lack of information, he told the court, the workers were uninformed of the impending dangers. The case was allowed to proceed.

          In late 1927 a reporter for a newspaper called the Star Eagle discovered that U.S. Radium had already reached out-of-court settlements with some families of deceased radium workers. It was revealed that in 1926, the company had already paid out $13,000 to three families. This finding seemed to connote an acceptance of responsibility by U.S. Radium. Attorney Berry introduced evidence the company was aware of the dangers of Radium. One of the company’s publications dated 1906 which was sent to doctors, contained many references to the dangers of Radium.

Comic Book Ad sells Radium Scope to Children

          Legal maneuvering by the company delayed the next hearing until January of 1928. The women continued to get sicker. Three of the five became bedridden, including Grace. She could no longer walk unassisted, and required a back brace to sit up in bed.  Appearing in court, some of the women were too weak to raise their arms to take the oath. Edna testified she could not sleep at night because of pain and that she was losing her house due to legal expenses. She said she was “content” though, for her children were to be cared for by her immediate family. Spectators wept in the courtroom. The newspapers covered the story by interviewing readers asking them how they might spend a quarter million dollar settlement with only one year to live.  

          The next hearing was in April of 1928, but the women were too sick to attend. The company requested a delay of the case until the following September because most of their witnesses would be traveling to Florida or Europe for summer vacations, and would not be available to testify. Obligingly, the judge continued the case until September. Attorney Berry protested the delay vigorously, reminding the judge the women might not survive the summer. He even found other attorneys who were willing to yield their court dates in the summer over to the radium trial. To no avail, the judge insisted on September. *

          Newspaperman Walter Lippmann had taken up a cry for justice in his editorials. He wrote

“…The whole thing becomes a legal nightmare when in order to obtain justice five women have to go to court and prove that they are dying while lawyers and experts on the other side [argue in the newspapers]…” Lippmann and the Consumers League  had successfully battled a case in 1925 about leaded gasoline against the Standard Oil Company and saw this situation in a similar light. When he heard of the judge’s postponement of the case Lippmann wrote

“…This is a heartless proceeding. It is unmanly, unjust and cruel. This is a case which calls not for fine-spun litigation but for simple, quick, direct justice…”

          Physicians began to object to the postponement, saying these reminders of impending death would worsen conditions of the five women. Even Madame Curie, hearing of the case, responded from France that French workers used cotton swabs on a stick to paint the dials, and better methods must be developed. The public sent thousands of sympathy letters and more radium “cures” arrived to help the women recover.  Facing mounting public outrage, the judge finally moved the case forward to June 1928.

          In early June, U.S. District Court Judge William Clark stepped forward and offered to negotiate a settlement among the parties. A few days before the trial was to continue a settlement was reached. The “Radium Girls” agreed to receive a settlement of $10,000 each, plus a stipend of $600.00 each year as long as they lived. The U.S. Radium Corporation agreed to pay all medical bills, past and future. It was a far cry from the quarter million each woman had sued for. Attorney Berry was skeptical of the judge, implying his upscale situation put him in the  “employers camp”.  Weeks after the settlement was in place, Berry discovered that the Judge was a stockholder in the U.S. Radium Corporation.

          The Radium Girls all died in the  1920s and ‘30s. Could it be argued their suffering was not in vain? There were other Radium plants scattered through the United States, and mining operations in Colorado. The National Consumers League began to mobilize its chapters to inspect Radium plants. Medical Examiners from New York and New Jersey met with the League and soon the U.S. Surgeon General, (supported by the New York World of course)  organized a national conference on Radium factory safety standards. It was held in December 1928. Resulting from this, P.H.S. formed two committees to oversee safety standards and worker protection from the Federal level. No other Radium workers died from the effects, and workers were better protected in the future. Turning much more slowly, the wheels of the legal system gradually ground out stricter laws for worker protection and defined “worker abuse” more clearly, allowing more effective pursuit of claims.

          Commenting on the case, one Public Health official observed later  …the martyrdom of a few may have saved many…”

 (to be continued)


*Details of the Radium Trials may be found in “Mass Media & Environmental   Conflict” by Mark Neuzil and Bill Kovarik. Sage Publications 1996.

The Radium Girls

September 13, 2010

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

Copyright © 2010 by Charles Glassmire


Sept. 13, 2010

The Radium Girls

Founded by two physicians, the United States Radium Corporation appeared in Orange New Jersey in the year 1921. The


company had started up six years earlier in Newark, as the Radium Luminous Material Corporation. U.S. Radium used a process invented in 1902 by William J. Hammer, to create a radioactive paint which glowed in the dark. Hammer mixed radium with zinc sulfide, and the radiation caused the sulfide to fluoresce. Sadly, he did not patent his process. U.S. Radium saw success selling painted products to the Army.

The product was called UNDARK. It was painted onto the dials of watches and later, clocks and aircraft instruments; the military in World War I found the glow-in-the-dark watches very useful for soldiers in combat. The company hired workers to do the precise manual work of painting the tiny letters and numbers by hand onto a watch face using a small paintbrush. UNDARK at first didn’t move into the U.S. civilian market, but it proved extremely popular as a European product, especially in Switzerland, maker of the world’s clocks. Quoting one world traveler named Ross Mullner,

“There were so many radium painters in that country that it was common to recognize them on the streets even on the darkest nights because of the glow around them; their hair sparkled almost like a halo.”

So by 1921, U.S. Radium was hiring over a hundred workers to hand-paint UNDARK onto the clock faces of their products. The workers were mostly women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, since it was said they adapted well to the precise nature of the work.  No safety precautions were taken when the workers handled their individual paint pots and brushes. The wages were rather good, workers were paid 1.5 cents each if they painted 250 dials per day.

Radium Dial Painters at Work

It is not clear whether the dangers of radiation were known to the general population when dial painting began during the war. This was a time when radioactive materials were moving into many products on the market, and conventional wisdom seemed to be that “Radiation is good for you”.

The small size of numbers being painted on a watch face required a fine point on the paintbrush. The women were trained to create a fine tip by twirling the brush in their mouth, and shaping the point with their lips. This was needed to be done every few brushstrokes. In the process, a small amount of paint was swallowed. Women were told it was harmless and encouraged to experiment with the material for fun. Girls painted their fingernails with the product and on their lips as a lipstick. Some painted it onto their front teeth to surprise their boyfriends when the lights went out. It was later noted that management of U.S. Radium and corporate scientists did take precautions to isolate themselves from handling the product. They wore masks, used lead screens, tongs and gloves when working with the radium paint. Workers were not given these precautions.

