Saturday, March 12, 2011

History You never knew! What has happened in Japan (a nuclear excusion), almost happened here in NY State in 1965. UPDATED with new video!

Approaching the Nuclear Prototype training facility at West Milton, NY.
**Click To Enlarge**

I just located this photo on line that was taken by another Naval Nuclear Power trainee back in the mid-late 60's. This is what it looked like back in 1965 driving down the access road to the Nuclear Prototype Training facility in West Milton, NY. It always made me think of something out of a Sci-Fi movie, especially when it was foggy.

With all that is happening in Japan right now regarding the three nuclear reactors, I am reminded of an incident that occurred in 1965 at the nuclear training facility I was stationed at, a near nuclear excursion. This is something I have never spoke of before now.

In 1965 Cookie was a Navy Nuclear Power student at the Naval Reactor Prototype training facility in West Milton, NY (near Saratoga Springs, NY). There were two nuclear reactors at this site, one "The Ball" (pictured in the above photograph) was for nuclear powered surface ship training, and the other for Nuclear Submarine training (not shown).

It was November 9th, 1965 at approximately 5:00 PM when the entire Northeast United States was plunged into complete darkness in what has been called "The Great Northeast Blackout". Some of you may actually recall this event.

Without becoming very technical let me just say that at that time there were two sources of outside power feeding this then General Electric operated site. One source came in from Connecticut and the other from Con-Ed (NY). They were called "SIR" and "SAR". These two power sources were intentionally redundant in case there was ever a power failure in either one. No one ever planned for the contingency that ALL power from both sources would lost at the same time, AND, that both nuclear reactors would ALSO be off-line at the same time.

As it happened, at the moment the NE blackout occurred, one reactor, the surface training reactor was shut down and "off-line", and the submarine training reactor was in the process of being brought up to critical operation but was not yet a self sustaining nuclear reaction.

The moment the NE Blackout occurred, all the control rods in the operational submarine reactor "scrammed" (a necessary safety measure) and immediately shut down the reactor. The problem was that without any electrical power at all, the main cooling pumps that circulate water to cool the reactor core were not operational and the heat in the core was extensive in that it was close to "critical" operation at the time of the power failure.

This type of scenario can lead to what is known as a "Nuclear Excursion", not an explosion. An excursion is when the cooling water surrounding the core eventually flashes to superheated steam and blows open the reactor itself, and then the containment vessel that houses the reactor ( and the core) blows open, exposing the highly radioactive core to the atmosphere.

This type of event can eventually lead to a meltdown of the core, and then to what some refer to as "The China Syndrome". In other words, the core is so hot it could theoretically burn through the earths crust to China (actually no further than the center of the earth) on the other side of the planet.

To Cookie's knowledge, 2 Nuclear Excursions are on record, the first having occurred in Idaho in 1961 at the SL1 training reactor, ), and the other at the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

For those of you that may be interested, here is a link to a once "Classified" video of the SL1 excursion event.

To continue, I recall that as the core temperatures of the scrammed S3G sub reactor began to increase into dangerous levels, many GE engineers and technicians were literally running around like chickens with their heads cut off. All non-essential personnel were ordered to leave the site immediately. Power to operate the Main Circulating pumps was needed immediately. Where to get the power?

Now Sir, I don't recall his name (I truly wish I did), but a Navy 2nd Class Petty Officer was the person who came up with an idea and suggested running power cables from an old, unused diesel generator that was outside and some distance from the "reactor hull" (and meant for other purposes), to the Main Circulating Pumps. Cables were quickly located and run from this old generator into "the hull" and connected to the Main Circ. pumps. No one was even sure if the generator would start or not. Fortunately for a great many folks, it did, and a terrible disaster was very narrowly averted. His idea and actions literally saved the nearby towns of West Milton, Ballston Spa, Mechanicsville and Saratoga NY (and possibly a great many more towns and villages). That Petty Officer was an unsung Hero if there ever was one.

I have often wondered if the residents of those sleepy, quaint little village and towns ever knew how close they came to a nuclear disaster like that happening in Japan as I type this. To be clear, Cookie is NOT against nuclear power, in fact I'm all for it, especially in these energy starved times. Like any new technology(at that time it was relatively new), we learn from our mistakes and what happened at West Milton and other sites in the US could, in all probability not happen today. 

I know this to be true because Cookie was there! This is the first time I have ever spoken of that event since 1965. In those days, Naval Nuclear Power was relatively new and a highly secret/confidential matter and it was strictly forbidden to talk about anything related to that topic.

I guess in closing the old adage "No Harm-No Foul" applies. Like anything else in life, if we're astute enough, we learn from our mistakes.


"SubVet" said; "WOW! I remember that blackout, it shut down the entire East Coast and the last I remember, nobody ever pinned down exactly what caused it.

Yep, the powers that be probably wanted this one kept quiet. REAL quiet. Hopefully that 2nd Class got the recognition he deserved."

COOKIE said; SubVet, there are two possible causes of that Blackout, one theory is that a UFO was spotted hovering (many witness's to this) over a Power Sub Station in Clay, NY (about 10 miles from where I live right now), however, the most probable cause was a technician improperly set a safety device at too low of a setting (up in Canada) and when the evening power demand surged from folks turning on the evening lights and heat, the breaker popped and a domino effect occurred .

I have no idea if that Petty Officer was ever recognised for his heroic actions, but if not, a grave injustice was done.

"Vigilis" said; "Enjoyed this post. Was in Schenectady at the time. Received related e-mail short while ago."

"Dapper Dan" said; "Cookie, this is an interesting story. I lived in KY at the time and remember seeing stories about it on TV and reading about in the newspapers. But your personal story brings home the dangers a blackout like that can cause. I support nuclear power too, and I'm sure you're right about their being safeguards at nuke plants against this kind of situation developing now days. But I think a massive blackout could cause other non-nuclear problems that could be equally dangerous and I'm not sure we're fully prepared for that contingency. I'm with your other readers about the guy who saved the day with his quick thinking. He deserved to be honored and rewarded for his quick actions.

BTW, I'm also interested in and open to the UFO possibility too. Do you have any other info on why (other than the eyewitness accounts) that a UFO could have been responsible?"

COOKIE said; Dan, there is a theory that UFO's can draw power from our electrical grid through Inductance, and when you think about it, it's very possible. The new cell phone charges that are now out that you simply place your cell phone on a pad and they charge up, work by inductance. The sudden (or high) draw on power could have started the domino effect that resulted.

"Ex-Nuc" said; "I qualed at S3G in 1980. Did some work in that RC on the pressurizer too. Air was hazy with insulation. Was the single largest exposure in my career. Hmmmm...."

"The Chief" said; "We can always count on the old Cookie Monster to bring us the untold truth. A really interesting footnote to history that should be made public."