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Idaho Falls: The Untold Story of America's First Nuclear Accident [Paperback]

William McKeown
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 13 2003
Was the world's first fatal nuclear accident — the 1961 explosion of a SL-1 military test reactor in Idaho — the result of a crime of passion? Was the disaster promptly covered up to protect the burgeoning nuclear industry? Idaho Falls documents one of America's best-kept secrets and investigates the question of conspiracy.

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Review

“McKeown does succeed…in exposing how it was possible for the wealth of rumors and speculation to gain so much momentum.” -- Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Chicago, Illinois

About the Author

William McKeown is a newspaper reporter and editor living in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

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Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Feb. 13 2004
Format:Paperback
In the interest of full disclosure I will say up front that I am not in any way connected to The Site (locals' name for the facility out on the desert now called the INEEL) I have friends who work there and friends who would love to see it shut down.
That said I think McKeown does an excellent job in telling what's known about the SL-1 accident (if that's what it was) and the rumors that surrounded it. I found it an first-rate read (I read it in two days) and very informative.
McKeown goes to great lengths to delineate between what can be and is known and what is rumor and supposition. He also repeatedly explains (which keeps me from giving the book a 5th star) how different attitudes were then, particulary among the personel working at and responsible for the facility. This is the excuse given and accepted by the author for the lack of disclosure at the time. There's nothing here about what changed, or more importantly, what didn't change, as a result of SL-1.
Its unfortunate that the story of this incident is completely unkown by the general public. Both the heroism of those there immediately after the incident and the behavior of those in charge should be common knowledge. Reading this book goes a long way in correcting that.
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4.0 out of 5 stars quite interesting Aug. 2 2003
Format:Paperback
I read this book while visiting my son in Idaho Falls this summer. I found it quite interesting, so much so that I drove the fifty miles or so out of the city into the Lost River desert, and toured the facility where nuclear energy was first generated back in 1951.
This is a well-written book, and I thought the author did a fine job of presenting all sides of this little-known mystery.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A rehash of a supposedly untold story July 23 2003
Format:Paperback
McKeown certainly has a flair for the dramatic. A pity that when he applies this flair to an 'analysis' of the SL-1 accident he comes across as someone bucking for a movie deal. He plays up every possible innuendo and rumor about the servicemembers who died in the reactor explosion, along with all the gory details he could muster from the reams of technical information available about the incident.
If the story is unknown to most people, it is because most of them have never heard of Idaho, to say nothing of the National Reactor Testing Station (now the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory).
The story of SL-1 can hardly be described as as unknown to anyone in the nuclear industry. A pity he didn't pay a bit more attention to technical accuracy in his descriptions than to the dozens of pet theories about the state of mind of the operators on duty in the control room. SL-1 was an experimental reactor built in the late fifties at Idaho's National Reactor Testing Station. It was a prototype for small, portable reactors the Army hoped could power radar stations along the Distant Early Warning (DEW) radar line along the northern edge of the continent during the Cold War. It and dozens of other reactors were built on the Idaho desert in order to advance the science of reactor design, safety and engineering.
Dozens of technical factors contributed to the accident, but McKeown ignores everything that was learned from the accident, and admits we'll never know the 'real' cause of the incident, implying cover-up and conspiracy. I could swear I heard the 'X-Files' music playing as I finished the book.
If you're after a bit less dramatic version of the accident, try 'Proving the Principle' by Susan Stacy.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  40 reviews
89 of 94 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Idaho Falls Sept. 9 2010
By Bud Russell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The author does a good job with the Accident victims autobiographies, psychology, injuries, and burial preparations.
However his account of the Accident victim's rescue is insulting of the Rescue Team and inaccurate.

The insults include "nerdy engineers"(p.99), "bourbon and water downing bosses"(p.95) and individuals who were"forced to conduct a rescue operation even though they were unprepared"(p.95). In fact they were some of the most courageous, intelligent, experienced, innovative and caring individuals I have ever known. The 4-man rescue team was composed of the following individuals:

Paul Duckworth, the SL-1 Operations Supervisor, who may have been a WWII South-Pacific Campaign ship commander at age 19 and owned the powerful Model 88 Oldsmobile used to race the Rescue Team to the Accident site.

Sidney Cohen, the SL-1 Test supervisor, a WWII, 2nd-wave Normandy Invasion infantryman at age 17 and a "Life Master" bridge player.

William Rausch, the 28-year old SL-1 Assistant Operations Supervisor who had been a Merchant Marine ship engineer with experience in recovery of a fatal shipboard boiler room explosion.

Ed Vallario, the 33-year old SL-1 Health Physicist who was the first team member to be notifed of the post-Accident lethal radioctive conditions and missing operators because he was the designated technical contact for concerns of the SL-1 plant operators and NRTS security and firemen that evening.

