David Applebee was interviewed on Septemer 30, 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 David at his home in Soldotna, Alaska, Patience in Portland, Oregon, and Kevin in Greensville, South Carolina. In this interview, David talks about working at the SM-1A nuclear reactor power plant at Fort Greely, the training he received, and the duties he performed as a health physicist, working in the lab, and doing environmental and radiation monitoring. He also talks about life at Fort Greely, the sense of community with other SM-1A workers, and enjoying living in Alaska. David also shares how his experiences at SM-1A influenced the rest of his life and career.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Cold War in Alaska
Date of Interview: Sep 30, 2021
Narrator(s): David Applebee
Interviewer(s): Patience Stuart, Kevin Taylor
Transcriber: Rev Transcription Services, Kelsey Tranel
After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.
Introduction and starting to work at the SM-1A nuclear power plant at Fort Greely, Alaska
Being in the Navy and getting transferred to Alaska
Army nuclear power program training
Working at SM-1A as a health physicist in the lab
Discussions about shutting down the SM-1A plant
Typical day on the job
Life on post with his wife and kids, and camaraderie among nuclear group
Pubic opinions about nuclear energy
Other Navy work after leaving Fort Greely, people he worked with, and returning to Alaska after being discharged
Difference between Army and Navy nuclear power programs
Camaraderie of workers at SM-1A, impact of the experience on the rest of his life
His wife giving birth to a child while stationed at Fort Greely
Buffalo on post, and dealing with the cold winters
Staying in Alaska, getting into the nuclear program, and being in contact with former co-workers at reunions
Radiation exposure and cancer among former SM-1A workers
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Patience Stuart: Okay. Today is September 30th, 2021. This is an oral history interview with David Applebee, Sr. We are conducting this virtually over the phone. We have two interviewers and one narrator. I am Patience Stuart. I'm a historian and I am calling from Portland, Oregon. And Kevin we’ll go to you next.
Kevin Taylor: Yes, this is Kevin Taylor. I am a nuclear engineer and health physicist calling from Greenville, South Carolina.
Patience Stuart: And David?
David Applebee: This is David Applebee. I'm sitting here in Soldotna, Alaska, answering a bunch of questions.
Patience Stuart: Great. Now, David, how would you like your name documented for the interview?
David Applebee: David Applebee is fine.
Patience Stuart: Okay. Alright. And what timeframe did you work at SM-1A?
David Applebee: From August of 1969 until May of 1971.
Patience Stuart: Great. And were you enlisted at the time or were you a civilian operator?
David Applebee: No, I was enlisted.
Patience Stuart: You were enlisted. And what was your rank while you were there?
David Applebee: I was a hospital corpsman first class, United States Navy.
Patience Stuart: Great. Now tell us, how did you end up there?
David Applebee: There was always one Navy guy up at the SM-1A, and kind of a cross-service fellow. And after I graduated from school, I was the environmental monitor at the SM-1 for a while. And then there was an opening. The Navy guy was transferred from the SM-1A and when he was transferred, my name -- I got lucky and I got sent up.
Patience Stuart: Nice. Had you been interested in checking out Alaska before that or had you had spent time there?
David Applebee: No, I'd never spent any time there, but I'd always wanted to visit Alaska and I thought this was a perfect opportunity.
Patience Stuart: Fantastic. So did you -- you completed your training at SM-1 in Virginia, is that correct?
David Applebee: Yes.
Patience Stuart: Okay. Could you tell us a little bit about your experiences in the training program?
David Applebee: Well, that was the Army nuclear power program school, and that was 1-year long, broke down into three sections. So you had a -- a -- a academic section of 3 months, or four months, excuse me. And you had a -- a operations where you went down to the SM-1 and actually had hands on operations. And then you had your specialty training. And my specialty training was health physics and process control.
Patience Stuart: And what all did you learn in health physics and process control?
David Applebee: We don't have time. Health physics is basically radiation safety. So -- and then, of course, process control is anytime you have a power plant, there's waters, whether it be primary waters or secondary waters, that have to be tested and kept within limits. And that's what the process control aspect of the job was.
