SL-1– One of America’s Worst Nuclear Accidents

On 3rd January 1961 America suffered one of its worst nuclear accidents at the SL-1 experimental nuclear reactor at Idaho Falls, Idaho.

The accident killed the three men on duty, two almost immediately and one shortly after. The cause was a prompt criticality accident, a control rod in the reactor was removed too far causing a sudden surge in power.The power surge was later established to have jumped to 10 gigawatts in less than 4 milliseconds causing the water coolant surrounding the reactor core to form a water hammer and cause the entire pressure vessel, weighing 11.7 tonnes, to jump more than 9 feet.

The SL-1 disaster is important in many respects because it demonstrates human inability to confront the dangers of nuclear power, our creeping complacency towards the energy being unleashed and not to truly learn from these accidents.

In many respects SL-1 was an accident waiting to happen; the reactors were not inside true containment buildings, the reactor design allowed this accident to happen and its arguable whether the crew was experienced to enough to supervise the running of a nuclear reactor.

America, and most of the world’s nuclear powers had already experienced nuclear accidents before the one at SL-1. There was the disastrous fire at Pile no. 1 at Windscale in 1957 in the UK which revealed just how much wasn’t understood about nuclear power, there was also the Kyshtym disaster in the USSR when the cooling system for a tank of highly radioactive waste failed resulting in an explosion, also in 1957. Against this background of disasters, two young men in their mid 20s and a 22 year old trainee were allowed to operate the SL-1 reactor.

Further reading:

  • Idaho Falls: The Untold Story of America’s First Nuclear Accident, William McKeown (not strictly the “first” accident, a criticality accident killed Harry Daghlian in December 1945 with what became known as the “demon core”)
  • Final report of SL-1 recovery operation, General Electric Company Idaho Test Station SL-1 Project, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Idaho Operations Office
  • Video: SL-1 The Accident: Phases I and II, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission at the Internet Archive

Climatic Consequences of Nuclear Conflict – Alan Robock

Dr. Alan Robock has been one of the leading authorities on Nuclear Winter theory for many years. He maintains an excellent web site on this subject here:

He and Brain Toon (one of the original authors of the TTAPS study*) prepared a new review of Nuclear Winter for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists here (PDF) which demonstrates the danger of Nuclear Winter is still present, that the science behind the theory still stands up and that threshold of triggering climatic change from using nuclear weapons is still extremely low.

*Title: Nuclear winter: global consequences of multiple nuclear explosions, Author(s):T.P. Ackerman , J.B. Pollack , Carl Sagan , O.B. Toon and R.P. Turco, Source:Science. 222 (Dec. 23, 1983): p1283.

Cabinet Record — Record of the Public Expenditure Survey Committee 1970

Cabinet Record — Record of the Public Expenditure Survey
Committee 1970

Author: Anthony Barber

Table 24 / Misc Surveys / Page 40

£Million estimates of Civil Defence expenditure

1969-1970* 1971 1972 1973 1974 1975
£1.4 £7.2 £8.5 £9.1 £9.7 9.1

* (pre-decimalisation)

The table shows that public expenditure for Civil Defence will not grow
beyond £10 million by the mid-1970s

Actual Expenditures

(Cabinet Papers 129/1/712)

£millions at 1973 prices

1968-1969 1970 1971 1972 1973
10.7 3.5 6.7 9.2 8.9

Revised Estimated Expenditures

£millions at 1973 prices

1973-1974 1975 1976 1977 1978
12.5 11.7 12.0 12.1 11.7

Threads—Select References and Bibliography by Kevin Hall

The following reference material was used in BBC nuclear war drama “Threads” either as a factual or dramatic reference. Many of the references were used to either substantiate the on-screen captions and news reports, or were used to approximate casualty, fall-out or blast effects or to simulate the events after the attack.

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Government films accessioned by The National Archives

The UK National archives have a list of all government films they have accessioned – some 4800 films in total dating from pre-1939 almost up until the present day. The full list – available as a spreadsheet – contains a suprisingly small number of films that seem to be relayed to nuclear matters:

BRITISH NUCLEAR FUELS   COI + British Nuclear Fuels
NUCLEAR FUEL SERVICE 1985 UKAEA British Nuclear Fuels

Civil Defence seems also not very well represented:

CIVIL DEFENCE CARTOON 1958 none listed

Unfortunately there isn’t much in the way of a description and some titles don’t adequately describe the contents of the film so there is a chance much interesting material may be very hard to spot.

“Nuclear injured would have to wait”

An interesting story from The Guardian from 1977 (page 5, Feb 5th) on the injured might be  treated by the NHS after a nuclear attack on the United Kingdom.

The story discusses a Department of Health Circular on how the NHS would deal with patients after a nuclear strike. It paints a picture of the most extreme form of triage treatment; the priority patients would only be those who would be mostly likely to survive and patients suffering radiation sickness would simply be sent home and deal with it as best they could.

The circular also discusses withholding NHS staff from areas stricken with fallout and in this sense is consistent with the Protect and Survive advice which instructs the householder to lay-in 14 days of supplies – the same time limit the circular recommends that staff should be kept from dangerous areas.

