In 1979 a mutual friend put me in touch with Gerry Stone, a Mare Island shipyard worker who had seen some things he thought the public ought to know about. I was then a hustling freelancer. We arranged to meet and Gerry, who is self-effacing, asked two co-workers to come and provide help provide details.  Gerry’s friends were very worried that even with their names withheld, they might get in trouble if and when the story was published. (My plan was to submit it to California magazine or the substantial Sunday supplement the SF Chronicle used to publish.) I promised to show them a draft and promised I would send it off if they thought it put them at to grade a risk.  The interview was conducted at Gerry’s house in Napa. Many six packs were consumed, many joints were smoked. Later, when the men read my draft, they nixed publication. I gave Gerry the only copy.

Gerry is long gone, James moved back to Nebraska, I don’t know what became of Kevin. Their story comes to mind whenever nuclear waste turns up “unexpectedly” at Hunters Point or Alameda, or when a nuclear accident or near accident gets reported by the media.  What follows are excerpts from the now-it-can-be-told interview.

FG: So what’s the main point of the story? The Nautilis is in, being prepared for defueling and final retirement…

James: The story is there are at least three and maybe as many as eight potential 3 Mile Islands sitting right here in the middle of the water, in the midst of millions of people. Everybody’s concerned now about Rancho Seco. It’s as if they don’t understand that nuclear subs are run by nuclear reactors. And the subs come to Mare Island for refueling. Which is a more dangerous procedure than the ordinary, day-in-day-out out operation of a reactor.

FG: Why is refueling so dangerous?

James: When the core is disassembled there is no means of control, basically, only the cooling system is preventing a critical reaction.

FG:  Where else do nuclear subs refuel?

James and Kevin: Bremerton, Washington; Honolulu; Groton Connecticut… Probably Norfolk. Not sure about Portsmouth and San Diego. The Enterprise, which has eight nuclear reactors, refuels at Alameda.

FG: How long have you been at Mare Island?

Kevin: Twelve years ­–eight in the nuclear program. I volunteered.

FG: Why?

Kevin: When you work at Mare Island, you’re told that nuclear is the way up, the wave of the future… I grew up in the Midwest. My father was a farmer who got caught in a three-year drought. We moved to Northern California and then, when I was in high school, we moved down to Vallejo. Three months after I graduated I took the test for apprenticeship at the shipyard. My folks thought it was great that I’d be learning a trade. Growing up in Vallejo, to work at Mare Island is the thing.

James: I went to Hogan High School. More than half the kids there, I’d say, wound up working at Mare Island. It’s nothing to have four generations at the Yard.

Kevin: I’m a pipefitter. I thought I was going to learn a trade and move on, but you get involved. I’m the type of person who likes to get the job done efficiently and the men over me recognized this towards the end of my apprenticeship, so I rose real fast. If you’re in the civil service and you’re one of those guys who gets the job done efficiently, then you always get the job, know what I mean?  I had a brand new Thunderbird –I always had the latest wheels– and because I was at Mare Island I was serving the Navy so I didn’t have to worry about Vietnam. I was totally into the program. Mare Island was my life –my social life, everything.

James: I became a refueling instructor, teaching people how to operate a cooling system.  Then I was a nuclear mechanic in charge of a four-man group. Then a foreman pipefitter with 15 or 20 men under me. Then general foreman pipefitter.  I figured I was well on my way to group superintendent.

As for the dangers of working in nuclear, I wasn’t that concerned. They told us that 4,500 millirems per year was the acceptable maximum –1400 per quarter, 300 per week. Later they lowered the amount they considered an acceptable maximum. But I wasn’t that worried because you suffered no symptoms of any damage, so you thought “what the fuck?” The work actually seemed clean. I liked the benefits and they never hassled you about overtime. So I was working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and felt lucky. My wife suffered, we had no social life, but I can’t say I suffered. Then in ’72 I started getting chest pains and really feeling the pressure of getting the work done. It was too much aggravation. I started getting cold sweats, having nightmares. I know the scabs on my hands, they started peeling…

FG: Did you transfer out of nuclear?

James: No, I quit the shipyard. Just quit instead of taking disability. I went up to Northern California and spent a year and a half building commercial boats and fishing.

FG: Why did you come back?

James: I’m not sure. Didn’t enjoy the weather up there that much.

FG: Did you return to nuclear?

James: Yes, but I wasn’t so gung ho. I came back as a journeyman pipefitter and then I became a pipefitter instructor. Around this time a change came down. Every week we’d have safety meetings, every Friday afternoon. There was a big push by Washington for REM reduction. They changed their guidelines and made it so that refueling should be accomplished with the least total exposure to the crews. Logically, you think they’d train twice as many workers if they wanted to reduce the overall exposure by half. But what they did instead was actually reduce the number of people involved in refueling, using only the best workers, the ones they knew could get the job done fastest. That way the overall exposure was reduced but to those of us doing the job, it was actually increased.

Kevin: Our supervisors could look good in the eyes of whoever they were reporting to in Washington.