Patience Stuart: I see. And when you showed up at SM-1A after your training, was there any additional orientation involved or did you just jump right in?
David Applebee: Oh, God, of course, there was a lot of orientation. So, I got there in August of 1969. And so there was an initial plant orientation as far as to what the SM-1A was all about. And then I went immediately into my specialty, which was the health physics lab. And then shortly after that, they ran you through -- I went through the operations training, became a second class operator. And then in May 1970, I went on and became a first class operator, a control room operator. And then in between times I was back and forth with the health physics process control lab.
Patience Stuart: Did you have a favorite role while you were there or anything that you particularly enjoyed doing?
David Applebee: Oh, yeah, yeah. Working in the lab. I'm a guy that likes numbers and I love chemistry and that was -- that I enjoyed. I wasn't an operations guy at all. I could care less whether that thing was producing power, you know. But just, you had to go through that training just to get an idea of how the plant operated. But yeah, it was the lab work that fascinated me the most.
Patience Stuart: Sure. And what types of analysis did you do in the lab?
David Applebee: Gee whiz. Well, you had the primary chemistry where you looked after what was going on in the primary loop, and then you had the secondary chemistry, which is a daily process, and that was to keep -- We had very hard water, so we had to treat the water for hardness.
And then chlorides were another thing in the secondary stage, you had to keep low in the boiler. And just various levels of the water content that had to be kept at these certain levels. And you just made sure that you were doing the additions and subtractions of whatever other chemicals that we added in there to keep that within balance.
Patience Stuart: I see. Did you ever discover anything unusual in your labs?
David Applebee: Yeah. Not in the -- not as far as the secondary was concerned or anything as far as the actual reactor. No, I didn't discover anything. It all stayed within parameters and limits.
The only unusual thing that was discovered and later -- was before I left up there was the spent fuel pit. We changed out the core in 1970 and put it in the spent fuel pit. And there was a concern about the level at that time of the fuel pit. The spent fuel pit was losing water, and they were talking about it evaporating and things like that.
And to me, my great discovery was the little small wet spot that was outside, that happened to be -- contained the same level of radioactive components as did the spent fuel pit inside. And it was only a year after that they shut the plant down.
Patience Stuart: Oh, wow.
David Applebee: That was I think perhaps my most amazing discovery. And that was passed on to the upper echelon of the plant. I don't know ever know what happened.
Kevin Taylor: And David, what -- what again, were your years that you were there?
David Applebee: August of 1969 until May of 1971.
Kevin Taylor: So had they made the decision to shut down the plant before you left or were they prepping for that?
David Applebee: They were prepping for it. They were thinking about it. It was still -- As I say they just changed the core out. And so, everything looked like it was going to go on for a while.
And then when -- I didn't get any word of the plant really being shut down until after I'd gotten out of the Navy, which was in 1972. And that's when they, I think began to really decide to shut it down. But when I was there, no, it was a power-producing plant.
Kevin Taylor: And was the only laboratory that you did any a plant-related chemistry, was the only laboratory there in the building, right in the lab, next to where the turbine was?
David Applebee: Yes. Hm, mm.
Kevin Taylor: Okay. Thank you.
David Applebee: Now I think, the environmental monitor had a small lab somewhere where he did his stuff and he wasn't part of the nuclear program. He was just a regular Army guy. And he might have had a very small lab, but it had nothing to do with us.
Patience Stuart: I see. Were there any -- so you said at the time you were there, it was a fully operating plant, but then it shut down soon after in 1972. Were there any discussions about the shutdown at the time that you recall or was it just moving forward?
David Applebee: No, I don't recall of any serious discussions. Just the normal scuttlebutt that goes around with a bunch of guys, you know, that's about it. There was no sit down discussions on shutting the plant down that I know of.
Patience Stuart: Sure. Do you think you could walk us through a typical day on -- a typical shift while you were there?
