America's Worst Nuclear Disaster May Have Been Caused By A Goosing

A recreation of the incident. Image credit: Argonne National Laboratory/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

America's worst nuclear disaster may have been caused by a goosing.

The SL-1 was an experimental, low-power nuclear reactor in Idaho, intended to power small remote military facilities in the early 1960s. It was, to be fair, an accident waiting to happen. Worse, it was a nuclear accident waiting to happen. 

The problem with the SL-1 was that during maintenance, control rods – which absorb neutrons in the core of the reactor – needed to be manually pulled up just a few inches, before being reconnected. Should they be withdrawn too far, to put it in layman's terms, it's boom boom time.

Boom boom time, tragically, occurred on January 3, 1961, as one of the operators pulled the rod out too far, causing the SL-1 to go critical. Three people died in the resulting nuclear disaster, the worst that has ever taken place on American soil, with one man being impaled through his groin by the rod, which exited through his shoulder and pinned him to the ceiling.

An investigation was ordered into the event to prevent it from taking place again. It found that the rod had been withdrawn a full 50 centimeters (20 inches) rather than the few centimeters it should have been.

The problem was, they knew how the accident had occurred from a mechanical point of view, but nothing beyond that. What could have caused the operator to lurch enough to remove the rod so far? Was it on purpose? Was it a suicide, or murder? Or... were they surprised in some way?

One of the theories, if proven correct, would make it one of the stupidest nuclear incidents on record, which is saying something given that the US has straight-up lost at least six nuclear bombs (that we know of). You see, Richard Legg (the man who was later impaled to the ceiling) turns out to have had a record of being a bit of a prankster. Which, let's be honest, is not a quality you're looking for in someone responsible for some of the deadliest substances known to humans. Call me old-fashioned, but the nuclear bomb guy should never be known as "a bit of a wildcard" behind his back.

Were Legg to have limited his pranks to outside of work hours, perhaps he wouldn't have been listed as a suspect. However, on one occasion he had turned off a fan that was used to cool part of the reactor, in order to set off an alarm and scare his colleagues on purpose. The joke being "ha ha you should have seen your face when you thought you were about to DIE."

One of his favorite pranks was "goosing" his colleagues, which is, essentially, to pinch them on the butt when they are not looking. This led to the theory that Legg had seen his colleague Byrnes stood over the rod, waggling his butt away like Seymour Skinner, and the temptation had been too much. He took the opportunity, the theory goes, and the subsequent shock caused Byrnes to lift the rod up too far, killing them all in one single butt pinch.

Absurdly, the theory was tested out by investigators. 

"We looked at goosing," C. Wayne Bills, one of the investigators, told the author of Idaho Falls: The Untold Story of America's First Nuclear Accident. "You know, someone grabbing the guy on the rod in the rear and having him jump."

In an experiment, volunteers were asked to operate a rod on a replica reactor. Unbeknownst to them, as they pulled the rod, someone would come up and pinch them on the butt. This happened to many volunteers until the experimenters were satisfied.

None of them dislodged the rod far enough to have made the reactor go critical. 

Nevertheless, the theory is as good (or bad) as any of the others floated at the time, including love triangles and murder. But the truth is (most likely) far simpler: if you have flawed machinery, sooner or later accidents are going to happen. And the SL-1 was flawed, which is dangerous even before you take into account that the operators were only trained for six weeks before they began their work.

“The Atomic Energy Commission guys were covering their asses,” William McKeown told The New York Post on the outlandish theories of love triangles leading to murder. “They didn’t want their nuclear program impugned. I don’t think they believed much if anything they wrote about them. But what they said pissed off a lot of the old nuke guys. They felt these men were doing work on a crappily built reactor and lost their lives because of it — and then they get hit with this shitty legacy made up by the bosses.”

Essentially, goosing or no goosing, a nuclear reactor should not be operating with regular manual movement of the control rod, where any sudden jolt means the death of everyone on site.

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