The EnviroReporter.com interview – June 25, 2009
John Pace is the last known surviving person who was at the Sodium Reactor Experiment during those fateful weeks in July 1959 when the America’s worst nuclear meltdown occurred. Just twenty when he started working at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, Pace, 70, is now retired and lives with his wife in Rexburg, Idaho. He gave this exclusive interview to EnviroReporter.com on June 25, 2009 during which time, sadly, Michael Jackson died.
EnviroReporter.com: What did you do as the kid on the crew at the Sodium Reactor Experiment?
John Pace: I was hired on as a trainee to learn how to become an atomic reactor operator and also a mechanic. That means learning the ropes in how to run a reactor and helping them with working on the reactor with changing and transferring fuel rods and working on maintenance, chart reading, checking the weather, which way the wind was blowing – all the odds and ends is what they hired me for at that age. I don’t want to use the word ‘gofer.’ In those days, they had a lot of gauges they had to read outside and up on the hill there where the weather station was at. My duty on my shift was to go take a clipboard with me and at certain times go around and read and see what the various gauges are doing and see which way the wind was blowing, the weather; depending on their needs and what they needed at that time. That’s what I was originally hired for and then to help them transferring fuel rods, worked out in the high bay area and on mechanical-like things.
Why were you checking the weather?
To know which way the wind was blowing when we released the gases out of the reactor, we knew which way they were blowing. We preferred to have them blowing towards the ocean. In those days, at the time of the meltdown, it went the opposite way towards Los Angeles and the [San Fernando] Valley. I know it went exactly over LA. It was just a normal westerly wind blowing over the San Fernando Valley and beyond.
If you were checking the weather regularly to see which way the wind was blowing does that mean that you were regularly venting gases?
All the time. It was an experimental reactor. They would get the reactor up on and running and when it was running do some more tests on it and the fuel rods. Then you had to bring the reactor back down and vent the gases out of the reactor. Normally they would have holding tanks they’d put those gases in and separate them for a week, generally speaking, before they released the gas so it wouldn’t be hot going out. It was normal procedure. When the reactor went down, that was a completely different story. It happened all of a sudden and they didn’t let it decay a bit; they had to do it right then otherwise you’d have another Chernobyl there and everyone get exposed.
They had to scram the reactor on the 13th. At that time, they had to release all the gases from the reactor to keep it from running away 100% like Chernobyl. Those are the gases everyone is worried about because they didn’t have time to detain the gases at all so they let it out on the 13th there.
How did you guys stay out of the way of those gases?
I wasn’t there until a few hours after it happened. The next shift, I was there. I was home at the time it actually happened. I found out that the reactor had run away from them and they had to release the gases. When they did that, they didn’t have time to check which way the wind was blowing. It was an emergency; you had to do something. So they released the gases and they discovered after leaking the gases that the winds were headed towards the San Fernando Valley. Those of us who were working there were, of course, very upset about it at what happened because on that particular shift, all of our families lived in the San Fernando Valley and all that radiation went over their homes in the west valley over there. That was on the 13th there.
The next step was they started up the reactor again after that point around two weeks trying to determine what caused the reactor to go down. They had little indications before the 13th that there was something a little edgy about the reactor that they weren’t quite sure about. There were indications on gauges that something wasn’t quite up to par, the way a reactor really should be. It wasn’t enough for anyone to say there was a definite problem you see. After the meltdown, they started the reactor to see what the customer thought was wrong and took little short runs with a low amount of electricity, in other words at low levels, where they had control on things and each time they ran it, they’d watch the gauges. With a reactor, you can’t hear anything, see anything; you have to go by the gauges. They ran it there for a few hours at low level and then they’d shut it down and bleed the gases out from the reactor. Then they’d talk about it ‘what do you think?’ and ‘I’m not sure, I think it could be this or that.’
