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Karl Santone

Karl Santone was interviewed on September 3, 2021 by Patience Stuart and Kevin Taylor of AECOM for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' SM-1A Nuclear Reactor decommissioning project. The interview was conducted over the telephone with Karl being at his home in Gordonsville, Virginia, Patience in Portland, Oregon, and Kevin in Greenville, South Carolina. In this interview, Karl talks about working at the SM-1A nuclear plant at Fort Greely from 1960 to 1962, the training he received, day-to-day operations of the facility, the lifestyle at this remote base, and having received a possible overexposure to radiation. Karl also talks about public and military views on the use of nuclear power, other work he did for the military, and going to law school.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2021-05-01

Project: Cold War in Alaska
Date of Interview: Sep 3, 2021
Narrator(s): Karl Santone
Interviewer(s): Patience Stuart, Kevin Taylor
Transcriber: Rev Transcription Services, Kelsey Tranel
Location of Interview:
Location of Topic:
Funding Partners:
Alaska Historical Commission, Alaska Humanities Forum, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Alternate Transcripts
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There is no slideshow for this person.

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Introduction and personal background

Coming to work at the SM-1A nuclear reactor, and training he received

Size of training cohort, specialization and working as an operator and health physicist

Conducting radiochemistry tests at Fort Greely

Day-to-day activities at SM-1A, and life on base

Having military guards at the SM-1A facility, and working at SM-1 facility

Refueling process, and getting overexposed to radiation

Working on the deactivation of a reactor in Greenland, and transporting spent fuel casks

Other military duties after leaving the Army's nuclear program, and becoming a lawyer

Camaraderie and social life among team members at SM-1A, and people he worked with

Reaction from family and friends to working at a nuclear reactor in Alaska, and general views about the use of nuclear power

Being in an elite group in the military, and working with smart people

Cold temperatures at Fort Greely

Overexposure to radiation and medical monitoring

Concluding thoughts

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Patience Stuart: All right, today is September 3rd, 2021. This is an oral history interview with Karl Santone, who was a former operator at the SM-1A reactor facility at Fort Greely, Alaska. We are conducting this interview over the phone. We have two interviewers and one narrator. So just briefly, we'll state our names and current locations, and then we'll get started. I am Patience Stuart. I'm a historian, and I'm calling from Portland, Oregon. Kevin?

Kevin Taylor: And this is Kevin Taylor. I am a nuclear engineer and health physicist calling from Greenville, South Carolina.

Patience Stuart: And Karl.

Karl Santone: Karl Santone. I'm retired military, retired attorney. Former operator at the SM-1A. And I'm talking from my home in Gordonsville, Virginia.

Patience Stuart: Great, thank you. I think that's the most formal, official part of the interview, so I hope that everyone can just feel like we're having a conversation from here.

What is -- As we document the interview on the website, what is the -- your full name as you would like it seen? Karl Santone: Karl L. Santone, and you can just call me Karl. Patience Stuart: Okay, great.

And could you state the dates that you worked at SM-1A?

Karl Santone: I believe it was from 1960, probably in about January or February, until 1962. I was only there for 18 months. I was the only single member of the crew, and so my tour was for 18 months, as opposed to 2 years for everybody else.

Patience Stuart: And what rank or title did you have while you were there?

Karl Santone: I was a specialist six, and I had -- I had volunteered to go to Fort Greely.

Patience Stuart: Could you tell us a little about the series of events that -- that brought you there?

Karl Santone: I had applied to the Army Nuclear Power Program and was accepted in the class of 59-2, which started in September of 1959. The academic course and training course was combined, about a year in length. And I worked at the SM-1 for about 6 months after I graduated from the school. And that was when I then went up to Fort Greely, as -- My training was in operations, and also I was a health physics specialist.

Patience Stuart: Could you tell us a little bit more about the training process of SM-1? If you remember.

Karl Santone: Probably not. Bear in mind, this was over 60 years ago. And uh -- Although, I do recall what I had for breakfast, don't ask me what I ate yesterday morning for breakfast.

