William E. "Bill" Hellums was interviewed on September 9, 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 Bill at his home in Daly City, California, Patience in Portland, Oregon, and Kevin in Greenville, South Carolina. In this interview, Bill talks about his experiences working at the SM-1A nuclear power plant at Fort Greely, Alaska. He talks about the training he received, his job duties as an operator and health physicist, and accidental leaks, radiation exposure, and contamination. He also talks about living on base with his family and how much he enjoyed the Alaska lifestyle of fishing and hunting, and tells stories of some of his adventures.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Cold War in Alaska
Date of Interview: Sep 9, 2021
Narrator(s): William "Bill" Hellums
Interviewer(s): Patience Stuart, Kevin Taylor
Transcriber: Rev Transcription Services, Kelsey Tranel
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Going to work at SM-1A nuclear reactor on the refueling
Transporting the fuel containers from Fort Greely, Alaska to the Lower 48 for processing
Attending the Army Nuclear Power Program training, and working as a trainer or in nuclear power plants
Enjoying the Alaska lifestyle, and living on base with a wife and family
Day-to-day activities on the job
Responding to a leak and radiation exposure
Identifying an out-building as storage for demineralizer
Handling environmental samples and protecting the laboratory from contamination
Providing steam heat for the base
Nuclear training program at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and why he chose to enter the program
Working as a health physicist and environmental monitor on the ship, Sturgis
Other work he did as a nuclear consultant, and teaching others about emergency planning and how to respond to accidents
Nuclear power plant decommissioning projects
Views on nuclear power in the 1960s and 1970s
Culture and camaraderie of the Army Nuclear Power Program, and status of completing the program
Impact of of working at SM-1A on the rest of his career, and the importance of the Alaska experience on him personally
Alaska stories: falling through the ice; roping a moose
Radioactive water in the Tanana River
Use of radiation meters, and chasing a leak in freezing temperatures
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Patience Stuart: Okay. Today is September 9th, 2021. This is an oral history interview with William or Bill E. Hellums, who was a former operator at the SM-1A nuclear reactor facility at Fort Greeley, Alaska. We are conducting this interview virtually over the phone today. We have two interviewers and one narrator. I am one of the interviewers, I'm Patience Stuart. I'm a historian and I am calling from Portland, Oregon. Kevin, we'll go to you next.
Kevin Taylor: Yes, hi. This is Kevin Taylor. I'm a health physicist and nuclear engineer calling from Greenville, South Carolina.
Patience Stuart: And Bill?
Bill Hellums: I'm William E. Hellums, known as Bill, and I'm in -- where am I? Daly City, California, and ready to talk.
Patience Stuart: Great. Is William E. Hellums the name that we should document for the interview? On the website?
Bill Hellums: Well, at this time, yeah -- Let's just call me Bill. It'll make it easy.
Patience Stuart: Okay. Alright. Well, we can certainly call you Bill during the conversation, but if you'd like the official name on the recorded interview, we can do that, as well.
Bill Hellums: No. It's not going to make any difference.
Patience Stuart: Okay. And what timeframe did you work at SM-1A?
Bill Hellums: Well, I've been thinking back. I was sent up there, I think it was the refueling in '65. For the -- I was -- I'd just graduated from the nuclear reactor school and I was in the training department, and then when they had the refueling in Alaska they needed people, so they pulled me out of training and sent me up there.
And, I think it was '65. It was right after the big earthquake. And, yeah, so I did it -- did the refueling there, and then I escorted the fuel back to Aiken, South Carolina. That was a 30-day train trip. Me and another guy and two gondolas full of nuclear fuel. That was quite a trip. Interesting times.
Patience Stuart: Could you tell us about what the -- what the refueling activities looked like? What -- what all you did while you were there?
Bill Hellums: Well, again, I was fresh out of school and I was more of a health physicist or technician. Process control technician, I believe is what they called us. And, so I was basically covering, with the radiation meter, the boys working above the fuel -- the reactive pressure vessel. And we were working with poles, oh, about 20 foot long, pulling the fuel rods out and moving them over, then putting them down into a shipping -- stainless steel shipping container that was, oh, I don't know how many tons, but many tons.
And then we'd load the -- load the container up. And all this was done underwater, about 20 feet of water. And, you were working right over the pool, you know. You could fall in, and we had safety ropes on and so forth. Back some time, I think one guy did. Anyway, that's another story.
But, yeah, so that's what I did. Covered that. Then we loaded the fuel into -- as I say, they had it in these big, oh humongous, weighing stainless steel containers at least seven-foot tall, I think. And we loaded 'em on lowboys (trailer) and carried them to, I think, Fort Greely. And then we loaded them on a -- a -- in gondolas. Railroad cars. And blocked them in for the voyage.
And they hooked up a caboose to it, and me and this other guy, other HP, he was senior, Richard Cook. He's dead now. He and I went all the way. Well, we went to -- we'd go down to Fairb -- to the port. I think it was -- and loaded onto barges and they towed it down to -- well, up there -- wherever you are, Portland. But the next city up there, the big one up there.
Patience Stuart: Seattle?
Bill Hellums: Yeah, Seattle, and I came down. I flew down. And Richard came -- went with the tugboat. And these two gondolas on this barge and him in this tugboat, and they pulled it down from Alaska to Seattle. And then we offloaded the rail cars and hooked them on a train and took 'em across country. And I'd say about 30 days.