Within a few years, some of the women began to show what appeared at first to be unrelated medical problems. Aplastic anemia, broken bones, tooth loss and necrosis of the jaw (now known as “Radium Jaw”) were diagnosed. U.S. Radium denied there was any harm caused by the paint. The company requested doctors and dentists not to release any information on these diagnoses, particularly to the press. In at least one occurrence, a girl worker went to a “physician” who examined her and then declared her to be perfectly healthy. An observer “physician” present in the room agreed with the conclusions. He was later revealed to be a Vice President of U.S. Radium Corporation. The examining “doctor”, only a toxicologist, later was shown to have no medical credentials.

Workers began to die. The company denied all responsibility and conducted a campaign of dis-information. Deaths were attributed to other causes. Rumors were spread that some of the women were dying from Syphilis in order to discredit them.

Finally a former dial painter named Grace Fryer became alarmed. She had worked for the company from 1917 to 1920, then moved on to a better job in a bank. She thought it was rather odd when she blew her nose that the handkerchief glowed in the dark. Two years later her teeth began falling out. Serious abscesses and pain  in her jaw led to an X-ray which showed her jawbone was badly decayed. Many doctors could not identify the cause, until finally one suggested it might be her Radium work. By 1925, she decided to sue her former employer, but searched for two more years to find a lawyer who was willing to challenge U.S. Radium in court. Meanwhile more were dying, others were given a prognosis of “one year remaining to live”.

Four factory workers with similar problems decided to join Grace in her lawsuit. The press later dubbed them “The Radium Girls”. There was almost no legal precedent in the labor laws at this time defining worker rights when abused by an employer. Adding to the confusion, the still little known effects of radiation were under dispute by the medical community. Governing labor safety standards were rather vague and did not provide a strong standard to show “provable suffering”. But what became different about this case was that the media took an interest, perhaps out of sensationalism, and began to follow and report in detail on the proceedings.

In the early ‘20s, U.S. Radium actually requested a Harvard physiology professor, Cecil Drinker, to study the working conditions in the New Jersey plant. He did so, and found almost all the workers had unusual blood conditions. Radium contamination was widespread in the area and on bodies of some of the workers. He also diagnosed advanced radium necrosis in a few. He talked with the corporation chemist, Ed Lehman, noticing his handling of radium was careless, and the man had lesions on both his hands. Drinker said the chemist

“…scoffed at the possibility of future damage…The attitude was characteristic of those in authority throughout the plant. There seemed to be an utter lack of realization of the dangers inherent in the material being manufactured…”.

Lehman died the following year.

When Drinker went to publish his report, recommending changes in safety procedures, he was legally enjoined by the president of U.S. Radium, Arthur Roeder, who claimed Drinker had agreed to confidentiality. Roeder, while prohibiting Drinker from publishing, said he had a copy of Drinker’s report which claimed “every girl is in perfect condition”. When Drinker finally did publish, his report stated

“… Dust samples collected in the workroom from various locations and from chairs not used by the workers were all luminous in the dark room. Their hair, faces, hands, arms, necks, the dresses, the underclothes, even the corsets of the dial painters were luminous. One of the girls showed luminous spots on her legs and thighs. The back of another was luminous almost to the waist…”

In 1925 the chief medical examiner of Essex County, New Jersey finally issued a report. The report cited the radioactive material ingested by the women as causative for bone cancer, aplastic anemia, jawbone infections and other effects of radiation.

Finally in the spring of 1927, Grace Fryer’s attorney filed suite in New Jersey, asking $250,000 compensation on her behalf. When the Radium girls appeared in court, most were too weak to raise their arms to take the oath…

(to be continued …)

Drink Radithor!

August 30, 2010

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

 Copyright © 2010 by Charles M. Glassmire


Aug. 30, 2010

Drink Radithor!

           After the Curies’ discovery, the new radioactive Radium seemed to take Paris by storm. It glowed spontaneously, had no source of energy, and there was this young woman scientist who was wont to remove a tube of the stuff from her smock pocket and dazzle the onlookers with magic that glowed in the dark! Soon Pierre discovered that the mysterious rays could destroy cancer cells. Now the fame of this material spread to other countries.  The medical profession quickly took up the cause of what seemed to be an amazing cure.

          Marie noted “one of our joys was to go into our workroom at night…the glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights…”

          Soon, in the early 1900’s, a thriving industry based on Radium began to bring products to market for health improvement, cosmetics and cancer prevention. An industrialist named Armet de Lisle started a factory to make medical products containing Radon and Radium salts, and the Curies advised him on their techniques for refining Pitchblend. They did not patent the processes they created, believing pure science should operate for the betterment of humanity. De Lisle did provide them with quantities of Radium salts for use in their work.

          Soon products with names like Tho-Radia, Undark, and Radithor began to move off the shelves. Radiation is good for you,

Ad for Tho-Radia

helps your complexion, gives you a healthy glow. Use Uranium blankets for arthritis, wear a radiation pendant for Rheumatism, take Thorium laced medicine to aid digestion.

          The Radiendocrinator   was a 3 inch gold case containing 250 microcuries of Radium (a serious quantity). One took it to bed and placed it over the endocrine glands! Alternatively, the maker advised men to “Wear the adaptor like an athletic supporter…putting the instrument under the scrotum as it should be. Wear at night. Radiate as directed…”

          One company sold a water cooler five gallon jug, to sit atop the office water cooler billed as “Natural Radon Water”.  There was one small detail. Radon has a half life of only three days. By the time the water hit the market most of the Radon was gone. But the list seemed endless, and the public marveled all the more at these strange new miracle substances. Radiation was new, exciting, and good for you.

          The entrance of fraudulent products into this market introduced a bizarre and ironic twist. Some companies sold

Ad for the Revigator

harmless false products containing no radiation and thus causing no harm. They were soon shut down by authorities because they did not contain the high doses of  radiation claimed on the package!  

          The new Radiation Industry quickly spread to the United States. In the U.S, Radium cures reached their maximum popularity during the 1920’s.  The Revigator, a crock pot lined with radioactive ore, produced radioactive water overnight. It was manufactured by a company of the same name, headquartered in San Francisco. Patented in 1912, sales were so brisk the company created branch offices across the United States. Sales reached several hundred thousand units.

          Do you have high blood pressure, goitre, stomach cramps, female trouble, kidney problems, constipation? Dr. C. Davis wrote in the American Journal of Clinical Medicine  that

          “Radioactivity prevents insanity, rouses noble emotions, retards old age, and creates a splendid youthful joyous life…”

          By the early 1930’s one could buy radium-containing toothpaste, beauty creams, chocolate bars, soap, ear plugs, suppositories and contraceptives.