James: After 3 Mile Island I heard an NRC official saying that with 500 REM there was a significant chance of getting cancer. I’ve gotten more than that in a day! By this time I wanted into non-nuclear but I couldn’t apply for it because it wasn’t a promotion.

FG: You can only apply for a step up?

James: Exactly. And the shop superintendent wouldn’t recommend me for the transfer because a lot of other guys were feeling the same way –they wanted out of  nuclear and back to black-iron jobs.

Kevin: Working in nuclear wasn’t officially considered hazardous. We couldn’t apply for hot pay because saying how hot it got would violate security.

FG: What’s involved in refueling a nuclear sub?

Kevin: It’s conducted by a team. Remember the football team?  That’s how they run the team. With half-time pep talks, the whole trip. The shipyard commander, the head of security, they tell you you’re the elite. “Team! Team! Team!” We even had a second-string team in case you got burned out on first string. They’re not quite as good as the first team, but they’re okay.

FG: How many men are on the team?

Kevin: That’s classified.

FG: How many men are on the team?

Kevin: There might be a thousand men trained in nuclear. But the majority of them are not on defueling teams. I’d say there’s more than a hundred, less than 200. There are others like transporting garbage –nuclear waste– and doing contaminated jobs in controlled areas. But they’re not working with fuel.

Defueling and refueling are basically the same on a submarine as at land-based power plants. Whenever the fuel is spent it has to be removed and replaced.

FG: How often does that occur?

Kevin: It depends on the core type. It may be eight years. It may be that the contamination level requires that the plant be shut down and flushed out after only five years.

FG: When the submarine comes through the Golden Gate, is the reactor powering it? Where and when does defueling begin?

James: It’s going until it lands at the pier. The subs come in San Pablo Bay, up the Sacramento River, finally up the Napa River. The reactor is providing power until the vessel is berthed. Then it goes through cool-down.  That means the plant gets shut down and you wait until the inside of the reactor is below 140 degrees.

FG: What’s special about 140 degrees?

James: That’s the temperature you can stand to go inside and look around.

Kevin: But it’s still hotter than a firecracker.

FG: What happens next?

James: The stores are unloaded and the vessel is put in dry-dock, where most of the work is done… There are four dry-docks, two equipped for refueling.

Kevin: It takes months until the new power unit is installed. What we’re talking abut, really, is thousands of steps. First thing, we start installing the refueling equipment: aluminum buildings –complexes– that fit around the sub. These enable you to burn a patch out on the top of the vessel and get at the reactor compartment. Welders  working around the clock burn out the patch. If all goes well it takes one or two days to cut the hole, which is bigger than a living room.

FG: What’s exposed below?

Kevin: A 14-inch-thick stainless steel vessel. An incredible piece of equipment! From the pictures we’ve seen, I’d say the vessel on a nuclear sub is a much stronger, much safer piece of equipment than the kind used in private industry.

FG: Next step?

Kevin: The head is removed –the upper containment vessel, the top half of the reactor. And this is done at top speed because it’s highly, highly radioactive. That’s why they came in to refuel –they’re losing power because it’s totally crapped up.

FG: Crapped up with what?

Kevin: The waste product we were concerned with was Cobalt-60, a highly radioactive waste product of Cobalt 59, which is used to case-harden stainless steel valves and pumps and pipes. When exposed to ionizing radiation it becomes Cobalt 60. It’s in the water in the cooling system and the fuel itself

James: The most radioactive elements are lead-blanketed. But every time you do that it takes someone actually putting on the blanket.

Dangling Plutonium

Continuation of  “Working the Mare Island Nukes.”  Three men in their early thirties, James, Kevin and Gerry, are telling a reporter about defueling and refueling nuclear submarines. The “head” is the top half of the “containment vessel” that surrounds the plutonium fuel cells and control rods in the reactor that powers the sub.

FG: How many men are involved all together in removing the head?

James: A couple of hundred –and there’s radioactivity being emitted at the REM level until the fuel-removal stack-up is assembled.

Kevin: A key step is guiding the fuel-removal container down over the fuel cells.

FG: How is that done?

Kevin: By crane. And riggers –men saying “Move it this way. A little bit that way…” Somebody climbs up on top the thing, hooks an S-hook onto it and says, “Okay, I’m ready take it up.”

FG: Is that the most dangerous job in terms of exposure to radiation?

Kevin: Nope. There’s cats that actually get down to the bottom where the fuel cells actually were, and clean it up. That and resin discharge.

FG: Who does that?

Kevin: The only Blacks in the nuclear program –just about.  There are about 10,000 people employed at Mare Island. Maybe 40 percent are Black, but only 1 percent in the nuclear program. And they’re the ones down there cleaning up the core. the dirtiest work.

Gerry: They treat them even lower than they treat us. We’re all just grunts working for ’em. They sit up there in their leaded box, up there in the control station, telling us to hurry up. How they hell can you hurry up when you’re trying to be safe?