And the dangdest thing. We'd wake up in the -- in the morning and we'd be sitting out in the prairie, nothing in sight, just sitting on the side rail with a caboose and two gondolas of fuel. And, it was a very interesting trip across America, let me tell you.
Patience Stuart: I bet it was just a different way to see the country, for sure. Bill Hellums: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Patience Stuart: And did you -- was the fuel returned to Virginia? Where -- where did it go? Where did you end up?
Bill Hellums: Oh, I -- I -- I think it went to Carolina for reprocessing -- processing, and I just, you know, got -- once we got there, we turned it over and went back to Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
And then as soon as I got back there, I had orders to go back to Alaska for duty. For a tour of duty up there. So I guess I was alright in their eyes when I was up there doing the refueling. So I got to go back. And I was real pleased about that.
Patience Stuart: Sure. Well, I would love to hear about what happened when you went back as an operator, as a health physicist, but I do have one more question about the refueling. Do you remember how the -- I assume that a new set of fuel was added back into the reactor. Bill Hellums: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Patience Stuart: And Kevin, you could probably explain that more eloquently or clearly. But do you remember much about that process, Bill?
Bill Hellums: No, ma'am. I was not involved with that too much. I -- I went with the spent fuel, and we took it -- You know, got on out there. And I -- I went with that -- that side of the program. Getting the fuel back. So I did not -- I don't believe they actually load fuel up there.
Patience Stuart: Okay. Alright.
Kevin Taylor: I'm going to interject for just a minute. So before you went to Fort Greely for the -- for the refueling, were you stationed at Fort Belvoir SM-1 for a while? Or did you go there from another facility?
Bill Hellums: I was stationed at Fort Belvoir. Well, once I went through the school, nuclear reactor school, I did go -- I worked at -- that's where we were trained. At the plant out there. But once I graduated and, you know, got my basic operator's badge, I was assigned to a training department back up in the hill, and worked there for a few months before going to Alaska.
Patience Stuart: Do you know if that was a typical course of action for trainees? Were they -- Did they become trainers before they became operators, or -- ?
Bill Hellums: Well, it depended on how good a student you were, what your specialty was, and so forth, like that. Some people went directly into training as -- as instructors, if they were, you know, qualified. But that was more for the technical and the physics, and so forth like that, the chemistry. And the instrumentation, the mechanic specialty, each one of them.
But, you know, I was this -- you know, an extra HP. And so I was in the training department. It was a good place for me, kept me out of trouble. And, you know, so it was -- you know, I had a few months there, then I went straight to --
A lot of my other buddies were sent straight down to other reactors. Yeah. Well, we didn't have many reactors then, come to think of it. But they went down and worked on the SM-1 and so forth like that, or -- I think one of them went out to Sundance, Wyoming. That was the one I wanted to go to, but I went to Alaska instead. I'm glad I did.
Patience Stuart: What made you want to go to Sundance?
Bill Hellums: Well, I went out there with this Navy chief from the program. I think Jerry spent more time under the ice than anybody. I think he took five tours in Antarctica. And anyway, he'd come back, was getting ready to train another crew, and he was going out to Sundance and he took me along just more to have somebody to raise Cain with. And his family is out there. He was from Sundance.
And that was one real adventure going out there seeing the Air Force plant and then meeting Jerry's family. And Wyoming was a trip itself. And, so that was -- that was really great. Jerry Schloredt was probably one of the legends of the nuclear power program. He was one hell of a guy.
Kevin Taylor: Well, you mentioned before that -- that you were -- you were glad you were in Alaska. We actually -- we spoke with one former SM-1A operator who -- who sounded like he might have had a different opinion to -- to being at Fort Greely. Could tell us about your -- your time there, and -- and then what you did or did not enjoy about actually being, you know, in that part of Alaska at that time?
Bill Hellums: Number one, it was -- it was -- Okay, it was pre-pipeline Alaska. I mean, this was wilderness out there. It was just a small post. Army winter warfare training center and this little reactor out the end of nowhere. And, so it was the wild and wooly west.
And, my first day after reporting in up there, I went out moose hunting and got freezer meat for the winter, and got a moose the first day.
And, so the hunting and fishing for me was one of the most wonderful things. To be able to go out and shoot a moose or go catch silver salmon, and, you know, and -- but the beauty of -- of working out in Alaska, as I --
After I qualified as an operator that I went to health physics, or the process control section. And did most of that, the environmental monitoring and stuff and process control. And, it was -- you know, you had time off to go fishing and hunting. It was -- if you liked to do that, it was wonderful. If you didn't like to do that, it got awful miserable.
Patience Stuart: Such a beautiful place to -- to do that in. Did you live on the base, or did you live in Delta Junction or Big Delta?
Bill Hellums: I lived on base. Yeah. I was an E-5 when I reported in. I made E-6 up there, after I became an operator. And so, as I say, yeah, I had enough rank.
That's where one of my stories came in having to pull charge of quarters, you know, at -- at night at the base on our weekends like that, somebody had to man the telephones for the base. And, so I had to pull that, you know, once a month or something like that. And, so yeah, it was, you know, it was really great.