          In East Orange New Jersey, a company sprang up with the name of the Bailey Radium Laboratories, Inc. They sold “Certified Radioactive Water” for drinking, under the trade name of Radithor.  The company head, “Dr.” William J. Bailey, made Radithor  by dissolving Radium in water to a very high concentration level. Mr. Bailey was a Harvard drop-out, who claimed (falsely) to be a medical doctor. The product was making him rich. He gave any doctor who prescribed Radithor  a 17% kickback on the price of each scrip. But Radithor was to have the dubious honor of causing at least one death.

A bottle of Radithor

          Enter Mr. Eben McBurney Byers. He was born in Pittsburgh Pa.’s North Side on Ridge Avenue, on the 12th of April, 1880. He was the son of Steel Industrialist Alexander Byers. Educated at Yale College, he gained the college reputation of a serious golfer and somewhat of a ladies man to boot. He went on to become the U.S. Amateur Golf Champion of 1906, and later became CEO of the Girard Iron Company, one of his father’s creations.

          In 1927 Eben chartered a private train to attend the Harvard-Yale football game. On the way home, perhaps a little dizzy, he fell from the upper bunk on the train and injured his arm. Suffering from pain,  he consulted Pittsburgh physician Dr. C.C. Moyar, who prescribed Radithor. It was supposed to cure by stimulating the endocrine system. Instructions on the bottle suggested patients drink from the bottle itself, and swallow an entire bottle after a meal. Eben did so, and felt very much better after the first bottle. So much better, in fact, that he decided if one bottle worked, many bottles would work even better. He began consuming three bottles of Radithor each day.

          Radium works like Barium or Calcium in the human body. When digested, it travels to the bone marrow and sits there to the end of its life. The main isotope of Radium (Ra226) has a half life of 1,601 years. Half of it disappears in that amount of time. So the atoms of Radium sit in the bone and bombard the local bone tissue with Alpha particle radiation. It is reasonably certain this agitation to the cells can ultimately induce cancer. (It is important to distinguish here from the modern Radium treatments for Cancer patients. These treatments can be quite effective, and we note that the Radium in these treatments never enters the body; thus no additional dangers are encountered by the patient).

          Radithor was a mixture of one microgram of Radium and one microgram of Thorium compounds (Thorium was cheaper), per bottle. It seemed to lessen Eben’s pain. He told his friends, and cases of Radithor  began arriving at his Pittsburgh address, at $30 per (depression era) case. Later he also shipped cases to his South Carolina address. Eben, at age 50, continued Radithor for quite some time. After about a year be began to lose the “toned-up feeling”. He began suffering severe headaches, and losing weight. Pain developed in other parts of his body, especially in the jaw. He lost several teeth. It was later estimated he had consumed over 1400 bottles of Radithor. Finally an expert was consulted and a diagnosis of radiation poisoning was issued.  By this time his bone structure was actually crumbling. Finally his entire jaw had to be removed. He died in great pain in a New York hospital at age 51, in March of 1932.

          The Herald Tribune accused Dr. Moyar of having several hundred patients suffering from Radithor effects. He denied these charges, claiming he himself consumed as much of the water as Byers took, and still felt quite healthy. He said Byers had died from blood complications which caused gout.

          When Eben’s case hit the New York newspapers, Bailey, owner of the Radithor Company, closed its doors and stopped manufacturing the product. There was an investigation and eventually a “cease and desist” order was issued by the FTC, long after the company had disappeared. Bailey was never charged for Byers’ death. Undaunted, he continued to market radioactive products, founding a new company in New York called the “Radium Institute”. He marketed radioactive belt buckles, paperweights and a mechanism to make water radioactive.

          Commenting on Eben Byers’ death, the Wall Street Journal  observed “The Radium Water worked fine until his Jaw came off.”

          And the Radium story has more to tell …

 (to be continued …) 


Mystery Rays

August 15, 2010

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

 Copyright © 2010 by Charles Glassmire


Aug. 15, 2010

Mysterious Rays

           Manya Sklodlwska (Curie) was born the last of five siblings in 1867 in Warsaw, which was then under the Czarist rule of the Russian Empire. Poland hadn’t been independent for almost a century. Her parents taught Physics and Chemistry, but it was illegal to teach Polish citizens, and forbidden even to speak their native language.

          “Constantly held in suspicion and spied upon, we children     knew that a single conversation in Polish, or an imprudent word, might seriously harm themselves, and also their families…”                      Marie Curie

            Her father read the classics to her some evenings, and her parents fostered her education in the sciences. She graduated from high school first in her class and received a gold medal, even though it required shaking the hand of the (Russian) Education Director. Being an intelligent woman in a man’s world, she was rejected from university study because she was female. She then studied at an illegal night school called the Floating University. The classes constantly moved location around the city to avoid the Czar’s watchful men.

          Finally, at age 24 and fleeing a broken love relationship, she traveled to Paris where her sister was studying to become a medical doctor, and enrolled in the University of Paris (Sorbonne). It was there in 1891, that she changed her name to Marie. Living in a flat in the Latin Quarter, she suffered from the

cold and sometimes fainted for lack of food.

           “…my situation was not exceptional; it was the familiar experience of many of the Polish students whom I knew…”

Marie wrote later.

          Her diligence eventually paid dividends, finishing first in her Physics course and being awarded a scholarship and some lab space to continue study. In 1894 she shared the lab space with a scientist studying magnetism, a topic of her own research. His name was Pierre Curie.

           “Our work drew us closer and closer, until we were both convinced that neither of us could find a better life companion…”  Marie observed.

           In 1895 they were married in a civil ceremony. She wore a simple blue suit which served later for many years as a laboratory

The Honeymooners

smock. There was no exchange of rings. They took their honeymoon by touring France on two bicycles, purchased with a wedding gift.

          Having earned a degree in Physics, Marie was now pursuing her Doctorate and she urged Pierre to do so. He was an experienced researcher of some 15 years, and in March of 1985 he was awarded the Doctorate.  She chose to study the mysterious rays given off by Uranium salts as her thesis topic; this phenomenon was first reported by Becquerel in 1896. He noted they appeared to be like X-rays, and he soon became Marie’s thesis advisor. Pierre soon found her studies much more interesting than his own, and joined her in her investigations.

          Pierre had invented an instrument which measured the ionization of air. They could quantify the ray emissions by measuring the charged air around the samples. Studying the mineral Pitchblende, they soon found Pitchblende gave off four times more rays than the Uranium it contained. This meant there must be something else in the sample giving off additional rays!  And it was far more active than elemental Uranium. She soon discovered that the element Thorium also gave off these rays. The physical nature of these emanations was a challenging mystery.

          In 1898 they published the existence of another active element which Marie named “Polonium”, after her native Poland. She began to refer to these unknown emissions as “radiation”. Soon elements which gave off the rays were spoken of as “radioactive”.

