A goosing may have been the cause of America’s worst nuclear tragedy. In the early 1960s, the SL-1 was an experimental low-power nuclear reactor in Idaho, designed to power small distant military locations. To be fair, it was a disaster waiting to happen. Worse, it was on the verge of a nuclear meltdown.
The problem with the SL-1 was that control rods – which absorb neutrons in the reactor core –to physically lift up a few inches during maintenance before being rejoined, to put it another way, if they are withdrawn too far, its boom boom time. On January 3, 1961, tragedy struck when one of the operators drew the rod out too far, causing the SL-1 to go critical. One man was impaled in his crotch by the rod, which exited through his shoulder and pinned him to the ceiling, in the resulting nuclear tragedy, the worst that has ever occurred on American soil.
An investigation of the incident was launched in order to prevent it from happening again. The rod had retracted a full 50 centimeters (20 inches) rather than the few centimeters that should have been the case. The problem was that they only knew how the disaster happened from a mechanical standpoint. What could have made the operator lurch to the point of removing the rod thus far? This has been done on purpose. Was it a murder or a suicide? Alternatively, they had been taken aback in some way.
One of the possibilities, if confirmed, would make it one of the dumbest nuclear events ever, which is saying a lot considering the US has lost at least six nuclear weapons (that we know of). Because it turns out that Richard Legg, (the man who later impaled to the ceiling) had a history of being a prankster. Which, let us be honest, is not a quality you want in someone in charge of some of the world’s most lethal drugs. Call me old-fashioned, but the nuclear weapons expert should never referred to behind his back as “a bit of a wildcard.”
Perhaps Legg would not have named as a suspect if he had kept his pranks to after work hours. On one occasion, however, he purposefully switched off a fan that was meant to cool a portion of the reactor in order to send off an alarm and scare his coworkers. “You should have seen your face when you believed you were about to DIE,” the joke goes. One of his favorite pranks was “goosing” his coworkers, which involves pinching them in the buttocks when they are not looking. This led to the assumption that Legg had witnessed his colleague Byrnes standing over the rod, waggling his butt like Seymour Skinner, and had succumbed to the temptation. According to the hypothesis, he took advantage of the situation, and the resulting shock forced Byrnes to raise the rod too far, murdering them all in a single butt pinch.
Surprisingly, investigators put the notion to the test. C. Wayne Bills, one of the investigators, told the author of Idaho Falls: The Untold Story of America’s First Nuclear Accident, “We looked at goosing.” “Someone grabbing the guy on the back rod and making him jump,” says the narrator. Volunteers were asked to manipulate a rod on a model reactor as part of an experiment. Someone would come up behind them and pinch them on the butt while they pulled the rod. This happened to a large number of participants until the experimenters were happy with the results. None of them were able to dislodge the rod far enough to bring the reactor to a critical state.
Nonetheless, the idea is as excellent (or awful) as any of the others that were proposed at the time, such as love triangles and murder. Nevertheless, the truth is (most likely) much simpler: if your machinery is defective, accidents will occur eventually. In addition, the SL-1 had flaws, which is dangerous even when you consider that the operators only received six weeks of training before starting work.
On the fanciful claims of love triangles leading to murder, William McKeown told The New York Post, “The Atomic Energy Commission men were covering their asses.” “They didn’t want their nuclear program to be called into question.” They did not seem to believe much of what they wrote about them if anything at all. However, what they said enraged many of the old nuke people. They believed these individuals were working on a shoddy-built reactor and died as a result — and then they were saddled with a dreadful legacy concocted by the management.” In essence, goosing or no goosing, a nuclear reactor should not operate with frequent human control rod movement, as any abrupt jolt would result in the death of everyone on site.
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