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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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