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Atomic America: How a Deadly Explosion and a Feared Admiral Changed the Course of Nuclear History Hardcover – March 3, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The first major American nuclear accident wasn't at Three Mile Island in 1979 but rather at the military's National Reactor Testing Station at Idaho Falls, Idaho, in January 1961, killing three workers at the tiny reactor. Two of these men were later rumored incorrectly to have been rivals in a love triangle—which some conjectured might have affected their ability to work effectively and safely at the facility. Tucker (The Great Starvation Experiment) skillfully reveals the drama of the event. At the same time, he shows how the accident resulted from inadequate maintenance, poor training, negligence and ignorance. Tucker also profiles the inscrutable naval R&D power broker Hyman Rickover, who almost singlehandedly resurrected the potential of nuclear power after the 1961 disaster through a monklike and emphatic devotion to the highest skill in engineering and the best training. Today, trying to balance the realities of global warming with America's energy needs, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has received proposals for 32 new reactors—which makes Tucker's book vitally relevant. (Mar. 3)
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From Booklist

The enthusiasm for nuclear power in 1950s and 1960s America provides the context for Tucker’s account of one of the most serious accidents in atomic engineering. It occurred at the reservation in Idaho where the armed services built nuclear reactors to test their projects: nuclear submarines for the navy; nuclear-powered bombers for the air force; and nuclear power plants for army bases. The head-scratching oddity of putting an atomic reactor on an airplane in particular evokes the theme of technological hubris, while the reactor accident Tucker dramatizes underscores the price for not according utmost respect for the hazards of the atom. In 1961, three soldiers were starting up one of the army’s test reactors; it went supercritical, causing a steam explosion that killed them and irradiated the installation to lethal levels. Tucker relates the probable technical reasons for the disaster and treats skeptically insinuations that one of the dead men deliberately caused the accident. Incorporating the career of Admiral Hyman Rickover, the creator of the nuclear navy, Tucker’s work importantly recalls a forgotten warning from nuclear history. --Gilbert Taylor

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; First Edition edition (March 3, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 141654433X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416544333
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.1 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,070,143 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Todd Tucker attended the University of Notre Dame on a full scholarship, graduating with a degree in history in 1990. He then volunteered for the United States Navy's demanding nuclear power program, eventually making six patrols onboard a Trident submarine. In 1995 Tucker left the navy to return with his family to Indiana to pursue a career in writing. In addition to extensive writing for such publications as TWA Ambassador, The Rotarian, Inside Sports, and the Washington Post, he has also published five books: Notre Dame Game Day (Diamond Communications, 2000), Notre Dame vs. The Klan (Loyola Press, 2004), The Great Starvation Experiment (Free Press, 2006), Over and Under (Thomas Dunne, 2007), Atomic America (Free Press, 2009).

Two submarine-themed novels followed: COLLAPSE DEPTH and GHOST SUB.

His latest novel is SHOOTING A MAMMOTH.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Mary G. Longorio VINE VOICE on May 24, 2009
Format: Hardcover
January 3, 1961, the quiet Idaho night was shattered by the sound of a fire alarm. The fire crew had already responded to the same location twice this night. The firefighters of the National Reactor Testing Station were assigned to SL-1, one of the more than twenty reactors the Army had assembled in Idaho. Three men were assigned to the reactor that night...John Byrnes, Richard McKinley and Richard Legg. The fire crew approached the reactor building and quickly realized that something had gone horribly wrong. The three men were in the control room appeared to be dead.

Several months ago I heard the tail end of an overnight talk show which featured Todd Tucker being interviewed about his book, Atomic America. I had never heard of a fatal nuclear accident within the United familiarity with nuclear disasters began with Three Mile Island in 1979. Atomic America goes into great detail about the night of the accident, the personalities, military records, and known history of the three men working that night, the history of the Army's nuclear program and fallout from this accident. Tucker has interviewed people who responded that fateful night as well as reading through reams of previously classified documents and reports. He provides us with the history and personalities that brought the military into the nuclear arena. What is most striking is the amount of money and leeway given to the Army and Air Force as they tried to develop nuclear programs. Both were trying to catch up with the Navy's wildly successful program that produced the nuclear powered Nautilus submarine in (considered the gold standard). Both were looking to adapt nuclear energy to fit their needs...including providing power for an operational base under the arctic ice.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Eugene N. Miya on August 25, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I purchased this book while killing time at Powell's near Portland. While I learned a bit about the USS US, I was a little disappointed by the end of the book. One might try to redeem the book from its subtitle about Rickover and nuclear aircraft, but I decided to write this review to balance out the more positive reviews I've written on Amazon.

I picked up the book hoping to learn more about the revolt of the admirals and carriers. The interwoven stories might work for followers of Tom Clancy novels but it doesn't work well here. If you want to read a book about Hyman Rickover, I got Norman Polmar's book from the public library: RICKOVER. Atomic America's author didn't even including Rickover's final sarcastic comment when the Navy came to naming a ship after him (a sub), it wasn't an aircraft carrier. Rickover knew who buttered his bread.

The SL1 disaster is also documented in Idaho Falls: The Untold Story of America's First Nuclear Accident which I purchased in Las Vegas for a retired friend in the nuclear weapons infrastructure. Regardless of whose version of the story you hear, you reading about blind men trying to describe an elephant. That's one story. The author tries to balance this with the USAF's failed attempt at nuclear aircraft. However, he completely leaves out the attempts at nuclear rocketry: the Kiwi, Rover, and NERVA prototypes still sit out in the desert visible using Google earth/maps. And that leaves out Dyson's and Stan Frankel's Orion at General Atomics.

I was left hoping for more (quantity) and better quality. Read the book if you must but be aware more exists out there. Not I can feel better about writing a more positive review on someone else's book.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful By RBSProds TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 20, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Five RIVETING Stars. In this remarkable book, Todd Tucker gives us the details of a horrific incident at the dawn of the nuclear age that helped change US nuclear history. But was it an accident? The book also sets the stage as to where that history was likely headed until that day, weeks before President Kennedy took office. At the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho which had more than 20 inter-military service reactors spread over a large expanse of land, on 3 January 1961 at 9:01 PM the Army's "inherently safe" SL-1 nuclear reactor exploded, killing the crew on watch. But this book covers much more than the incident itself, giving a capsule US nuclear history, rich in detail, emphasizing the military aspects and the dangers of nuclear realities. We also get the backstory on the creation of the Department of Defense, the AEC and other key agencies, star-crossed Secretaries of Defense, inter-service rivalry on an unprecedented level, the fate of the USS United States, the "revolt of the admirals", intra-service back stabbing at the highest levels, and Admiral Hyman George Rickover's key role in this country's nuclear history. And there are the SL-1 related incidents: a wild bachelor party, the alleged love triangle, public fist fights, coverups, and more. Then the true reasons leading up to the explosion are revealed and the true heroism that followed, along with the investigation of the explosion, the formidable cleanup attempts, and the aftermath of SL-1. The author makes no attempt to document every event & accident on the nuclear history timeline, instead he skillfully uses the SL-1 accident as the touchstone for targeted events that preceded it and what has followed.Read more ›
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