David Applebee: Yeah, I could probably do this, I think. So you check into the plant. Let's say it's the day shift and I'm working the labs. And in you come, and the very first thing you can do is go and get a sample of the secondary blow down from the generator, from the steam generator, and bring it up to the lab and run through the series of tests for -- on that blow down at that time. And that generally took oh, a couple hours, I guess, 3 hours.
But, after that, it was just going around the plant. And you had your times and places where you had to take your radioactive smears, to test for radioactivity, and cleaning.
And if you happen to pick up something with a little contamination and you had to clean it up, decontaminate -- there was nothing ever serious. Just when you -- if you're like down on the primary lab where you did the primary chemistry, there was always a little contamination around, it had to be cleaned, it had to be decontaminated. But other than that, it was -- that was pretty much a routine thing. And bingo, 4 o'clock in the afternoon you went home.
Patience Stuart: And where was home for you when you were there?
David Applebee: We lived on post.
Patience Stuart: You lived on post. Hm, mm. And you say -- were you there with your wife?
David Applebee: Yes, I was. Patience Stuart: Okay.
Did you have kids while you were up there, too?
David Applebee: Yes. See, I had -- when I got up there, what did I have? One, two, three, I had two boys and a girl, and then I had a boy that was born when we were there. It was 1970.
Patience Stuart: Sure. What was it like for your family -- your family moving with you to Alaska and their time there?
David Applebee: Well, they loved it. It was great. My wife really enjoyed it, and that was one of the big -- I think Alaska was probably the reason that I only spent 10 years in the Navy. There was no reason to -- after being in the state and seeing what a wonderful place it was, I didn't see any future in the Navy after that. As I said, in answer to your question, my wife enjoyed it.
The thing about the nukes up there, we were different people. A lot of the people on post didn't like to associate with the radioactive people, as they say. Anyway, so the wives of the nuclear power group were very close-knit and that -- the enlisted, as well as the two officer's wives that was there. And it was a special little group. And they did a lot of things, a lot of entertainment and stuff like that, which made it a nice tour for the wives.
Patience Stuart: Sure. It sounds like there was a really strong sense of community.
David Applebee: Yes, most definitely. There was no question there.
Patience Stuart: Do you know why, or could you elaborate a little on why you felt like there was some separation from -- between your team and the rest of the installation?
David Applebee: Yeah, because the thought of a lot of people there was, "Gee, they're all radioactive. Gee, they're all involved in that golf ball over there." There was so much unknown as far as the SM-1A's in regard to the other people on the post that that's where the big separation was.
Patience Stuart: Sure. Do you recall much of the sort of the general or public opinion about nuclear energy at the time?
David Applebee: Well, of course, the interesting thing was -- around nuclear energy was becoming very unpopular. There hadn't been any big serious accidents or anything, but it was not something that was talked about a lot until after a couple of accidents. And then all of a sudden the activists came in and that's when the nuclear energy really took a dip.
I think that was another reason too, that I wanted to leave the nuclear program, because that time I didn't see much of a future in it. And I was probably correct to a degree, but I don't know if that answers your question. It’s the best I could do.
Patience Stuart: Sure, absolutely. So what all did you go on to do after your time at SM-1A?
David Applebee: I left there, went down to Fort Belvoir, back to the Navy nuclear power unit, and got involved with -- for the last year that I was in the Navy, was with the Radiological Affairs Support Offices - RASO, we began that, we started that. And then, our Navy RTG program, the Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator program. And so, I was involved in that for several months. And then let's see, what was it? August of '72, I was discharged.
Patience Stuart: And what did you do aft -- ?
Kevin Taylor: So, no trips to Antarctica, to the Navy's reactor in Antarctica?
David Applebee: No, I never went down.
Kevin Taylor: Yeah. I currently work with -- not for RASO, but I work with RASO on multiple projects right now. So it's interesting that you were part of its initiation. That's good to talk to you then.
David Applebee: So it still exists, I'll be darned.
Kevin Taylor: It sure, does.
