Now you have the safety shield up. They were realizing radiation was leaking out in the atmosphere. Somebody volunteered to go back in and put the safety shield down on the fuel transporter. So then what happens is to go get some equipment to monitor the radiation that had leaked out they come discover that it [had spread] about a mile radius. That’s where they had to barricade the road because of the radiation. They didn’t want people going any farther than that. For about two weeks they kept people out while they cleaned up the SRE building offices.
So you had one more fuel rod in there and, of course, they had one more coffin left that they could use to pull the last fuel rod out. They pulled it out and it broke off in the reactor core. Now you have two broken off in the reactor. Now this is an even worse scenario; the top part of the fuel rod didn’t come all the way out of the reactor. It was stuck in the reactor. Now they got both coffins tied up with broken fuel rods kind of like an elevator stuck between two floors.
I was actually there on this shift and seen a lot of what happened. I was in the control room at the time when it happened and the high bay area was still contaminated. When you were out there, you didn’t want to be out there very long. And what they would do is they needed somebody to be in street clothes or another area of the building to be in the building but not in doing what they were doing. So they picked me and I was in the control area and I could see through the window so I could tell what happened. I could tell from the looks on their faces something was wrong.
There was a Polaroid camera at that time in the control room and being a young kid, and it was exciting – I didn’t have the kind of danger in mind that I should have had – when you’re young you think different. So I took a picture through the window there at what had happened at the time. The men decided to see what they could do to unjam the fuel rod. There were three men out there in the high bay area. One man was on the controls, the other one had a control separate from the coffin and he was trying to make the thing go up and down to loosen up and try to work its way out of the hole in the reactor.
So these two other fellows decide to take their chances and peek underneath the lead shield, just raise it up and get a flashlight under the lead cover and shine it on the reactor floor and see what was holding it up underneath this [shield]. I took a picture of it, a picture of it 50 years ago that nobody has.
It struck me that it was something that I needed to take a picture of and at that time, I wasn’t really up to snuff on when you were supposed to be taking pictures. And I only found out later what you were supposed to do. We were in a top secret situation. When I see people struggling over it, something in my mind says I got to take this photo. I did something I shouldn’t have done, but I did it. Also took a picture in the high bay area with my street clothes on, very quickly and got back out. This gave me two pictures of the men looking under the lead safety shield.
Did they move the control room to be away from the core after the meltdown?
Yes, it was moved after November 1959 after I left. They moved the control room deeper into the building, from building plans I have seen.
The finally did get that fuel out by jiggling with an overhead crane, up and down. When they removed the coffin, they had no way of sealing the reactor back up. Both times they moved the coffins off the [top shield of the reactor] and one worker slid these lead blocks over the hole in the top of the reactor to seal it off.
Did it work?
It worked for what they needed. It sure was handy later on when they were using the boroscope to peak into the reactor. Those holes were about four inches in diameter. Now they had the problem of having pieces of fuel rods down in the reactor. They couldn’t get them out with the coffin because they had broken fuel rods in them. The hot end of the rod, where the cladding fell off down the reactor and it was still hot. So they used one hole to drop and electric light down there and even with the lead blocks, you had to leave the hole open.
You seen that picture of the worker looking down into the reactor? That’s me. I was not looking down into the reactor. I was helping align equipment.
So let’s go back. When they looked down, they used the mirror off the bathroom wall and put it on an angle so they could see down into the reactor so they could see what they were doing. There is still radiation coming out but you don’t have to look right into the hole. It was very difficult.
They came up with a better way by using the TV camera from the newer coffin and lowered it down into the reactor core through the fuel rod hole. It took a number of tries to get a hold of it.
They never should have done what they had done at the time. The reactor should have been closed down and they shouldn’t have even been doing this but they did it anyway.
They had two broken fuel rods they had to remove from the reactor core with a cherry picker. The last one pulled and fell off the cherry picker and fell on the floor before they could get it into the lead cask, and contaminated the High Bay area.
A lot of it was because you didn’t want to lose your job and they’re working for Atomics International and they’re making not too bad money for the time. If the reactor is gone, nobody’s got work. Besides the pressure from the top echelon, the workers did what they were supposed to do. They didn’t want to lose their jobs either. They were taking their chances. Another thing you got to think about is once you’ve been exposed to radiation, it’s already happened to me so I might as well keep on going, if you know what I’m trying to say. ‘I’ve already done it.’
Those are the kinds of things going through people’s minds. I was the young kid on the block there, the fly on the wall and what happens is, I didn’t have the knowledge of doing what they were doing at the time, so they’d keep me back over in another area and I could see what it was all about. I might be able to clean up contamination, in the far corner of the high bay area, and they’d say ‘Hey John, I need your help over here’ can you hand me that tool or can you do this or do that. Then I’d go back to what I was doing.
Now don’t get me wrong, I was working shoulder to shoulder with them and getting heavy exposure, just not to the levels they were. I worked there for eight months. I don’t have records to go by. But many of these men kept working there and there still was a radiation problem.