When asked to name the world’s first major nuclear accident, most people cite the Three Mile Island incident or the Chernobyl disaster. Revealed in this book is one of American history’s best-kept secrets: the world’s first nuclear reactor accident to claim fatalities happened on United States soil. Chronicled here for the first time is the strange tale of SL-1, a military test reactor located in Idaho’s Lost River Desert that exploded on the night of January 3, 1961, killing the three-man maintenance crew on duty. Through details uncovered in official documents, firsthand accounts from rescue workers and nuclear industry insiders, and exclusive interviews with the victims’ families and friends, this book probes intriguing questions about the devastating blast that have remained unanswered for more than 40 years. From reports of a faulty reactor design and mismanagement of the reactor’s facilities to rumors of incompetent personnel and a failed love affair that prompted deliberate sabotage of the plant, these plausible explanations for the explosion raise questions about whether the truth was deliberately suppressed to protect the nuclear energy industry.
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‘Idaho Falls’ sat in my wish list for about 9-months gathering digital dust, all but forgotten among other various titles. Then, while listening to ‘Atomic Awakening’ this event was detailed. That reference piqued my interest and, upon finishing that book, I purchased this. I started this book last Friday night and finished it on Sunday morning. That should give some idea of how captivating this story was. I didn’t want to stop listening, which is ironic considering my overall opinion of the book.
The Writing – In short, it was sloppy. It lacked important scientific background information and details for some of the topics discussed. Because of that and the fact that the author was not clear and consistent with his use of descriptive words a reader who knows nothing about nuclear power or the physics behind it may have trouble following the content. Or, worse yet, if the reader harbors fear or bias about nuclear science this book will likely terrify them and make them feel as though all irrational fears have been confirmed. This is a significant problem because correct application of technical jargon is important for proper context and correct understanding of topics like this.
The Not So Good – The author wrote the following; “…others thought a sudden rod withdrawal would take the reactor critical destroying the reactor core.” Now, this isn’t ‘technically’ incorrect, it’s just an incomplete explanation even in context and is very misleading to any layperson and it’s frustrating to anyone who understands this subject. He, like so many, makes it sound as though “criticality” is a bad thing when, in fact, it’s a normal function of controlled nuclear fission. Further, some of his analogies were callus in presentation such as when he referred to the three victims of this event becoming “nuclear pioneers” because they were the first people to be killed by this type of incident or when he described retrieving the body of the third victim as a ‘rescue’ when it was clearly a recovery. Minor points? Maybe, but when I say aloud; “wow, that’s a bad way to describe things” I need to put it in my review.
The Bad – The deadly incident at the SL-1 reactor would properly be described as a ‘criticality accident’ and/or ‘power excursion’ in the reactor core resulting in over pressurization and explosion of the containment vessel. Granted, there’re several ways to accurately describe it, but the author was not consistent in his use of terminology when referring to this event calling it a blast, a nuclear catastrophe, an atomic incident, an excursion, and an explosion. That makes it hard for a layperson to stay on track with the events. Worse yet, he used grossly inaccurate terminology at least twice when referring to this event; once calling it a nuclear explosion, and later a nuclear blast! These two descriptions are so misleading, if not outright biased, as to make my head spin. The use of these two descriptions in this context for this event was sloppy writing and research at best and outright anti-nuclear bias at worst and it calls into question the author’s qualifications on this subject matter and/or the accuracy of other information in the book.
Narration – Bob Dunsworth’s narration wasn’t ‘bad’ it’s just very inconsistent. I didn’t take issue with the way he pronounced ‘nuclear’, as some did, but I did notice that he changed the way he pronounced it from time-to-time as well as how he pronounced ‘Roentgen’. It was as if he was practicing different ways to pronounce words while he was recording the book? Certain words were simply not pronounced clearly; ‘but’ sounded like ‘bought’, ‘rod’ sounded like ‘rawhd’, and ‘deaths’ sounded like ‘deafs’. When saying the reactor name, SL-1, it sounded like he was saying ‘SO-1’. Taken individually, these are minor points, but cumulatively it makes me not want to listen to his narration again.
The Editing – Including the information heretofore stated the editing was just bad. On at least one occasion, which I listened to three times to be sure I heard it correctly, the narrator said “nuclear erector” when it should have been “reactor”. I lay this on the writer and/or editor, not the narrator. It’s another sloppy and avoidable mistake.
The Feel - The feeling this book gave me was that of a mystery novel and it evoked that nostalgic and eerie, yet very entertaining, feeling I would get watching those 1950’s Sci-Fi films. Both of these factors, coupled with the importance of this particular event, made this a very engaging book. If this book were fiction, rather than a real-life tragedy, my rating would be five stars overall.
Summation – This book presented a conundrum for me in writing this review. While I take some significant umbrage to the book’s writing style, the editing and the narration I still thoroughly enjoyed the telling of the story and I did learn some things. I made 10 bookmarks with notes for later reference as well. All things considered with my aforementioned frustrations I can still recommend this book because it was a good story telling and it kept me captivated and wanting more of it. I recommend this book if for no other reason then the ‘feel’ it gives and the pure entertainment value it affords. If you’re a Sci-Fi fan I think you’ll love this book. I don’t want to be flippant about the true nature of this tragic event, but this book somehow worked for me in all the wrong ways.