SL-1 (part 3)

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…”


12 Responses to “SL-1 (part 3)”

  1. Chaz Says:

    Riveting stuff ‘ol man…I’ve authored a few books and this is well written, even though it technically is non-fiction. I’ve read the whole series now. Keep Creating…

    • Charles Glassmire Says:

      Thank you for the nice comment on the Blog. We do try. Keep reading – there is more to come!

      Charles Glassmire Tales from the Nuclear Age

  2. Lyle Says:

    The information presented here is the most factual regarding the SL-1 accident that I have ever seen in the public forum. I know, because I was there, from 2:00 AM the morning following the accident, through the emergency phase, the recovery phase, and the demolition and clean-up phases. I accompanied, as a health physicist for the Atomic Energy Commission, a reactor engineer, on the first controlled entry (at 6 AM the morning after) to retrieve strip charts from the control room. I have read several books, including the “acclaimed” “IDAHO FALLS, the Untold Story of America’s First Nuclear Accident,” and I’m here to tell you….it should have been left “untold,” because it was largely fictional, biased, and the author had no clue regarding the “facts” he was writing about!

    • Charles Glassmire Says:

      Dear Mr. Lyle;

      (apologies if I got the name wrong)

      Thank you for your kind comments. It is reassuring to have input from someone who was on scene there. I do try to remain non-hysterical about nuclear reporting. The press seems to love crisis, especially when there is nuclear involved.

      We should stay in touch.

      Charles Glassmire

    • david Says:

      Dear Mr Lyle,
      My father worked for the A.E.C. and made the trek out there from our Bethesda Md. home a few times including right after the accident. Mother says he DID go inside the facility after the accident. 21 years later at age 56 he was diagnosed with leukemia and died shortly after. Can you tell me anything about the radiation exposure he and or others may have been exposed to?
      The US army’s documentary The SL 1 Accident (viewable on Youtube) states only 14 of the hundred+ aftermath personnel had exposure as high as 5-27 roentgens. Do you know if this is accurate?
      Thank you,
      David Fillmore

      • Charles Glassmire Says:

        Dear Mr. Fillmore;

        Thank you for your reference to the SL-1 accident. First of all let me say I am deeply sorry for the early loss of your father.

        As to the level of radiation after the incident, I do not know of the actual radiation levels in the room. I can say though, that first of all, I would expect that the room would have been decontaminated and cleaned immediately after the event, and visitors would not be permitted to enter before the area declared safe.

        As an employee of the AEC, your father would have been trained in radiation safety, and I expect he would know not to enter an area which was still dangerous. There were good instruments (Geiger counters) available to measure the room. Any trained person would know to sample and not enter if dangerous.

        I can also comment that the levels you mention (5 to 27 R) are not prohibitively high or life threatening. 5 Roentgen is about the tissue dose one receives when getting a medical CT scan in hospital today. It is not unusual for persons in coast to coast high level aircraft flight to receive doses in the teens of Roentgens during the high altitude flight, and to suffer no adverse effects. We usually think of life threatening levels of radiation to be in the range of hundreds of Roentgens, not 27.

        Your father’s death is a tragic loss, but I would guess his cancer arose from causes other than visiting the SL-1 site.

        I hope this helps. I am sorry for your loss, and please keep reading.

        Charles Glassmire Tales from the Nuclear Age.

  3. David Says:

    Charles, Thank you for your kind words and good information.

  4. cec Says:

    Thank you for these articles.

    To the previous poster, I’ll have to say that I would think the radiation levels would have to be far higher. The core was exposed and some of its contents blasted all over that room. 27R sounds unreasonably low to me. I am so sorry for your family’s loss.

    Can you please explain the significance of the scratches on the center control rod? I’ve read several books that tell about SL-1 and still don’t understand how the scratches “prove” that Pvt. Byrnes pulled the rod out far further than he should have

    I’m not sure he didn’t get a bum rap for a mismanaged, malfunctioning reactor.

    Also, weren’t the victims initially mis-identified? (Maybe that comes later in your series.)

    Again, thanks. Most people are unaware of this accident.

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