          The research involved manual grinding of Pitchblende into a powder. They were unaware of the physical effects of radiation, and their hands began to show the effects. The mysterious element made up only a tiny percentage of the pitchblende ore, making it necessary to grind tons of the material for refining.

          Finally in 1902 they announced isolation of one tenth of a gram of the new material, named radium (chloride). It was to be eight more years before Marie was able to isolate the Radium metal itself.  In a darkened room, the material was found to give off a strange and fascinating blue-white glow.

          In 1903 the Royal Swedish Academy awarded the Curies and Becquerel the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discoveries. Marie became the first woman ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize. Soon she was awarded her Doctorate by the University of Paris. The financial proceeds from the award allowed them to expand their research and increase efforts.  Their fame now spread throughout the scientific world. In 1904 she gave birth to her second daughter.

          Pierre was showing an increasing deterioration of his health. He became weak and petitioned for a leave from teaching due to health reasons. His weakened body probably saw the effects of close work with radioactive materials. In 1906, on the way to a meeting in Paris, he was crossing the street in the rain, and slipped on the cobblestones. He fell under the wheels of an approaching team of horses hauling tons of materials, and tragically lost his life.

          She was devastated by the loss and described herself then as “…an incurably and wretchedly lonely person…”. The Sorbonne Physics Department gave her the chair occupied by Pierre, and as the first female professor at the University of Paris, the appointment allowed here more authority in supervising her laboratory and research. Now Polish scientists began to ask her to return to Warsaw to do her research.

          In 1911 she was awarded a second Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the separation of Radium. She established the government funded Radium Institute in 1914, where study continued on the strange metal, and it fostered four more Nobel Prize winners, including her daughter Irene.

          Fascinated by the glow of this material, Marie began to store tubes of it in her lab desk to show visitors, and she often carried

Radium Photographed by its own light.

around test tubes full in her pockets because of the pretty light it gave off.  There were no safety precautions. She began to show a familiar weakness and a painful distortion of her hands as time wore on.

          The penetrating power of these rays through the human body was recognized early on by Becquerel. It was known these rays could make the bones under the skin visible on a photographic plate, and Marie established portable X-ray units during World War I in armored vehicles , using tubes of Radon gas (given off by Radium decay) to examine war wounded. The Radon tubes came from her own industrial plant which manufactured Radium products.

          Society became quickly fascinated with the uses for this amazing new glowing material. It seemed to have a magical source of energy to emit light with no known power source. An industry quickly sprang up selling various Radium products to an eager public, which we will discuss next.

          Marie Curie died on July 4, 1934, a victim of aplastic anemia. This disease is one of the symptoms of radiation poisoning.  However, the effects of the Mystery Rays of Radium were only beginning to be felt upon society…

 (to be continued …)

SL-1: Aftermath

August 1, 2010

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

Copyright © 2010 by Charles Glassmire


July 31, 2010

SL-1: Aftermath

           Examination of metal parts from the bodies and other evidence soon determined that the SL-1 reactor had gone “prompt critical”. This sudden release of a burst of thermal neutrons had occurred within a tiny fraction of a second, actually estimated at about  4 milliseconds ( 4/1000 of a second). But it was to take almost two years of investigation by a team of physicists and engineers before the strange sequence of events and mechanics of what had happened that cold night were finally known.

          This reactor accident was unprecedented in the history of the nuclear industry. These were the first industrial casualties in the existence of the Atomic Energy Commission. The Commission Headquarters immediately appointed an investigations committee, and a separate technical advisory committee, all arriving by January 4. The Joint Committee on Atomic Energy sent one of its staff to be an independent investigator. Some Atomic Energy Labs sent their own personnel to help uncover the mystery. Military representatives arrived from al three services. Army volunteers came from a special Chemical Radiological Unit based at the Dugway Proving Grounds to assist and learn from the event. Radiation fields inside the containment building were still very high.

          Since all the personnel had been accounted for as beyond saving, the  new task was to determine if the reactor was stable, or capable of additional problems. The cause of the accident was still mysterious. Most of the water had been evaporated from the core by a burst of heat. It was now re-condensed several inches deep on the reactor building floor. Water is a neutron moderator. This means it slows down neutrons to a slow speed where they can fission a Uranium 235 nucleus. So the more water present in the core the higher the core reactivity and the more fission heat is generated. Examinations by a remote video camera, and supporting calculations soon showed the core was stable without the water moderator in place. This was a small bit of good news and also a credit to the reactor designers. The nations Press had arrived en masse.

          Aircraft radiation monitors reported the roof of the reactor building was intact, which was a small miracle in itself. This reactor was built before the days of industrial containment vessels. Now a days all American reactors are built inside a steel containment “cage”. This is a several inch thick steel bottle designed strong enough to trap any exhaust gases, explosions and other radiation events, so that nothing is released to the environment. New Containment vessels are now designed to even resist the impact of a jet airliner crash. But the SL-1 building was little more than a large circular housing around the reactor. It was amazing the structure had resisted the forces in play. The survey Aircraft reported that a cloud of Iodine 131 had escaped and floated downwind, but was quickly dispersed by the winds and decayed to harmless levels. No other escaped isotopes were detected in the surrounding desert and highways.

          But the fundamental mystery remained. What was the cause of this event? Inside, the SL-1 was a disastrous mess. Timed by Health Physics personnel, cleanup crews of volunteers wearing dosimeters dashed in, received their quarterly dose of radiation and retired from radiation work for three months. Holes were drilled into the bottom of the core to photograph the core elements. It was determined that some of the Uranium fuel had melted from the burst of intense heat. It was decided the entire reactor should be disassembled and examined piece by piece in Hot Cells. The Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Project (ANP) had been recently shut down, and unemployed technicians from that project were able to utilize the giant Hot Cell remote exam rooms to study the pieces.

          After months of cleanup work, it came time to remove the core pressure vessel via a crane. Engineers worried about

SL-1 Core Pressure Vessel

disconnecting the array of piping which connected the core pressure vessel to the rest of the building. This would involve long hours of welding in a radiation environment. There was not a large supply of welders to take the dose. Then photography revealed that the piping and metal connections to the building were already severed! The pressure vessel was already free floating in position.

          The ceiling of the reactor room was examined closely, and deep gouge marks in the ceiling, nine feet above the core, matched the pattern of rods protruding out of the top of the pressure vessel itself. Thus the entire steel reactor pressure vessel containing the core had been exploded upward out of its position with great force, severing all piping connections, hitting the ceiling of the building and then falling back into its resting place!

