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The Strange Saga of the Khian Sea

I was all set to write about Agbogbloshie, the neighborhood in Accra, Ghana, that is the world’s epicenter of toxic e-waste. But in researching the topic, I stumbled upon the tangentially related story of the Khian Sea, a ocean-going vessel that sailed the seas for years with a payload of poisonous incinerator ash from Philadelphia. Maybe not as timely as the e-waste situation, but a good lesson in environmental history and a reminder that the long arc of history bends toward justice.

The Northwest Incinerator in Philadelphia. Source:

The Northwest Incinerator in Philadelphia. Source:

Our story begins in 1986 at the Northwest Incinerator in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Roxborough, where a good portion of the city’s garbage ended up. The facility devoured the trash in its fiery maw and transformed it into ash, which contained dangerous amounts of aluminum, arsenic, copper, lead, mercury, chromium, and dioxins. The ash had previously been landfilled in New Jersey, but recently the state had wised up and stopped accepting Philly’s sad remains. Instead, the incinerator’s managers contracted with an independent waste hauler to take 15,000 tons of ash off their hands.


The waste hauler, Joseph Paolino and Sons, offloaded the ash to the corporate operators of the Khian Sea, sailing under a Liberian flag of convenience. The Khian Sea planned to sail to some poor, unsuspecting country and dump the ash there. This was business as usual back in the day.

Funny thing, though. The countries the Khian Sea sailed to didn’t want the toxic ash. For 16 months the ship sailed to one country after another: Honduras, Panama, Guinea Bissau, Dutch Antilles. All refused to be a dumping ground for America’s pulverized garbage. Eventually, 4,000 tons wound up on the shores of Gonaives, Haiti, after the ship’s management convinced Haitian officials the ash was really topsoil fertilizer. The ship set sail just as Haitian officials got wise to the scheme and ordered the shipping company to take back their “topsoil fertilizer.” The ship’s captain pretended he didn’t hear them.

Still laden with 11,000 tons of ash and a bad reputation, the Khian Sea left the Western Hemisphere. Next ports of call: Senegal, Sri Lanka, Singapore. No one wanted their tainted cargo. The shipping company launched Plan B: They changed the ship’s name and registration. The Liberian-registered Khian Sea became the Honduran-registered Felicia. Plan B failed. The ship changed its name again to the Pelicano. Still no luck.

The Khian Sea, aka Felicia, aka Pelicano. Source: EcoNet.

The Khian Sea, aka Felicia, aka Pelicano. Source: EcoNet.

Then, in late 1988, somewhere between Singapore and Sri Lanka, the remaining 11,000 tons of ash disappeared. Five years and reams of legal documents later, the owners of the shipping company were convicted of perjury for denying they had ordered to crew to dump the ash in the ocean.

This still left the small issue of the 4,000 tons of topsoil fertilizer in Haiti, which the government of the impoverished nation had demanded be removed. In 1997—eleven years after the debacle began—the New York City Trade Waste Commission granted a license to Eastern Environmental Services (EES) to operate in the city. Guess who owned EES? A guy from Joseph Paolino and Sons—the firm that made the original deal with the Khian Sea. The terms of the license stipulated that they take back the ash that was still sitting on the dock in Gonaives. Three years later—in 2000—the ash was loaded onto a barge and shipped to Florida. Haiti, however, was still on the hook for the lion’s share of the shipping costs to remove the ash they didn’t want in the first place. The barge remained docked in the St. Lucie Canal for a couple of years until the Environmental Protection Agency declared the ash nonhazardous and thus suitable for the landfill. The ash’s long journey ended at the Mountain View Reclamation Landfill in Antrim, Pennsylvania, not far from where it had been generated sixteen years earlier.

Source: Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.

Source: Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.

The Basel Convention

The saga of the Khian Sea was an impetus for the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. This UN treaty was signed in 1989, shortly after the Philly ash had been illegally dumped in the ocean, and entered into force in 1992, amidst the worst of the legal wrangling.

The purpose of the Basel Convention is to prevent developed countries from foisting their hazardous waste onto less developed countries, a practice known as “toxic colonialism.” Oddly enough, the treaty has had wide support; only the United States and Haiti have not ratified it.