Kevin Taylor: Were you married? Did you have family up there?
Bill Hellums: Yes. I brought my -- I had two children I brought up with me. One was three, one was five. And, yeah, they had a -- they still talk about it. Went out berrypicking and had to watch the kids because the moose, during rut season, they were -- they're pretty dangerous.
And you never could tell what the buffalo would do. We had a herd of buffalo running around all the time, and you never could tell what they were going to do. And, most of the time they'd just run away, but every now and then they could run after you.
Patience Stuart: And was your wife with you, as well?
Bill Hellums: Yes, she was. Yes, she was. It was -- it was pretty rough on the women up there unless they were into hunting and fishing, because there just -- you know, there wasn't a lot to do on that small base. And, you know, going into Fairbanks was a major -- major trip. And everything was so expensive off base that, you know, you tried not to spend too much money off base if you could help it.
Patience Stuart: Got it. Now, what do you recall about your time as -- your time at SM-1A? Do you remember, you know, the day-to-day activities or any events that happened there?
Bill Hellums: Oh yeah, it was pretty routine normally. Going in the morning, you had three shifts and you -- go in and relieve the shift in the morning and you go up and check operations, see what's going on. Any problems, anything that need to be done maintenance-wise for the day.
And you got your duties assigned and you went around, did your routine tests and so forth. Checked your gauges, recorded pressures, temperatures, and some things like that here, there, and yonder. And you go out and take your water samples here and there, and vegetation samples, soil samples, and you'd take -- you know, process those samples for the records and make sure you weren't contaminating the environment.
And, so yeah, we -- it was, you know, that's -- that was what I did primarily. I'd -- I'd say I qualified as operator, but I didn't pull that many shifts operationally. I was -- as I say I was a health physicist type, running around sampling and that type of stuff.
Kevin Taylor: Anything happened up there while you were there that made you think, "Why am I working in a nuclear power plant?"
Bill Hellums: Well, I guess one morning I got -- Sunday morning I got called in. The call said something was going wrong. They had a lot of activity on one of the radiation meters. Or the control room people did.
So I was HP on duty. So I went in and took some samples of the secondary, and lo and behold, we had a spill. In containment. The -- primary to secondary leakage. And so, we shut things down, and I don't think the plant ever went critical again while I was there. And I had shipped out in, I think, early s-s-s -- late '66.
Patience Stuart: Do you recall where the leak was or -- or -- ?
Bill Hellums: It was in one of the fuel rods in the -- in -- in -- inside the pressure vessel. It was leaking and it was caus -- going -- getting into the primary water, and it was a mess. It got into the steam generator.
Patience Stuart: How did the team respond? Do you remember what happened?
Bill Hellums: How did who, what, where, again?
Patience Stuart: How did your team respond? Did -- What were the next steps? Did you -- You shut it down, you said.
Bill Hellums: Well, I -- I called control room, and told -- talked to signify -- how I walked in there. It wasn't more than about 40 feet away. And I walked in and said, "Hey, we got a problem. We got a leak." I says, "Burning the radiation counter up." That's figuratively speaking. It was very high activity.
And, so we had to be very careful from then on not to contaminate the equipment since this water was so contaminated. And so we had to go into a real -- more -- more so than normal mode not to contaminate anything and be careful to see what the situation was. Fortunately, there was no real leakage outside the plant.
Patience Stuart: That's good to hear.
Kevin Taylor: I've got an operational question for you that I -- Bill Hellums: Uh, huh (affirmative). Kevin Taylor: Yeah. So -- so we're -- we've been helping the Corps of Engineers plan the decommissioning of the facility. And there's a small building, a Quonset hut, that is next to the reactor building. Was that -- was that there when you were there and do you know of any of the -- anything about the operations that took place in that building?
Bill Hellums: Well, I'm trying to -- can you give me --
Kevin Taylor: It was on -- it'd be on the -- the east side of the building. Bill Hellums: Okay. Let me orient myself here.
Kevin Taylor: It'd be on the fuel -- the spent fuel pit side of the building. So just outside the door on the east side, a little metal Quonset hut.
Bill Hellums: Anything inside of it? Anything (inaudible) the ground?
Kevin Taylor: There was a -- there was a sump on one side. It was kind of divided into two rooms, north and south. And there was a sump on one side. Just didn't know if you knew of anything.
Bill Hellums: Yeah. That --
Kevin Taylor: Waste management, waste handling, anything that went on in there?
Bill Hellums: I think we had some demineralizers in there that -- to make sure to take anything out of the water that, you know, we couldn't filter out. I think. Now, don't quote -- don't hold me to it. You know, I'd -- I'd -- This was 60 years ago almost.
Kevin Taylor: Sure. Sure.
Bill Hellums: We had some of those demineralizers out there somewhere, 'cause I -- who was his name? Sargeant -- He was a major HP Sergeant. God, I knew his name better than anything. He taught me everything I know about health physics almost. You know, the (inaudible) -- and -- Springer, Sergeant Springer. He was a hell of a good man.
And he -- I'm sure he's gone by now. Most of 'em are, I guess. But that might have been it, but it wouldn't have been -- the problem -- it would’ve been the -- if that's what it was, I believe that's what it was, something the water went through the demineralizer. We had some demineralizers out there. Kevin Taylor: Okay.