          Scratches on the guide tube of the main control rod showed it had been quickly extracted by the technician working there, to a length of 23 inches out of the core instead of the required 4 inches. This was unprecedented, pushing the core into instant super critical condition. This had caused an instant burst of fission neutrons and released a hugh amount of fission heat. The core coolant water instantly flashed into steam, expanding and hitting the inside top of the pressure vessel with the large force of a water hammer. This impact had blown the pressure vessel upwards to impact the ceiling, severing all metal supports, piping and electrical connections, and killing the technician working there before falling back to rest. All within a small fraction of a second. Calculations later verified the accuracy of this scenario .

          There are some who say the control rods had a documented history of sticking when withdrawn, and the technician had jerked too hard on the rod. A cladding had been welded to the side of the rods, and as it aged it had changed dimension slightly, interfering with easy sliding of the rods in their holes. There are those who say that procedures had not been well documented by the operator, and the military crews had been inadequately trained. There are some who say a technicians companion had played a physical joke from behind him at a critical moment, causing a reflexive muscle jerk on the rod. And there are some who say that the rod was intentionally jerked up beyond its safety limits by a technician whose wife had deserted him and told him to never come home again. This then becomes a tale of the first suicide by nuclear reactor in the brief history of the nuclear age …

 (to be continued …)

SL-1 (part 3)

July 17, 2010

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

 Copyright © 2010 by Charles Glassmire


July 17, 2010

SL-1 (part 3)


          The SL-1 accident in January of 1961 was rather unique in the history of U.S. Nuclear Power. Even the later Three Mile Island event seemed to have much less consequence in the area of human life. Because this was the first serious scale U.S. accident since World War II with unconfined damage, there had been little planning for such an event. The NRTS safety planners had not quite envisioned such an occurrence, and so there was little pre-planning for the unique circumstances of this incident. This was, in the long view, an education for the entire nuclear industry. It was an education after the fact, but much was learned for future new planning and emergency procedures. No one had faced these unique circumstances before.  The decisions and events confronted in these few days were to evolve into industry wide safety techniques, and new design wisdoms. For example, no reactor was ever again designed with only one main control rod for operation.

          Let us return to the strange events of that first night. Relay teams of radiation workers have recovered the body of Army Private Jack Byrnes, which still shows movement and some signs of life on a stretcher. Air Force Trainee McKinley lay expired still inside. The whereabouts of Seabee Dick Legg is still unknown at the late hour.

          As Byrnes is removed from the radiation field in the main building, he is found to still be highly radioactive. His body is undressed, on the assumption that the contamination is on the surface of the clothes. But even after the clothes are removed and buried, there is still a dangerously high local radiation field around the body; too high for personnel to be near for more than a few minutes. The man’s body seemingly has been penetrated with radioactive particles and debris, suggesting some sort of explosive event. At first a chemical explosion is suspected.     

          Byrnes is put into an ambulance and driven towards the main road, to meet the NRTS night nurse, Hazel Leisen, who valiantly enters the vehicle to administer care.  At 11 p.m. Byrnes breathes his last, and she is unable to resuscitate him. The Assistant Medical Director enters and pronounces the man is dead.

          The local medical facility is unequipped to handle a highly radioactive corpse. There is literally no place to put him. Radiation levels nearby are over 500 r/hour. All personnel abandon the vehicle. The now lifeless body remains inside, and the ambulance is closed up. The driver heads the vehicle out into the desert sands, and as the vehicle speeds up the driver jumps out from the driver’s seat allowing the ambulance to proceed unmanned into the seventeen degree below zero desert night . It is hoped the contamination will decay to approachable levels within a short time.*

          Since the third man (Navy Electrician’s Mate Richard Legg) has presumably expired in a high radiation field, work is now slowed to accommodate safety of the rescue crews. On the evening of January 4th the second body (McKinley) is removed by one-minute teams. It is necessary to discover what had exactly happened, and radioactive Gold from McKinley’s watch band is removed, along with a small Copper screw from his cigarette lighter. These are examined and the presence of new isotopes show evidence that a nuclear excursion of the reactor core  emitted a sudden burst of neutrons. It remains to determine what has caused this strange event.

          As more crews dash in they recount massive observed damage inside the building.  Finally someone looks up to observe a stunning sight. The main control rod is observed to be stuck into the ceiling of the building, nine feet above the reactor core where it should have rested. With amazing force the control rod had passed through the body of the third man working on the top of the reactor, and Legg’s body was now seen to be stuck to the ceiling of the reactor building, pinned and impaled there by the reactor control rod which had passed through his corpse!

          Radiation levels were prohibitive for several more days . On January 9th,  four relay teams of two men each were allotted 65 seconds exposure times. A new dangerous situation now existed. If any pieces of the body should fall down into the reactor core, it could initiate a reactor criticality event. A crane was carefully moved in and metal shields installed to isolate the operators cab from the radiation. The body was finally removed by means of a net arrangement. Forensic examination revealed some body parts were highly radioactive. These parts were wrapped in lead foil before the bodies were turned over to the respective services for shipping to locations specified by the families.  A health physicist accompanied the shipment of each cadaver. The bodies were buried in lead lined caskets and encased in cement. Air Force Specialist McKinley is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. 

           Retrieval and disposal of the bodies finally ended what was termed to be “Phase One” of the SL-1 investigation. Subsequent examination of long scratches on the side of the control rod and guide tube seemed to indicate it had been withdrawn to a distance of 26 inches instead of the specified 4 inches. This added to the mystery of this strange event, and opened a whole series of new possible incidents leading to the catastrophic climax. Phase Two is  begun to stabalize and clean up the reactor, and methodically examine the clues left behind to uncover how this bizarre sequence of events had occurred …

(to be continued …)

*In a later account, Dr. George Voelz, NRTS Medical Director,  relates  a somewhat  different set of events. He says that “…Around 6:30 a.m. the ambulance drove to the Chem Plant into a large enclosed receiving bay…[near a] decontamination room lined with stainless steel…”

SL-1 (part 2)

July 2, 2010

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

 Copyright © 2010 by Charles Glassmire


July 2, 2010

SL-1 (part 2)

           The Army Stationary Low Power Nuclear Reactor number 1 (SL-1) had been safely generating electricity since 1958 in a remote part of the Idaho Reactor Testing Station (IRTS). On the night of January 3rd, 1961, three men were working on top of the reactor core. The reactor had been shut down before Christmas for annual maintenance, and the water level in the reactor had been lowered two feet to expose the top of the core. The SL-1 had a unique design. It operated with only one main control rod, located in the center of the core. Approaching 9 p.m., it was the task of the three night crewmen to lift up this main control rod and reattach it to its control rod drive mechanism above the core.