In recent years, however, conferences regarding the Basel Convention have focused on e-waste. Thousands of tons of discarded electronic products have found their way to developing nations under the guise of being a commodity that has value in recycling its components. But those interested in adhering to the spirit of the Basel Convention argue that e-waste is simply waste, not a commodity, and that the recycling business exploits poor people and causes health problems.

In the forefront of this movement is the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based NGO devoted to ending the practice of treating places like Guiyu, China and Agbogbloshie, Ghana, as “digital dumping grounds.”

This, as you can imagine, is a serious topic for another time. But the story of the Khian Sea has two interesting footnotes: First, the Northwest Incinerator, which generated the toxic ash that bedeviled the ship, was eventually decommissioned and converted into office space. The project received a LEED Silver Rating from the U.S. Green Building Council, meaning it attained a high level of energy efficiency. Thus, instead of generating environmental waste as the facility used to, it is now a beacon of conservation in the neighborhood.

Second, in 2002, as the remaining several tons of ash were residing on a barge in Florida, journalist Glenn Henderson saw for himself what had become of the toxic payload, which was recounted later in Mark Frauenfelder’s book The World’s Worst:

“Squeezing between multitudes of spider webs, I peered down into the ‘hold’ and couldn’t believe my eyes. Australian pines were everywhere, some as tall as 10 feet. There were dandelions, weeds with small blue-and-yellow blossoms, patches of seemingly manicured grass, and tall brown weeds resting in layers across grayish piles punctuated by pure-white chunks of who-knows-what. And there was a hibiscus plant with pretty pink blooms.”

Not sure I want to read too much into this, but it is a reminder that nature, given time and proper conditions, has the capacity to heal itself.



Posted on: October 6, 2015, 12:04 pm Category: Admin

The Problem with the LED Revolution

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: For the sake of our collective wallets and the fate of the planet, we need to replace all our light bulbs.

Many of us who dutifully switched to CFLs back in the aughts are grumpy about the new switch to LEDs. Why? Because CFLs didn’t live up to the hype. Their light was harsh; they didn’t work in three-way lamps or on dimmer switches.* The bulbs didn’t last for 10 years like they were supposed to. And finally, they were hard to dispose of properly because they contained mercury. Plus, lots of light fixtures required candelabra/decorative light bulbs or halogen bulbs and simply wouldn’t work with CFLs. Honestly, I don’t think they ever saved me a cent and they didn’t help the planet.



So I don’t blame you for being skeptical of the LED revolution, which repeats a lot of the same verbiage espoused by the fizzled CFL revolution: Higher up front cost! Lower utility bills! It’s your duty to save the environment!

I got news for you, light bulb lobby, none of us 99 percenters care to spend $56.82 for a 6-pack of light bulbs, no matter how you break down the cost savings. Which actually is a very good idea. The cost savings between incandescent, CFLs, and LEDs is like this:



Sure, these numbers look great. Who wouldn’t want to spend $90 instead of $940 over the 50,000 hours of lighting? But the facts not compelling, and I’ll tell you why:

My utility costs—and yours too, I’m guessing—are fairly reasonable. I pay far less for electricity each month than I do for my cell phone and cable TV. Cutting a few bucks off the electric bill isn’t going to do much for my bottom line, as long as I conserve energy in the usual ways. This is the same reason why more people don’t drive electric cars: Gas is CHEAP, honey!



The only cost that really matters in my short-term world is the one that pops up on the cash register at the hardware store. It’s hard to beat this four-pack of eco-incandescent light bulbs at $4.97. The closest you’re going to get in an LED is this Philips 60W equivalent LED light bulb for $3.97 each. While LED light bulbs have come down immensely in price—they were $25 apiece just two years ago—most of us will choose the $1.24 light bulb over the $3.97 light bulb any day, because we can spend that extra $2.73 on a latte.

This is a psychological issue, not an economical issue. Most people are pretty happy with how long their light bulbs last: the 1,500-hour life span of an incandescent bulb is a long time—about 4 hours a day for an entire year. In comparison, the life span of an LED light bulb is 50,000 hours. The difference between 1,500 hours and 50,000 hours is comparable to the distance between the Earth and the moon (238,900 miles) and the Earth and the Sun (93 million miles). We know one number is more, but they’re both pretty far removed from what matters to us in our daily lives.