William Gammill, the 32-year old, on-duty, AEC Site Survey Chief and a certified Health Physicist who volunteered to assist the rescue team

In 1962 all five men received medals and national recognition for "heriosm in saving human life" from the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission.

The author doesn't even include either Mr. Rausch or Mr. Gammill as Rescue Team members and only provides a complimentary autobiography for Mr. Vallario. Mr. Rausch may have received the greatest radiation dose because his assignment was to confirm the immobile victim, who was closest to the destroyed reactor vessel, was deceased and the only Rescue Team member to see a "bundle of rags" hanging from the reactor room ceiling which was determined by the next reactor room entry group to be the 3rd victim. The author credits Mr. Vallario with making "the recommendation to the other rescue team members to go into the reactor room to find the men regardless of the potentially lethal radiation conditions"(p.100) which doesn't make sense because he was not the senior member of the rescue team and there was no time for a group conference. In addition the author didn't interview the only surviving Rescue Team member, Mr. Rausch.

The Rescue Team members unflinchingly took on an unprecedented and impossible task which they voluntarily executed skillfully without hesitation in about an amazing 60 minutes. The rescue may have been more appropriately accomplished by a full complement of on-duty NRTS firemen, security men, and health physicists or the off-site military officers.

Some of the rescue event accounts in the story are inaccurate but of minor consequence compared to the Rescue Team insults.

This reviewer is a retired (1995) nuclear fuel projects manager with AEC, ERDA & DOE prime contractors including a junior engineer position at the SL-1 plant at the time of the Accident.
40 of 44 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Memories of Realities May 16 2009
By A. D. Rossin - Published on Amazon.com
Verified Purchase
I did the calculations and wrote the Safety Analysis Report for the SL-1 reactor. It was called ALPR back then. I did the "worst case scenario" and we studied it. Our design and tools used common sense equipment recognizing what could possibly go badly wrong. Several years later I was shocked to see the headlines of the Chicago Tribune reporting the explosion at SL-1. No secret! Years of studies afterwards revealed that the military operators had made handling tools of their own that short-cutted our common-sense approach. One of these shortcuts turned out to be a weak link in a system that had its own inherent vulnerabilities. I'll read the book. But I doubt that any new secrets are revealed. The AEC extensively revised its safety criteria after the accident. All public information.
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Important lesson from history Dec 10 2003
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
McKeown does a good job of pulling together the many strands of this story, giving just enough technical detail to know what went wrong, and enough (relevant) human interest to keep the story interesting.

Yes, it's true that Idaho Falls isn't exactly a brand-new 'revelation', but few outside the nuclear industry have heard about it, or know its significance. McKeown shows that the ultimate cause was a failure by the designers of the reactor to take into account Murphy's Law - if something can go wrong, it will. This is a common thread running thru nuclear incidents ranging from Windscale to Chernobyl. With some energy experts now calling for us to embrace nuclear power again in order to meet energy demand without triggering excessive global warming, McKeown's book is a very timely reminder of why and how things went wrong 50 years ago, and what we need to look out for the second time around (if nuclear power is granted one)
38 of 44 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Sloppily done and biased. Sept. 27 2010
By Stewart Gammill - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
My father, William Gammill, was the first health physicist on site. He was one of the ones to actually go into the reactor building in an effort to save the operators; an action for which he and four others received a Carnegie Heroes Medal. To portray them as McKeown did was insulting and false,anyone that called him "nerdy" or worse clearly didn't know anything about him. They performed with heroism that few of us will ever match. He and William Rausch were still alive during the period that the book was written yet was not even mentioned and neither were interviewed. Very sloppy indeed.

This reviewer is the son of William P. Gammill and remembers well the night that his dad went rushing out into the night not knowing whether he was going to be returning. I also discussed the book with him before his death in October of 2008. Shame on McKeown.
21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Feb. 13 2004
By Victor Allen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In the interest of full disclosure I will say up front that I am not in any way connected to The Site (locals' name for the facility out on the desert now called the INEEL) I have friends who work there and friends who would love to see it shut down.
That said I think McKeown does an excellent job in telling what's known about the SL-1 accident (if that's what it was) and the rumors that surrounded it. I found it an first-rate read (I read it in two days) and very informative.
McKeown goes to great lengths to delineate between what can be and is known and what is rumor and supposition. He also repeatedly explains (which keeps me from giving the book a 5th star) how different attitudes were then, particulary among the personel working at and responsible for the facility. This is the excuse given and accepted by the author for the lack of disclosure at the time. There's nothing here about what changed, or more importantly, what didn't change, as a result of SL-1.
Its unfortunate that the story of this incident is completely unkown by the general public. Both the heroism of those there immediately after the incident and the behavior of those in charge should be common knowledge. Reading this book goes a long way in correcting that.
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