          This required Army private Jack Byrnes to physically lift the main rod three inches out of the core, so it could mate with the controller above for reattachment. This was a safe movement distance used several times before; not enough to initiate a chain reaction. Private Byrnes’ wife had called him on the telephone at work about 7 p.m. that evening, to tell him their marriage was ended and she wanted a divorce. She told him not to come home, ever.

          At 9:01 p.m. that evening the IRTS fire alarm system alerted the main fire station that there was a fire at the SL-1 reactor. Fireman soon arrived in the 17 degrees below zero weather, to find no sign of the evening work crew. The place seemed deserted, no fire was evident but radiation alarms were sounding throughout the facility building. Upon entering the adjacent control room it was observed to be empty, but three lunch pails were seen lined up on a table awaiting their owners. When personnel crossed the yard and approached the reactor building, their low range radiation meters went off scale. The fire crew quickly retreated back to safer ground and called for assistance.

          Sixteen minutes later a Health Physics technician arrived. He carried a higher range meter and, together with a fireman, both wearing full body coveralls and Scott Air Paks again approached the stairs. The Air Pak has a backpack Oxygen tank and hose to a facemask. It keeps a positive pressure inside the face mask in case of a leak. The mask was to prevent inhaling fission products. (Note: There is no “suit” which protects against gamma radiation, short of a suit of lead armor which would be far too heavy to allow walking around.) Mounting the stairs again with a fireman, the HP’s meter registered a dose rate of 25 Röntgens per hour. Again they beat a hasty retreat.

          To put this in perspective, we live in a radioactive world. Cosmic rays from space, radioactive decay products in the air all give us a natural background radiation exposure. Many with below ground basements have small amounts of Radon gas decaying in the basement air. Even eating a banana gives our bodies a tiny dose from Potassium 40. (Truckloads of bananas crossing the border from South America often set off the border radiation detectors due to the radiation from banana Potassium.) So the ordinary population in the United States receives a radiation dose which averages 0.36 Röntgens per year. Current international standards (in 2010) allow radiation workers in the commercial industry to accumulate a maximum annual dose of five Röntgens. (Army personnel fall under different Army regulations. ) So the SL-1 rescue workers, in a radiation field of 25 R/hour would receive the maximum permissible annual dose in about 12 minutes of whole body exposure. This would require them to retire immediately and not work with radioactive materials for the rest of the year. In the worst case emergency, a short term whole body radiation dose of 450 Röntgens is sufficient to kill 50 percent of those persons exposed.

          By this time, a search of the peripheral buildings determines there are no workers anywhere else on the site. It’s concluded the three missing crew members must be located in the main Reactor building, evidently in a high radiation field.

          A few minutes later two HP techs arrive in full coveralls bearing very high range meters, capable of sensing 500 R/hr. Two firemen and the HP ascend the stairs watching the meter. At the top of the stairs they can see serious damage on the top of the core inside and no personnel. There the meter records a dose rate higher than 500 R per hour, a lethal dose rate. The Health Physics in charge orders all to withdraw. Meanwhile the Combustion Engineering and Idaho authorities are notified.

          John Horan, Director of Health and Safety leaves his home in Idaho Falls for his office where he takes charge of the situation via radio to the NRTS. A “Class One” Emergency (local and isolated) is declared. Medical personnel, higher authorities, local police and fire units, the Atomic Energy Commission Headquarters are all alerted. The Radiological Assistance Plan is activated, alerting still more area complexes. Local highways and local desert sagebrush are monitored for contamination, in case a cloud of radiation has escaped. Civil aircraft are notified to begin aerial site radiation surveys.

          Two supervisor personnel and HP devise a plan which has become rather standard in high radiation events. Personnel would be allowed to run into the radiation field, do a small amount of work and retreat quickly, to be followed by another crewman who does a little more work etc. Each run time is calculated to give only a small dose over a very short period. The worker is accompanied by a HP who’s job is simply to watch a stop watch and signal retreat when the time limit has been reached. In this high radiation field, dwell times are limited to one to two minutes, including the run in and exit times. Each person wears a small Dosimeter resembling a pencil which clips on a pocket. It will record  the accumulated dose when the worker leaves the field. The dose (by law) is recorded in the employer’s records, which are periodically inspected to verify accumulated doses are within legal limits.

          Using this method, the allowed time is one minute. Two military and a HP race up the stairs. Entering the second floor, they see two bodies, one badly mutilated and one moving slightly. There is no sign of the third man. The equipment in the room is a shambles, as is the top of the reactor core. The radiation field inside the door is 1,000 R/hr. They quickly exit. On the next relay five men race in with a stretcher to recover the moving body. The floor is covered with inches of water which was inside the reactor core. Scattered under the water are the round shielding steel pellets which cause them to slip and slide in the radioactive water. While the (moving) body is put on the stretcher, two others check the second  body and determine he is probably dead.  There is no sign of the third man …

 (to be continued…)

The SL-1 Incident

June 18, 2010

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

 Copyright © 2010 by Charles Glassmire


Jun. 18, 2010

The SL-1 Incident


          The year was 1957 and the nuclear business was growing rapidly, amid an optimistic feeling that America could do anything. The U.S. Navy was building a nuclear powered submarine under the guidance of Admiral Hyman Rickover. The U.S. Air Force was designing and testing a nuclear powered aircraft. At the Joint Chiefs, the U.S. Army wanted badly to get into the nuclear game, but they had no demonstrated need. The nuclear business was deemed quite safe. Years later the claim was always made that no one had ever died in the commercial nuclear power industry. As far as it went, that was true. But the statement always emphasized the word “commercial”. It didn’t include nuclear facilities operated by the U.S. Army.

          The Army operated a radar system perched on the permafrost, stretching across the Arctic tundra snows of Alaska and Canada, and on to Greenland. The system was watching over the horizon to the Soviet Union for a possible aircraft attack against America. It was called the Distant Early Warning Line, or DEW line for short.  Comprised of small stations clustered in the endless northern winter, each station required tons of diesel fuel and gasoline to run the equipment and keep personnel from freezing. The Arctic winters were long and dark, and the fuel had to be constantly shipped in by truck and airplane. Sometimes weather prohibited timely delivery of the vital material. It was a perfect application for a small nuclear reactor power source which could supply electricity and run for a long time before requiring refueling.

          A completely safe reactor was requested. The Army wanted one which could be transported, assembled and operated by a trained G.I. without incident, and impossible to melt down. Power level was to be 1000 Kilowatts. So they approached one of the U.S. nuclear facilities, the Argonne National Laboratory, to design a small stationary reactor, generating electricity for a three year period before needing a new fuel load of Uranium. The reactor could be transported to a site on the back of a truck, assembled there and then become stationary in operation.