Patience Stuart: That is fine. Yeah. You don't have to answer anything you don't want to.

Karl Santone: Yeah, I'm now 84 years old and I've done a lot since I was with the reactor program. So, basically, the academic course was some physics, some math, a lot of technical subjects. We were all enlisted men, and virtually none of us had any college to speak of. I think I had about a year at that time. So we were taught by -- actually most of them were West Point graduates, they were captains and majors, who were assigned to the nuclear power program, and they taught the classes, the technical classes.

The operator training, of course, was done by previous graduates from the operator course. The officers who taught the classes probably didn't know that much about actually operating a reactor. They could tell you what some of the formulas were, but how to apply them was beyond them.

Patience Stuart: Sounds like it was necessary to have the multi-part then, have some graduates of the program that were part of your training. Karl Santone: Right.

Patience Stuart: Do you remember how -- how big the group was in your training cohort? Karl Santone: Our class was probably about 45 to 50 people.

Patience Stuart: Okay. And then, do you recall how many of you were --

Karl Santone: We had some who dropped out, and we had one poor guy who died of a heart attack. The reactor was at the bottom of a very long hill, the classrooms were at the top of the hill, and we'd have to go back and forth. He was considerably overweight, and unfortunately, halfway up the hill one day he just collapsed and died. Patience Stuart: Oh, wow. That's quite tragic.

Karl Santone: And then a few people did drop out of the program, or flunked out.

Patience Stuart: Do you recall how -- Oh, go ahead, Kevin.

Kevin Taylor: I was just going to ask Karl, if he -- while he was at SM-1, if he was an operator there as well, or if he just did his training there and then transferred.

Karl Santone: I was an operator there, and then also worked as a health physicist. Kevin Taylor: Okay.

Karl Santone: Everybody had cross-training. There were specialties in, I think it was electronics, mechanics, electrical, and health physics. And not being very mechanically inclined, I opted for health physics.

Patience Stuart: What were some of the duties associated with that, with being a health physicist?

Karl Santone: Run chemical analyses of the water in both primary and secondary systems, decontamination, and just generally looking for purple rolls.

Kevin Taylor: Karl, are you aware that the decommission process for the SM-1 reactor has started?

Karl Santone: Yes, I'm -- I'm part of their stakeholder group on that one, too. I keep getting updates on it. Kevin Taylor: Okay, great.

Karl Santone: It's kind of depressing that most of the places I've worked are now museums. Before I went to the reactor program I was in Berlin. And we -- This has been declassified now, so I can talk about it. We dug a tunnel under the east Berlin border and tapped into the telephone lines between Berlin and Moscow. And that has now become part of the spy museum in Washington.

Patience Stuart: Oh, wow. Kevin Taylor: Wow, that's amazing.

Patience Stuart: So you said that -- that your group was about 40 to 45 people. Do you recall how many of you were sent to Fort Greely?

Karl Santone: I was the only one in my class who went to Fort Greely. Everybody else was in a previous class.

Patience Stuart: When you got there, was there additional training or did you just jump into --

Karl Santone: Well, it was still under construction at that time, so there couldn't be much training, obviously. Once the construction was complete there was some additional operator training. And before that, there were supposed to be some radiochemistry tests conducted to form baseline for the later studies. Unfortunately, Peter Kiewit, who was the construction contractor, didn't have anybody to do the health physics study -- radiochemistry study, sorry. And so I was asked to do that, and I did. So I spent probably a week or two doing radiochemistry to establish baseline data.

I also worked with one of the -- with a warrant officer who was assigned there, helping him put together an after-action report and a manual for the operation of the reactor.

Kevin Taylor: When you say you were doing radiochemistry to establish baseline, were you looking at environmental baselines? Or other factors?

Karl Santone: No, the fluids that were in the reactor itself. The -- Once they activated the primary system and the secondary systems, they took samples of the water that they were using, and then I -- I did studies on those.

