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on March 29, 2014
This is the story of the U.S. Army's SL-1 nuclear reactor and the accident in Idaho. In the early days of atomic power after WW II, all of the armed services wanted to have their own nuclear reactor programs.

The AIr Force had a program to build a reactor to put on an airplane and use as a source of power. The Air Force actually had a reactor built and carried it an on aircraft, but did not use it for power. Very fortunately, there were no crashes, as it would have been a mess to clean up. One big problem was proper shielding fro the reactor as shielding is very heavy, and the shielding was an issue.

The Army wanted reactors to use as power sources at remote sites like the DEW line.

The Navy wanted reactors to power ships. Adm Rickover was the driver who made it happen for the USN and instilled the highest standards in the service.

In the early days, the reactor designs were new, and the control systems, and training programs were all being developed.

The Army SL-1 reactor was a small unit with five control rods, with one in the center. It was located by itself and isolated from other facilities. The reactor design was such that the center control rod was critical. If it was removed too far, the reactor could go critical with all of the other four control rods fully inserted. During the manufacture and assembly of the reactor, some boron strips were tack welded in the channels for the control rods. Then in the operation, there were sometimes problems in moving the control rods, that were attributed to problems with the boron strips in the control rod channels. On 3 January 1961, there were three US Army personnel working on the SL-1 reactor. They had a task list. Apparently, when the three were working on a task involving lifting up the center control rod, an error occurred. Most likely, the control rod stuck, and then when it was forced, it suddenly came out too far, and the reactor went critical almost instantaneously and emitted a very high level of radiation, and blew the top off the reactor. All three people were killed as a result of this event. The book then covers the resultant clean up and associated efforts in the Idaho desert. It needs to be noted that these three people were killed by a military (Army) reactor program. No one has been killed by the Navy or the commercial power programs in the US.

Interesting book with lots of history of the nuclear reactor programs in the US.

This book would be of interest to people who are interested in the history of the nuclear power program in the US.
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Little known history of the development of atomic power in the United States, and of the only nuclear accident to have ever resulted in deaths. I've been driving past these places in Idaho for years and never realized what was going on out there in the lava fields. On a map I noticed Atomic City, out there west of I-15, and wondered why a town would have that name. A little research found this book. Pretty damn interesting book.
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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 States...my 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. What makes this a more readable book (given the subject it could have been a real snoozer) is Tucker's first hand knowledge of the military's nuclear programs, having completed training and serving on a nuclear submarine as a naval Nuclear Engineer. Not only does he peel back the layers of misinformation, myth and gossip connected with SL-1, he presents a viable and sadly all too probable explanation for the deadly explosion.
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on August 25, 2011
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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on March 20, 2009
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. The activities of the Army with regard to Camp Century and the activities of the Air Force with regard to ANP are simply mind-boggling. There is some repetitiveness on the chapter 'switch backs', but the reader should enjoy this deep investigation and may be quite surprised at events that historically have been given 'short shrift'. This book will put 'Three Mile Island' in proper perspective. Highly Recommended!! Five FASCINATING Stars!
(This review is based on a Kindle download.)
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on July 12, 2014
A most interesting read. I worked at the Idaho Nuclear Lab for many years, and remember the SL1 accident as a child growing up in Idaho Falls. It was rewarding to have many misconceptions about the accident, and nuclear energy, cleared up. Thank you to the author for his insightful research, which gives us an historical understanding of nuclear energy and Admiral Rickover. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the politics and history of nuclear power.
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on January 11, 2014
Have read multiple books regarding nuclear power within the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and the SL-1 accident. This book covers it all in a snapshot so a good read for someone looking for an overview. Flows well and an easy read.
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on September 8, 2013
This book covers the use of nuclear power from the very beginning when optimism knew no limits through some of the sobering incidents which have occurred since then. It's a balanced account that gave me a perspective I lacked before reading it. It has major figures who we are familiar with (Admiral Rickover) and it has technicians who did early battle and lost their lives battling this with this "genie" which escaped from the bottle.
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on February 2, 2013
Todd Tucker explores the history of a little-known Cold War nuclear accident shrouded in mystery and tears away the popular mythology in this history of the 1961 explosion of the SL-1 reactor in Idaho. Beyond dispelling tawdry innuendo, Tucker shows the political and technical origins of the accident stemming from inter-service rivalry, the allure of the atom, and contrasting visions of duty, safety, and attention to detail. "Atomic America" tells a compelling cautionary tale, finally treating the victims of this tragedy with the humanity and dignity they deserve.

