In a scattering of graveyards around the U.S.—one of them at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., the others in New York and Michigan—are three bizarre tombs, each of which holds a lead-lined coffin buried extra-deep and covered with many feet of concrete. The graves hold the still highly radioactive remains of three young servicemen, named Richard Legg, John Byrnes, and Richard McKinley, who died in this country’s only fatal nuclear accident—a total fuel meltdown that occurred when an atomic reactor went suddenly and disastrously critical.
The accident—though some credible accounts hint it might have been a murder-suicide—occurred at an experimental reactor in the great, top-secret expanse of what was then known as the National Reactor Testing Station in eastern Idaho.
The ill-fated reactor, known as SL-1, was a prototype for a Pentagon plan to power all of its early-warning DEW-line radar bases with small atomic-generating stations. It was a relatively simple structure, just a nine-ton cluster of uranium fuel rods huddled around a single control rod—the slow removal of which allowed a controlled chain reaction that boiled the water to drive a turbine generator.
On Tuesday, Jan. 3, 1961, the three young operators were called in to restart the reactor after its 11-day holiday shutdown. The rules demanded that the control rod be slowly pulled out by four inches—but for some unexplained reason, Byrnes pulled it up swiftly by more than two feet, causing the reactor to surge instantly to a state known as prompt critical—to, in effect, blow up.
In milliseconds the entire atomic pile melted, disintegrated, and was hurled upward nine feet, smashing Navy specialist Legg, who was standing on the top, into the concrete ceiling, impaling him on a bolt. A vast amount of radiation was released, and when the fatally injured trio were found, they first had to be covered in lead and their bodies eventually kept under guard in lead coffins. (It took more than a week to remove the impaled man, employing a lead-shielded crane and rescuers who could spend only a minute each in the reactor building.) When one of the trio was buried, his family asked to see the coffin: permission was only granted when they agreed to rush through the funeral in five minutes.
The ruined reactor was buried deep beneath the desert. Despite concrete and gravel on top, it leaked radiation for decades, until a newly designed cement cover was installed in 2000.
A two-year inquiry into the event resulted in the abandonment of the DEW-line power-plant scheme and a decision never to employ only one control rod in an atomic pile (all modern reactors have scores). And as to why Byrnes pulled out the rod, the official report is silent; but there has been speculation of sexual tensions among the three and their wives, that he knew exactly what would happen, and that cold revenge lay behind his decision.