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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Newsweek Magazine, and the SL-1 Accident

Folks, I have in my hands here one of the worst examples of news reporting in the history of the news media's love-hate affair with nuclear energy. This new pinnacle -- or is it depth -- has been found by Newsweek in the March 28 - April 4 issue and is penned by someone named Simon Winchester.

There are quite a few sources available on the SL-1 accident. I've read them all. Now, while a number of these require use of the FOIA privileges given US citizens, there are a whole lot that don't. Look in the "fukushima accident" sources given on a separate page on this site, and you will find quite a number of these contain a great deal of technical data on the SL-1 plant and accident. Major design data is found in the book "Boiling Water Reactors" that was sponsored by the AEC, and distributed at the 1958 Geneva Conference. Nuclear data and operating details are to be found in the book "Nuclear Reactor Plant Data - Volume One - Power Reactors" that was put out by the ASME in 1959. Accident data are given both in the AEC's WASH-1250 report (we have a final draft copy here) and are also mentioned in "The Second Nuclear Era." In the earliest sources, the plant is called ALPR which is short for Argonne Low Power Reactor, which is what this plant was called before being given a new alpha-numeric designator as SL-1.

Three military service men were killed in this accident. Their deaths were accidental; in no report that I have ever read which was written by the AEC, Combustion Engineering, or General Electric was any mention of deliberate murder-suicide ever made. It is deeply insulting to me to see this accident, resulting in the death of service members, reported as being driven by extra-marital affair or some such scandal... which of course, true to modern "reporting" style is the last phrase that Winchester leaves us with in the article.

Further, anyone who does even six or ten minutes of research will find out that the SL-1 reactor did NOT have only "one central rod." The reactor had five cross-form control rods installed in the core with design provision for four added "T" shape rods to be used also if the core size were increased from a 40 fuel element load to a 60 fuel element load for increased output. The five rods that were installed weighed 49 lbs each, and had a 32 inch long active neutron absorbing region. The five rods all together had a total reactivity of about 14% delta K (that's for you nukes out there, right from "Boiling Water Reactors") but in normal operation these rods' drive mechanisms limited outward movement to 3 inches per minute, which related to a reactivity addition rate of 0.01% dK / sec. In other words, for you non-nukes out there, although the rods had a very high total potential effect on rapidly raising the fission rate, when they were normally operated their movement was exceedingly slow in the out direction -- the mechanisms simply could not move them any faster than this.

As to the accident, several sources (WASH-1250, "The Second Nuclear Era," "The Atomic Energy Deskbook") relate the inadvertant manual withdrawal of the center rod (one in the middle, four around it) that caused prompt criticality. Right here in "The Atomic Energy Deskbook" is a brief summary done by expert author John Hogerton of the AEC's findings as of June 1961 which to my knowledge were never overridden. Hogerton lists three important points that I'll summarize myself below.

1. The accident was a result of a nuclear reaction.
2. The reaction was a power excursion resulting from abnormally fast and high motion of the central control rod.
3. A variety of conditions had developed in the reactor in its operational history prior to this including STICKING CONTROL RODS and loss of burnable poisons.

During maintenance, the rods had to be lifted a bit to perform work and apparently the operator experienced sticking of the rod, and excessive force caused it to move upward too far. This was not a murder-suicide. It was an ACCIDENT.

Further, the third operator's body was recovered on the 9th of January, not more than a week later (the accident happened at 9:01 PM January 3rd.)

There are a number of other total fabrications in this Newsweek story .. for example, the reactor was not buried but cut up at GE's "Hot Shop."

I recommend going to the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory site and finding the excellent history of the facility... called "Proving the Principle - A History of The Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, 1949-1999" by Susan M. Stacy. I read this when it was first released to the public and a check just now shows it's still there. The SL-1 chapter will tell you anything you would like to know to debunk the Newsweek article; however, if you want the truth you already have it and need not trouble yourself.

