The story of Humboldt Bay Nuclear Plant is an expose of PG&E and an expose of nuclear regulation. It’s happening now. Its dangers and warnings are critical for the public to heed.
In 1970, a power outage caused the Humboldt Bay Nuclear Power Plant to malfunction. Using historic sources, we investigate whether this resulted in a leak of radioactive gases.
Unofficial transcript based on auto-transcript:
My name is Scott Rainsford .I was born in Iowa. I was a marine science technician in the United States Coast Guard initially four years active duty, followed by another 14 roughly years of Coast Guard Reserve when I came up here. As a marine science technician, my commanding officer in the Coast Guard Reserve sent me to the PG&E nuclear power plant in the year 1978 to see if I could update their contingency plan.
I went to the plant, I read their contingency plan, and after i had thoroughly read it i asked if they ever had a chance to use it. They replied, Well. as a matter of fact, yes we have.”
They brought out this report marked “confidential.”
When a nuclear plant is operating, there is a person in charge called a nuclear operator and he keeps a log of every important fact or issue that happens during his watch. There’s a time annotation and then what happened.
The report described an accident that happened on July 17, 1970. It just so happened that a man named Shiffer was there, and he was one of PG&E’s best and brightest. He was a senior nuclear operator. So seeing this crisis developed, he took command of the reactor. So the log that i was reading was his operational log.
This report described the following:
A maintenance crew from PG&E went to a local substation at an area called Mitchell Height, and they were going to do some maintenance on a high tension line. They believed that this high tension line was dead. Because of that, the maintenance crew opened an air circuit breaker. The result was a fireball which melted and damaged the whole circuit. That 60 000 volts was supplying outside power to PG&E’s unit number three.
The nuclear power plant when they lose outside power, down goes the feed water pumps that feed coolant water into the reactor. So we have an issue of overheating the core.
The next in line during this initial start of the emergency was a propane generator. Problem with this propane generator was that it did not provide enough power to supply the feed water pumps which would keep the reactor cool, and it also did not supply all the power necessary to run the instrumentation that the nuclear control operator needed to understand what was happening to the reactor so he had no idea how much coolant remained. So now, the nuclear operator is operating blind.
There were three units. The first two units were petroleum-based. The third unit was the only nuclear plant. When the nuclear plant is running, one of the other two units must be in operation and that is so that if the nuclear unit lost outside power, the other operating unit could supply emergency outside power to the nuclear unit. It failed because several months before, another maintenance crew had disconnected a cable in the switch yard and therefore, could not complete the circuit. The second major part of the fail-safe system failed. That piece of equipment was called an emergency condenser. What that is a compartment partially filled with water that functions similar to a car radiator. A valve that automatically is supposed to open from the reactor taking this out of specification pressure in the form of steam. It runs through a series of baffles in this emergency condenser which is partially filled with water. The steam is cooled, condensed back into water, and put back into the reactor core to keep it cool. The emergency condenser failed, because a valve would not open.
[NOTE: The emergency condenser (also known as an isolation condenser) shown in the video is an example of this equipment but an image of the one used at HBNPP was not available at the time the video was made.]
The next line of defense are pressure relief valves. They started lifting the problem with, that is, it’s venting steam from the reactor that’s overheating because of lack of coolant. So it takes that steam and strips it away from the reactor core. In the process, it’s removing more and more coolant water without being replaced. The coolant in the core is disappearing in the form of steam.
Mr Schiffer figured that out. He knew that a meltdown could occur if they uncovered the core. So he shut off the pressure relief valves.
Equipment started bursting. There were eight inch and a half thick high strength stainless steel pipe in place to provide instrumentation to find out what’s going on inside the core and eventually lead that information back to the control center, One of these pipes ruptured and increased the temperature and radioactivity of the dry well. In addition along the system there was a stainless steel baffle which also ruptured.
The plant is starting to come apart. There was abstract panic in the control room. Not enough crucial information was available. Mr Schiffer knew that the steam that was escaping through the pressure relief valves were stripping the core of its necessary coolant fluid at the rate of 400, 000 pounds per hour and happening faster. The reactor was out of control, so he started calling for help.