But, hey, just for the fun of it, let’s consider that 50,000 hours. It breaks down to a light bulb that can be turned on for 4 hours a day, every day of the year, for 34 years. That’s longer than you’ll own the light fixture, and probably even your house. (If, in fact, the 50k figure is true. Remember, my CFLs did not last half as long as they were supposed to.)

However, I can see the advantages of switching to LED bulbs if you’re, say, the landlord of the Burj Khalifa, or you own DisneyWorld, and you’re staging an Electrical Parade each night.



But for the rest of us, here’s what you really need to know: Today’s incandescent light bulbs are not the same as yesterday’s incandescent light bulbs. They’re more efficient, and they’re made with halogen.

A few years ago, governments around the world moved to phase out traditional incandescent light bulbs due to their inefficiency. In the United States, this was done through the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The purpose of this act is admirable:

To move the United States toward greater energy independence and security, to increase the production of clean renewable fuels, to protect consumers, to increase the efficiency of products, buildings, and vehicles, to promote research on and deploy greenhouse gas capture and storage options, and to improve the energy performance of the Federal Government, and for other purposes.

Thanks, Obama. Oh, wait—I mean George W. Bush. The law requires an increase of 25 percent efficiency for light bulbs to be phased in from 2012 through 2014. This obvious communist plot incited all the get-off-my-lawn types to horde as many incandescent light bulbs they could get their freedom-loving fingers on before they disappeared forever.



I kept waiting for the incandescent light bulbs to disappear. And guess what? They didn’t. Turns out the light bulb companies did something sneaky: They increased the efficiency of traditional incandescent light bulbs to meet the new government targets without telling us. The new bulbs use tungsten like the old bulbs, but they are halogen based. Now, here’s the really sneaky part: You know how you can’t touch a halogen light bulb because the oil on your fingers can make it explode? Well, the manufacturers have encased a new-fangled, high-efficiency light bulb INSIDE a traditional incandescent light bulb shell. You don’t even know the shell is a sham. Ingenious!

Here—can you tell the difference between “old” and “new”?

new light bulb


Source:  Source:


So, the upshot is, I’m perfectly willing to buy eco-incandescents for myself. But anyone looking to buy me a stocking stuffer for Christmas is welcome to give me an LED bulb. That should hold us for the next few years (i.e., 2020), when the law requires another 20 percent increase in efficiency. Who knows what will happen then, except for the fact that we will hopefully never have to deal with another CFL again. Those swirly-headed nuisances truly are the compact discs of the lighting revolution.

Posted on: September 18, 2015, 12:59 pm Category: Admin

Environmental Migration and the Difference between Florida Retirees and Syrian Refugees

The culprit in Ethiopia is the encroaching Danakil Desert. In Bangladesh it’s the unforgiving Brahmaputra and Padma rivers. In Tuvalu it’s the rising Pacific Ocean. Water—too much or too little—is disrupting millions of lives around the world. Farmers are usually the first affected, but the ramifications soon ricochet up and down the economic spectrum. Prices escalate; scarcity sets it. People find that their way of life has become untenable, so they pack up and set out for a more secure environment.

Venice’s acqua alta: The periodic and seasonal flooding of the island city is not a new phenomenon, but it’s been getting more frequent in recent years due to shifting weather patterns.

Venice’s acqua alta: The periodic and seasonal flooding of the island city is not a new phenomenon, but it’s been getting more frequent in recent years due to shifting weather patterns.

We’ve come up with terms such as climate refugee or environmental migrant to explain something that for eons was just a natural process. People have always followed the rains or fled from them. The Industrial Revolution briefly fooled people into believing that we could tame Mother Nature, but now climate change has put the kibosh on that fantasy. Our stick-built dwellings and constant need for food are easily overpowered by a tornado, drought, monsoon, or earthquake. When your home is swept away, migrating to a less tumultuous environment is just good common sense. The problem is, finding a less tumultuous environment is becoming increasingly difficult.

The International Organization for Migration defines environmental migrants as “persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.”

This is a really broad definition—almost useless. Does it include retirees who move to Florida because they simply cannot bear to shovel the snow from one more Minnesota sidewalk?



How Many Environmental Migrants Are There?

