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.
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.