Kevin Taylor: Okay. Tell us a little bit about the -- Karl Santone: (inadudible crosstalk)

Kevin Taylor: Can you tell us a little bit about the construction, and when you got there, and the state of construction, and -- and what you -- what you did as far as that's -- You know, in between the time from construction to startup?

Karl Santone: Yeah, I really just don't recall. Sorry. Kevin Taylor: Okay. Karl Santone: Sorry. Patience Stuart: That's fine.

Karl Santone: Many, many years, long before you were born, probably. Kevin Taylor: Yes, sir.

Patience Stuart: So, once the reactor was up and operating, could you tell us what you remember about your day-to-day activities?

Karl Santone: Generally, just operation and reactor. Our training had been on the SM-1, which, of course, was very similar. But on the SM-1 we did scram exercises, and, you know, put in bugs in the system and then tried to correct them and so forth. Once we got to the SM-1A, its function was to operate and provide electricity for the base and some of the surrounding community at certain times.

So, essentially, you sat there and watched dials, as opposed to being physically involved with doing a lot of the operating. Once the reactor was up and providing steam, the generator started running, and you sat there and watched it. It was very boring.

Kevin Taylor: The reactor that time was also providing direct steam to heat the base and run the laundry, is that correct?

Karl Santone: I don't remember that at all. I remember reading about it, but I -- see I was there for just a couple of months after the reactor -- after the system was up and running. My time ran out, and I wasn't about to stay any longer than necessary. Being a single man in Fort Greely is -- is -- was not pleasant. I think I had one date the whole time I was there. There were no single women.

Patience Stuart: What -- Other than that, what was it like living up there? Did you live on base? Or in --

Karl Santone: Yeah, I was on base, I lived in the barracks. Fortunately, I had a private room. But there really wasn't much to do. They had a very good library, and I read extensively.

I used to go fishing, ice fishing in the winter and down to Valdez in the summer and spring. But, you know, when you had to drive 100 or 50 miles to Fairbanks for any night life, you didn't go very often.

Patience Stuart: It's pretty quiet up there. Do you remember the initial startup of the reactor?

Karl Santone: No, I don't. Patience Stuart: Okay.

Karl Santone: I'm not even sure I was on -- you know, they tried to limit the number of people in the control room, obviously. And everybody wanted to be there, but we had to draw straws for times when we were allowed in, and watch somebody with a good deal more experience actually do the work.

Patience Stuart: How many people were on the shifts on a normal day?

Karl Santone: About three. Patience Stuart: Okay.

Karl Santone: Interestingly enough, we had two guards, which I found very strange. Two young enlisted men who provided security for the reactor. Not that we needed much, we were on an Army base. But I always found that strange. We never had much security at the SM-1.

Kevin Taylor: I participated in several of these interviews with -- with operators from the SM-1, and that was -- you know, we were discussing, you know, all the activity that went on there with the training, and -- and all the instructors and everything. So once you got to SM-1A, it seems like it was pretty quiet?

Karl Santone: Yes, because, you know, there -- that wasn't that much activity. And then when I left the SM-1A, I went back to the SM-1, and became an operator shift supervisor there. And, of course, there was a lot more activity. So most of my memories are with the SM-1, putting bugs in the system and teaching a new crop of students how to react and how to correct the situation.

I did go back to the SM-1A, I think it was in 1964. I'm not sure. It was the first refueling, and they were having some problems. And I was sent back up for some ungodly reason. I helped with the fuel and got overdosed once, but -- And that was the end of my participation up there.

Patience Stuart: Could you tell us -- Kevin Taylor: Can you tell us -- Go ahead.

Patience Stuart: I was just going to say, could you explain the refueling process to us?

Karl Santone: Yeah, you just -- the primary system was open and depressurized completely, the lip is removed, and then you manually took out fuel rods.

Unfortunately -- as I recall, I think the one that caused me to be overexposed was a little bit difficult to get out, and it moved more than it should have. And I think I got three rems, which has never caused me any problems. I -- I -- You know, it probably isn't that much. The poor guys in Idaho got a lot more than that. I'm sure you know about the SL-1 incident.

