Idaho State Journal
by Kelton Hatch

Journal photo by Kelton Hatch

Dale Snyder of Bechtel BWXT-Idaho and Bob MacFarlane of the INEEL stand in front of the site of the Auxiliary Reactor Area-II. INEEL officials say it was the site of the only fatal nuclear reactor accident in the United States.

R.I.P. for Reactor Area-II

INEEL lays to rest fatal nuclear accident site

By Anne Minard
Journal Staff Writer

POCATELLO - The Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory will soon lay to rest the country's only fatal nuclear-powered reactor accident.

The Auxiliary Reactor Area-II is the site of a 1961 nuclear reactor explosion that killed three workers.

"Those were the only deaths due to a nuclear reactor accident in this country," said Kevin O'Neill, a spokesperson for the Department of Energy in Idaho. In comparison, he said that Three Mile Island, the country's most infamous nuclear disaster, did not result in significant radioactive exposure to anyone.

Erik Simpson, a spokesman for INEEL's contracting company Bechtel-BWXT Idaho, said interest in the explosion has peaked every few years since the early 1960s. In the past several years, he said, Hollywood film makers queried workers at the site in search of movie material.

"This cleanup is interesting because it will put to rest the legacy of this accident," he said.

The actual reactor building - which Simpson likened to a silo - was torn down in the late 1990s and buried under layers of rock and debris. Calling the area a "burial ground," Simpson says it is permanent disposal for the reactor waste.

What remains, Simpson said, is 51,000 cubic yards of windblown contamination resulting both from the 1961 explosion and, later, the destruction of the facilities.

O'Neill said the average radioactivity there is approximately 100 times greater than background radioactivity at the INEEL.

The current plan is to build an on-site repository and store the contaminated soil at the INEEL. The repository is expected to be complete no later than June 2004.

Within months, workers will tackle former chemical evaporation and waste ponds in the vicinity, a sanitary waste system and an underground radionuclide tank. That waste will be moved to an as-yet-unknown, off-site treatment facility.

"No one knows exactly what happened," O'Neill said of the long-ago nuclear disaster. "People have tried to guess."

INEEL officials know that one of the three people operating the reactor manually pulled a control rod, causing an uncontrolled steam explosion that led to the nuclear disaster.

"I've heard the love triangle theory," Simpson added, referring to one rumor that one of the operators was in love with another's wife. "To my knowledge, that hasn't been substantiated."

Anne Minard covers science and the environment for the Journal. She can be reached at 239-3168 or by e-mail at