Archive for June, 2010

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…)