Cooper Dart


I. Summary

This report by the Board of Investigation is in response to the request of the General Manager of the Atomic Energy Commission to report on the SL-1 reactor incident. At the time of this writing, there still remains substantial doubt concerning the initiating event causing the explosion within the reactor pressure vessel. The Board, therefore, feels constrained to restrict its observations concerning cause and responsibility to observable or demonstrable situations and events. [1]

At 9:01 pm on January 3, 1961, the Stationary Low-Power Reactor No. 1 (SL-1) at the National Reactor Testing Station (now the Idaho National Laboratory) in east-central Idaho exploded during maintenance, killing three men in a concussive water and steam wave. This was the world's first fatal nuclear reactor disaster.

Radioactive waste storage and reactor facilities at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) are subject to a variety of natural hazards including, but not limited to: worker negligence, floods, volcanoes, drunk driving, teenagers breaking into rail yards, coyotes, bowling balls, devils, angels, and suspected murder-suicides. Because studies on the eastern Snake River Plain are still in progress, this report is preliminary. While the writer feels that early release of this assessment may be useful for tracking these hazards, he'll still have trouble sleeping on weekends. You'll see. [2]


II. Introduction

I'm not a nuclear physicist, but I guess this is a report based on nuclear physics. I'll do my best.

Generating nuclear energy relies on a process called a nuclear chain reaction, in which a heavy atom (235U, a uranium isotope, is often used for nuclear energy) is bombarded with a neutron, causing the atom to split into two smaller elements while releasing energy and more neutrons. Imagine a bowling ball striking the first pin which, much to your surprise, splits in half, exuding two more bowling balls which go on to hit two more pins, and so on. If we control the rate at which the balls hit the pins, the reaction is described as "delayed critical"—it creates a steady, tractable stream of energy for nuclear reactors.

If, instead, a nuclear reaction relies on a rapid uncontrolled release of neutrons, unleashing massive amounts of energy almost instantly, it is considered "prompt critical." Imagine a bowling alley where instead of lanes, a mass of pins sits the middle of a room, ringed by 300-point bowlers, all of whom roll their balls inward as hard as they can at the exact same time.

Also, consider the atomic bowling pin world in which search and rescue (SAR) units exist. SAR requires an understanding of the nebulous science of "lost person behavior," i.e., to find a person, you have to think like a person. But people think a lot of different ways. A Lost Subject might travel randomly, or in a certain cardinal direction, or in search of a viewpoint or landmark. They might backtrack, or rely on obscure folk wisdom, or stay put. For SAR units, it is necessary to consider all the possible consequences of each of these actions, regardless of how maddening that consideration might be.


III. Administration of the Reactor Project

A wide-brimmed hill rises over Arco, Idaho, which the town's high school seniors wander up every May—maybe in a night haze of cigarettes and cans, maybe in a sober mess of sunrise—and paint their graduating class year onto the long limestone rock: '20, '43, '85. The class of 2000 wrote out the whole year. Their paintings are almost too earnest to call vandalism.

Once a quiet home to around 300 ranchers, the population grew to over 1,500 by 1960 as employees moved into trailers to work for the INL. Today the population hovers around 900. I've driven through Arco for years, heading from my home in Hailey to Idaho Falls or Wyoming. Arco itself was never the destination, but it tended to linger past the rear view. I think I'm hung up on Arco because it feels like a bottomless jukebox where the quarter just keeps rattling down the chrome interior, on and on. Something about the aching youngness of it all reminds me of the stained, misspelled goodbye note Hank, my dad, has framed near his desk from an elementary school friend.

The three men on duty at the SL-1 on the night of the incident:

  • Richard McKinley: 27 years old, 5 feet 6 inches tall, 115 pounds. From Union City, Indiana, he is four years into his service in the Army. He and his wife, Caroline, live in Idaho Falls with their two children, this being only their third week in Idaho. He works as a trainee at the SL-1.