The first call he made was to Vallecitos research reactor in the San Francisco East Bay area. He asked, We have this situation. What do we do?
They did not have an answer. Immediately, he called the Dresden nuclear facility 30 miles outside of Chicago. They did not have an answer. They referred him to the United States military. He said the military, but I know what that means. The expertise in the field of nuclear power plants is the United States Navy because they operated nuclear powered submarines and later aircraft carriers, and they had a laboratory in Idaho called the Bettis Naval Research Center. More than likely, they would have been the ones that received Mr Schiffer’s call.
Time annotated were some of the instrumentation readings that he was able to get. For example, in this report, time annotated with a single number on one of his statements and that was to my memory 1220. The numbers were not labeled but I understood what 1220 was and that was the pressure which proved to whoever he was talking to in the Navy that the emergency condenser had failed.
Mr Schiffer called the Vallecito research reactor again and said, this is what the Navy has recommended, and this is their plan.
It doesn’t list all of what this plan was. It just said, I called Vallecito’s research reactor informing them of the Navy’s plan, excuse me, of the military’s plan. The Vallecito’s powers-that-be said that you better get permission from the home office at 245 Market Street in San Francisco PG&E’s headquarters to proceed with the Navy’s plan.
Next time annotated, called the home office of PG&E, inform them of the military’s plan. Do we have permission to proceed
Next statement: permission to proceed was granted.
One of the last things I read was that after the contact was made, the military clearly had Schiffer collect every bit of information that he could collect. At the end of that collection, they immediately activated the contingency plan, because they figured out that they had already uncovered the core.
The activation of the contingency plan would only occur if there was extreme danger. In the occurrence of the activation of the contingency plan, there are mandatory requirements by law that monitoring be done to establish where the radiation went and how bad the radiation was and i asked to see the results of that monitoring, and my request was denied. When the accident happened and the pressure relief valves lifted, dumping radioactive steam at high pressure into the pressure suppression pool at the rate of 800 gallons per minute, the emergency backup was to have eventually three systems replacing that coolant water. One was an emergency core spray system which according to the investigation revealed contributed very little water to the reactor core. The second method is uh 40 gallons per minute coming in from a control rod drive channel. So between the emergency core spray system and the 40 gallons from the control rod drive add up to 100 gallons or less per minute. So 800 going out, a hundred coming in. The third system is a low pressure emergency core flooding system which uses contaminated water only used in an emergency but in order for that system to work, pressure has to be quite low and the pressure is at least 1230 pounds per square inch and there are indications that it went way beyond 1235. So it’s not low enough pressure for that third system to work. And the hope was to add enough coolant to keep the core from a meltdown which would eventually happen once they knew that they had uncovered the core. They could not continue to allow the pressure relief valves to dump the pressure into the pressure suppression pool. So what the military told them to do was open a pressure relief valve in the shut-down cooling supply line which evacuated the pressure from the reactor core into the refueling building. The pressure is relieved from the reactor core into the refueling building. It’s loaded with highly contaminated particles and explosive hydrogen gas with the fans inside the refueling building down.
The air would be still, so what would happen is the contamination along with the hydrogen gas being lighter than air would float to the top of the refueling building where it would pool and concentrate also leading to a explosive situation. So the question is not could it have exploded. The question is, why didn’t it explode?
So I returned to my Coast Guard unit, intending on speaking with my commanding officer, because I recognize this was a major occurrence before his office. There was a line of people who outranked me. Before I could finish a single statement, they said, “We know, we know; the 12th Coast Guard District will handle it.” And I protested. I said, “No, this is serious.” They said, “Stop; the 12th Coast Guard District will handle this.”
So at that point, I dropped the issue. As time went on, I noticed that a lot of people that I knew were dying, and invariably I asked them, “Where did you go to school?” The vast majority said, “I grew up by the nuclear power plant. I went to South Bay Elementary School.”
So I started doing research. There was an article in Science magazine June 18, 1971 that called the PG&E Humboldt Bay reactor the dirtiest reactor in the country. So I started studying why it was the dirtiest, and the answer was that the first generation fuel rods that they used were clad in stainless steel and immediately they started failing. A cracked fuel rod would expose the coolant water in the reactor core direct access to the pellets made of uranium oxide. So that would eventually contaminate the entire plant.