Bill Hellums: Did you survey the room any? Is it any contamination fixed or anything?
Kevin Taylor: There's been some contamination identified in -- in -- in that building and some of the soil around it. That's what I meant. And the Corps of Engineers is trying to figure out what -- what might have gone on in there.
Bill Hellums: There were some demineralizers in there, and I was just trying to remember for what they were. One of them was activated, it was hot. And, cause we had the -- That was the room I had to wear one -- one glove -- one hand glove and one foot bootied and I'd hop back and forth across this line. You know, doing -- cutting this off and that on and so forth like that. It was grim.
Patience Stuart: Could you tell me a little bit more about that, just not being in your field? In your field.
Bill Hellums: About what, ma'am?
Patience Stuart: About having one glove on and one glove off, and what -- just explain that a little bit more.
Bill Hellums: Well, that's something they taught you in school. You know, that, you know, you didn't want to contaminate your laboratory, and if you knew -- if it was just you or somebody like you at your laboratory, you could set it up and basically have half hot, half cold and a line drawn in the middle. And if you're cool, you'd put a booty on and have a gloved hand, and you'd hop in and do your stuff with your gloved hand as much as you could. And then you'd hop out and you hop around your clean foot and clean hand, and kind of hop back and forth doing your stuff. And it was --
And we didn't do that all the time. That was just some certain samples when we had to do that in certain areas. But -- And that -- that was something they taught us in school. You could never do that today in -- in -- in -- around -- in reactors or something like that. That is a no-no. You'd have to have a strictly controlled point and everything else. And we did things that you would never do today. I mean, if there wasn't anybody else to do them, so we had to do them.
Kevin Taylor: Your environmental samples you collected, that you -- do you handle those in the laboratory there, in the reactor building near the control room, or was there another lab on the base?
Bill Hellums: We had -- we had -- that was -- The lab we had was a -- there, then, it was a hot and cold lab. Hot and went in and separated off kind of with lines and so forth. And a lot of air intakes to keep stuff into the hot area.
But yeah, you'd never do that today. It was -- We were learning a lot, and I'd say, if you had trained people, you could get away with it, but it's not something you could let untrained people into.
Patience Stuart: Right. Part of the -- and Kevin, you may be able to describe this better, but at some point during the plant's history, it would provide heat for the laundry, the base laundry. Do you know if that was happening while you were there?
Bill Hellums: Well, when I was there, it was -- we were discovering -- Well, it -- I -- not so much for the laundry, but more the steam heat for the base. So I assume if it was steam heat for the base, it might have been steam heat for the laundry. I don't know that personally, but it's just an assumption since we were providing steam heat some of the time.
Patience Stuart: And the steam heat for the base, did that involve a lot of interaction with the -- the other half of the building? The --
Bill Hellums: Secondary? Patience Stuart: Hm, mm. Bill Hellums: Yeah. You know, we'd run the steam and the waste steam, and you'd dump that out into the pipes to warm the buildings.
Patience Stuart: Got it. Why don't we back up and talk about the training a bit? Do you remember much about your time at Fort Belvoir, either as a student or an instructor, about the training program?
Bill Hellums: Well, you know, when I was a student, I was -- I went through class, what was it? '64-2. 1964’s second class. And, it was a pretty high attrition rate. I think only one suicide. And, that was my basic class. I think we had about 45 to start with. Thirty something graduated. And Army, Navy. I think -- did we have another -- ? Maybe one Air Force.
And, it was -- it was -- they -- You know, they started us off. They said, "This is not a -- We are not here to educate here. We are here to train you." And that's what they did. They trained us. We were not nuclear scientists. We were HP techs, glorified somewhat.
And we learned how to drive rods and what to do when the reactor scrammed, and they gave us some good training in health physics and basic chemistry. Water chemistry, for me. And the mechanics got some good training. The instrumentation techs were very well trained, I mean.
You gotta -- The screening process for this -- for this school was so tight. I mean, it was -- Number one, you had to be on your second tour. You had to be E5 and above. And you had have 100 and -- you had to be in the top 5 percent of the Army in intelligence testing, and -- or the military.
And so you got some really weird people. They were, you know, very smart in a lot of ways, but -- And so all of us were kind of weird in one way or another. And they -- you know, it was kind of weird why we were there and not somewhere else. But, there are a lot of stories involved. And -- and see, I was one of the smart ones. I got out, and went back to school. The rest stayed and became millionaires. And anyway, I --
Patience Stuart: What led you into the program? What made you decide to do it?
Bill Hellums: Well, I was in the cavalry. And I was in Colorado Springs. And I was finishing up my first tour. And the GI bill wasn't back into effect yet, so I didn't quite know what to do. I wanted to go back to school, I didn't know how to afford it.
And I was reading the Army Times and on the front page, it says, "Engineers are looking for trainees for this reactor training course." And I said, "Well, hot damn, I've got all the qualifications for that. Hey, it sounded like something that could give me some training and so forth like that and pay me to do it."
And lo and behold, my new major came into my cavalry outfit had just stopped at Fort Belvoir. And had met with a West Point friend of his, who happened to be the colonel at our nuclear power training course. And so he wrote me a letter to the colonel back yonder in Belvoir and said, you know, I was a good person and, you know, gave him my record and so forth. So I got in and that was -- that was -- it was cool.
