Idaho Falls and the SL-1 Incident

William McKeown’s “Idaho Falls,” about the Idaho Falls SL-1 reactor incident in 1961, may be the most awful non-fiction book I have ever read — and believe me, there’s a hell of a lot of competition for that “honor.”

I should have known I was in for a ride when I scratched my head at the subtitle. “The story of America’s first nuclear accident.” Um. Except for the Santa Susana andWestmoreland partial core meltdowns in the 1950s and 1960, respectively, the Daghlian andSlotin deaths after their close encounters with the “demon core,” in the 1940s, plus a whole slew of military incidents in the 1950s…including non-nuclear detonations of nuclear weapons on U.S. soil. It might seem like nitpicking — but in nuclear science, terminology is critically important (get it?) The author didn’t even discuss the terminology used in contemporary incidents, nor did he address what is meant by “incident,” “accident,” and related terms. Instead, page after page after page after page after page after page is spent discussing the intimate family details of the servicemen responsible for the accident. I could be wrong, but I don’t think Slotin or Daghlian are even mentioned. If they are, the treatment is brief and inconsequential compared to the vast amount of ink devoted to the utterly irrelevant information and speculation about families of the men involved in the incident….about which, the same information is repeated over…and over…and over again, as if the author, you know…didn’t have anything else to talk about. How much weepy speculation is required in a book about a nuclear accident on how a son remembers his father, or what  path the SON’s life might have taken if the father hadn’t died — when the son is unrelated to the incident. I get the sense the author was trying to fill pages without doing any additional research. That’s utterly mind-boggling in a book about nuclear technology, since there’s more information about nuclear accidents on Wikipedia than in all of McKeown’s book.

I can’t possibly go into everything I hate about this book, since there’s probably more words to be written about how bad this book is than there is in the original work. This is a textbook example of how bad popular science writing can be. Imagine The Hot Zone with ONLY the overwrought tones of terror present in the most overblown scary segments about how ebola rips you apart from the inside. Now imagine that kind of narrative style applied to such speculative scenes as how much liquor was consumed by Idaho Falls workers on a given night, or what a husband and wife or a commanding officer and subordinate may have said to each other while they were having a fight…in 1960.

What it boils down to is that the author tries to whip up drama from complete speculation, using overheated language for the most simplistic claims. He goes into great detail about very sketchy personal interactions, speculating wildly about what happened off the record — which is not a hanging offense — and, far worse, doing so in a crazed, overheated narrative voice that made me feel like I have been buttonholed at a backyard party by a crazed conspiracy theorist whose conspiracies are without a doubt the MOST BORING CONSPIRACIES IN HISTORY.

Obviously, this is a book that’s been padded from relatively sketchy information. The author does not really seem to understand the milieu of nuclear power, and repeatedly refers to atoms buzzing like “angry bees.” Such language is ridiculous the first time, and by what seems like the ten thousandth, the author has completely exhausted any chance of being taken seriously in my mind.

This dissonance becomes particularly evident near the end, when the author introduces some essentially unrelated questions (in quotations) about nuclear waste, as if it is a huge revelation, and as profound as the author thinks every other word in this book is. Unfortunately, such a sentiment is pretty pointless…since the SL-1 incident had nothing at all to do with waste. It was an operational accident, not a waste accent. That just goes to illustrate the incoherence central to this book’s narrative. As a reader, I was let with no real picture of what actually happened, in operational terms, or what the institutional failings were that led to the SL-1 incident. That makes the author’s completely credulous delivery of the “suicide” and “love triangle” hypotheses seem like I’ve stumbled on to the set of The Jerry Springer Show.

Ultimately, the lack of credibility in this book is not about specific problems but about something ineffable. I felt like the author either knows virtually nothing about nuclear history, or is simply a terrible writer…and not that smart. I find that last point somewhat impolite of me to make, and unlikely. But I can’t resist making it after suffering through this book’s delirious overblown and largely content-free narrative.

I’m not suggesting there’s not a story in the Idaho Falls incident, but this author was apparently unable to find it. Instead, he gave us an incoherent mess of a book with a clear agenda to whip the reader up into a frenzy.

Avoid this book like you would a swarm of angry bees.