  • Richard Legg: 26 years old, 5 feet 6 inches tall, 160 pounds. After graduating from a small town Michigan high school in 1952, he worked for some time in the Navy's construction battalion, the Seabees. He trained for the military's nuclear program during 1958 in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. He then travelled to the eastern Idaho desert in October of 1959. Later diagnosed in a confidential memo as having an aggressive "short man complex," Legg did everything from show up drunk to shifts and rest his feet on reactor control panels, to threaten to fight his boss at a Christmas party. In September of 1960, he was designated a chief operator and shift supervisor of the SL-1 reactor.

  • Jack Byrnes: 22 years old, 5 feet 10 inches tall, 175 pounds. From Utica, New York, he presented a fake birth certificate when he was 17 so he could marry a woman named Arlene and place the cherry on top of a Hallmark-quality high school love. After a tour in Canada with the Army, he volunteered in 1958 for the military's nuclear training program in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where he was classmates with short man Richard Legg. For some unknown reason, they grew to resent each other. Byrnes travelled to the eastern Idaho desert in October of 1959. In late May of 1960, Byrnes and Legg found themselves at a mutual friend's bachelor party, coasting on tandem tequila-fueled midnight conniptions. Their fist fight burst out the screen door, tumbling onto the front lawn.

My class's graduation party was themed "Angels and Devils." We all crammed into a friend's horseless horse barn, plastic horns snagging in tinsel halos. After, my designated driver swung through the valley, bringing us to spinning homes with spinning lawns as I sat in the backseat, my eyes wheeling into the night and the stars and the flashing lights of red-eye flights 35,000 feet above. Main Street rushed by out there and we were in a Jeep. The night felt like it was already a memory. Back then, we were all small town young in early summer.

… like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing. [3]


IV. Operating History of the Reactor

Whoever started the Arco number hill tradition in 1920 might have been alone and knee-deep in sagebrush with a jar of paint and a loose lost hometown tumbling behind them.

Or they might have been a group, cracking jokes on the way up,

or tromping in serious single file.

The first number might not even have been for graduation, but for a year of such utmost joy or pain or confusion that its public monumentation seemed absolutely necessary.

And the years continued.

The scientists have moved away. Rows of charter buses bring them into the laboratory in droves, now, mostly from Idaho Falls, to prod at the universe. I wonder if they watch shitty Adam Sandler movies on those little damp screens like I did when we traveled to middle school soccer games.

At 4:00 pm on January 3, 1961, Byrnes begins his first shift as his ex-classmate's subordinate at the SL-1. At 7:00 pm, Arlene, his Hallmark wife, calls the reactor to tell Byrnes she wants a Hallmark divorce and they discuss how to divvy up his most recent army check—at which point he could have stormed out of his shift.

But he didn't. At 9:01 pm, Byrnes stands above the central reactor core with Legg behind him, straddling a shield plug, and McKinley wandering the room. Byrnes' hands are around the central control rod, which, for maintenance purposes, he has to pull up slightly out of the core. The trio's training gave a murky order to never pull the rod up greater than four inches or some nameless "disaster" would occur. Here, Byrnes could take a slow, deep breath.

Or, he could scowl/grunt/tighten his grip. The rod in his hands hums at a damaging frequency. What could go wrong?

In the 1950s, a prospector named Charlie Steen happened upon a major uranium deposit spanning the Colorado Plateau in the four corners region. Now, he wasn't some grey-bearded, plaid-flannel-and-jeans-with-suspenders prospector. Steen, dubbed the "Uranium King" by many, looked a lot more like a college history professor in the photos, with sparse thin hair, rounded glasses, and a loose-fitting dress shirt. After his discovery, a mine was blown into the red rock.

A uranium processing mill was built in 1956 on the western banks of the Colorado River, just north of Moab, Utah, churning radioactive tailings into a 130-acre riverside mound. When, around 30 years later, the mill was decommissioned, the company demolished its buildings and buried them in the tailings. There the hill stewed and hummed near the turbid Colorado at the intersection of US Highway 191 and Potash Road. Across the American West, similar mounds grew into the Atomic Age.