David Applebee: Gosh. When it began there was a -- let's see, lieutenant commander -- Yeah, there was a lieutenant commander that was Dillman, Commander Dillman, a couple of chiefs: Bill Andrews, John Dorr, a couple of first class, myself, Jerry Sheley. There was a civilian, I can't remember his name, big tall guy, he was a health physicist. And that was basically, oh, yeah -- and one other chief. It was -- he's dead now, anyway, I forget his name, but oh -- Wally, Wally is his first name anyway. And yeah, that was RASO.
Kevin Taylor: I believe it's all civilian now. They, of course, they may have a commander, you know, that's -- that is, you know, an officer, but I believe it's all civilian.
David Applebee: Interesting, interesting. Well, the civilian health physicist back in 1972 said that, he says, "We're going to take over this eventually," and it's happened.
Kevin Taylor: He was right.
David Applebee: Anything else?
Patience Stuart: Yeah. So what did you do after you were discharged? Like, how did you end up in Alaska again?
David Applebee: So I was discharged in August of '72, went back up to Alaska and went to work for a wholesale sporting goods company. And so I was a salesman for them for a while. Then I went to work for a company called Alaska Tent and Tarp, which I bought into and became a partner of.
And we -- our main -- we had a bunch of small products that we sold, but our main product was liners for every time they drill an oil well or whatever it may be, they have these huge pits and the pits have to be lined. And we used to manufacture those. We put hundreds of thousands of square foot of liner up on the North Slope. And that's what I did until I retired in 1995. We sold the business in '95 and I retired then.
Patience Stuart: I see. Could you share some of your impressions of the overall -- Well, I guess, my question is about the Army nuclear power program, just because of our work with the Army Corps, but I'm not sure maybe from the Navy perspective, if it's different or if you were still part of that program?
David Applebee: So, well, the Navy nuclear power program was shore-based, okay, it had nothing to do with propulsion. Alright. The Army nuclear power program was the mainstay. The Army had the school at Fort Belvoir, it had the SM-1 training plant, had the SM-1A, they had the MH-1A down in Gatun Lake in Panama, and they just closed down at Greenland at that time.
So the Army was the big guy as far as shore-based nuclear power plant. All the Navy had was the PM-3A down in the Antarctic. And so, that was basically the whole existence of the Navy nuclear power program at that time was just for the PM-3A. All trained through the Army back over to the Navy nuclear power plant and it went from there. But yeah, the Army was the lead for shore-based nuclear power.
Patience Stuart: Sure. Did it feel like a cohesive group?
David Applebee: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. There was never a problem. It was just -- We were -- whether it's Army -- well, we were a tri-service, of course. it was -- the Air Force was involved also, because of the -- I think it was a PM-1 up in Wyoming, Sundance, Wyoming with the Air Force nuclear power plant up there. And so, yeah, it was Army, Navy, and Air Force.
Patience Stuart: Great. Do you want to talk a little bit more about the culture or camaraderie among the program or among the SM-1A operators?
David Applebee: We all liked to hunt and fish, which we did a lot of. Liked to party. We had a lot of SM-1A parties. Well, a lot of them, every couple, 3 months -- but the whole group would get together, we'd go to the Rod and Gun Club. And that was basically it, you know, but most of the time when you had time off your crew members and your friends, we were out hunting or fishing. But that's what you come to Alaska for.
Patience Stuart: Sure. Kevin, do you have more questions?
David Applebee: What's that again, please?
Patience Stuart: Oh, I was asking Kevin, if he wanted to fill in with any questions.
Kevin Taylor: Well, I think one I would have, yeah, we want to check with our interviewees and see how their experience at SM-1A impacted the rest of their career. And you said you got out of the nuclear business, but you ended up back in Alaska. Was that just happenstance or did you look to return to Alaska, because the time you spent at the SM-1A and so did -- is that what drew you back there? Or was it just because that's where the opportunity was?