As early as 1988 one researcher estimated that worldwide, 10 million people met the definition of environmental migrant. By the mid-1990s at least one researcher had upped that figure to 25 million and forecasted that it would rise to 150 million by 2050. Hardest hit would likely be China, India, and Bangladesh. Makes sense: Lot of people, lots of poverty, little security.

However, some people question these numbers, based on the broad definition of environmental migrant. Alex Randall of the UK-based Climate Outreach and Information Network says it’s misleading to add up “all of the people who’ve been displaced by any kind of natural disaster and [label] them climate refugees.” Agreed. It’s simplistic to equate Hurricane Katrina survivors with the Dust Bowl Okies, although it may be a good starting point for a discussion.

Stephen Castles of Oxford University’s International Migration Institute believes that the 150 million refugee number, popularized by Norman Myers, is a vast oversimplification designed to “scare public opinion and politicians into taking action on climate change.” Agreed again. We need to save the scare mongering for when it’s absolutely necessary. It’s not useful to equate Florida retirees with Ethiopian subsistence farmers.

The takeaway: Be skeptical of statistics.



Environmental Migrants and War

But one comparison that is useful is that between environmental migrants and war refugees. The link isn’t direct, but it is compelling. The idea goes like this: An environmental catastrophe leads to a mass migration that upsets the social order of a country. Systems break down, and the result is war. In such cases, climate change is considered a threat multiplier. It’s a variable that negatively impacts many other variables. Now this is a useful concept. In this context, we understand that war results in a tide of refugees. But what causes the war? The answer is often a disruption of environmental resources. Thus, in a roundabout way, a tide of environmental migrants exposes weaknesses in the social order, which leads to war and a secondary, often much larger, tide of refugees.

Let’s take a look at Syria. Since war broke out in 2011, nine million Syrians have fled their homes. Three million of these refugees have fled to other countries, causing an international crisis. But what caused the war? Easy answer: A dictator trying to squash the Arab Spring. More thoughtful answer: Epic drought.



In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Colin P. Kelley, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, stated that “there is evidence that the 2007-2010 drought contributed to the conflict in Syria. . . . Widespread crop failure [led to] a mass migration of farming families to urban centers.” Summarizing the study for the New York Times, Henry Fountain explained how the drought did not follow natural variations for the region. Instead, it “matched computer simulations of how the region responds to increases in greenhouse-gas emissions.” The drought was caused by “a weakening of winds that bring moisture-laden air from the Mediterranean and hotter temperatures that cause more evaporation.” Thus, the Fertile Crescent—that Cradle of Civilization we all know and love—is no longer fertile.

The estimated 1.5 Syrian environmental migrants who moved from failing rural areas to urban areas created an untenable social situation that lead to the Arab Spring uprising against Bashar al-Assad. Social scientists are careful to describe the drought as just one contributing factor. (The influx of a million refugees from war-torn Iraq was another factor.)

The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, home to roughly 100,000 Syrian refugees.

The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, home to roughly 100,000 Syrian refugees.

Even the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognizes the link between climate change and armed conflict that leads to a refugee situation.

President Obama has weighed in on the phenomenon as well, noting in a 2014 speech at West Point that climate change is a “creeping national security crisis” and that the country’s armed forces will increasingly need to “respond to refugee flows, natural disasters, and conflicts over water and food.”

Problems cannot be solved until they are acknowledged. Saying the world has 250 million environmental refugees only obfuscates the matter. Your Aunt Myrtle in Boca Raton has nothing in common with a resource-poor family whose rice paddy in Southeast Asia has been obliterated by a landslide. Myrtle has a choice. The rice farming family has a choice only if you consider starving a choice.

The thousands of Syrian war refugees who are desperately seeking a better life in Europe are fleeing not only violence but also an encroaching desert and food insecurity. Recognizing the complexity of this situation is the first step in eliminating knee-jerk reactions to seal borders and limit immigration. We are all pawns in Mother Nature’s cruel game of climate change. Human migration across the globe in response to the environment is simply a part of the natural order, whether it takes place on foot, in ferries, or via airplane.

The relationship between climate stress and economic insecurity. Venn diagramming at its finest and a reminder that cause and effect is often not a straight line but rather an ellipse of various circumstances.

The relationship between climate stress and economic insecurity. Venn diagramming at its finest and a reminder that cause and effect is often not a straight line but rather an ellipse of various circumstances.