The week before graduation, my class went on a trip down to Moab. On the drive to our waterfront campsite, we saw signs with the circular triple-pronged hazard symbols. We saw the heap of decaying toxic rock above the river. At camp a few miles downstream, the gaping desert moon swung over us naked and we held hands all night-blue and timid and slid into the water. The next evening, on little notecards, we wrote hopes and fears for whatever was before us and sent them down the Colorado aflame in a makeshift Viking boat. A little melodramatic, but we didn't know what else to do to prepare ourselves. We stood at the edge of the water and watched the fire twist in the ripples until the boat disappeared around a bend, still burning.


V. Sequence of Events Surrounding the Incident

Telephone: Lemont 800 (Argonne)
Ext. 558 -– 559
August 11, 1955

Friday, 9:00 a.m., D.D.T.
August 12, 1955


Six years before the incident, in July of 1955, Arco became the first town in history entirely powered by nuclear energy. After a shuddering outage, the INL successfully linked the BORAX-III reactor to the power grid. Through all the press releases and newspaper articles, there is never any mention of which hour Arco was powered—if it were during one of the long dry July days, the refrigerators and lamps in homes might have clicked off then back on with a newfound atomic burn, and no one would have been there to see, everyone either out tending cattle or mending fence or working a switchboard at a secret wired block of western land.

Dinner. Dinner is when people would have felt the switch flip and the lights go out over a Norman Rockwell evening, just to have them (the lights) turn back on to exactly as they had been before, as they always do, humming.

As Arco ate, rivers fell into the ground.

Volcanic buttes sit above the steppe of the INL. In my photography classes in high school, I developed a particular interest in these alien mounds slouching above miles of barbed wire and restricted access signs. I found myself always adding too much contrast when printing these photos. The filters kept everything separated—the highway from the snow from the bony steel power poles. They pulled the buttes out of the horizon of winter haze. Maybe I hoped this contrast would allow me, hands reeking of fixer in the chemical closet, to pick apart the landscape and have some control over the contours of desert life. Maybe that would come in handy one day. In the tray, the wet photopaper gleamed a breathy winter grey. 

Many who were there say the night of January 3, 1961 was as cold as -15 degrees Fahrenheit. Still, Byrnes could have tromped out into the desert, the humming silo behind him, and hopped in his car to take a left turn at Highway 20 and drive back to his broken home in Idaho Falls,

or a right at 20 toward Arco.

With a breath, even, Byrnes might have been able, calm and cool, to pull the rod up four inches to attach the drive mechanism, and the night would have continued to 9:02 pm.

Something in me wants to believe that he paused for a moment, waiting for someone to tell him it was all going to be alright.

The SL-1 order to not withdraw the central control rod greater than four inches was in place to make sure the radioactive fuel remained submerged in the core enough to quiet the neutrons and prevent the uranium from going prompt critical. When Jack Byrnes, with Legg behind him and a divorce ahead, pulls up the 80-pound rod, it withdraws from the core over 24 inches. In the span of four milliseconds, neutrons pound from atom to atom to atom, each humming and splintering and heartbreaking. The hibernating energy of the universe shakes out its bristly back, rears its head, roars. The water in the reactor vaporizes instantly, hammering the ground on which Byrnes and Legg stand, driving the core over nine feet into the air. The burst hurls Byrnes against blunt machinery, killing him. Shield plugs eject, one catching Legg in the groin, flying him impaled to the steel roof where he remains skewered for a week before rescuers are able to remove the body with a long-hook-and-crane-operated-stretcher system. Firemen find McKinley in deep shock, his body too radioactive to bring to the hospital. He dies a couple hours later in a hushed ambulance parked on the side of 20.

The Department of Energy bought the Moab tailings pile in the early 2000s to transfer the approximately 16 million tons of tailings to a secure, approved nuclear disposal site 30 miles away. Sealed boxcars line like ducklings behind an engine curving away to the north and a new home sealed away in the desert ground—

a burial with a dirge of hollow howling whistles tailing behind now-light boxcars, racketing over soil crust and coyote tracks.

When we returned to Moab as college kids, we got too drunk at our campsite nestled among scattered boulders near a mineral mine farther down Potash Road. An electric Dylan song played soft. We found a hole in the mine fence and ladders to the top of its empty railroad cars and we whooped under the flashing light of industry and evening as we ran, jumping from one to the other, spilling beer into a Hansel and Gretel trail no one bothered to follow.