David Applebee: No. Your second comment was the correct one. Once we came to Alaska and experienced it, I mean, we're talking about driving into it. The very first time that we --
Well, first of all, driving through -- seeing the Rocky Mountains and going through the Rockies up into Alaska, I said, "Man, this is where I want to live."
And then once we were here, once we were at Greely, heck just a couple of months, it became obvious, even though winter was coming on, it became obvious that this was going to be probably our future home, the state of Alaska was.
Patience Stuart: We've heard some other -- Go ahead, Kevin.
Kevin Taylor: You said you had one of your children was born while you were there. I've been to Delta Junction and recently, but I can't imagine it looks much different today than it did 30, 40 years ago. Not a lot of medical facilities off post. But how did that go? And I assume your wife was onboard with this whole thing.
David Applebee: Right, the minute she became close, she started to get a little bit of labor, they threw her on a C-47 or a CH -- yeah, a Chinook helicopter, and flew it to Bassett Army Hospital up in Fairbanks.
Kevin Taylor: Wow. Okay.
David Applebee: Yeah. The doc at the dispensary there at Fort Greely said, "No way, get her out of here." Patience Stuart: "We're not doing this." Was there -- Kevin Taylor: That's interesting.
David Applebee: Yeah. And then it was almost 2 weeks, two and a half weeks, before she finally delivered, but anyway.
Kevin Taylor: So she got a free helicopter ride, huh?
David Applebee: Yeah. Right, exactly. That was in June of 1970.
Kevin Taylor: Very interesting. Patience Stuart: We've heard a lot of --
Kevin Taylor: Those I think -- those are the kind of stories that really seem to make the work experience there unique, obviously. Well beyond, as you mentioned before, having a specific group that was focused on a specific task, that was something very unique in this nature alone with the nuclear power, but the stories that we've heard of the uniqueness of being at the -- on post at Fort Greely as well, have been very enlightening.
David Applebee: Yeah, yeah. The waking up at night with this terrible, terrible noise of almost like thunder, and you look out your window and there's about 10 buffalo in your yard. And the noise as one of the buffalo is scratching his back on the dumpster. He's picking the dumpster up and dropping it, and picking it up and dropping it. I mean, where in the world could that happen, but there. But, anyway, that's a little off track on that story.
Patience Stuart: Not at all. We've heard some of the interviewees comment that they really just could not handle the cold and the winters there. And certainly that wasn't the case for you and your family. Do you have anything to say about wintering there?
David Applebee: Oh, none at all. My wife and I both were born and brought up in Vermont, northern Vermont. So, you know, yeah. Granted, we might have experienced 30 or 35 below zero up in northern Vermont. And then, of course, we get to Alaska, and in the winter it gets 50 below, 60 below zero. When it's cold, it's cold.
That's what they have clothes for. You see unlike heat where you can only take off so much, whereas cold, you can put on as much as you want.
Patience Stuart: Sure. Well, I'm so --
David Applebee: Yeah, the cold was not -- that wasn't a problem at all, for us anyway.
Patience Stuart: Well, I'm so happy to hear that you were able to find your home out of this experience.
David Applebee: Yeah, it was -- I wouldn't give it up for a million bucks. It was just -- it was a great opportunity.
And the only reason that -- that I got the -- normally, they didn't send a health physics guy up there and maybe didn't -- or generally either a mechanic or an electrician, but there was a sergeant major at the SM-1, anyway, that -- he was a former Navy guy during World War II. So him and I used to talk when I was an environmental monitor there. And when he found out that I was interested, I had no chance to go up. Sergeant Major Cecil.
Anyway, he pulled a few strings for me behind the scenes. And I've been forever grateful for that.
Patience Stuart: Got you to Alaska. Wow. Are you still in contact with anyone from the program?
David Applebee: No. Well, I go to the reunions. And the last reunion we had was, what, 3 years ago now, but see, COVID interrupted the 2020, and then '21, again, the same thing.
So, but there, I see Doug McCarty, Bill France, Billy Joe Foreman, and Frank Faulkner, you know. They generally attend reunions. So, I'm not on a -- I don't contact them every day except for the reunions.
