On January 3, 1961, nine days after Christmas, Richard Legg, John Byrnes, and Richard McKinley were killed in a remote desert in eastern Idaho. Their deaths occurred when a nuclear reactor exploded at a top-secret base in the National Reactor Testing Station (NRTS). Official reports state that the explosion and subsequent reactor meltdown resulted from the improper retraction of the control rod. When questioned about the events that occurred there, officials were very reticent. The whole affair, in fact, was discussed much, and seemed to disappear with time.
In order to grasp the mysterious nature of the NRTS catastrophe, it help to know a bit about how nuclear reactors work. After all, the generation of nuclear energy may strike many as an esoteric process. However, given its relative simplicity, the way in which the NRTS reactor functions is widely comprehensible. In this particular kind of reactor, a cluster of nine-ton uranium fuel rods are positioned lengthwise around a central control rod. The reaction begins with the slow removal of the control ro, which starts a controlled nuclear reaction and begins to heat the water in the reactor. This heat generates steam, which builds pressure inside the tank. As pressure builds, the steam looks for a place to escape. The only place this steam is able to escape is through the turbine. As it passes through the turbine on its way out of the tank, it turns the giant fan blades and produces energy.
On the morning of January 3, after the machine had been shut down for the holidays, the three men arrived at the station to restart the reactor. The control rod needed to be pulled out only four inches to be reconnected to the automated driver. However, records indicate that Byrnes yanked it out 23 inches, over five times the distance necessary. In milliseconds the reactor exploded. Legg was impaled on the ceiling; he would be discovered last. It took one week and a lead-shielded crane to remove his body. Even in full protective gear, workers were only able to work a minute at a time. The three men are buried in lead-lined coffins under concrete in New York, Michigan, and Arlington Cemetery, Virginia.
The investigation took nearly two years to complete. Did Byrnes have a dark motive? Or was it simply an accident? Did he know how precarious the procedure was? Other operators were questioned as to whether they knew the consequences of pulling the control rod out so far. They responded “Of course! We often talked about what we would do if we were at a radar station and the Russians came.
“We’d yank it out.”
Official reports are oddly ambiguous, but what they do not explain, gossip does. Rumors had it that there was tension between the men because Byrnes suspected the other two of being involved with his young wife. There is little doubt than he, like the other operators, knew exactly what would happen when he yanked the control rod.
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