NOW, on the page opposite this one-sheet masterpiece is another one. This one is an adaptation from Helen Caldicott's book "Nuclear Power is Not The Answer." If you have the mag, look at this...

The piece starts by mentioning Indian Point. That's a nuclear power plant (two reactors operating, one decommissioned) at Buchanan, New York. It says that the plant is 35 miles from Manhattan where 17 million people are. It then goes right off into how a meltdown scenario might go, as related by non-nuclear expert Caldicott. Horrific details are given of casualties, and jammed escape routes, and so on.

I have a question.

What started the meltdown? Oh, right. You forgot that part. See.. that's how fearmongering to sell papers or web hits works. You mention a lot of people, like in New York or else in Los Angeles (oh, no! There are nuclear plants there, too!) and then posit a sourceless disaster to get them to want to read more.

If this is about the supposed fault structure near Indian Point and if that hasn't been cleared up already then maybe in another post I can relate all of the data in one of the newest volumes to arrive here; this book is titled "Geology In The Siting Of Nuclear Power Plants" and contains a great deal of data specific to the Indian Point case. There is also data in WASH-1250.

Let's close this post with this point: It's time that the big media stops hitting up their normal hacks for reports on topics they do not, and CAN NOT, understand. It's time to get the bias OUT of the media, and time to get honest reporting of facts without deliberate misinterpretation back INTO the media. Newsweek hasn't gotten that figured out yet. But that's all right - you have this blog for all things nuclear energy related.

11:30 AM Eastern Tuesday 3/29


  1. According to the official film of SL-1 photographers examined the position of the third man first on the 5th and then again on the 8th and then according to the film after extensive analysis of the situation and creation and testing of an elaborate method of removal so that the control rod could not fall or the reactor be in anyway disturbed and make the reactor critical the body was removed '5 nights after the accident' and put in a cask on the morning of the 9th.

    watch from 25 minutes to get the times of removal



  2. You are right; I inverted the digit, I guess because I still have the INEEL report open on my desk. Edit made.

  3. What would start a meltdown at Indian Point? Lay people don't know (and they shouldn't all be required to become nuclear experts), but right now they have to assume it is liable to happen, no matter what assurances the experts provide. People find it unfathomable that Fukushima's backup generators were so easily knocked out by a tsunami in the one nation on Earth that should be most prepared for tsunamis. They are also appalled that loss of power led so quickly to an out-of-control situation. To their view nuclear stations now seem quite fragile, and Fukushima seems like such gross design negligence that it has cost nuclear experts their credibility. Now we have to assume that Indian Point might be vulnerable to some totally obvious hazard that has been overlooked. What hazard exactly? We don't know, but from what we've just seen we have to assume there could be some shockingly negligent design flaw.

    Nuclear experts should not get angry with the public for being alarmed. They should be angry with themselves for letting it come to this. Their credibility has been damaged, and while non-experts may be shouting unreasonable things, shouting back at them angrily is not going to help.

    The world belongs to the public at large, not to technocrats, and the public can say "no nukes" if they want to. To convince them otherwise will require patient, cool-headed honesty, including frank admission, not dismissal, of the risks.

  4. Will - whenever Newsweek writes on an issue about which I have a great deal of knowledge, I too dissolve into twitching convulsions. The sensation can best be described as the feeling you would have if you were to wake up and find yourself in the Alice in Wonderland world. In fact, it's almost as if their reporters and editors are literally trying to reproduce the shore leave planet episode of Star Trek. Which I never liked.

    So I stopped reading Newsweek on the theory that I was being fed similar nonsense about all the issues about which I know nothing. I see no point to Newsweek. NY Times is often as bad.

    I think this is why people like blogs.

    When you really want to know or you really have to know, you can only find the information in the trade press (slow) or at blogs.

  5. @W Pardy. Very well said. The nuclear industry really needs to take a long hard look at their openness PLUS how to go about truthfully educating people that nuclear is a safe option. Its all very well to talk in Sieverts or Becquerels, the nuclear people might well know these, but to the rest of us they may as well be speaking Lower Swahili. When I get a chance I'll forward a more detailed email to Will as he alone seems to be making a pretty good fist of getting truth out there.