Patience Stuart: You see them there? David Applebee: Yeah. Patience Stuart: I see. Yeah.
David Applebee: Did you ever -- have you ever been able to get hold of the old commanding officer up there at SM-1A? Well, he retired. Colonel Dorr, John Dorr?
Patience Stuart: I don't have his contact information, but is he part of the reunions? Because we are in contact with --
David Applebee: Well, no, I haven't talked to John since 2004. I got hold of him just by accident through the alumni of West Point. He's a West Point graduate. And I got to talk to him then.
Yeah, he was a major then, and probably, as far as I'm concerned, one of the finest officers I ever served with. I mean, he was a phenomenal man. Great, great guy.
But anyway, yeah, he was there -- He came up about a month before I did in '69, and he left about a month before I did in '71. So we were there together for the whole time. But yeah, he's back on the East Coast somewhere, I think, Virginia.
Patience Stuart: Okay. And would you mind spelling his last name for me?
David Applebee: Sure. It's D-O-R-R. Patience Stuart: Okay.
David Applebee: John Dorr. And I say he retired as a colonel in the United States Army. And he was a -- I don't know what branch he was in when he retired or whatever, but he was a ranger. Anyway, he was a great guy.
Patience Stuart: Great. We will see if we can look him up. Are there any other experiences from SM-1A or Fort Greely that you'd like to share?
David Applebee: Yeah. The only thing is, is that it's a damn lot of them are dead. As you saw that list that I sent you. I mean, that's amazing the number of guys that died.
And the number of cancers, that was another thing. And that was one of -- probably one of the hardest jobs --
The military they've got this mentality, okay, it's called mission, mission. Got to do the mission, okay?
So if we'd have problems with the control-like drives or something of the sort, and the mechanics would have to go down and work on it, I had to be conscious all the time on 'em, because they would hide their dosimeters.
And I never was able to get the exact amount of radiation that those guys sucked down, but I was always sneaking around trying to catch them and I'd catch them, it was --
All the guys that were responsible for it, all died of some weird form of cancer. And I mean, that's the only amazing thing. I could list off their names here. They just never listened.
But anyway, that's probably the most frustrating part of the entire association with the program is -- is -- I guess, you can almost look at those guys, like the anti-vaxxers for the vaccines. I mean, "I know radiation they say is terrible, all this, but boy, we got to get this job done," you know.
Patience Stuart: And so, they would hide their dosimeters, because they were so tied to the mission, and -- even though they knew --
David Applebee: Oh, absolutely, because you'd have to go down -- and this thing -- you had a lot of streaming radiation down there in those pits. So I'd go down there and figure out -- some of it was getting really high, high streams, and I'd put up my tape to where the streams were, you know, so those guys knew what to work around. Turn your back, bingo, they're right here, right in the middle of it, just working away. "Got to get it fixed, you know." And okay.
Patience Stuart: Did you ever have to respond to an overexposure situation?
David Applebee: No. None of my crews or none of my guys ever got overexposed. And the ones that would listen and follow directions. But I have no idea of the ones that hid the dosimeters or their film badges of what they got. No idea whatsoever. I think we were allowed that time as a -- for a year, I think it was one red. But that was a long time ago. Go ahead.
Patience Stuart: Kevin, do you have any more questions?
Kevin Taylor: Nope. I do not.
Patience Stuart: You don’t? Okay. And David, do you have anything else you'd like to share?
David Applebee: Really, no nothing. No, not really. Not on tape anyway.
Patience Stuart: Sure. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview and we really appreciate your service to the program. And I'm glad that you had such an enjoyable experience while you were there, and you were able to make your home in Alaska.
David Applebee: Yeah. And yeah, like I -- glad to participate. If there's any questions or anything come popping up that you're curious about, just email me and I'll be more than glad to answer it.
Patience Stuart: Okay. Alright. I will go ahead and conclude the interview and stop recording.