A champion of the issues and publication of the problems at the Humboldt Bay nuclear power plant was one of their employees. He was a nuclear control technician by the name of Bob Rowen. Bob Rowen fired one month before this happened but he documented several problems at the plant, and one was that the radiation levels were becoming higher and higher and higher. And it was important to him because he and his fellow nuclear control technicians had to sample both the coolant water and the gaseous waste vapor coming off of the reactor core, and in the process they were being irradiated higher and higher levels. And he championed the installation of additional shielding to help protect them from the increasing levels of radiation. Seven of the monitoring stations had constant air monitors which would collect particulates that were being found throughout the region. Bob Rowen speaks of these as mystery particles. He identified them as extremely radioactive.
Because they believed that the spent fuel pool was leaking, the NRC said that one well was drilled and samples were taken from the ground water, and they found no contamination and in fact that is a statement designed to deceive. Groundwater comes off of Humboldt Hill. It goes from east to west and it would get to the Humboldt Bay nuclear power plant and push the irradiated water leaking from the spent fuel pool to the west into the bay. So if you had a well towards Humboldt Hill the groundwater would reach that well first, so if you took readings from that one well, that statement could be true.
One of Bob Rowen’s responsibilities was to sample not only within the reactor controlled area but outside the grounds. And he wrote me a letter saying that there was not one well; there were five wells and eventually all of these wells were contaminated from what they figured to be a 50 gallon per day leak from the spent fuel pool.
The spent fuel pool contains hundreds of fuel rods. These rods were already damaged. They gave direct access of the coolant to the fuel pellets, so this coolant water is heavily contaminated.
Also part of the factor of why Humboldt plant was so dirty in the amount of uh radiation released is that three times in the process of moving the fuel rod bundle, they dropped the bundle. On October 13, 1965, there was a dropping of the radiating fuel assembly in the reactor core. The assembly fell eight feet, damaging a core support plate. Six days later, it was dropped again June 11th of 1975, and a radiate fuel assembly was dropped six feet. It bounced and fell another 10 feet down into the spent fuel cast. So there’s a vast amount of contamination. I tried to get more information about this event, and i was thwarted several times. So i went to the Union of Concerned Scientists and they provided this document that contains about 160 pages of a description of this accident five days after this incident occurred. A investigation had been completed and the results of the investigation are contained in this report.
Five days after the event happened, a United States Congress Congressional committee examined what had happened. This congressional committee was bipartisan. It was composed of nine senators and nine federal representatives, four from each side of the aisle and then, the odd member would go towards the majority. The chairman was a man named Chester Hollyfield who was a friend of President Nixon. It’s clear that they decided they could not tell the American public that the military had to be called in to resolve this accident. It would be so embarrassing to the nuclear industry that the people in the United States would balk about having a reactor put in their backyard. It’s a certainty that this committee had to report to President Nixon.
You can see Nixon abdicating making to this committee, because he did not understand the aspects of nuclear power. We also have the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission Dr James Schlesinger.
“Many people in this country, because nuclear power is so destructive, are afraid of it. What we have to understand is that when you have such enormous power, let’s use it for peace. Let’s find a way to use it. And that of course is the future as far as this area is concerned: don’t be afraid of it, build it for peace if you’re going to have a clean and beautiful environment. In this country we have to have a new source of energy plentiful and clean, and we can have that new source of energy. The place to get it, one of the major places to get it, certainly is through the development of nuclear energy. That is why I made an announcement on June the 4th and that is that the United States was going to go forward in building a breeder reactor. Now don’t ask me what a breeder actor is. Ask Dr Schlesinger but don’t tell him not to tell you because unless you’re one of those PhD’s, you won’t understand that either but what i do know is this: that here we have the potentiality of a whole new breakthrough in the development of power for peace. I mentioned a moment ago how all of this business about breeder reactors and nuclear energy and stuff is over my that was one of my poorest subjects science and i got through it but i had to work too hard. I gave it up and i was about a sophomore.”