Kevin Taylor: Yes, sir. Patience Stuart: Yes.

Karl Santone: So -- And then, the only other contact I had with -- with the reactor program, once I got back down to the SM-1, I worked there for a little while as a shift supervisor, and then went into the administrative side of things.

About that time, they were deactivating the reactor in Greenland, and they were going to bring the fuel back to the United States. I helped with the design and construction of the casks, the spent fuel casks, that were manufactured in Baltimore.

And I went up there about twice a week for a good 3 months working on the casks, and then I escorted this spent fuel back from Greenland, from Thule, back to the United States on a liberty ship.

It was kind of amusing, because we hit some really bad weather, and the fuel casks were up on the deck of the liberty ship. They didn't put them in the hold. And we hit rough weather and the fuel casks were bouncing around, and the captain told me I didn't need to worry about it because everything was fine, they had a good strong deck.

And he says, "By the way, how much do the fuel casks weigh?" And I say -- told him that each one of them weighed seven tons. And he turned kind of pale, and they tightened them down a little bit. They didn't bounce around on the deck any more.

Kevin Taylor: Did you have any other experience with -- with the Sturgis, or any of the other nuclear reactors?

Karl Santone: No, I was never on the Sturgis. A lot of my friends were. I saw it from a distance in Mobile once. I was on my way to OCS (Officer Candidate School). I had left the program, and I was visiting some friends who were on the Sturgis and I saw it from a distance, but that was about it. I didn't have any involvement with it.

Patience Stuart: For the purpose of the recording, and because a lot of the people that will listen to it may know very little about reactors, do you think you could describe the process?

Karl Santone: I think I would embarrass myself if I tried at this point. It's just been too long. I've done a great deal in between. And I just -- I don't think I'd be a good source to try to explain it to anybody. Patience Stuart: Okay.

Kevin Taylor: Tell us about how your experience in the -- our reactor program, you know, where did that -- where did that take you? What did you gain from that, and how did it help you in your -- as you advanced in your career and your -- and your life?

Karl Santone: Actually, it didn't. It had no impact on anything I did after I left the program. I went to OCS at Fort Benning, and then I got assigned to Germany. From there, I went to Vietnam. From Vietnam, I went to Iran. And after I went to Air Command and Staff College, for some reason, I don't know why, I'm Army, not Air Force, I was assigned to CINCLANT (Commander in Chief, Atlantic), and I got a feeling that the government was trying to tell me something.

So I retired and went to law school. I've worked as a trial lawyer for 30 years. I never had any further contact with anything. I did keep in touch with one or two people in the program, and some of them, because of the -- I don't know if you know about the nuclear support service company that was formed by some of the former members?

Kevin Taylor: Yes.

Karl Santone: It's now defunct, and I was an investor and lost a bunch. But other than that, I think the only people I've kept in contact with at all were Ed Fedol. He may be a good source for you to talk to. And Charlie Harmon, of course.

The officer in charge of the SM-1A, we ran into each other in Vietnam and had lunch. He was an aide to General Abrams and I was an aide to General Williamson, who was CG (Commanding General) of the 25th Division. So we met and talked briefly about the reactor group. And then I ran into him again in 19 -- I guess it was '73. I had come back to the States to go to Command and General Staff College, and he was at the Assistant Commandant at Fort Belvoir. And I saw him again briefly then. But other than that, I've not kept in touch with anybody in the program.

Patience Stuart: You had mentioned previously that you were the youngest member of the first team of operators at SM-1A. Karl Santone: Yeah. Patience Stuart: Do you remember much about the culture and camaraderie among the team?

Karl Santone: Friday night happy hours were a biggie, but other than that there was not -- not a lot of -- The -- the other people were all married and they had social lives, that, obviously, being a young bachelor, I wasn't included that often. So I really don't know.

Have you talked to any of the other people from the SM-1A? I don't know if -- Many of them probably I know are not still alive. Sergeant Hildreth, I know, died. He was the senior NCO (Non-commissioned Officer). Ernie Audet and Dick Schoults.

