One common link in the training of most nukes is the viewing of a grainy, black and white documentary on the aftermath of an accident at a reactor known as SL-1. The accident occured on January 3, 1961 at the Atomic Energy Commission’s National Reactor Testing Station near Idaho Falls Idaho.
Three people died in the accident, making this the only fatal accident caused by a nuclear fission reactor outside of the former Soviet Union. Though the victims received large doses of radiation, they were killed by other injuries before the radiation had a chance to kill them.
Ever since the accident, there have been rumors, misinformation, and tales that remind one of the old game of telephone where stories passed along by word of mouth end up bearing little resemblance to reality.
Searching for the Truth?
A recent long running conversation on an Internet newsgroup provided the impetus for in-depth research .
Many of the comments were of the “well I heard. . .” variety, indicating a real need for information. An in-depth search revealed little readily available information about the causes and effects of the accident.
The search for the the truth took on some of the characteristics of a good who-done-it. There were no eye witnesses; all three operators on duty at the time of the accident were either killed immediately or died before they could make a statement.
There was a detailed investigation completed at the time of the accident, but it was apparently not widely released to the public. Some of the sources that we interviewed suggested that there may have been unstated reasons for not releasing the report. While the term “cover-up” was not used, the phrase “let sleeping dogs lie” was used more than once.
Reasons for Importance
The SL-1 accident is important because it is the only fatal accident that has ever directly involved a nuclear power plant reactor outside of the former Soviet Union. The study of the accident provides an interesting look into the way that things were done at one project in the early days of the Nuclear Age.
Finally, the event is important to Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. because we promote the idea that small, simple reactor plants can be used to replace diesel generators in many applications. Occasionally, people have made the comment, “That idea was tried before, and it failed rather catastrophically at the SL-1.” We believe that comment is made invalid by the huge technological differences between the engines that we advocate (see AEI of May 1996) and the SL-1, but you can judge for yourself.
The major written source for this issue was The Technology of Nuclear Reactor Safety by T. J. Thompson, published by MIT University Press (1964-1973). A very detailed description of the SL-1 accident and the post accident investigation is contained in a chapter of the book titled Accidents and Destructive Tests.
Several first hand sources have contributed to this issue, some on the condition that their names not be used. I will honor that request.