2014-10-16 / Front Page

A last remaining survivor recalls field lab’s nuclear meltdown

Santa Susana disaster one of the nation’s worst
By Stephanie Bertholdo


DANGER—Pace runs the reactor just prior to its meltdown. 
Courtesy of John Pace DANGER—Pace runs the reactor just prior to its meltdown. Courtesy of John Pace John Pace was a teenager—just 19 years old—when he showed up for what he thought would be a normal day at work on July 13, 1959 at Atomics International in Simi Valley.

Instead, Pace experienced the meltdown at the Santa Susana Field Lab, a nuclear event that is still considered among the worst in U.S. history.

More than 50 years later, the community is still grappling with how to clean up the site—once and for all.

Atomics International and Rocketdyne were two separate divisions of North American Aviation and together they operated the field lab in the hills above Simi Valley.

Atomics International used the field lab to build and operate the first commercial nuclear power plant in the United States.

Pace, who was a reactor operator and mechanic for Atomics International in 1959, was a guest speaker at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center Oct. 1 for an event hosted by the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Work Group, an alliance of concerned citizens, elected officials, scientists and academics working toward a full cleanup of the site, which they believe is still contaminated.


CALM BEFORE THE STORM—Workers overlook the field lab’s sodium reactor during the late 1950s. 
Courtesy of John Pace CALM BEFORE THE STORM—Workers overlook the field lab’s sodium reactor during the late 1950s. Courtesy of John Pace Speaking in a separate interview with The Acorn, Pace recalled that he arrived at work about one-half hour after the meltdown began, and it was an experience he says he will never forget.

Pace’s crew were at the scene and working furiously to shut the reactor down.

“I was looking at the men, and they had scared looks on their faces,” he said. “I heard everything— the crew was white around the gills. That scared me too.”

As panic spread, Pace was asked to tape off the door between the control room and another area in the building where the reactor was housed in order to minimize the radiation leakage.

To this day, Pace remembers some of his crew asking management if they could tell their families about the incident. They were told no.

“Tears came to their eyes,” Pace said. “It was a very traumatic thing. Radiation that was let out of the reactor went right over their homes and the homes of their neighbors.”

Pace relived the frantic moments— just seconds—before the meltdown.

“(Workers) kept trying normal procedures and that didn’t work,” he said. “The reactor would not react to . . . normal procedures. . . . It came down to—when nothing was working—seconds (before) the reactor would blow up.”

Pace said if the reactor had exploded the disaster would have been even worse.

“In the last minutes and seconds, the only thing they had left to do was let all the radiation out of the reactor in the hope it would shut down,” Pace said. “It went straight out. There was no room in the holding tanks and (the radiation) went out over the east end of Simi Valley and the entire San Fernando Valley.”

The radiation, he said, was leaking out from the reactor stack like an exhaust pipe on a car. “Radiation was allowed to go out that door 24/7,” Pace said. “It came out through holding tanks or through the stack on the reactor.”

During the two weeks after the reactor was shut down, Pace and his crew attempted to store the radiation in holding tanks, but eventually there wasn’t enough room. Radiation was released into the atmosphere and deposited wherever the wind blew it.

“All this radiation was going out into the air,” he said. “One of my duties . . . was to check which way the wind was blowing before the radiation was released. I only knew when it went straight out. I have no record to say which way (the radiation) went when it was released. It could have been in any direction when it came out of tanks after the accident. We were keeping records at time, but (those) records are long gone.”

Cover-up?

Pace said the Atomics International management promised to release information to the public, but that the first account of the accident didn’t occur until almost two months later when an article appeared in the Van Nuys Valley News.

The newspaper ran what apparently was a sanitized press release from Atomics International, an account of the incident that differed greatly from Pace’s first-hand experience.

“No release of radioactive materials to the plant or its environs occurred and operating personnel were not exposed to harmful conditions,” the newspaper article said.

Pace said 13 fuel elements in the reactor had melted, yet it was reported that only one had melted.

He said he kept quiet about the incident for 20 years.

“I never said a word."

He eventually decided to tell his story.

The aftermath

Pace said it took Atomics International two weeks to determine what had gone wrong with the reactor. A sodium pump had malfunctioned and helped cause the reactor to melt and nearly explode.

Ukraine’s 1986 Chernobyl incident is still considered the world’s worst nuclear accident. Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island accident in 1979 is deemed the worst in American history.

Pace, who is now 75 years old and lives in Idaho, said he is the last survivor of the Santa Susana crew with whom he worked. He said the radiation exposure has led to a variety of personal health issues, including lung problems and skin cancer.

Hundreds of cancer cases from Oak Park to the West San Fernando Valley are said to be linked to the accident, but the exact number will never be known.

Abe Weitzberg of Woodland Hills, an expert in the field of nuclear engineering for more than 50 years and a senior engineer for Atomics International in the early '60s, said Pace's version of the events is overblown.

Weitzberg said the reactor was never in danger of exploding.

“If the (radioactive) doses were really high they would have closed down the reactor immediately and evacuated,” said Weitzberg, who believes the pollution that remains at the site today is primarily the fallout from Cold War nuclear weapons testing, not the radioactive gases that leaked from the reactor.

“The use of ‘meltdown’ is a pejorative term meant to scare people,” he said. “The only thing that got out were noble (fission) gases that went into the air and dispersed. Almost all of the contamination remaining on the site is chemical, not radiological.”

Pace ended his interview on an ironic note.

He said the motto of Atomics International in those days was simple.

“Your safety is our business,” the company proclaimed.

Despite the Santa Susana event, Atomics International remains credited with a number of innovations in the design, construction and operation of American nuclear reactors.

Today, various agencies are still trying to decide the best method for cleaning up the soil at the field lab and surrounding areas.


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