As the years went on, some friends started to get so lost in the dizzy neon nights of post-high school life that they dropped out of college, or stole from their parents, or got evicted from their rental home in Boise because the landlord found their weed and left them scrambling for a roof.

One friend in particular took it upon himself to start drunk driving home alone after parties during our breaks from college. Night after night he barreled through the old cracking pavement, past Ezra Pound's birthplace, past the elementary school, past gardens and sleeping sunflowers on Elm Street in that old blue Mercedes turbo diesel with a promise that "it runs best at exactly 3300 rpm" and that he could drive just fine and the headlights pounded down the double yellow and he would wait for us to sleep and then write a note and leave thundering through the night and in the mornings we'd have to drive to his home to make sure that old Mercedes wasn't wrapped around a fucking telephone pole on Croy Street or a fire hydrant by the grocery store and see for ourselves that one of our best friends was still with us. Once, the brake lines of the Mercedes blew.

He was sober and the sun was up and he coasted into a parking spot by the burrito place where he ate chips and salsa while calling his dad. I guess it's not as bad as what could have happened. I don't know if we could have rescued him.

who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow toward lonesome farms in
grandfather night [5]

Due to a series of dams and diversions, the Colorado River sputters dry somewhere in Mexico, lost to the land and sky miles and miles before reaching the Pacific.


VI. Consequences of the Incident

Arco is older now, and the original paint-burdened scribes of the Butte County High School Class of 1920 would have been over 50 years old when BORAX-III powered the town in '55.

The SL-1 was a test reactor designed for military bases above the Arctic Circle; it never would have connected to any municipal system. No Arco lights flickered above dirty dishes in porcelain sinks that numb January evening in '61—no sound besides that of a night drawn taut by frost. The dark crease of Highway 20 shuddered.

Arco sleeps.

Who are these kids who write the graffiti? Did they make it through last night? The number hill tells me the last time they checked in was sometime in late May.

For the purposes of this book, "lost" is defined from the perspective of the person who reports a person as overdue or missing. The overdue or missing person may not consider himself lost. Or the overdue or missing person may in fact be lost-disoriented or incapable of getting to where he wants to be. [6]

I find myself imagining loss where there is no loss. I can hear the jukebox quarter rattling from here.

From the Pioneer and Lost River Mountains above, two rivers, the Big Lost and the Little Lost, wind their way onto the Snake River Plain where they drop underground in natural sinks in the INL property. Hundreds of miles to the southwest, they pour out of mossy basalt walls at Thousand Springs in Hagerman.

A man named Travis I worked at a summer camp with would tell the kids a story of a greedy coyote who was so thirsty that he knelt into the ground and started swallowing what was once known as the Big River. The coyote grew so large with the weight of the water that he began to sink into the desert, but he didn't stop drinking. On and on he drank, and the tawny dust began to grow around him, stale and desiccated. Travis says he is still there, buried under the INL, drinking up the Big River as it loses itself into him.

The night didn't continue to 9:02.

Of the three SL-1 men, two met the ground in small hometown cemeteries

and the last in Arlington, all in concrete caskets lined with lead.

Some of the dead's especially toxic body parts were removed and buried separately in the desert as radioactive waste. Human waste so untouchable and unnatural that today, nearly 60 years later, their arms or stomachs or heads are out there under gravel and soil, not 100 miles from my house

still humming with death,

cold as hell.

Last January, an old friend I hadn't really talked to since I graduated called me piss drunk at 2:00 am and told me that he needed a ride home. He was outside in Bellevue, two miles from my house.

Drunk people freeze to death outside in winter. I drove 15 over down Highway 75. He could have fallen into a snowbank or made turns until I couldn't find him.

I found him blocks down the road from where he said he would be, walking and alone.

Can I tell you something you're not allowed to tell anyone? he leaned over and slurred to me from the passenger seat. I told him Of course. He told me he had tried to kill himself a couple months before. He cried.

On the left we passed the small airport and its blue and red and green lights lit up the interior like some blurry, motorized night club. I asked him how he was now, and he said Better. I brought him to his house, staggered with him to his room, and sat awake in the hallway until the sun rose and I drove home.


bye Hank
I love
            we moved

Some nights I feel like all I can do is watch as the burning boats float away, knowing they're bound to round some bend in the river.

Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're trying to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we're all doing our best to deny it.

Every once in a while, a group of scientists tries to make the dams on the Colorado River release pulse flows to reconnect the river to the ocean and restore the ecology of the delta. Sometimes they succeed, and families in Mexico swim in what has for years been a dry riverbed.

But then the dams shutter again, as they always do, and the head of the river withdraws from the Pacific like a lover scared of growing too close too soon. The bed remains dry until the next scientists.


VII. Possible Mechanisms for the Incident

Writ high on the north end of Arco's number hill is a blocky white "61" between a smaller "31" and a larger "75". Now, I can see them up there, the Butte County High School graduates. I can see them with the paint. I can see each of them alone, and I can see each of them together.

The desert behind the paint can Class of '61 kept swallowing rivers and spitting them out.

Still, some of the most pure, ardent love I've seen in my life is Arco's love for the hour in July of 1955 when it was the most important place in the world. It's a love for being a first, for finding themselves in books, for being, even without knowing it at the time, the future. The town Recreation Hall's front sign reads:

ARCO           IDAHO




Pickle's Place even serves an Atomic Burger (with grilled mushrooms and onions... $8.69).

No matter how long I look at the hill, I can't find a white "55."

It took years to dismantle the SL-1.

It's now buried somewhere on the INL surrounded by a chain link fence. Interspersed are warning signs:


Gold in one of their watches and a copper screw from a lighter were later used to piece together the events. Both the gold and copper had transformed into radioactive isotopes, hinting that a prompt critical reaction had occurred. How this pointed toward a prompt critical reaction, I don't know. Again, I'm no nuclear physicist.

Regardless, no one knows what Byrnes was thinking as he withdrew the central control rod over six times as far as was deemed safe. Maybe there's no way even he knew what he was thinking. Sprinters at a starting line have been shown to respond to the crack of a starter's pistol no faster than around 150 milliseconds, or, 36 times as long as it took the reactor to reach prompt criticality and flash-vaporize the water underneath the crew.

Yet things move slow enough in this part of the country for local folklore to dwell in this moment. Maybe he meant to die. Maybe he meant to die and kill Legg.

Maybe the rod became jammed, as it had been known to in the past, and he had to pull especially hard to dislodge it. Maybe it was an accident of distraction, or youth, or impatience. We don't know.

Many search and rescue textbooks claim Lost Subjects won't travel at night.

That is a myth.

My most vivid memory from elementary school is of the time my 5th grade teacher, Mr. Nelson, told the class how he watched his best friend die from a cocaine overdose at a party. How his friend had sat down at a table buried in coke and said he was "just going to do one line" and then his heart stopped. Mr. Nelson was tearing up and we all sat in this room with the lunchboxes in cubbies and backpacks on hooks.

I guess I'm recalling this now because I haven't been able to stop the rattlings of worry in my head about my own friends and their nights on the brink. How I could need to draw little tears down a note or a number on a hill to say goodbye. How any little crinkle in the universe could rumble outwards until it throws everything sideways against an anonymously blunt object. Some mornings I wake up unsure if my friends made it through the night.

I realize why people make graffiti.

No one can deny the desert is beautiful in the least attractive way possible.

We were all small town young in early summer.


VIII. Conclusions



[1] From "SL-1 Accident" by the United States Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (1962)

[2] Very loosely based on the introduction to "Geology of the Arco-Big Southern Butte Area" by Kuntz and Kork

[3] From All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

[4] From a US Atomic Energy Commission Press Release

[5] From "Howl" by Allen Ginsburg

[6] From Lost Person Behavior: A Search and Rescue Guide on Where to Look—for Land, Air and Water by Robert J. Koester

[7] From "Visions of Johanna" by Bob Dylan




I researched and wrote the SL-1 sections of this piece in a flurry after reading Brandon Shimoda's memoir The Grave on the Wall for a creative essay course taught by the wonderful Alex Marzano-Lesnevich. From there, numerous personal geographies started to force their way in, and I gave them free rein.