Kevin Taylor: Well, where -- where did -- you mentioned that, you know, you -- you left the Army after -- or, at some point after your -- your time at SM 1A, tell us a little bit about the time you -- you left Alaska, then you left the Army, and then what did you do after that? And did your training and your experience, how -- how did that impact the rest of your career?
Bill Hellums: Are you sure you want to hear this? But, anyway -- well, let’s see, I drove back to -- Let's see, I drove from Alaska to Texas, dropped the family off, then I drove to Belvoir and got assigned to the Sturgis, the MH-1A, floating reactor, which they were getting it ready to go to Panama. And they assigned me to the shift as an HP. And I qualified as an operator on it. Hated operations. I really did.
And they made me an HP. And then we all were working together to get her ready to go to Panama, and doing a lot of deck work and so forth. And then she went to -- was towed down and I flew down, and was -- became the environmental monitor for the Sturgis. And when she was parked next to the dam at Gatun Lake, the electrical dam there.
And we were pulled up right next to it, and our power lines were put ashore and joined the dam's power lines. And we supplied power to the Panama Canal Company, because there was a drought in Panama and they were trying to save water to run the ships through the canal. So that was our mission.
Patience Stuart: Wow. How long was that mission?
Bill Hellums: Let's see, I went down there -- Let's see, I was -- I went down in '67, sixty -- I guess I went down in '68 right after they shot Kennedy. And went down there, and then I came back in June. Drove back from Panama to the States in June and got out of the Army on July 3rd, 1969.
And when I said earlier that I was a smart one, well, the boys on my shift, Dale Ferguson, Bob Hess, and Vernon Haines, they formed a company called Nuclear Support Services who happened to be at Three Mile Island when the accident happened. And that's how I got called back into the nuclear field. But that's another part of the story.
Anyway, so I went to the Sturgis and was an environmental monitor there. And really, it was probably the best job in the Yankee Army. I had access to a Jeep, a 14-foot aluminum boat with a 30-horsepower motor on it. And LCVP with a coxswain. And I would cruise around Gatun Lake in these various vehicles and would get water samples, soil samples, and vegetation samples. And sometimes take air samples. And process these samples and enter them into the logbook and so forth. And that was my job. It was wonderful. Nobody told me what to do. It was almost like I had no work.
Kevin Taylor: That's great. So then -- So, but after Sturgis you were -- you -- you got -- you -- you did something else that -- But you got sucked back into the nuclear power industry. How did that happen?
Bill Hellums: I drove back through Central America. Saw all the Aztec ruins. I wanted to be an anthropologist -- (phone rings) Hold on. That's my other phone. Just a second. Not important.
Anyway, so where was I? I drove back and I went to the University of Texas, and I got a degree in anthropology. And then, I went off to Peru. Thought I'd become a great explorer. And looking for the temple of Coropuna. And came back and figured I've got two kids ready to go to high school, I had to take a serious job. And, so I went to work for the State of Texas, radiation control program, licensing industrial materials.
And then, in '79, Three Mile Island happened and the phone rang and said, "Bill, we need you up here." And, oh boy, it's an old ship called, and we had a reunion at Three Mile. And I worked a month up there under leave of absence from the State of Texas. And I went back to Texas and started suffering cognitive dissonance on how much money I could make up there. And I really liked my job in Texas, but the pay was much better being a nuclear consultant, and they seemed to accept me as one, so I -- that's how I became a nuclear consultant.
Patience Stuart: So did you join the private company then, or were you consultant on your own?
Bill Hellums: Oh, yeah. I -- as far back as going -- Nuclear Support Services, and ran a job site for 'em in Louisiana. And stayed with them. Good boys, and they made a lot of money, and I'm proud of them. And so I lost touch of them when I took a job in Kansas, after I went -- yeah -- I took a -- yeah -- different company. I went to work with Intel up in Kansas, but -- at Wolf Creek (Nuclear Generation Station). But yeah, that's how I got to become a nuclear --
Oh, let me finish the story here. I'm going to branch a little bit. Back in my Army training, we saw a movie called the SL-1. I mean the -- was it SL? No.
Kevin Taylor: Yeah. SL-1, the accident in Idaho.
Bill Hellums: Yeah. And that so impressed me. And it's just -- So I always tried to show it when I taught emergency planning, at least to the techs and so forth, and get them a little bit of a creepy vibe, you know. And let them, you know, see it can really happen and people do or can die.
And, so anyway, I -- for some reason, everybody thought I was an emergency planning specialist, and I would write scenarios and stuff like that for -- And anyway, that's -- that's what I did and for reactors, so -- And, you know, train the techs on how to respond to an accident. And that's the important thing, is to, you know, get control of it early on.
Kevin Taylor: So, did you stay in the nuclear industry then 'til retirement?
Bill Hellums: Yeah, I did. I worked for, let's see, Rancho Seco. And then I saw that she wasn't going to start up again, I left them, and I went and worked for the Department Of Energy and got so disappointed with them I started my own little company called -- What was it? Decontamination -- Decommissioning and Decontamination Specialists in -- here in California and decommissioned a lab down in the LA. Big mess down there.