So essentially the joint committee on atomic energy had powers that no committee in the history of United States had. They could veto any law or bill posed by the remainder of Congress and any law that the states could pose to the nuclear industry. So they covered up what happened in this accident and this was not the only time that they did it. Another accident was the meltdowns of reactors at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory northwest of Los Angeles. As a result of these cover-ups finally in 1977, the United States Supreme Court abolished the joint committee on atomic energy. The problem, however, is this they stopped the abuses of this committee but they did not acknowledge the injuries to the people who suffered this contamination.
What they did is they compromised in their report — the end result of this incident was no appreciable amount of radiation was released — and I knew simply that that was not true i knew because of the fact that the military was involved which never was mentioned in the NRC’s report about the incident, that if they withheld that from the American public, they must have withheld a lot. And so, I looked at what could have created a much bigger catastrophe and I found it: PG&E company replaced the stainless steel-clad fuel rods with a rod commonly used by the American military clad in a material called zercoloy not long after this incident happened.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reported that there were seven failures in 52 fuel elements installed in July 1969, there were four failures in 42 fuel elements installed in May 1970 eight weeks before this incident happened, there were three failures in 56 fuel elements scheduled for removal, and it says in this report that all these failures were of fuel assemblies with zircoloy cladding. I found that in relation to the stainless steel fuel rods, the zircoloy rods were an absolute hero because these rods, both the stainless if they didn’t crack, and the zircoloy normally last at least four years, but we found in this report that some of these fuel rods only lasted eight weeks and the heroic zircoloy fuel rods have a shakespearean flaw: in the event of a loca loss of coolant accident, they rapidly break down in a process called hydrogen embrittlement. Zirconium, in a high heat situation, water in the form of steam reacts with zirconium and produces ZrO2 and hydrogen gas. Between six and seven percent of concentration of hydrogen gas in an oxygenated environment will burn. When the concentration reaches between 13 and 14, it detonates. To me it makes sense that they had to vent the reactor because large amounts of hydrogen gas were collecting.
I looked up the weather on that day. In the beginning, the wind was coming out of the north at six miles an hour. Any contamination coming out of the plant would first hit King Salmon within seconds, then within a minute or so, Fields Landing, and then three miles away. it would hit College of the Redwoods which was in session, then the wind shifted. By 10 o’clock, it came from the west blowing towards the east which would send it directly over South Bay Elementary School. At that speed, it would reach the school in 82 seconds.
Within the last six years, a study was done about cancer rates in Humboldt County. Dr Donald Baird confirmed as the county health service officer that the Humboldt Hill area is a high cancer rate region, and he believed that the reason it was such a high cancer rate area was because of the dioxin produced by the pulp mills. He said he would look into the effects of radiation and get back to me. He never did.
if you key that into the report of the incident that happened during the entire accident, they did not know where the coolant level fell to. They made an estimation according to their own physical equation. They came, according to their calculations, potentially within six inches of the reactor core.
I believe that’s a lie because of what happened to these zircoloy fuel rods. I believe that they uncovered the core which created the environment in which these fuel rods would fail because that is their primary method of premature failure.
There is a second method of proving that they uncovered the core and that is what the military’s response was to resolve the accident. When the military took over, it’s clear that the plan was to remove the pressure from the reactor and put it into the refueling building. From the control room, they sent a signal electronically for an emergency evacuation of the refueling building, but in the electrical chaos, they weren’t sure that that was working, so they sent a man named Leroy Marsh, who was training to be an assistant control operator, to personally inspect the refueling building. They entered the building, and he verified that there were no emergency alarms sounding but that everyone was out. He also verified that the constant air monitoring system were not working. He also verified that the charcoal filtration fans that are used to create a negative pressure system inside the refueling building were also not working because they were on outside power under normal operation. Powerful fans moved the air from the refueling building through these charcoal filtration systems in an effort
to lessen the amount of radioactive particles emitted to the public, so if you were to be inside the building and you wanted to leave, you would open a latch to a metal door and air would be sucked into that building because of the negative pressure created by this filtration system. But with this filtration system down, that pressure inside the building would equalize with the pressure outside the building. The pressure inside the refueling building is now higher than outside, and so it’s going to tend to leak.