Posted on: September 18, 2015, 12:58 pm Category: Admin

The Science and Hysteria of California’s Shade Balls

Did you catch that news story a few weeks ago about how Los Angeles is combatting its historic drought with 96 million black plastic balls? The idea is prevent excess water evaporation in the city’s main reservoir by blanketing the surface with lightweight plastic balls that are partially filled with water. In addition to preventing evaporation, they also block sunlight and ultraviolet rays that would otherwise cause excess algae growth. It’s an environmental two-fer.



The Los Angeles Reservoir has a capacity of 3.3 billion gallons, about a three-week supply for the city, and it loses about 300 million gallons to evaporation each year, an annual supply for 8,100 people. Thus, in a drought this severe, those 300 million gallons is worth fighting for.

The balls cost 36 cents each for a total cost of $34.5 million dollars. I hope the city got a bulk discount. To be fair, the $34.5 million investment helps offset the cost of treating the water to remove algae and other bacteria that accumulate in the presence of direct sunlight, which is estimated to be about $250 million.

Source: XavierC.

Source: XavierC.

Bonus: The balls were manufactured by the company XavierC, which calls them “conservation balls.” XavierC is a California-based, woman-owned start-up business that employs disabled vets.  Thus, the balls are made in the USA and as American as Bruce Springsteen.

This is what you get when you Google “Bruce Springsteen balls.” Source:

This is what you get when you Google “Bruce Springsteen balls.” Source:

The city of Los Angeles has been experimenting with the balls for a few years and determined that they reduce evaporation by up to 90 percent. Additionally, they are not expected to release toxic materials into the environment. The balls are made of high-density polyethylene (like your garden-variety gallon milk jug), which is fairly impervious to degradation; supposedly they will last for 25 years. Let’s hope the drought is over before then.

The idea for the shade balls came from Bird Balls, which are marketed by the EnQuip Company of Pennsylvania as having all the benefits of shade balls and the additional benefit of preventing unwanted birds from mucking about in a given body of water. This is especially important if the given body of water is toxic, such as a mining tailings pond.




The Inevitable Naysayers

According to Matt MacLeod, founder of the biotech start-up Modest Moon Farms, going with black balls “will form a thermal blanket speeding evaporation as well as providing a huge amount of new surface are for the hot water to breed bacteria. . . . It’s going to be a bacterial nightmare.” News source: Other experts agreed with MacLeod on the poor color choice. Naysayers believe that white or chrome-colored balls would be much better, due to their reflective properties.

Other experts believed that the whole “saving water” angle is a smokescreen for the real reason for the massive ball drop: Complying with new EPA guides that require public utilities to cover open-air reservoirs.

Sydney Chase, the president of XavierC, maintains that the balls are black due to the use of pure black carbon in the polyethylene. It won’t leach into the water, it’s non-toxic, and it blocks UV rays. Other colors would have required possibly more toxic dyes.

Hmmm. . . . pure black carbon. That doesn’t sound like anything I’d want mingling in my drinking water. Black carbon is the main ingredient in fine particulate matter; i.e., soot, produced when fossil fuels and organic matter are burned. It’s also “associated with premature mortality” and disrupts “global and regional climate.”

Okay. This gives me pause. Please, someone—don’t let me succumb to Fox News!

Science to the Rescue

Thank you, Bethania Palma Markus of Raw Story for providing a Daily Show-worthy smackdown to Fox News that fights hysteria with facts:

For perhaps the first time in its 113-year history, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has dedicated a press release to debunking the “bizarre theories” laid out in a Fox News story Thursday criticizing the department’s water conservation efforts.

The entire story, according to LADWP, was totally wrong.

I feel better already. Let’s continue:

The balls are keeping the water cooler, LADWP says. The “carbon black” surface makes them more structurally and thermally sound, and the air inside the balls acts as insulation, preventing any heat transfer from the sun to the water.

“Furthermore, the reservoir’s size and depth and flow-thru operations are able to keep the water cool,” LADWP responded. “In fact, our staff has verified that the temperature of the water flowing out of LA Reservoir is half a degree cooler than the water that goes into it after filtration and UV disinfection.”

