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On January 3, 1961, the first-ever nuclear meltdown on American soil occurred at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho Falls. At a U.S. Army plant, a critical mistake was made, rapidly building the water in the core of the reactor. The three men on the site were buried in lead coffins.
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to be reached at 4.2 inches. However, the rod was instead extended approximately 20 inches. Since the control rods regulate the rate of the fission reaction by absorbing excess neutrons, the removal of the central rod past it's safe limit caused the reactor to achieve prompt criticality. Consequently, only four milliseconds later, enough heat was generated in the surrounding water to cause it to vaporize. This released an extremely concentrated amount of steam up from the reactor, causing the entire housing weighing £26,000 to jump 9.1 ft vertically and for the control rods and various other pieces of the assembly to be propelled upwards with great enough force to become lodged in the ceiling. The blast immediately knocked Army specialist John A. Burns and Richard Leroy McKinley to the floor, killing burns the operator reactor and severely injuring McKinney, a trainee. The third man, Navy Seabee Construction electrician first class Richard C. Leg, 26 the shift supervisor who had also been standing atop the vessel, was himself impaled and pinned to the ceiling. Mhm. The reactor resulted in a total energy release of 133 megawatt seconds, roughly 30% of the cores fuel inventory was missing from the vessel when examined after the incident. The incident caught the world by surprise. Cleanup of the event exposed hundreds of people to dangerous levels of radiation despite the remote location. And that was from Stanford University. Yeah, so let's just can we just break that all down for a quick? Because I was very cut and dry in my mind like you read that and it's like it's almost hard to picture. Yeah, even though it is pretty visceral again, it is visceral. I mean, I'm reading that. I'm cringing at it because I'm picturing the three of them in their positions in the room. You say three. I think it's important that we do recognize that there was a third person in the room. Like we said Richard McKinley, Who was this training? He had actually just been transferred to SL one days previously? He was brand new, is one of his first shifts, and he wasn't extensively talked about in McClellan's book. Just because a lot of people didn't really he was just like unfortunate timing for him, like if he could have been anyone in that room, other than him like he was just there and unfortunately, suffered probably the worst injuries. I would imagine how the three of them because he didn't die right away. So what's just after reading that? Why don't you just kind of like paint the picture? I mean, literally. I mean, even for me going back to just the very first sentence. This idea of a central control rod that's manually maneuvered manually withdrawn, and we've watched some documentaries on this and scenes of diagrams and stuff, and I we encourage you guys to go check them out, and we'll obviously be posted on social media. But it literally is like a rod that you're grabbing onto. It's exactly what you think, and it's like, Exactly. And I will just say the function of these rods. I am not a nuclear business but the function of these rods. They are raised and lowered in order to regulate the rate of fission reaction that's happening inside the core of the reactor. So basically controlling how much power is being generated. So when they were, what they were actually doing that night was reassembling the housing in order to, um, bring the reactor back online because they had had about 2 to 3 weeks where it had been basically just like dormant over the holiday break. Right? So everyone have their Christmas and then come back. And so there was a history of these control rods sticking, and we'll get into that as a as a possible cause or contributing factor. I would say to all of this, but yeah, that's a good thing to mention right off the bat is the idea that it was the removal of this rod that caused prompt criticality. So basically a chain reaction of nuclear fission, which resulted in an explosion of basically instantaneous evaporation of water into steam that basically came up as a column and basically, just, like, came up through the top. Like we said, the housing jumped 9.1 ft. Um, and and Dick Leg did suffer very, very serious injury while he died. So he basically was impaled by the seventh Rod. It wasn't the central control rod. It was the seventh rod. It came up through his groin, impaling him through his torso and onto the ceiling above. And it was I hate to get into the whole girl gruesome details. But one of his left testicle was actually found lodged in his armpit like there was brutal. So just think of that pressure. He shot this control rod directly, impaling him from the underside through and onto the ceiling onto the ceiling. When they first came into the room, they only saw two people. They didn't know what the third person was because of the state of everything. And they didn't know what. It took them a while to figure out he was on the roof. And then, as far as McKinley goes, he was actually Unfortunately, his parts of his cranium was sheared off by a piece of shrapnel piece of radioactive metal. And so that got lodged into his head. And he basically he was in a state of shock for about two hours. He survived those injuries and was found in a nuclear puddle of water. Um, in in the state of the chaos. And then, of course, Jack Burns was positioned above the central control on, and he was basically he was dead instantly from what his actions. So And he was the one that was actually positioned, um, to be maneuvering the control the central control rod to lift it slightly the 4.2 inches as required. And then I believe it was dick leg or camera for his dick leg. Or if it was McKinley that was responsible for installing a C clamp onto it so that they could put position the housing properly and, uh, position the rod correctly. So we've got Dick impaled on the ceiling. We've got the other two on the ground down below. After this massive explosion, eruption of steam and contaminated radioactive liquid Basically and makin McKinley is still alive. And the really crazy part about all this was like because it was just a three man team at the site, like they didn't actually have an idea of what had happened until I think it was about a half hour later. And then And at the time, the wife of Jack Burns, Charlene, was trying to call, and there's like, this mysterious, unverified phone call that came from a woman shortly before, after, if I'm remembering correctly and she basically said, There's something wrong at SL one. Yeah, because there was nothing. There was nothing on the outside of the building that indicated there was an explosion, There was no damage. There was nothing. There was just a very small amount of smoke and or steam emitting from a corner of the building. Basically, yeah. So it wasn't as if it was like a Chernobyl or anything like that was like the entire housing of the complex was compromised. This was internal. And so when the first responders came to basically see what was going on, they had no idea what they're walking into. So when they came into that, they had their little units, right? They had there, too. Measure the radiation outputs and things like that. And when they realized how intensive it was like, well, initially ultimately knew that they were doing to themselves was going to come back to haunt them. I think at least the health physicist did. It was the fire department responded, and they had their radiation meters and they were like No, like they only went in, like, not even halfway or whatever to like towards where they could make any sort of recovery. And there was too much for them. Oh, man, the recovery was something. Let's get right into that and continue with this morbid curiosity after this explosion because the state of the bodies was such that the recovery was one. It was tough because of the radiation, and they had to do it in small trips. We'll get into 15 seconds, they're allowed, and so that is crazy. But what to me was so I mean, just more of it, obviously is that these bodies were so badly damaged that initially the rescuers misidentified all three men. It wasn't until the later autopsies that they were actually identified correctly, and these misidentified identifications were revealed and McKinley was still alive. You can picture this guy soaked in radioactive material, half face blown off, crawling around on the ground. That is a scene I know. And he was actually carried away in an ambulance because obviously they were trying to save his life. That was the main thing with this is like it was obviously the first of this type of accident, and there were people inside that they needed to rescue in other situations. It was like either they're already dead, like, you know, you don't have to really get in there, get in there or you just know, like, you know, There was no one in there to begin with. But the sad part was he was in the ambulance with a nurse and the nurse because of the extent of the radiation coming off of him. She ended up having a pretty grisly death due to I think it was bone cancer. Blood cancer, man. It's so fascinating that there was basically no decomposition in the bodies, So just a lack of decomposition. A quote was looked like biopsy specimens, the corpses, because the men were all perfectly sterilized by the intensity of the surrounding radiation field and their initial doses essentially during the blast. And, you know, despite fears essentially from the recovery team that the decomposition would hamper their efforts, they were exhibiting no decomposition, even do.