  6. According to wiki Indian point has two reactors very similar to those at Fukushima of similar age. Recent accidents show design and procedural issues. 1. Cooling pool water was able to leak for some period undetected into the hudson river via a crack in the pool. 2. 100,000 gallons of hudson river water was able to leak into a building undetected and not noticed till technicians walked into the room containing the water.

    Today it would be simple to have devices to detect anything that was present in a building that should not be, but if you build a containment pool into the bedrock without ability to inspect under it then detection becomes impossible while in operation and problems become more likely if fuel is never? totally removed from the ponds because there is no where else within 3000 miles for it to go.

  7. Correction to my comment about fuel pool leak. That was back in 1981 and not recent. The november 2009 discharge of 600,000?? gallons of coolant water is fairly alarming however. Frankly the NRC spokesperson sounds a bit like that fool from the national institute of Realtors.

  8. Another correction. It appears the leak was from secondary water that was condensed and pumped back to the steam generator, rather than coolant water.

  9. @andrewedwardjudd: The plants at Indian Point are Westinghouse pressurized water plants, and so aren't close to the design of the plants at Fukushima Daiichi at all.

    @wpardy: The industry only seems fragile, disconnected, unable to communicate and unable to respond if all you ever read is media hack garbage like Newsweek or watch the big three networks in America. Outside of that, there is a slew of information available. On another forum elsewhere someone said to me "if this thing has an accident no one knows what to do" and I pointed out the brochures mailed to every address every year inside the evacuation zone as well as the extensive information available online at the utility company's site. They're all like that - some are better than others, but they all have information. An uninformed public is not the fault of the utility companies who provide information that people throw out as junk mail, and it isn't the fault of the utility companies that when media needs to report on nuclear energy it doesn't ask anyone who knows anything about it.

    What happened in Japan is one of the five most powerful earthquakes in recorded history. It exceeded everyone's estimations -- not just nuclear engineers, but structural engineers, architects, and on and on. None of us is particularly surprised that one of the largest disasters in our known history has led to this situation. What is more, all of the other Japanese utilities are now making plans and changes to prevent a recurrence of such an event even in the face of such a large disaster.

    @oldman: You're absolutely right, which is exactly why I've started this company... I started this when the nuclear renaissance began within the industry and I knew very well that everything the public knows about nuclear energy is wrong.

  10. Will, A BWR is still a pressurised water reactor even if it has less pressure than a PWR.

    by the way you have a typo in your latest post 'techinical'

    And I do appreciate all the news. Thanks.

  11. @andrewedwardjudd: There are many types of reactors, and BWR or boiling water reactors are very different from PWR or pressurized water reactors. The differences are major and too large to describe here. TY for the note on the typo.

  12. "What happened in Japan is one of the five most powerful earthquakes in recorded history. It exceeded everyone's estimations ..."

    Unless it was THE most powerful earthquake in history, by a long way, why did it exceed expectations? Shouldn't we be expecting the most powerful earthquake possible? The question that the public is now asking is: What ELSE is going to exceed everyone's expectations?

  13. Will, you say that what happened in Japan was one of the 5 largest earthquakes in recorded history, but then you say it exceeded everyone's estimations. Doesn't that suggest the estimations ignored the other 4 largest earthquakes?

    I agree the press is doing a terrible job. I think that if nuclear organizations want the public to be better educated, they will have to control the press better, or create their own press agency that the public knows about and trusts. We will trust an agency that is truthful, unbiased, doesn't pull punches, and synthesizes large amounts of information into a digestible form which is backed up with details to whatever level a reader is interested in going to.

    That's a tall order, but the closer they can get the better it will go for them.

    Perhaps they should look to you for a start.

    Thanks again for giving me the information I needed in order to stop worrying as much and return to feeling concern for the Japanese affected by this triple whammy disaster.