Some of the people I met at a reunion about 30 years ago, but I -- the reunions are getting -- becoming pretty slim. So many of the people came into the program after I left, I don't even know them.

Patience Stuart: Those are -- None of those names are people that we've talked to. We've -- I've spoken with George Shaw, who was in the first group of Alaska civilian operators that were trained. Bill Hellums and David Applebee.

Karl Santone: None of those names are familiar to me at all. Patience Stuart: Okay. And then -- Karl Santone: So they came after me, I guess.

Patience Stuart: And then Kevin, I know you've previously talked to Billy Joe Foreman and Frank Faulkner. Do those names sound familiar? Kevin Taylor: That's correct.

Karl Santone: Faulkner, might be -- he may have been one of my students at the SM-1.

Kevin Taylor: I recall that was -- one of the gentlemen I spoke with that was at SM-1 who mentioned that he too was the youngest in a particular group, and he was the only bachelor. But, I guess in Virginia, things were a little easier, and -- and the married men were always trying to set him up with other women. But as you mentioned earlier, there weren't a whole in Delta Junction to date.

Karl Santone: The young lady that I dated was Ms. Delta Junction, which was not difficult because she was the only one in contention.

Patience Stuart: So, when you told your family and friends that you were headed to Alaska, to the, you know, the middle of nowhere in Alaska to run a nuclear reactor, what did they think?

Karl Santone: I'm from a military family, so nobody thought anything about it. I had lived in Korea as a child when my father was assigned there. That was the end of the world, too, at that time. We left Korea on the second evacuation before the war started. So my going to Alaska was no big deal to any of 'em.

Patience Stuart: Did it feel like a big deal to you?

Kevin Taylor: I guess -- I guess the fact that you were working in nuclear power, they didn't have -- you know, there was no -- didn't have any issues with that. Or any of your family members, were they worried?

Karl Santone: I'm not sure they even understood what it was. They're not terribly sophisticated. And it didn't bother any of them, the fact that I was working with radiation.

Patience Stuart: Do you remember much about the popular opinion about nuclear power during that time?

Karl Santone: No, there didn't seem to be. There was one lady at Fort Belvoir, she lived on the other side of Gunston Cove from the SM-1, and she kept complaining that the radiation was causing the paint on her house to blister and peel off. Everybody thought that was pretty funny. But there were no protests against nuclear power or anything like that.

Kevin Taylor: I've actually heard about that lady before, I think she also complained about her flowers dying and things like that.

Karl Santone: She was quite a nutcase, yes.

Patience Stuart: Was there much said on the --

Karl Santone: I'm assuming she's not around anymore.

Patience Stuart: Was there much said come from the -- the other angle? Was nuclear power being promoted widely?

Karl Santone: Well, we in the military certainly thought it would be a good thing, because of the, you know, the problem -- having to transport fuel to these out of the way places. You know, huge numbers of barrels of oil and so forth. Yeah, we thought it would be a pretty good deal.

And it was a -- a pretty good deal for enlisted military, too. You were kind of a special group. You had to go through a rigorous selection process. So, yeah, we -- we were pretty proud of ourselves, but didn't have that much to do with the nuclear reactor in that respect.

Kevin Taylor: It's a pretty elite, intellectually elite, group to be a part of.

Karl Santone: Right, yeah. They were pretty bright people. The were -- You know, I must admit, some of them were absolutely brilliant. A guy named Lee Taylor, for example. I don't know -- You're not related, I assume. But Lee D. Taylor was probably the smartest person I've ever met. And very humble. You'd never know it.

Patience Stuart: Did you know him at Belvoir, Fort Belvoir?

Karl Santone: At SM-1, yeah. Patience Stuart: At SM-1. Yeah? Karl Santone: But he was not on the SM-1A. Patience Stuart: So if we --

Kevin Taylor: Any unusual events other -- other than your mishap with the -- the refueling that you recall? Any -- anything that kind of made you pause while you were either at SM-1 or SM-1A, and made you think that this wasn't for you?