I still didn’t quite understand how carbon black is supposed to be safe, so I dug up this reasonable explanation from Mika McKinnon at Carbon black is a

nearly-pure elemental carbon produced by burning hydrocarbons in an air-poor environment. . . . Carbon black can pose a health risk when it’s a powder by irritating lungs, but as a pigment it’s locked safely away. It is used worldwide in food packaging, and meets the NSF/ANSI 61 standards for materials that come in contact with drinking water. This means the balls won’t do anything nasty to the water supply they are protecting.

Thank you!

Furthermore, McKinnon says the balls are black because their purpose is “to provide shade, not to prevent evaporation. They block sunlight, so the ultraviolet light doesn’t catalyze nasty chemical reactions. . . . Cheap, thin-walled black balls still provide actual shade while lighter colours permit sunlight to penetrate into the water.”

I highly recommend reading the entire post. McKinnon’s explanation is a breath of fresh air and just one more reason why I love the Internet: For every crackpot out there, you can find a voice of reason. The crackpots may have the loudest voices, but reason speaks with a calmer voice of truth.

“Lone Ball Surveys His Domain.” Source:

“Lone Ball Surveys His Domain.” Source:





Posted on: September 18, 2015, 12:53 pm Category: Admin

Nuclear Meltdown in Idaho: 3 Dead

This headline comes to you courtesy of the Wayback Machine from January 3, 1961. It’s for all of us who mistakenly believe that Three Mile Island was the most serious nuclear accident in U.S. history. Not by a long shot. The meltdown at the Stationary Low-Power Reactor Number One (SL-1) in south-central Idaho is to date the only fatal meltdown in U.S. history.

The SL-1 before it blew up. The nuclear reactor is in the cylindrical structure. Source: Argonne National Laboratory.

The SL-1 before it blew up. The nuclear reactor is in the cylindrical structure. Source: Argonne National Laboratory.

The Argonne Low Power Reactor (ALPR) was designed and built in 1958 by Argonne National Laboratory at a military test facility about 40 miles from Idaho Falls. Shortly after it became operational, it was handed over to the U.S. Army and renamed SL-1 in accordance with Army nomenclature. Its purpose was to test the feasibility of building small-capacity nuclear power plants in the Arctic for military radar stations that monitored Soviet air activities. The idea was to generate 200 kilowatts—just enough for an average-sized house. The whole kit ‘n caboodle was designed to be portable.

On December 23, 1960, SL-1 was shut down for maintenance and updates. The process of restarting the reactor began on January 3, 1961. A three-man crew on the night shift worked through the laborious, step-by-step process, documenting everything in a log. A crucial part of this process involved withdrawing a central control rod from the reactor core a distance of four inches in order to reconnect it to its automatic control mechanism.

For some reason, however, the operator withdrew the rod about 26 inches. The reactor immediately went critical. Water vaporized and a massive steam explosion lifted the entire reactor nine feet straight into the air. The force of the explosion killed the operator, John Byrnes, instantly. Richard Legg, the shift supervisor, who had been standing on top of the reactor, was impaled into the ceiling of the structure by flying debris. He also died instantly. Richard McKinley, a trainee who had been observing the procedure from a few feet away, died of trauma wounds shortly afterwards. It was the country’s first nuclear meltdown.

Had the men not succumbed to physical injuries, they would have died from radiation exposure within a day. All three were buried in lead-lined coffins inserted into metal vaults and covered with concrete. Some body parts were removed and buried separately as highly radioactive waste. The good news, if such a thing was possible, was that the amount of radiation released into the atmosphere from explosion was considered negligible and had a half life of just a few days. Clean-up took about 18 months.

Clean-up of the damaged SL-1 reactor in November, 1961. Source: U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

Clean-up of the damaged SL-1 reactor in November, 1961. Source: U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

The accident has mostly been relegated to the dustbin of history, but when it is remembered it is usually in conjunction with the layers of urban legend that have wrapped themselves around the facts of the story. Rumors of a love triangle between Legg, Byrnes, and Legg’s wife gave rise to the suggestion that the accident was actually a murder-suicide. This seems a fanciful but somewhat irresistible plot development for those who lose themselves in the Wayback Machine, where speculation is a more precious currency than fact.