They started getting the idea that the pump was giving them some problems with the tetralin but they weren’t sure. So they would fire it up again at a low level, check out the gauges, shut it down, and then bleed the reactor again. This went on over a number of days doing the same scenario until we figured out that the sump was the cause of it. It was about 20-something that they decided not to run the reactor anymore. That’s when they shut it down for the final test. Then they started planning on what they were going to do from that point. In the meantime, during all that time when they were doing those tests, they kept building up all this radiation in the high bay area. It was getting more contaminated all the time. It was pretty well contaminated in the building. They couldn’t go out in the high bay area because it was too contaminated and they had it all sealed off there.
On the 26th, they decided to run it no longer and not do any more testing. So all they could do is to go in to look at the full rods. The thing is we couldn’t get into the building right at the moment because it was contaminated. We had to clean up the contamination; start working at the door and going out by scrubbing the floors down and working on the high bay after letting it cool down just a little bit too.
What did you scrub it down with?
We scrubbed it down with soap, water and sponges. We tried mops. We used those floor scrubbers where you have those things that spin around. We went through plenty of those and that was getting expensive – they’d get contaminated real quick on that and it wasn’t doing what it really needed to do to clean the contamination up. So they discontinued the floor scrubber and they found out using all those sponges were getting contaminated and thrown away and that was getting pretty expensive too, so we ended up using Kotex I was part of that.
Did you have a respirator on?
We had coveralls, white, and they have a red band running around [them]. We had regular gloves or plastic gloves and booties on our feet. I took a week or two to really get cleaned up and try and pull fuel rods in areas of the reactor. We were using chemicals too and that’s what put a strain on my lungs. They used cleaning chemicals and other types of chemicals like something like paint thinner for example.
How long could you be in there for?
We could be in there for maybe a couple of hours, maybe. It was bad rad contamination but it wasn’t extra bad. We put some plastic down to keep from tracking from a dirty area back onto the clean area. So maybe over a week’s time they got enough cleaned up so that they could get over to where the reactor core was. We definitely didn’t use any water because there was any sodium it would explode because water and sodium explode. Sodium catches fire with air too.
You see, this never happened before so it was a learning experience of how to clean up contamination. This was all brand new to everybody then. On top of the reactor was a reactor shield of plastic that allowed people to get around it for a short period of time. There were other parts of the building that were blocked off, a good percent of the area of the building that was off limits. So we didn’t clean the whole building at that time. So we got down to the point to where we started pulling some fuel rods with a transporter. We called it “the coffin.” It carried the fuel rods back and forth from the reactor to the holding area.
What did the coffin look like?
It was a long apparatus, lead-lined, about 30 feet tall. The other kind they had was kind of an old boxy-looking thing with a lead-lined cylinder that went up to the ceiling from the early 1950s and another one from around 1957 that had a TV camera in it that made it really nice when lowering the rods. When we first started unloading the reactor, it had a window in it with a light so you could see the fuel rods in that coffin there and see what it was doing.
For safety they decided to go to the farthest point first and then work their way towards that area. Just like ‘boom boom boom’ they start pulling them up over a number of shifts, three shifts and they went through the easy ones until they got to the area that they thought was overheated.
They found definitely that’s what happened. The fuel rods that were damaged were seen upon removal. They finally got to the last fuel rods. I mentioned two transporters, two coffins, and they were using one pulling out a rod and it broke off into the reactor. A broken fuel rod is not what you want. This particular fuel rod was one of the last two in the reactor core. I’m the only one who has knowledge of it that’s still alive because they were all older than me; 10, 20, 30 years older than me. I’m 70. What are the odds of anyone being alive when you add in all the radiation [exposure] too?
So a fuel rod broke off on them. I wasn’t there at that exact moment but I know the story. The guy was pulling on the thing real hard, and it was stuck in the reactor because that tetralin made a bunch of goo in the bottom of a pool and they were damaged. Then the goo freed up and they went ‘what the hell happened there?’ In that coffin, you see in that window there the broken fuel rod coming up and stopping to see what it was. He realized what happened and he panicked even more and pushed the wrong button and lifted the lead safety shield. All he could think of doing is run. And as he was running, he was pulling alarms – it was a night or a swing shift when that happened – and ran out of the building and got outside.