James: In the training they tell you not to worry, radiation’s safe, more people die of electrical shock. In all your classes they tell you how safe the nuclear program is ’cause we take all these precautions. They say nobody’s ever died from radiation! This shit’s not gonna hurt you, and after you’ve had so many hours’ exposure, don’t worry, we’ll take care of you, we’ll put you in another job. You’ve got a guaranteed future here.

Kevin: And it’s true, statistically, nuclear power has a good safety record compared to coal or the chemical industry –because the effects don’t catch up with you for 10, 15 years.

FG: It typically takes how long to defuel a nuclear sub?

James: Depends. If they have even little dinky problem it could be held up as long as 10 to 12 weeks. If they have no problems, a week to 10 days. That’s what it’s supposed to take. But I’d say in five years we’ve done less than five without any holdups.

Kevin: In other words, out of all the ships we’ve defueled, five were done without incident. And some of the incidents weren’t so little. One time we had a fuel container stuck. The crane malfunctioned. We stood out there with fire hoses in case it went critical. FIRE HOSES!  (in an officer’s voice) “Regroup upwind!”  (back in character) HAH! In our little yellow uniforms! And there it was, swaying in the wind, the spent fuel itself in a 20-foot high removal container!

FG: The crane was transferring it to where?

Kevin: To railroad cars on the dock –specially fitted cars with fresh-water cooling systems. They take it by rail to Idaho. Guarded by a lieutenant with a .45. That’s it –a lieutenant, the conductor and the brakeman. In a country full of maniacs. Can you believe it? And they’re so security conscious!

James: This was a special crane, several hundred feet tall and highly tested, supposedly. It’s not supposed to get stuck. Turned out to be a governor problem. It mistakenly registered “overload.” The back-up piece of equipment was a fire-engine ladder. But that day the fire engine was in a parade in Vallejo! It took them two days to figure out how they were going to safely transfer this fuel cell hanging in the air to another crane. They were scared shitless.

FG: How did they do it?

James: Went up alongside it with a crane and a skiff box. I was the they. I hooked up a cooling device to the container.

FG: In the time it was hanging there, how much radiation was released into the atmosphere?

Kevin: Who the fuck knows? According to them, none. But that’s a lot of plutonium hanging up there. One fuel cell’s got enough to make numerous bombs.

FG: When did this happen?

Kevin: Four or five years ago. In July.

FG: Did it make the news?

Kevin: (officer’s voice) An accident report was written and published in regard to that incident.

Gerry: A bullshit cover-up report.

FG: If the fuel cell crashed down from the crane, or with the crane, would that have been Vallejo’s  Three-Mile Island?

James: Hard to say.

Kevin: I’d say the closest we came to endangering civilians was when we had to dump a whole lot of hot, contaminated water into the bay.

FG: When was that?

James: All the time. We used to process the contaminated water by “dilution.” In other words, you’ve got 1,000 gallons of contaminated water. You pump 50 gallons of that water into another tank, add 5,000 gallons of water, and you’ve got five-thousand and fifty gallons of diluted water which can be pumped overboard. It’s an ‘acceptable’ radiation level. Then you do the same thing with another 50 gallons. Over and over again until it’s all pumped overboard. At high tide. This was the standard procedure for many years.

Gerry: They still do it in an emergency.

Kevin: You do anything in an emergency.

James: How many times did we dump water in the Bay hooking up the C-29s? [a term I didn’t get a definition of.] That reactor is in critical condition when you’re pumping that water out.

Kevin: Every time we defuel, some water goes in the Bay.

Add Interview Snippets

FG: Where is the dry dock located in relation to downtown Vallejo?

Kevin: Directly across the river from downtown. Mare Island’s not really an island, it’s a peninsula with mud flats. Across the river from the dry dock you’ve got marinas, restaurants, offices…
FG:Who are the major employers in Vallejo?
Kevin: Mare Island’s the biggest. Then there’s Kaiser Steel, C&H Sugar refiners, Sperry Mills [food processors]
Kevin: It’s cheaper to pay one guy to work overtime than put another guy on at straight time. Straight time, from their point of view, costs almost $25 an hour with benefits –sick leave, health plan, annual leave, retirement plan and so on. But overtime is just time and a half of your regular salary. So if you’re making $10 an hour, overtime costs them $15.
James: We were working so much overtime they finally made it a mandatory percentage. You couldn’t work more than 25 percent more than your regular work week. Before that, everybody in the nuclear program was like doubling their income.
Kevin: In one pay period I was averaging 80 hours a week.
James: People were working 12 hours a day because they were “necessary.” They were part of the refueling program. But who can make good decision when you’re working 12 hours a day? Everybody gets tired. You can’t go good work…. One time I was sent to Berkeley to be decontaminated at the Radiation Lab. I was setting a relief valve –checking it to see if it would work at a certain setting– and this plastic plug gave and I got squired. Got contaminated water in my nose.
Kevin: Then there’d be phone calls at night. They’d say “What do we do now?” And my subconscious would have to come up with an answer. My subconscious would have to make a decision. The next morning I wouldn’t even remember.