ATOMIC CITY, Idaho — People in this remote, high-desert town still talk about the alleged mysterious love triangle that, 60 years ago, triggered a murder-suicide — and resulted in the world’s first fatal nuclear explosion.
The accident never got the same attention as Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) or Fukushima (2011). But the sensational story behind it lives in infamy, even though some experts believe it may have been made up by government officials.
This single sentence is true: Army Specialists Jack Byrnes, 22, and Richard McKinley, 26, and Navy Seabee Richard Legg, 26, died violent, gruesome deaths on Jan. 3, 1961, at the US Army’s pioneering SL-1 reactor in Idaho.
Located some five miles from Atomic City, in the desolate Lost River desert, the reactor was part of the Army’s plan to establish portable nuclear power at remote bases in the Arctic during the height of the Cold War.
The three men were known to partake in strippers and alcohol in Idaho Falls during their off-hours. Hotheaded Byrnes and prankster Legg, who had been promoted above Byrnes, were rivals at work and had reportedly once gotten into a drunken fistfight at a party. Legg had also taunted Byrnes, who was married with a 2-year-old son, about him cheating on his wife with a local hooker.
Just after 9 p.m. on Jan. 3, a few hours after Byrnes received a phone call at work from his wife threatening divorce, he raised the 84-pound control rod too high up off the core of the reactor — and the place blew.
He did it — according to a memo leaked by a high-ranking Atomic Energy Commission reactor safety expert — as an act of self-sabotage and murderous rage against one of the other two men as a result of a “lover’s triangle.” It was implied that Legg was sleeping with Byrnes’ wife. McKinley was just collateral damage.
But there’s no real evidence to any of this.
Historians as well as environmental activists told The Post that early Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) investigators cooked up the murder-suicide theory to deflect from a shoddily designed reactor and bad safety measures at the plant.
“It was all absolutely a coverup,” Tami Thatcher, a former nuclear safety analyst at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), told The Post. “You never heard from the AEC that the rod was stuck and the guys had to maybe lift something that was stuck. To this day the INL will say it was a crazy man who lifted the rod too high.”
Now, as the military has announced intentions to revive plans for small, mobile nuclear reactors at the same site, some locals are feeling a bad sense of deja vu.
“I struggle with the whole love-triangle and murder-suicide thing even though a lot of folks around here believe it,” Vickie O’Haro, the 49-year-old owner of the half-abandoned town’s Atomic City Bar and Store, told The Post. “It’s taken on a life of its own over the years, but I think the truth is a lot less romantic and more scary.”
The men had come to work at the isolated, three-story metal silo at a time when nuclear energy was hoped to be the fuel of the future. Not far from Atomic City is Arco, famous for being the first city lit by atomic energy for one hour on July 17, 1955.
A total of 52 nuclear reactors have been built on the eerie, sagebrush-spotted Snake River Plain since the establishment of the Atomic Energy Commission in the late 1940s.
The land has been part of the 890-acre, top-secret Idaho National Laboratory, referred to “The Site” and one of 17 nuclear research laboratories run by the Department of Energy since 1949. Signs at the front gate warn that “deadly force” will be used against trespassers.
Historians like Thatcher, who has researched the accident for years, say that Byrnes, McKinley and Legg were likely victims, not villains. They claim that the men’s Army superiors knew there were longstanding issues with the control rods sticking — and that maybe Byrnes had to pull the central control rod too hard that night and it backfired, literally.
Byrnes was in charge of manually lifting the control rod about 4 inches and attaching it to an automated control mechanism, a routine maintenance procedure. But he raised it about 20 inches, causing the catastrophe.
The spokeswoman for the Idaho National Laboratory told The Post it was a “steam explosion,” which is technically accurate.
Within a second, Byrnes’ blunder started a chain reaction in the uranium fuel that led temperatures to soar to 2,000 degrees Celsius. According to Todd Tucker, author of “Atomic America,” the water inside the core tore upward into the lid of the pressure vessel — where Byrnes and Legg were standing — with a force of 10,000 pounds per square inch.
Byrnes was killed instantly. McKinley, whose wife was pregnant at the time, was found writhing on the floor and died in an ambulance soon after. Legg had been impaled by a heavy shield plug — ejected with a velocity of 85 feet per second — and pinned to the ceiling.
The men’s bodies were so radioactive that some of their parts, including their hands and organs, had to be removed and buried along with other radioactive wreckage not far from the original site. The rest of their remains were shipped to their families and buried in lead-lined coffins beneath layers of concrete.
In 1962, a year after investigators had filed in-depth reports, an Atomic Energy Commission inspector named Leo Miazga composed a supplementary memo with personal information about the men — and the picture he painted was not pretty.
William McKeown, who wrote the 2003 account “Idaho Falls: The Untold Story of America’s First Nuclear Accident,” was the first to detail Miazga’s report and described, among other things, the breakdown of Byrnes’ marriage, his volatile relationship with Legg and his alleged fragile state of mind the night of the disaster.
The public first heard of the alleged love triangle in 1979, when another memo about the accident, written by a top Atomic Energy Commission official, Dr. Stephen Hanauer, was leaked to the Brattleboro Reformer newspaper in Vermont. The memo, according to the article, stated unequivocally that the SL-1 accident “was the result of a murder-suicide committed by one of the operators.”
Hanauer told the Reformer that a “lovers’ triangle had developed between two of the men and one of their wives.” But Hanauer offered no real proof.
Neuroscientist Simon LeVay, who wrote his own account of the SL-1 accident in his book, “When Science Goes Wrong: Twelve Tales from the Dark Side of Discovery,” told The Post he contacted the now-deceased Hanauer in 2005. He said Hanauer was “very dismissive of the whole love triangle thing, as if it wasn’t even true.”
The doubters say they’ll never know what really happened that night, but even given Byrnes’ volatility and collapsing marriage, they don’t believe he’d deliberately pull the control rod so hard and high as to blow all three men up.
“The AEC guys were covering their asses,” McKeown told The Post. “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.”
The SL-1 disaster led to the demise of the Army’s nuclear program and its plans for “mobile reactors.” But the project is potentially being revived after all these years, and at the same location.
The Department of Defense announced Sept. 24 that it plans to build a prototype for “an advanced mobile nuclear micro-reactor” at the Idaho National Laboratory.
Environmentalists, already fighting ongoing radioactive contamination emanating from the laboratory site, where the remains of the reactor is located, aren’t happy. They say they are fighting an uphill battle to bring attention to sky-high thyroid cancer rates in Idaho and contaminated water, soil and air from INL nuclear testing and research going back decades.
“There were predicted issues with the SL-1 reactor,” Chuck Broscious, president of the Troy, Idaho-based Environmental Defense Institute, told The Post.
“They knew it had serious problems yet they kept running it. It was run by the Army. We’re concerned that the Army wants to run more reactors out there for power sources. Anything run by the Army is going to be trouble. But the INL is the biggest employer in Idaho. No one wants to say anything against them.”
An INL spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
Said McKeown: “We’ll never know what happened in 1961 for sure, but it’s probably not what was written in those memos. I think the truth died with those guys and that’s it.”