• Idaho Falls

  • The Untold Story of America's First Nuclear Accident
  • By: William McKeown
  • Narrated by: Bob Dunsworth
  • Length: 7 hrs and 4 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History, Americas
  • 4.3 out of 5 stars (260 ratings)
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Publisher's Summary

When asked to name the world’s first major nuclear accident, most people cite the Three Mile Island incident or the Chernobyl disaster. Revealed in this book is one of American history’s best-kept secrets: the world’s first nuclear reactor accident to claim fatalities happened on United States soil. Chronicled here for the first time is the strange tale of SL-1, a military test reactor located in Idaho’s Lost River Desert that exploded on the night of January 3, 1961, killing the three-man maintenance crew on duty.

Through details uncovered in official documents, firsthand accounts from rescue workers and nuclear industry insiders, and exclusive interviews with the victims’ families and friends, this book probes intriguing questions about the devastating blast that have remained unanswered for more than 40 years. From reports of a faulty reactor design and mismanagement of the reactor’s facilities to rumors of incompetent personnel and a failed love affair that prompted deliberate sabotage of the plant, these plausible explanations for the explosion raise questions about whether the truth was deliberately suppressed to protect the nuclear energy industry.

©2003 William Thomas McKeown (P)2012 Audible, Inc.

What listeners say about Idaho Falls

Average Customer Ratings
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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Nuclear noocyuler

What an interesting incident. Did SL-1 have a flaw so bad it took 3 lives, or was it suicide? The world will probably never know for certain.

Totally spellbinding from beginning to end.

Then narrator, though, could not decide between saying "nuclear" and noocyuler, sometimes in the same paragraph. I found it very annoying to hear from an otherwise we'll-suited voice.

8 people found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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A Really Good, but Dreadfully Written Book

‘Idaho Falls’ sat in my wish list for about 9-months gathering digital dust, all but forgotten among other various titles. Then, while listening to ‘Atomic Awakening’ this event was detailed. That reference piqued my interest and, upon finishing that book, I purchased this. I started this book last Friday night and finished it on Sunday morning. That should give some idea of how captivating this story was. I didn’t want to stop listening, which is ironic considering my overall opinion of the book.

The Writing – In short, it was sloppy. It lacked important scientific background information and details for some of the topics discussed. Because of that and the fact that the author was not clear and consistent with his use of descriptive words a reader who knows nothing about nuclear power or the physics behind it may have trouble following the content. Or, worse yet, if the reader harbors fear or bias about nuclear science this book will likely terrify them and make them feel as though all irrational fears have been confirmed. This is a significant problem because correct application of technical jargon is important for proper context and correct understanding of topics like this.

The Not So Good – The author wrote the following; “…others thought a sudden rod withdrawal would take the reactor critical destroying the reactor core.” Now, this isn’t ‘technically’ incorrect, it’s just an incomplete explanation even in context and is very misleading to any layperson and it’s frustrating to anyone who understands this subject. He, like so many, makes it sound as though “criticality” is a bad thing when, in fact, it’s a normal function of controlled nuclear fission. Further, some of his analogies were callus in presentation such as when he referred to the three victims of this event becoming “nuclear pioneers” because they were the first people to be killed by this type of incident or when he described retrieving the body of the third victim as a ‘rescue’ when it was clearly a recovery. Minor points? Maybe, but when I say aloud; “wow, that’s a bad way to describe things” I need to put it in my review.

The Bad – The deadly incident at the SL-1 reactor would properly be described as a ‘criticality accident’ and/or ‘power excursion’ in the reactor core resulting in over pressurization and explosion of the containment vessel. Granted, there’re several ways to accurately describe it, but the author was not consistent in his use of terminology when referring to this event calling it a blast, a nuclear catastrophe, an atomic incident, an excursion, and an explosion. That makes it hard for a layperson to stay on track with the events. Worse yet, he used grossly inaccurate terminology at least twice when referring to this event; once calling it a nuclear explosion, and later a nuclear blast! These two descriptions are so misleading, if not outright biased, as to make my head spin. The use of these two descriptions in this context for this event was sloppy writing and research at best and outright anti-nuclear bias at worst and it calls into question the author’s qualifications on this subject matter and/or the accuracy of other information in the book.

Narration – Bob Dunsworth’s narration wasn’t ‘bad’ it’s just very inconsistent. I didn’t take issue with the way he pronounced ‘nuclear’, as some did, but I did notice that he changed the way he pronounced it from time-to-time as well as how he pronounced ‘Roentgen’. It was as if he was practicing different ways to pronounce words while he was recording the book? Certain words were simply not pronounced clearly; ‘but’ sounded like ‘bought’, ‘rod’ sounded like ‘rawhd’, and ‘deaths’ sounded like ‘deafs’. When saying the reactor name, SL-1, it sounded like he was saying ‘SO-1’. Taken individually, these are minor points, but cumulatively it makes me not want to listen to his narration again.