No doubt, the accident was certainly avoidable and probably at least partially caused by poor communication and workplace tension. According Todd Tucker, author of Atomic America, the Legg and Byrnes couldn’t stand each other and “had even come to drunken blows at a sleazy bachelor party the year before.” Byrnes had faced disciplinary action in the Army and his career was in jeopardy. Professionally, Legg had leapfrogged over Byrnes and was now his supervisor. Byrnes was full of resentment. To make matters worse, just two hours before the accident occurred, Byrnes’s wife had called him at SL-1 to say she wanted a divorce. She later allegedly told investigators that her husband warned her that an accident was possible and she had tried and failed to reach him again that same evening at SL-1.

So as Byrnes was on top of the reactor, charged with lifting the 84 lb. central control rod not more than four inches out of the reactor, he was probably not in a good mood and probably not focused solely on the task at hand. Furthermore, the control rod was in ill-repair and frequently needed to be jiggled with a heavy wrench. It had a history of being difficult to maneuver. In a matter of milliseconds, according to Tucker,

The shield plug was ejected from the core at eighty-five feet per second, entered Legg’s body through his groin, exited near his shoulder, and propelled him straight up to the ceiling where he dangled for six days. The impaled body was so radioactive that it took engineers that long to design a safe way to remove it. When they did finally bring Legg down, they were shocked to see that despite the time that had passed, the body was perfectly preserved. It was so radioactive that the sterilized flesh had no decayed.

Rescuers initially thought they were responding to another false alarm, which would have been the third one that day. Instead, they found an eerily silent building even as the needles on their radiometers went berserk. They followed a series of protocols that allowed full-suited responders only 60 seconds to search and rescue the victims from the scene. In all, 790 people were exposed to harmful radiation during the rescue and clean up operations; 32 of them received certificates of heroism from the Atomic Energy Commission.

The full dismantling of the reactor and site clean up took 18 months. All debris and contaminated soil and gravel was buried about 1,600 feet from the original site of the reactor. It is continually monitored for radiation; in 2000 the site was capped with an added layer of rocks.

Burial grounds of the SL-1 reactor. Source:

Burial grounds of the SL-1 reactor. Source:

The incident was investigated thoroughly and resulted in many improvements in subsequent nuclear reactors—enough that a similar accident has never again taken place. Most importantly, it is no longer possible to cause a nuclear meltdown by having one operator yank out a control rod at whim. Thank goodness.

The event, while perhaps not part of the American consciousness, like the Bay of Pigs invasion that happened just several months later, has resulted in a number of insightful analyses that trace the development of nuclear power and safety in the United States.

The Atomic Energy Commission even produced a documentary that includes re-enactments of the disaster. It’s quite a feat of filmmaking, complete with a soundtrack that’s right out of a Hitchcock suspense movie. Here’s the link.

Additionally, independent filmmakers C. Larry Roberts and Diane Orr released SL-1 in 1983. Janet Maslin reviewed the film in the New York Times, noting that “parts of the bodies of the three dead men had to be removed and buried separately, because they were ‘hot’ enough to be considered high-level nuclear waste. This surgical work had to be performed using knives and hacksaws fastened to the ends of long poles.”

The damaged core of SL-1. Source: Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.

The damaged core of SL-1. Source: Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.

Idaho Falls: The Untold Story of America’s First Nuclear Accident by William McKeown was published in 2003. McKeown explores how the murder-suicide angle was given credence many years after the fact, as anti-nuclear activists hunted for proof of sabotage as a reason to close down the country’s reactors. McKeown suggest that “Byrnes was an inquisitive kid and might have yanked up the rod just to see what would happen, never imagining the consequences. The wife of another sergeant at the reactor thought that young Jack Byrnes was an impulsive guy: he drove too fast, lived too hard, did things without thinking. She though it was possible that he pulled the rod on a whim. But she also speculated that, given his personal problems, he could have done it deliberately to take his own life.”


Needless to say, the accident put the kibosh on the Army’s quest to build portable nuclear power plants. Soon, the Air Force also abandoned its plans for a nuclear-powered aircraft. Only the Navy remained in the nuclear game, having already engineered a nuclear-powered submarine that had passed beneath the North Pole the year before. Nuclear submarines have a notorious track record of disasters all their own, but that’s a story for another time.


Posted on: September 18, 2015, 12:48 pm Category: Admin