          So Argonne came up with a design. It couldn’t use concrete shielding, since that material would freeze quickly when pored in extreme cold. So they choose an insulator of round steel punchings mixed with gravel to absorb the gamma radiation generated during operation. There was no containment vessel, just a 48 foot high cylindrical building to house the plant, with the control room situated beside the reactor building. The vessel was to sit on two-foot high piers to separate it from the permafrost below, introducing an air space underneath to prevent melting the frozen ground. Access from the Control Room was via an outside staircase winding up and around the building. Argonne chose a Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) design, with a single main control rod in the center to vary the reactor power generation (“because it was easier” they later testified). No reactor had ever been built with only a single control rod. There were four peripheral rods which were only used to level out the neutron flux somewhat. Combustion Engineering was given the contract to construct the reactor.

          The test reactor was named the “SL-1” for “stationary low-power reactor number one”. It was built at the Idaho Nuclear Reactor Test Station (NRTS) in a rather remote location. The reactor began generating electricity in October of 1958. Crews were trained at Fort Belvoir Virginia, and since the Navy and Air Force wanted in on the action, crews were chosen from all three services. Training was four months of classroom and four months of reactor (simulator) operation.

          On the night of January 3rd, 1961, there were three men working the evening shift starting at 4 p.m. Army private Jack Byrnes from upstate New York, had falsified his birth certificate to enlist early. He was a bit of a hell raiser, always broke, favoring fast cars and lots of drinking. He was married by the age of 19, but rumor had it his marriage was troubled and “sliding downhill” as one chronicler put it later. Dick Legg was a Navy Seabee from Michigan and a bit of a joker. He was sometimes known to set off the deafening reactor SCRAM alarms and then laugh hysterically. One learned never to let Dick stand behind you as he had earned the nickname “Goosey”. He and Byrnes had occasional fistfights when in their cups, and argued over prostitutes and other such personal matters. In the previous month of December 1960 Byrnes performance review decided he was “not ready for promotion”.

          The third crewman that evening was Richard McKinley. He was still in training from the U.S. Air Force, and was on duty to observe and learn from the other two.

          The SL-1 had been running successfully since 1958, and in late December had been shut down for holiday recess and maintenance. Crews were calibrating instruments and checking valves and piping. The water level in the reactor had been lowered two feet. The day shift had just inserted forty four new Cobalt flux wires into small holes in the core. To do this the top of the core was exposed and massive shields were moved out of the way. The Control Rods were disenguaged from their drive mechanisms. The night shift was now walking on the top of the actual core to reconnect the rods and move the shielding back into place.

          At 7 p.m. that evening, Byrnes wife Arlene called her husband and spoke on the telephone. She told him that their marriage was ended. She was finished and wanted out. She also wanted half of his next pay voucher. She told him not to come home ever again. She called three more times that evening trying to get him again on the phone. But no one answered the phone. There was no security guard at the reactor during the evening shift. He went home at 4 p.m! Unable to contact anyone at the site, she called the operator and told the operator:

          “There must be something wrong at SL-1”. Her message was duly noted in the event log.

          At 9:01 p.m. that evening the Central Fire Station at NRTS received a signal from SL-1. It was a dash followed by two dots on the alarm system. This signal also went to the NRTS Security Center. It meant there was a fire at SL-1!

          It took a fire truck nine minutes to arrive at the site. When the fireman jumped off the truck they noticed an eerie calm in the dark reactor yard. No fire was visible, only a steam trail from the reactor building which was normal in cold weather. The reactor was supposed to be manned 24 hours per day. It seemed deserted. There was no one in the control room, however, radiation alarms were sounding all over the reactor building. As they tentatively crossed the yard and approached the access stairway, their radiation meters began rising and as they got to the stairway the needles went off scale! They quickly withdrew to await health physics personnel with high level radiation detectors. …

 (to be continued…)


June 4, 2010

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

Copyright © 2010 by Charles Glassmire


Jun. 4, 2010


Colonel Petrov had to make a decision. The USSR’s Oka [Eye] satellite system was alerting his command bunker that a nuclear missile attack on the Soviet Union was in progress. It was 12:15 a.m. on the night of Sept. 23rd 1983, and his bunker warning system was showing a single nuclear tipped missile launch from an American silo! It was mapping inbound on a trajectory to impact Soviet territory. He knew his decision could incite a massive nuclear counter attack ordered by his superiors. The Soviet policy was clearly expressed as a protocol called “Launch on Warning”.

He held the alert telephone in his hand, but he hesitated. He had only a few minutes to decide. It was only one missile launch, hardly a massive attack. Could it be an error by the satellite system? The optical telescope mounted on satellite No. 5 did not show an inbound missile. The system was only a few years old and sometimes gave false information, especially at dusk over the U.S. The Soviet General’s told him and his staff to “ignore” the system errors for now. Was this one of those times? If he failed to report an inbound missile it would be a violation of all his standing orders. The fate of millions rested on his decision. The duty officer’s voice from the phone loudly demanded to know what was happening.

His hand trembled as he slowly raised the telephone to his lips.

“I am reporting to you a false alarm indication. No missile launch.”

“Received – false alarm no missile launch,” repeated the Duty Officer.

Petrov heaved a great sigh of relief, even though it was still not clear what was happening. He did not choose to report his uncertainty, and curiously the Duty Officer did not ask for any more information. It was almost as if the system was trying hard not to recognize the inherent problems. But unknown to Petrov, there was more to come.

He took the floor microphone and announced to the upset floor crews that he had determined this was not a valid sighting. He ordered them to begin checking the system quickly. They in turn relaxed and returned to their consoles. All bent busily over their data displays and turned to the task of determining why the “false” alert, and what data could be giving the erroneous indications.

Petrov had written much of the code behind the alert system and he began to examine some routines he suspected of causing a problem. He filled his screen with computer language as two more minutes passed by.

Then, once again, the alert board signaled a (second) missile launch in big red letters! A second launch! He muttered aloud in disbelief! How could this be? Then, in quick succession, signals arrived for a third, a fourth and a fifth missile launch from America!

Another siren wailed. Now the red letters on the alert board incremented the alert status to a very high level and said


Again he spoke to the dark room – the optical telescope still could see no inbound missiles. Soviet radar could not look over the horizon to see any incoming targets, but is was about time to see the first “launch” if it was real and coming into line-of-sight radar view. There was no radar sighting.

Pandemonium on the Command Center floor. The system was now forwarding automatic warning alerts to higher levels of Soviet missile command. Crew members were shouting to each other. He ordered them to silence. Once again, with a sheer act of will he told the Duty Officer this was a false alert. No incoming missiles! With a shaking hand he replaced the receiver into its cradle. His message was now sent up the chain to all levels of the military command structure.