Tucker's tale follows two paths: the first, the sequence of events leading up to the power excursion and explosion at SL-1 and its aftermath; the second, the history of US military nuclear power development. The story of the development of the USS Nautilus (SSN-571) is well-documented in other books such as Ted Rockwell's The Rickover Effect. Tucker does an admirable job isolating the most salient elements of naval reactor history to compare with the lesser-known power development projects carried out by the Air Force and the Army. Specific emphasis is placed on the origin and intent of the Army reactor program, from its successes at the secretive Camp Century beneath the ice in Greenland and at Fort Belvoir, less than 20 miles from the White House to the dramatic failure of SL-1 at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho. The Air Force's Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion (ANP) project gets a fair bit of attention as a thirteen year, billion dollar boondoggle finally put out of its misery by President Kennedy, ironically after Eisenhower had spent years trying to scuttle the costly endeavor.

The changing technical and political landscape of the Cold War are set as backdrop, contrasting the attitude toward design, operation, and safety among the Army, Navy, and Air Force nuclear power programs. Originally designed to power the Army's air search radars of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line in the far north, SL-1 was plagued with technical problems stemming from poor design and fabrication. Tucker presents the personal lives and drama surrounding the reactor operators on shift that fateful night but digs even deeper into the operational history of the doomed reactor. He illustrates how and why the Jerry Springer-esque speculations of infidelity and murder-suicide has gained traction over the less compelling but more likely explanation for the accident: poorly trained, overworked operators with insufficient supervision working on a badly designed, poorly maintained reactor. As with the Windscale accident in the UK a few years earlier, the book shows the political incentive to shift blame to operators, especially those who couldn't publicly defend themselves (see also Windscale 1957: Anatomy of a Nuclear Accident).

Tucker weaves together history with an engineering detective story, clearly explaining technical concepts as they become relevant to his narrative. Explanations of reactor control, radiation, and radioactivity succinctly support Tucker's storyline rather than bogging the book down in detail; "Atomic America" is anything but dry and didactic. The presentation of Adm. Rickover is balanced, neither engaging in hagiography nor character assassination; a fair portrayal of a very divisive and colorful figure (contrast with SuperFuel). Like James Mahaffey's Atomic Awakening, "Atomic America" also treats nuclear technology fairly, showing how early on its promise was oversold and risks downplayed, but never engaging in scaremongering or cheap rhetorical technique. Tucker stays within his sphere of evidence, pointing out with equal emphasis the insufficient technical analysis of the initial investigators as well as the unwarranted perpetuation of vulgar rumor. He neither downplays the significance of the SL-1 accident nor uses it as a sweeping indictment of persons, technologies, or institutions. The balance of scientific fact, history, and humanity make this a rare and intensely enjoyable work.

As someone actively working the field of reactor safety, I found "Atomic America" eye-opening, refreshingly fair, and a compelling, sobering tale of avoidable tragedy, a little-known story well told. Highly recommended.
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on April 1, 2009
As a Nuclear Engineer who started his course of study in 1962, the SL1 accident was one of the first items for review in the curriculum at the University of Wisconsin for me. In 1971 I progressed into the Commercial Nuclear Program and managed every aspect of Commercial Nuclear Power including holding a Senior Reactor Operator License and on shift management of Commercial Nuclear Reactors.
'Atomic America' is far different than the usual sensational writing one finds when reading books on this subject. I found it balanced, well written and very accurate except for two highly techincal points.
If you want a sense of Nuclear Power and its history, this book is a good starting point.
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