The Editing – Including the information heretofore stated the editing was just bad. On at least one occasion, which I listened to three times to be sure I heard it correctly, the narrator said “nuclear erector” when it should have been “reactor”. I lay this on the writer and/or editor, not the narrator. It’s another sloppy and avoidable mistake.

The Feel - The feeling this book gave me was that of a mystery novel and it evoked that nostalgic and eerie, yet very entertaining, feeling I would get watching those 1950’s Sci-Fi films. Both of these factors, coupled with the importance of this particular event, made this a very engaging book. If this book were fiction, rather than a real-life tragedy, my rating would be five stars overall.

Summation – This book presented a conundrum for me in writing this review. While I take some significant umbrage to the book’s writing style, the editing and the narration I still thoroughly enjoyed the telling of the story and I did learn some things. I made 10 bookmarks with notes for later reference as well. All things considered with my aforementioned frustrations I can still recommend this book because it was a good story telling and it kept me captivated and wanting more of it. I recommend this book if for no other reason then the ‘feel’ it gives and the pure entertainment value it affords. If you’re a Sci-Fi fan I think you’ll love this book. I don’t want to be flippant about the true nature of this tragic event, but this book somehow worked for me in all the wrong ways.

30 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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Junior high pronunciation, good story.

This narrator just detracts from the story, his pronunciation is junior high or below. Some words are so bad it requires thought to figure out what was meant!
The story is good.

4 people found this helpful

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Great book, recommended

Narrator sounds dry as hell, but! When hes describing the horrors of the post atomic autopsy you would not want it another way. loved this book.

2 people found this helpful

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Well Written Historical True Story

The author did a fantastic job in writing this true story and taking an accurate account of all the facts. I love that at the end, I could not tell the authors opinions with his objective review and discourse. I grew up in the area of Idaho Falls and from time to time heard rumblings about the story. This layer out all the facts straight and in a way that was exciting to listen to.

1 person found this helpful

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Well Balanced

This book is well balanced. The book illustrates all sides of the events that occurred. Though, the bottom line is: we'll never know what happened on the evening of Jan 03 1961. Good read!

3 people found this helpful

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Interesting but

It was interesting but focused so much on salacious. I felt like the party scene and fight and all the drinking was a little long. And talking about there weekly fights was excessive. Quick tempers and a stuck rod could have been emphasized more. That I could totally see. I wish they would have mentioned more about there miraculous fact that the winds didn’t take it to town. I will recommend this to my sister who’s husband is a nuclear engineer.

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Great story, good narration

I knew about the January 3, 1961 SL-1 accident. I live in Idaho and study a bit on nuclear accidents etc. This book brought a lot of detail to this story that I have always wanted. The gruesome description of the autopsies, and the macabre burials of the 3 fatalities were exquiste and cringe worthy at the same time.

I also found fascinating the beginning of the common thread of: Flawed reactor design, inadequate training, lax oversight and hubris that seems to be present at each of these events.

If you are looking to expand your knowledge of nuclear reactor accidents you should get to know the story of the SL-1.
Cliff Stockton

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    4 out of 5 stars
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Good book for a cold war or science nerd.

Had been familiar with the SL1 story so the background was no big story. It did shine a light on the mystery of what happened and why though.. the human element beyond "whoops". I could have gone for even more of the science side and less of the humanity like a tad more on the boron cladding and reactor poisoning. Still not sure how 1 control rod would have the capability of initiating/ceasing the criticality unless it was just the size of the reactor and the fact that this hundred pounds zirc alloy boron clad rod could displace enough of the fissioning alone, but then, why not just issues on this particular rod? the composition of the reactor head seal.. dose rates under operation while exercising the rods manually, etc. Perhaps I need a different book on nuclear engineering rather than specifically about SL1, however, a book like atomic awakenings covered numerous reactor types in a finer detail. wish this had covered SL1 from a design standpoint more like that.. but.. that's just me.

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Nuclear Explosion-Not

Interesting story overall, liked the event detail. But got a bit long winded with the dramatizing of personal stories.

Also use of term "nuclear explosion" really was poor. There was no "nuclear explosion" it was an excursion of nuclear chain reaction that caused extreme heat that flashed the water to stream, thus it was a stream explosion.

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  • Macksparky
  • 03-18-15

Well written

Well written in print media format. Check a narration sample first as the style maynot suit everyones taste.