Unfortunately the story doesn’t really cover how may NHS staff might actually survive the initial attack or whether the circular covered this at all. There is no reason to suppose whether NHS staff would be in any less or more danger than anyone else so it seems likely they would make up the same proportion of casualties as the rest of the population. As the nuclear war drama Threads also made clear without drugs, water, electricity and wound dressings most medical staff would be no better prepared to help than the nearest survivor.

There is no mention of the dispersal of staff however it does mention the specific clearing of patients in hospitals for incoming casualties which leads to interesting questions on whether patients could be nursed at home, whether the hospitals themselves would survive the attack in any meaningful way, who would staff them after attack and how many of those sent home prior to attack would need extra nursing care in the aftermath.

Reappraisal of the “Stay Put” Policy – 1983

In an article in The Guardian (July 11, 1983; Page: 3 “Nuclear War Evacuations Planned“) there is a brief note on how the Civil Contingencies Unit of the Home Office (UK) was rethinking traditional advice on staying put on the event of a nuclear crisis:

“It is the first indication that the Government is thinking of reversing its traditional Civil Defence Advice for people to stay where they are.”

This re-examination of the “Stay Put” policy tells us several things; the first is that the government does expect to fight a limited nuclear war: as the advice considers telling those who live near major military bases in East Anglia and Scotland to evacuate.

It tells us also that the bases do actually make these areas targets for an attack – something incredibly yet frequently denied, tacitly admits deterrence might fail and that the stay-put policy was condemning millions to death if a nuclear war ever broke out.

Yet, as is always the case with civil defence in the nuclear era it tries to reconcile many contradictory points:

“Stay at Home”

As was hammered home in Protect and Survive Stay at Home was a key message. The internal logic of Protect and Survive said that because of fall-out:

…no part of the United Kingdom will be safer than any other…

Which depending on the scale of the attack is absolutely true. Regardless of any ulterior motive for insisting civilians to stay at home, the truth is that the path of fall-out is unpredictable and it could drift anyway (however areas effected by fire and blast can be more reasonably assumed – major industrial areas are probably more at risk than empty fields).

Evacuations Incompatible with Mutual Assured Destruction

If there was still any truth to the theory of Mutual Assured Destruction 1983 anything that encompasses large scale evacuations is an anathema to it. As Gwynne Dyer puts it in Notes on Nuclear War mutual assured destruction only works if each side are kept as helpless hostages to the other’s weapons. Any sign of civil defence in the form of evacuations could cause the other side to push the pre-emptive nuclear button.

Where Would We Go?

Unlike large land masses like the United States or Russia, the question for the UK is where would we go? In the theoretical but largely plausible attack in Operation Square Leg or attack “H” in Openshaw’s Doomsday, the areas of the United Kingdom not effected by at least 1PSI of overpressure, blast, fire or all three are pretty small. Parts of the West Country, central and northern Wales and northern Scotland are the least effected by these hazards however they also have some of the lowest housing density and food reserves.

Although trying to crowd millions of these people in small parts of the UK may offer some small amount of protection for an initial attack (although in practical terms doing so would be nearly impossible and would be a strong signal for war) the lack of shelter, food and protection from fall-out could quickly erode any minor gains.


James Stafford – ‘Stay at Home’: The Politics of Nuclear Civil Defence, 1968–83

A superb article covering the latter years of Civil Defence in the United Kingdom. It looks at the infamous UK government leaflet Protect and Survive, “The State, the Public, and the Bomb: the Making of Protect and Survive” and how it tried to reconcile many completely contradictory elements of what became known as Home Defence being very distinct from Civil Defence (Duncan Campbell covers this in great depth in War Plan UK).

The key figure in the development of Protect and Survive was Duncan Buttery, Assistant Secretary in charge of the Public Emergencies Division at the Home Office and his input into the character of the material makes it much clearer on the presentational style of the leaflet and companion TV and radio broadcasts.

Buttery was a name unknown to me until I found this article but I did know form various articles from The Times in early 1980, Protect and Survive did seem to go through an extremely long gestation yet was quickly torn to pieces and parodied very quickly upon publication.

The full text of Stafford’s article is here: however you may need access to it via University or other academic institution, and is a shame this authoritative article could not be read more widely.

Protect and Survive Myths

For many years it has been thought that Protect and Survive included the following announcement spoken by Patrick Allen:

"Mine is the last voice you will ever hear…Do Not be Alarmed"

Although it is pretty much impossible to say with absolute certainty that this was never recorded for Protect and Survive, these exact words do appear on a remix of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s "Two Tribes", the Carnage Long Version remix recorded in 1984.

There have been persistent rumours over the years that there is also an extended warning in Protect and Survive recorded with the words:

"Mine is the last voice you will ever hear, do not be alarmed." and: "If you mother, or any other member of your family dies due to radiation, put them outside, but remember to tag them first for decontamination purposes."

In likelihood this came from an early version of FGTH Welcome to the Pleasuredome. I have never been able to find this was recorded for Protect and Survive, there also seems no evidence to support the claim Trevor Horn sampled Protect and Survive for Two Tribes, as far as I can tell Patrick Allen was engaged to come back into the studio for FGTH and perform cod-versions of his original lines.