During the ongoing nuclear event taking place in Japan, I have numerous proponents of nuclear power here in the States make claims on television defending the safety record of the industry here by stating that there have been no deaths caused by nuclear reactors here. But they state it with a caveat: there have been no deaths at commercial nuclear power plants. There have been other incidents at military and research reactors that have resulted in the deaths of workers at these facilities.
There is, for example, the SL-1 reactor in a remote part of Idaho. SL-1 stood for Stationary Low-Power Reactor Number 1 and was a very small experimental reactor operated by the US Army. On January 3, 1961 , there were three workers present as the plant was being powered down for maintenance. The control rod was pulled from the core too quickly and there was an instantaneous ( 4 milliseconds) heat ing and steam explosion, killing all three workers, athough one survived the intial blast and died soon after from head injuries. The descriptions of their deaths are pretty gruesome. All were buried in lead-lined caskets and special vaults. That is, the body parts of the workers that weren’t buried in the Idaho desert as radioactive waste.
The plant was ultimately buried in the same Idaho desert and the SL-1 design was discontinued, replaced by designs that benefitted from the lessons learned from this tragedy. The incident is seldom mentioned in any discussions of nuclear safety and remains pretty small on the radar screens of most folks. While it should not be held up as the primary evidence against nuclear power as a major source of energy it does illustrate the immense power and risk involved in nuclear energy.
So when you hear those words about the safety of nuclear power and how there have never been any deaths, listen for those words that take the SL-1 out of the equation for their claims: in a commercial power plant. They know the real truth.