|Burial Site for the SL-1 Reactor in Idaho|
The threat posed by the damaged nuclear reactors has raised concern around the world. Some have downplayed these concerns, suggesting that people over-react to anything with the words "nuclear" or "radiation" in it, but I disagree. We should be worried. Very worried.
Many stories have appeared in the US press asking: could something like the situation in Japan happen in our country? In fact, something very similar did happen here, fifty years ago. And although it occurred just a few miles from where I was living at the time, I only learned of this in the last few days.
As I was looking up links to include in this post, I came across a series of articles about an accident that occurred at the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) site in the Arco Desert outside my hometown on January 3, 1961. The circumstances are eerily similar to what we're hearing about at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. At around 9pm on that January day in 1961, a steam explosion occurred at reactor SL-1, an experimental nuclear reactor at the site. A control rod had been pulled out of the core, causing the reactor to go critical. The explosion was caused by a sudden upsurge in heat that explosively converted liquid water into steam.
Three workers were killed by the physical effects of the explosion but their bodies were so radioactive that they were buried in lead-lined caskets. The radiation exposure was due to the contents of the reactor being sprayed around by the explosion. The entire building and what was left of the reactor are still buried in the desert just outside my hometown. The accompanying image shows the marker sitting next to a pile of rock that looks just like dozens of other piles of rock I have passed by many times on my way to visit my grandparents.
I was five years old at the time so, of course, I remember nothing about this. I've found a newspaper article and a story in Time magazine, both published in 1961, that show the public was aware of what happened. Perhaps this explains my mother's insistence that we never eat the snow; she warned us repeatedly about "nuclear fallout" and how it could be in the snow. I always thought her fear was somewhat irrational, due to Cold War tensions, but now that I've learned about this little-known nuclear accident, I wonder if she had more immediate reasons to be fearful.
Some people are afraid of things they don't understand, and the mere mention of the words "nuclear" or "radiation" can generate irrational fear, or fear based not on facts but wild speculations and misunderstandings. This does not mean that all fear is irrational, however, and sometimes it is an appropriate emotion. I have not yet reached the point where the situation in Japan is making me feel actual fear, but I am concerned--and this concern is based on quite a bit of knowledge about nuclear topics.
I taught introductory college Chemistry for over twenty years and always included an in-depth unit on radioactive decay processes as the basis of nuclear power generation. I was one of only a few professors who covered this topic, but I felt compelled to teach it, and teach it thoroughly. It's possible that experiences in my early childhood had made me especially attuned to the importance of this topic, but I also knew that essentially no attention was paid to it in most science classrooms, and I wanted to do what little I could to remedy this lack.
At the end of each term, I always had a few students who had learned what I was trying to get across: that this topic is very important and whether we are in favor of nuclear power or not, we need people who understand it, since the materials and power plants exist and must be handled properly. These students would want advice about graduate programs, places they could go to pursue further study, but there were very few options available to them.
I have continued to be dismayed by the lack of opportunity to study and learn about nuclear energy in the US--it is as if the very topic is radioactive and people in our country shun it, wanting it to go away because it frightens them. The topic isn't going to go away, though, and sometimes the best defense is education.
It's possible that my passion about this topic was set at an early age. I grew up in Idaho Falls, about forty miles from the AEC site where the SL-1 accident occurred. The site is now known as the Idaho National Lab, and is a Department of Energy (DOE) facility. Many of my friends parents worked at the site, but I didn't understand for a very long time what they were doing out there.
Part of the reason was that I was young and had other concerns, but there was also a great deal of secrecy involved. The facts about the SL-1 accident apparently became more widely known only in the 1980s and later when the Freedom of Information Act was invoked to get at information about it.
Also, the Cold War was raging at the time of the accident, and much of the activity going on at the site in the Arco Desert involved not just the development of nuclear power generators, but also weapons development and other military operations. We now know, for example, that tons of radioactive waste from the development of atomic weapons at the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado were buried throughout the 1950s and 60s in that desert just above the aquifer for the Snake River Plain.
This situation became a huge news story in southeastern Idaho in the 1990s when there were suggestions that the aquifer might be contaminated with radioactive decay components. For more than two decades, DOE has been cleaning up the aquifer, and trying to prevent any additional seepage of buried waste into the groundwaters. There has been a great deal of controversy about cover-ups, mismanagement by government contractors, and on and on. It is all an unfortunately familiar-sounding story.
So, perhaps my readers and followers on Twitter will forgive me if I become a little obsessed with the unfolding events in Japan. There is a lot to keep track of, and a lot to understand. Stay tuned for more.