It was a gut level decision which saved the lives of millions of unknowing citizens of both countries who were calmly going about their daily lives. Little did they know the world had just averted a massive nuclear war! A later investigation was to show the alarm was not a computer error. It was instead caused by an unusual alignment of sunlight below the horizon over the U.S., reflecting from a high layer of cloud ice crystals, when aligned with the Molniya satellite Infra-red sensors at a certain position in its orbit. The condition was remedied by reference to a geostationary satellite so as never again to recur.

All details of this incident were classified Top Secret in the files of the Soviet Union. It was not until Colonel General Yury Votintsev, then the commander of the Soviet Air Defense Missile Defense Units published his memoirs in the 1990’s, (after demise of the USSR,) that the incident became known to the West. He was the first to receive Petrov’s report of the incident, and Petrov was grilled intensely about his role, actions and decisions. The General concluded that Petrov’s “correct actions were duly noted”. Petrov says he was even promised a monetary reward. Then he was later reprimanded for improper filing of his paperwork. He received no reward. His superiors were embarrassed by the incident and the bugs the incident had uncovered in the system. If he had been rewarded the scientist designers and high level Generals responsible would have been punished. He was subsequently removed to a less sensitive position in the Soviet Defense System.

Colonel Petrov subsequently yielded to the strain and suffered a nervous breakdown. He then took early retirement from the Army and took his pension to live quietly with his wife in the small town of Fryazino, Russia.

In 2004 the Association of World Citizens (in San Francisco) awarded Petrov its World Citizen Award, a trophy and $1,000US, “in recognition of the part he played in averting a catastrophe….”

In January of 2006, Petrov visited the United States and was honored at a meeting of the United Nations in New York City. There he was presented with a second special World Citizen Award. The following day Walter Cronkite interviewed him in his office at CBS. The interview and details of Petrov’s remarkable achievement are recorded in a documentary film entitled “The Red Button…”.

Petrov has said he doesn’t consider himself a hero of any kind. In the film he says

“All that happened didn’t matter to me—it was my job. I was simply doing my job, and I was the right person at the right time, that’s all. My late wife for 10 years knew nothing about it. ‘So what did you do?’ she asked me. I did nothing.”

So Colonel Petrov fades quietly into his retirement years living in a small town deep inside Russia. He could be known as an aging Army pensioner living out his late years in solitude, or perhaps he could be known as “The Man Who Saved the World”.

And so it happened in just another strange Tale from the Nuclear Age…

(to be continued…)

Missile Attack?

May 23, 2010

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

Copyright © 2010 by Charles Glassmire ______________________________________________________ May 23, 2010

Missile Attack?

Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Air Defence Force was commanding a secret alert bunker (Serpukhov-15) south of Moscow on the night of September 23rd , 1983. His crew was monitoring the United States missile silo field watching for an attack on the USSR. They were using spy satellites (Molynia) [Lightning] in orbit, comprising the Oka [Eye] system, with infra-red and optical telescope sensors transmitting back continuous data feeds of the surface.

It was necessary to have multiple viewpoints of the U.S. missile bases from multiple satellite orbital positions. This required several Molynia’s to be in orbit at the same time. There were nine satellites in the Oka system, each one known only by its number. Colonel Petrov knew No. 5 was the most sensitive, and this night it was sending back more data than was usual as it approached its apogee orbital position. The computers were continuously examining each sighting, looking for the characteristic heat signature which would indicate a missile launch.

No. 5 was entering its apogee some 19,800 miles distant. It was observing the U.S. missile fields at dusk, which was a difficult technical challenge. As the sun dipped behind the Earth rim, the infra-red image field often became a hazy out-of-focus blur, requiring the operators to observe very carefully. Even the telescope back-up systems produced an image so dim the operators had to sit in a darkened room for two hours to accommodate their night vision to be able to see an image in the dark field optical telescope. Number 5 normally triggered on ten to twenty targets during a shift, but by midnight Petrov’s team was handling over thirty.

It was 12:15 a.m.,  when Petrov was suddenly dumbfounded as the system alerted to a hostile missile blast off! It was targeting the USSR, and launched from an American silo! For the first time in his experience he saw the little used alert board above the wall map light up with large red letters proclaiming “LAUNCH.” Oka was verifying an incoming nuclear missile!

The team had observed many missile launches over the years from Vandenberg Air Force Base and from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Some of these had failed on launch with massive explosions, and some had gracefully entered their orbital trajectory. None had ever been identified as hostile incoming.

Colonel Petrov had served in the military for twenty-six years and was now appointed Deputy Chief of Combat Algorithms. He spent most of his time as an engineer programming the system, inventing new faster ways to recognize missile signatures. He only worked an operational shift twice a month to keep his hand in. He knew there were some 19,000 warheads between the two giant nations, and it all now seemed  to be poised on a decision by him! He was not authorized to launch missiles, but a report from him on a detected incoming first strike would almost certainly result in a higher decision to launch immediate retaliation.

A siren began to warble. The crew operators on the floor below rose from their stations and stood looking upward toward him. He was the Commander – he needed to tell them what action to take. What was happening? He stood up and took the intercom off its hook. He ordered them all to get back to their stations. It would take at least ten minutes to verify this data and he didn’t have ten minutes to wait. He had to make a decision.

He fought for logical control of his racing brain. If it was only one missile, it could be an accidental launch, or a launch by someone unauthorized. But he also knew that was unlikely. A U.S. launch required two keys to be turned simultaneously followed by launch command codes to be entered by two missile crewmen to unlock the missile safety systems for launch. In addition to launch control, the nuclear weapon safety system was a second safguard system beyond the launch safeguards. It was known as “PAL” for Permissive Action Link. On the airborne bombs it was an electrical panel on the side of the weapon. The correct pass codes had to be entered before the weapon would arm itself. If any incorrect information was entered, the weapon immediately rendered itself inoperable and useless. The missile PAL was more sophisticated. The probability of two officer conspirators seemed rather low. Could one madman have a gun pointed at the other crewman? And if the missile did launch, what did that portend? Would a war be started with only one launch? His training always stated that a first strike would consist of a barrage of missiles all incoming at once.

He had picked up the red telephone and stood with his hand frozen in mid air. He called the dark room and asked for optical telescope sightings. The operators examined their dim telescope images and could see no inbound missile. He slowly began to say to himself this was not the way for a war to start. It made no sense. He was told a massive strike would be needed. The risk was too great for total destruction. He knew the Oka system was rushed into service and had many flaws in operation. The floor crew was demanding instructions.

He had to make a decision now and it was relying mostly on his gut instinct! The Duty Officers alarmed voice could be heard coming from the telephone in his clenched hand:

Yes? Yes? What is happening?

(to be continued…)


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