Sunday, January 2, 2011

SL-1, 50 Years Ago

Ordinarily, I don't get wound up about 50th anniversaries -- or anniversaries of anything, for that matter, except for my wedding anniversary of course can't forget that one. But with tomorrow being the 50th anniversary of the SL-1 accident at what is now the Idaho National Laboratory, I think this one is worth noting.

The explosion at SL-1, a small US Army research reactor in the Idaho desert that killed three operators, is an obscure but seminal event in the history of nuclear energy in the United States. What's significant about the event is that a faulty reactor design -- the reactor was capable of going prompt critical with only insignificant movement of the control rod, due to corrosion in other safety elements -- combined with a still murky personal story that leads some to believe the accident was either the result of emotional strain or a practical joke on the part of one operator. Much of the reactor safety we see in present reactors owes its existence to the SL-1 accident. Automation and redundant systems made the reactors nearly immune to accidental criticality or one brought about on purpose.

I work just a few miles from where this accident occurred. I drive by the spot daily. It's now just a bit of nondescript desert sagebrush with an abandoned and fenced-off road leading to it. Nobody talks about it much, but because we've got other things to do, not because of the mystery that surrounds the event.

What is more disturbing is that foes of nuclear power use this accident -- though much less prominently than they use Three Mile Island or Chernobyl -- as weapons against further nuclear power plants, while ignoring the yearly deaths that occur in other, less green energy extraction methods, from oil to coal to natural gas. What should be noted is that despite the accidents that have happened, no one in the United States has been killed as the result of an accident at a commercial nuclear power plant. The only deaths here are the result of a research reactor that had serious design flaws that have not been repeated in current reactor design. But it's easy for those who work against nuclear power to point to such accidents and say, "See! That happened! What's stopping that from happening again!?"

Well, plenty.

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