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

4.1 out of 5 stars 25 customer reviews

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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: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #396,174 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is a must-read for all who have an interest in nuclear engineering or just plain old science. It has a VERY interesting way of keeping your attention. It is a page-turner, almost like a novel. The Navy clearly did things better than the Army and certainly better than the Air Force, but the book does not actually take sides. It presents the dark side of Admiral Rickover without villainizing him and celebrates his genius without making him into a saint. It is impossible to express what an enjoyable book this is.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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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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 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.
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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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