And then I worked out at Livermore. I was called out there to consult a little bit on the emergency planning type stuff for the national labs. They didn't -- really didn't have an emergency plan back then. So, I helped them with emergency plans. And when I say Livermore, that’s Sandia at Livermore.
And so I did that, and then I started a radon testing business and I ended up finally retired about 60. I mean in 2000. Yeah, I think it was about then.
Kevin Taylor: Which laboratory did you decon down in the LA area? (phone rings)
Bill Hellums: Somebody is trying like hell to get a hold of me, just a second. Hello. I'm speaking, but right now -- Carol, take this phone call. I'm on a long distance call right now. Can you excuse me and talk to my wife? She has my permission to talk to you, please. Hi, I'm back.
Patience Stuart: Great.
Kevin Taylor: That's okay. Yeah. I was -- I was involved on a -- on a decommissioning project down in the Los Angeles area. It was a pharmaceutical lab. Several years ago.
Bill Hellums: Oh, was it a new one? It wasn't cleaned up when I left, was it?
Kevin Taylor: It was called ICN, I believe was the name of it. This was probably 20 years ago though, but, so it sounds like --
I've actually been on the Sturgis myself -- Bill Hellums: Oh, really? Cool. Kevin Taylor: -- before they decommissioned it. We work with the Corps of Engineers. I've -- I've been to the PM-1 reactor in -- in -- Bill Hellums: Antarctica? Kevin Taylor: In Wyoming. And I've been to SM-1 and SM-1A, as well. So --
Bill Hellums: You've been around. Kevin Taylor: I have been -- been around to those. Yes, sir. Bill Hellums: Don't call me sir, son. It sounds like you're talking to granddaddy.
Anyway, yeah. I'm glad to see -- I'm sorry to see the old Sturgis go really. She, you know -- she demonstrated that, well, we do need some plants now that we can pull to all these disaster areas and give them some power. God, that's amazing. Oh, well, anyway, don't get me started.
Patience Stuart: So with a -- a long career in the nuclear power industry, do you recall much of the -- either the popular opinion around nuclear power at the time, or maybe your -- you family and friends and their comments on nuclear power?
Bill Hellums: Well, let me tell you, when I was riding that train across the country in a caboose, me and this one old boy, and we had, I think, an old .45 pistol, I didn't know if it would work or not. But seven rounds of ammunition. And we had the spent core of SM-1 Alaska and these two gondola cars. And we would drive through these little towns out in west Texas, not west Texas, but in the plains up in the north. And they -- you know, they have barriers down to keep the traffic off the road and you go through little town about 10 miles an hour, and people looking at you and they see all these radiation signs on these gondola cars. And you just see their faces kind of go from "oh, I'm sorry, I'm waiting here at the train stop" to "oh my God, what am I doing here?" They got moved out the other direction in a rapid manner.
And that was interesting. But most people really didn't know that much about it. And it wasn't until Three Mile (Island) happened that you really got people spooked. And that was sad because, you know, nobody died there. It was -- it was a mess in a lot of ways, but, you know, nobody was killed, or even hurt that for that matter. I don't recall unless you fell down a ladder.
But that was my biggest problem. And Three Mile was fear, lighting the fear. The radiation alarms in that river bed, the Susquehanna River, and the mornings, about four or five in the morning, the radon would be coming out of the river bed and would set off the radiation alarms outside of Three Mile Island. And you could hear the radon going. Getting heavier and heavier by the radiation alarms moving down alongside the plant.
But, you know, try to explain that to a steel worker who's trying to, you know, connect up a mineralizer or something like that, and you're having to work up a long narrow steel ladder, and they don't know that. And you're standing up there trying to stop 20 men charging at you, and you're trying to tell them “Whoa, whoa, whoa. You know, we spent an hour getting dressed up to come in here. We don't want to run out now, do we?" And it was a real, real battle. I guess that was probably the hardest thing I did up there was keep people calmed down, and try to cal -- you know, keep them cool. Keep 'em cool. I say, "When I run, that's when to get scared." That's the first law of health physics.
Patience Stuart: And you said you were -- your official role there was as a safety monitor?
Bill Hellums: I was a health physicist for the -- Well, things are all mixed up there between who's the contractor and PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric Company) and so forth. Like I was a contractor, but I was in charge of it out at night from about -- Oh, I'd go on work at about six and I'd work a 17 hours a day up there. And I had all the HPs at night. I think they were all mostly Nuclear Support Service people, contractor HPs.
And -- but, yeah, I was in charge of, you know, keeping the peace and keeping the workers protected at night. And, thankfully, I wasn't in charge when they burned down the outhouses. But that's another story.
Patience Stuart: Now you've spoken a bit about some close relationships that you've had with other people in the program. Do you think you could speak a little about the culture and comaraderie of the Army Nuclear Power Program as a whole?
Bill Hellums: Well, yeah. The Navy was a lot closer, because when you're a -- most of them are Seabees and -- or Corpsman. And the Seabees, you only had about three or four battalions at the time. And, you know, you could -- they stayed in with each other through the whole -- most of their career. Whereas the Army, most of us came in there from various programs, and then we'd go off into our specialties and off to our different plants.