Karl Santone: No, it was -- it was much colder at Fort Greely, than I had anticipated. I did get frostbite. But then I had problems in Vietnam, too. I got jungle rot on my feet, as well, there. So, my podiatrist gets a big kick out of the fact that I'm the only one she's ever treated who had both frostbite and jungle rot.

Kevin Taylor: You did say you arrived there in January or December, and I've -- I've been there at those times, and it's -- Karl Santone: Yeah. It's very cold. Kevin Taylor: It's quite a shock.

Karl Santone: 67 below for a week there straight, and I thought, good lord, what have I gotten into? But you adapt.

But, no, I just -- I got bored with the power program itself. I thought I could do better, and did. So --

Kevin Taylor: So you left the power program, you did not -- you did not make any transition out of the nuclear power program to the Army's power program when they started focusing more on the -- on diesel power generation?

Karl Santone: Hell, no. Kevin Taylor: Okay. Okay. Patience Stuart: You had moved on.

Karl Santone: And I went to infantry OCS just in time for the Vietnam build-up. Power was the least of my concerns at that time.

Patience Stuart: Now, you had mentioned that you had an overexposure during the refueling, and you said you got three shots. Could you just talk a little bit about what -- what that all means? Explain how an overexposure would occur, and then what -- what would be done. How it was monitored and what was done about it?

Karl Santone: Well, we were wearing dosimeters at the time, and the dosimeter just exceeded its capability, so we never really knew exactly how much of an overexposure we had. It was estimated at about three rems.

But, you know, we were followed carefully after that with body scans and so forth. But, I never had any repercussions from it. My wife jokes that that's the reason we don't have children. I don't think so.

Patience Stuart: Were the body scans done at SM-1A?

Karl Santone: Oh no, that has to be done at -- I think it was Walter Reed. No, maybe it was the naval hospital in D.C. But it was pretty much hushed up. Nobody really wanted to talk about it. And I, you know, therefore, probably shouldn't talk about it now.

Patience Stuart: Okay. Do you have any other memories about things that happened while you were at SM-1A?

Karl Santone: Not really. I'm sorry that I can't be more help to you, but you should’ve called me 50 years ago. You know, now that I'm in my mid-'80s, as I said, you know, your short-term memory goes. The long-term memory is supposed to be better, but not that long term.

Patience Stuart: Kevin, do you have any additional questions?

Kevin Taylor: I do not. I just thank Karl for his participation and his service in the -- service to our country. Seems like you had a very long -- long service and certainly appreciate that.

Karl Santone: You're welcome. I'm sorry I couldn't be more help.

Patience Stuart: I think this was incredibly helpful. It was really great to hear about your experiences. And if there's anything else you'd like to share, please -- please do. But I think we've got a lot of good information.

Karl Santone: Well, do you want a puppy? After I retired from practicing law -- actually while I was still practicing law, my wife and I formed a rescue group for the local shelters where we live. There are five of them that were putting down dogs and cats right and left. And in the last, well, it was -- for 20 years we took out 6,000 dogs and cats and found them homes. And I've still got a few left if you want one.

Patience Stuart: Wow.

Kevin Taylor: Well, I appreciate that as well, as the owner of a rescue dog, but I think one's enough for me right now.

Karl Santone: You don't want any of my pit bulls, huh?

Kevin Taylor: No, thanks. I appreciate it though.

Karl Santone: Okay, well thanks for asking me to participate. I -- I hope you can get something out of it, but be sure to clean it up.

Patience Stuart: Absolutely. I'll be in contact with you after the interview to make sure that you get a copy of the recording, and we'll put together a short bio for you to add to the juke digest -- Or, sorry, the -- the Project Jukebox website. Karl Santone: Okay.

Patience Stuart: Okay, well thank you so much for your time. We'll go ahead -- Karl Santone: You're welcome. Patience Stuart: -- and end the interview now. Thank you. Karl Santone: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Patience Stuart: Bye. Kevin Taylor: Bye-bye. Thank you, sir. Bye.