There’s a lot of ways that radiation could escape. You have doors that people go in and out but you also have doors large enough for a railroad train to go through into the building when they want to pick up spent fuel rods. The stacks that usually emit the normal amount of radiation through the gaseous waste stack — those monitoring devices were on emergency power but the fan necessary to move the air samples through these radiation measuring devices were on outside power, so when they lost outside power, they also failed.
So there is cross verification that the reactor core was uncovered. One way was the destruction of the new zircalloy-clad fuel rods and the actions that they took to dump the gaseous pressure from the reactor core into the refueling building so that the explosive hydrogen gas did not build up in the pressure suppression pool. The two actions cross verify, so it’s no longer a belief that they uncovered the core. It’s a fact.
One element of PG&E’s attempt at deception is their intent on restarting the reactor after only a day and a half. In fact, that is not possible. When a reactor is shut down, a large amount of xenon-135 is produced. Xenon-135 is a neutron poison more effective than the boron control rods that control nuclear fission. So the earliest that the reactor could have been restarted is minimum 60 to 72 hours, and therefore, PG&E’s claim to be able to restart the reactor within a day and a half is a clear attempt to deceive the public about how severe this accident was.
PG&E corporation decided to decommission the plant when an earthquake fault was discovered called the Little Salmon Fault that went very close to the nuclear power plant. The seismic upgrade of the reactor would cost approximately 300 million dollars. It was deemed not financially feasible to upgrade the plant so they decided to decommission the plant about 1976. Finding the fault was the best thing that could have happened to PG&E. I believe that because of this accident that happened in 1970, so much pressure was generated, so much
damage was created inside the plant, that there were leaks and constant breaks all the time. And so it was a blessing to PG&E, because they did not have to explain why it was so expensive to operate the plant.
My goal in this expose is to save lives when my friends in the community started dying a whole list of cancers at what appears to me a remarkable rate. I believe that the high level of contaminants since the very beginning of the operation of the plant which opened in 1963 up through 1976 including this accident contributed to the death and suffering of the local community. Within the last five years, a study was done about cancer rates in the state of California. Of the 58 counties in California, Humboldt County ranks number three, having the third lowest cancer survival rate in the state. The report looked at why this was. They decided it was not a factor of how early the diagnosis was made. Why am i bringing this up? This accident happened 49 years ago. A first grader in South Bay Elementary School they’d be 54 now. A sixth grader would be about 60. Their immune system is breaking down because of aging, and if cancer hasn’t hit them already, they’re going to get hit really hard now.
My hope had been that Humboldt County could have been included in Senate Bill 947 proposed by Senator Crapo of Idaho and House Bill 3783. Those bills were designed to compensate people for radiation exposure due to surface nuclear detonation testing in Nevada. In October of last year, I went to Idaho to meet with Senator Crapo to provide the information of what happened here and the failure of Congress to protect the people in Humboldt County by issuing an amendment to his bill. Unfortunately this is a time of impeachment, and Senator Crapo is on the Senate Judiciary Committee, so he could not meet with me. I did meet with his staff. Not a lot of information was passed except for the investigative packets that I’ve spread throughout this country in the hope of getting the truth out about what happened here. They ignored my request, and the bills have failed now.
We live in the age of COVID19. So why is it so important now? The children that were living on Humboldt Hill, King Salmon, Field Landing, the students at College of Redwoods and particularly the children at South Bay Union Elementary School, Their immune system has already been taxed by this radiation exposure and now it’s going to be taxed again by COVID 19. Things need to be done now to help these people out so that they won’t be a fatality of today.
When I became a federal officer, I took an oath, and that oath was to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of United States against all enemies foreign and domestic but part of that Constitution is the right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What Congress has done and allowed to have happen here is deprive the people of this community their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. People who do not have health care benefits, what do they do here now? When they come down with cancer, do they just die? They need to be compensated now, not 10 years from now.
(Note: There are a couple of errors in the images used by the videographers)