We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
When, in January of 1961, three unlucky servicemen blew themselves to holy hell while working on a U.S. Army nuclear reactor, the country’s nuclear program faced a reckoning. In Atomic America: How a Deadly Explosion and a Feared Admiral Changed the Course of Nuclear History, Todd Tucker outlines the lessons learned in the aftermath of the explosion that killed Richard Legg, Richard McKinley, and John Byrnes in the nation’s first and thus far only fatal nuclear incident. His interesting, if somewhat dry, look at the disaster that took place at the National Reactor Testing Station, in an appropriately remote section of Idaho, concludes that the accident resulted from negligence and a lack of oversight on the part of the Army—not a reckless fight between serviceman involved in a sordid love triangle, as officials initially claimed. From there, Tucker explains how the Army meltdown set the stage for the ascendancy of Admiral Hyman Rickover, the so-called “Father of the Nuclear Navy.” Rickover, then in charge of the Navy’s nuclear program, forced his way to the top of the country’s nuclear fiefdom—with an emphasis on both innovation and safety regulations, Rickover was able to steer clear of such turkeys as expensive, state-of-the-art aircraft that couldn’t actually fly and terribly maintained reactors such as the one that led to the ’61 disaster. Tucker, himself a former officer with the Navy’s nuclear submarine force, spares no detail in chronicling Rickover’s run in creating and maintaining entire fleets of nuclear-powered military vessels without mishap, thereby improving the energy source’s reputation for volatility and leaping ahead of the Army and Air Force in harnessing its power. With the United States again considering nuclear power as a means to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, Atomic America serves as a reminder that, whether the United States is finally ready to pass the nuclear responsibility test or not, the days of careless, runaway atomic enthusiasm are firmly in this nation’s past.