And then most -- most of the Army guys, or a lot of the Army guys, got out right afterwards and went back to school. The younger ones, like me. And -- But, yeah, you -- you know, basically anybody from the program, you knew automatically what his training was and what to expect of him. At least that's the way I always felt. That you, you know, you could trust him. If you knew -- if he'd gone through the program, you could trust him. And that's the best thing I can say about anybody.
Patience Stuart: Absolutely. Are you still in contact with anyone from the program?
Bill Hellums: One or two. Most of them are dead. And I think probably all dead. I've got -- Well, Jerry's still alive, I think. He's out in Wyoming last I heard. I saw him at one of our reunions out there. The last one we had in Deadwood. And -- But I asked folk about it then, most of the guys, they were Navy and they were -- you know, had served together, even when weren't in the nuclear program. And they were a lot closer than the Army guys were. But, as I say again, of anybody that went through that program, I -- you know, I trust 'em. That's what I can say of anybody.
Kevin Taylor: I -- I heard that same thing. We -- we -- I was involved in some -- some of these interviews for SM-1, as well, and several of the former operators there and instructors and folks that went through the program. And then they said the same thing. It was about people, especially people that were working in the -- in the -- nuclear industry afterwards. If they saw a resume that came through and they were trained within the Army reactor program, they didn't even really -- they didn't need an interview, you're hired.
Bill Hellums: Yeah. Well, that's what happened to me when I got out, and was -- I went up to the state of Texas right before I went to college, and to see if I could go to work for them as a health physicist. And one of our ex-Navy, no, Air Force types was there as head of the Texas program. And he was highly respected. Anyway, they told me, he said, "You know, we'd love to hire you, but you have to have a degree." So I went back and got a degree. Of course, by the time I came back, he was dead, and new guy, but he hired me right away. And there was -- Never had any problem getting hired doing anything once they saw the credentials of the program.
Patience Stuart: Pretty elite and specialized team.
Bill Hellums: Well, we felt so.
Kevin Taylor: So your -- your anthropology career was relatively short-lived, huh?
Bill Hellums: Yes, it was. I did spend 6 months in the Andes crossing 'em on a horseback with my wife looking for this damn temple. But, it -- you know, it's something I'm glad I did. And the dumbest thing I ever did in my life, but I'm glad I did it. Well, you've got to do something dumb once in a while. And, my wife's about half crazy anyway, so that was good, and -- This is my new wife, anyway.
So, anyway, it's -- Yeah, it's been a good life. But, you know, the Army power program it stood me well all my life. And everybody in it, I -- I respect everyone I knew in it. And the men that I say, especially the older guys, these -- these were the guys in -- from World War II and Korea, and they were just -- you could tell they were very sharp dudes, but never had a chance at education and so forth. But then I learned a lot from these people.
And the biggest thing was, when I say I got a moose my first day in Alaska, well, the guy I was living with and sharing a house with, got one, too. And his was a big one. I just got the baby. Anyway, couple of guys from the plant drove up and next thing you know, we had six guys in the plant. Didn't even know half of them. They helped us clean and quarter the moose, and get it out of there. And I didn't know how to do that. And so, they were good people. Let me tell you. They were -- especially the wild ones up in Alaska, those were back-to-nature dudes.
And one of them had a plane there. Did you ever hear about the guy that had the airplane? Patience Stuart: I haven't. Bill Hellums: The operator. Patience Stuart:Tell us.
Bill Hellums: Well, yeah. One of the operators in Alaska, he was a civilian. They had civilian operators up there. You remember -- knew that?
Patience Stuart: I -- Yes. And we are going to interview someone from that group next week.
Bill Hellums: Okay. And if I knew his name, I might remember it. Anyway. One of them was -- he was an operator and he was a pastor of a little church and he had a little plane. And he flew me and another guy way back in the woods to go bear hunting one time. I didn't -- I was going with the other guy. I wouldn't -- I have no need to shoot a bear. The boys did several times in Alaska, but anyway, I was going as a backup for him.
And this guy flew us and landed us up there. And we got snowed in, and he couldn't come get us. And, thankfully, our old buddy from the Army Northern Warfare Center drove an armored personnel carrier across the snow and rescued us, and brought us back out to a base camp where they could helicopter us back to go to work.
Kevin Taylor: Wow, that's quite a story.
Patience Stuart: Yes, it is.
Bill Hellums: That's Alaska. That was just the way it worked.
Patience Stuart: By chance, was his name George Shaw?
Bill Hellums: I remember the name George Shaw, but that wasn't him. The guy that had the plane was a pastor and he was civilian. George would know him. He had a little church up there.
And a lot of the guys stayed up there. Of course, they're probably all dead now, but they homesteaded and things like that. And, I don't know, one winter in Alaska was enough for me.
Patience Stuart: Well, is there anything else you'd like to tell us about your time at SM-1A or Fort Greely?
Bill Hellums: Well, I fell through the ice once. That was an experience.
Patience Stuart: Where was that? Bill Hellums: I went out -- In the mornings, I used to go out. There was a little lake, not far from the post, and I'd drive out and I'd light a little fire with the frying pan and have a little butter and flour. And I'd cast out in this pond, and these grayling, they'd hit my lure and I'd pull 'em in and clean them up and fry 'em up right there for breakfast.
