Death by control rod: The story of SL1 with Todd Tucker

Death by control rod: The story of SL1 with Todd Tucker

Shelly Lesher

In this episode of My Nuclear Life, Shelly speaks with Todd Tucker, author of several books including Atomic America: How a Deadly Explosion and a Feared Admiral changed the Course of Nuclear History published in 2009. Today, the story of SL-1 holds wide appeal yet remains relatively unknown. If you have heard of the explosion you might know of the person impaled by a control rod, a murder suicide plot due to a love triangle or a prank gone wrong. All of this and more is discussed in this episode about the US's deadliest reactor accident.

Despite having graduated from Notre Dame with a history degree, Todd went on to become a Junior Officer on a Navy nuclear submarine. He describes the difficult but rewarding work and the fun he found in operating the boat and reactor. He clarifies the term “nuclear submarine”, which actually refers to the submarine’s propulsion plant and doesn’t always mean there are nuclear weapons on board. The most interesting aspect of his time there was the people and narratives he encountered. 

Then, the conversation shifts to discussing SL-1. The incident occurred at an operating plant in remote Idaho, which opened in the dawn of the nuclear age. It was believed that nuclear power would soon dominate all, and the military had nuclear projects in the works for every branch, all of which were represented in Idaho. Construction began for the USS Nautilus in 1952, the world’s first nuclear powered submarine. The Air Force’s nuclear powered jet, however, was a complete failure.

The SL-1 was distinguished in Idaho for being the smallest reactor in the whole place, with a crew of only 3 operators. Todd articulates just how small the design actually was. The operation was widely regarded as fail-safe and the crew never considered malfunctions even a remote possibility. The procedure being performed when the explosion occurred called for someone to stand above the reactor and lift the rod up by 4 inches. One of the three crew members managed to survive for an additional few hours, though the other two were pronounced dead instantly. The bodies were so radioactive that they couldn’t be taken to the hospital and there was controversy surrounding how to safely handle them.

An investigation to determine what went wrong began almost immediately and eventually determined the cause was due to the operator’s error, however, a discussion revolves around this narrative. Todd believes the location and association with being a military accident may contribute to the fact that the accident still remains relatively unknown. Finally, Todd discusses the aftermath of the incident and what became of the Idaho facility. 

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 Special thanks to Lexie Weghorn

Production costs for this episode provided though National Science Foundation Grants PHY-1713816  & 2011267.