And so later on, the winter came and I wanted to go out and try to catch them through the ice. And -- and I went out, and the ice, you know, it cracked a little bit. And I said, "Well, you know, that's probably okay, but I better test it." And so I jumped on it. And went right through it! Thankfully, it was only about 4 feet deep, but by the time I got to shore and it was, you know, 40 below.
And by the time I got to shore, I -- I -- I was -- I think all the veins on the outer part of my body were frozen by then. I managed to get home and get in a hot tub for about 3 hours. And finally got my feeling back. But Lord, you never want to fall through the ice, it is not good.
Kevin Taylor: Wow.
Patience Stuart: You really tested it by jumping on it.
Bill Hellums: Did I tell you about when I roped -- roped the moose?
Patience Stuart: No.
Kevin Taylor: Haven’t told us that one either
Patience Stuart: Tell us.
Bill Hellums: Well, this was when I was in Fairbanks on the caboose waiting for -- to ship out of there. This young bull moose walked by the caboose and I was sitting up in the top window looking out. And I had this radiation rope, and I just -- You know, being stupid, just threw it out over his neck, and, you know, Texas born and pulled. And, "Yahoo!" And next thing I knew, I was almost through that window being jerked out. They are strong! And, anyway, I got the rope off of him, eventually, but don't rope a bull moose. It is not smart.
Patience Stuart: Well, we appreciate the lessons.
Bill Hellums: But Alaska was a different place up there. And, it was so wild. God, it was wild. Anyway. And the people were pretty wild. In Fairbanks. But yeah, memories.
Patience Stuart: Well, we really appreciate you taking the time to -- to share some of these memories with us and -- and talk about your time in the program.
Bill Hellums: I wish I could have been more serious, but I had a wonderful time.
Patience Stuart: It sounds like it.
Bill Hellums: And I always was good on my work. You know, I did good work. I'd eat my brag and I always did good work.
Oh, one story. One of my first lessons I learned in Alaska, the water in the Tanana River was more radioactive upstream than it was downstream from it -- from us. And you know why?
Kevin Taylor: Why is that?
Bill Hellums: Cooling water we were throwing into it, they were from wells. Was cleaner than the Tanana River as far as radiometrics. Kevin Taylor: Hm, mm. Bill Hellums: And -- Kevin Taylor: Interesting.
Bill Hellums: Yeah, that -- that kinda freaks me out, but I actually saw it. You know, did legitimate measurements. But Sergeant Springers, you know, verified it. He said, “Yep.” He said, “Now you know, we're cleaning up Alaska.” But anyway, nobody liked that story. But it's true.
Patience Stuart: Kevin, do you have any more questions?
Kevin Taylor: I do not, but I certainly have enjoyed listening to your stories, and it sounds like you've had a -- had a great career in the -- in the nuclear industry. And -- and --
Bill Hellums: Well, what you've got to remember up there is the -- the radiation meters. We had to wear 'em inside our parkas to keep the batteries warm. Kevin Taylor: Ah, yeah. Bill Hellums: Because it was cold outside.
Patience Stuart: Did that make it tougher to monitor them?
Bill Hellums: Well, once -- it's hard to use a machine when you got frozen batteries and if you ain't got spares, so -- Yeah, I found that out and we had to chase a leak. A truck carrying this fuel cask, empty fuel cask, up to Alaska arrived and contaminated the base. Base was --
So we had to dig it out and then trail it back all the way to -- the rail car all the way back. I don't know how many miles back, and survey everything and make sure it wasn't contaminated. But the meters kept freezing up. It was -- it was rough -- it was rough out there when it was that cold. And -- and, yeah, it was a lesson I learned. Keep your batteries -- keep your meters inside your parkas.
Kevin Taylor: Yeah. We have to think about that today, even when we're going into -- I've -- I've experienced that myself in cold areas where the battery life, whether -- whether it's your radiation detector or your -- your cell phone, batteries don't last long when it's -- when they're cold.
Bill Hellums: Yes, sir, that’s true. And anyway, that's the last of my stories. So if I can be of any help in any way, please call me and I'll try to help.
Patience Stuart: Well, this has been very helpful. I think that having your -- your story shared in the Alaska oral history program, I think will be a great benefit.
Bill Hellums: Well, I hope it helps. As I told you, you know, about 10 years ago, I tried to go back up and see the site, and they wouldn't let me on base. Had civilian guards. It really made me mad.
Kevin Taylor: If you -- if you want to get back up there in the -- in the next few years, I'm sure the -- you reach out to the Corps of Engineers project manager, and I'm sure they will -- they'll help you out.
Bill Hellums: I appreciate that, sir. I doubt I'll get back up there. I'm getting too old, but it was fun to drive up there again. It was -- I love the country.
Kevin Taylor: Well, thank you, sir. I appreciate it.
Bill Hellums: Y'all, too. Have a good day and good weekend now.
Patience Stuart: Alright, thank you again for your time and -- and for your service to the program.
Bill Hellums: Oh, I got the -- the -- the release form today. I'll put it in the mail.
Patience Stuart: Okay, great. Wonderful. And I will be in touch with you about a bio and a photo for the website.
Bill Hellums: Okay. Patience Stuart: Okay. Bill Hellums: Thank you. Patience Stuart: Alright. Thank you. Bill Hellums: Alright. Kevin Taylor: Thank you. Patience Stuart: Bye. Kevin Taylor: Bye.