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Working The Mare Island Nukes

In 1980 a mutual friend put me in touch with Gerry Stone, a Mare Island shipyard worker who had seen some things he thought the public ought to know about. I was then a hustling freelancer. We arranged to meet and Gerry, who is self-effacing, asked two co-workers to come and help provide details. Gerry’s friends were very worried that even with their names withheld, they might get in trouble if and when the story was published. (My plan was to submit it to California magazine or the substantial Sunday supplement the SF Chronicle used to publish.) I promised to show them a draft and said I would not send it off if they thought it put them at too great a risk. The interview was conducted at Gerry’s house in Napa. Many six packs were consumed, and a few joints. Later, when the men read my draft, they nixed publication. I gave Gerry the only copy.

Gerry is long gone, James moved back to Nebraska, I don’t know what became of Kevin. Their story comes to mind whenever nuclear waste turns up “unexpectedly” at Hunters Point or Alameda, or when a nuclear accident or near accident gets reported by the media. What follows are excerpts from the now-it-can-be-told interview.

Fred Gardner: So what’s the main point of the story? The Nautilus is in, being prepared for defueling and final retirement…

James: The story is there are at least three and maybe as many as eight potential Three Mile Islands sitting right here in the middle of the water, in the midst of millions of people. Everybody’s concerned now about Rancho Seco. It’s as if they don’t understand that nuclear subs are run by nuclear reactors. And the subs come to Mare Island for refueling. Which is a more dangerous procedure than the ordinary, day-in-day-out out operation of a reactor.

FG: Why is refueling so dangerous?

James: When the core is disassembled there is no means of control, basically, only the cooling system is preventing a critical reaction.

FG: Where else do nuclear subs refuel?

James and Kevin: Bremerton, Washington; Honolulu; Groton Connecticut… Probably Norfolk. Not sure about Portsmouth and San Diego. The Enterprise, which has eight nuclear reactors, refuels at Alameda.

FG: How long have you been at Mare Island?

Kevin: Twelve years — eight in the nuclear program. I volunteered.

FG: Why?

Kevin: When you work at Mare Island, you’re told that nuclear is the way up, the wave of the future. I grew up in the Midwest. My father was a farmer who got caught in a three-year drought. We moved to Northern California and then, when I was in high school, we moved down to Vallejo. Three months after I graduated I took the test for apprenticeship at the shipyard. My folks thought it was great that I’d be learning a trade. Growing up in Vallejo, to work at Mare Island is the thing.

James: I went to Hogan High School. More than half the kids there, I’d say, wound up working at Mare Island. It’s nothing to have four generations at the Yard.

Kevin: I’m a pipefitter. I thought I was going to learn a trade and move on, but you get involved. I’m the type of person who likes to get the job done efficiently and the men over me recognized this towards the end of my apprenticeship, so I rose real fast. If you’re in the civil service and you’re one of those guys who gets the job done efficiently, then you always get the job, know what I mean? I had a brand new Thunderbird — I always had the latest wheels — and because I was at Mare Island I was serving the Navy so I didn’t have to worry about Vietnam. I was totally into the program. Mare Island was my life –my social life, everything.

James: I became a refueling instructor, teaching people how to operate a cooling system. Then I was a nuclear mechanic in charge of a four-man group. Then a foreman pipefitter with 15 or 20 men under me. Then general foreman pipefitter. I figured I was well on my way to group superintendent.

As for the dangers of working in nuclear, I wasn’t that concerned. They told us that 4,500 millirems per year was the acceptable maximum — 1400 per quarter, 300 per week. Later they lowered the amount they considered an acceptable maximum. But I wasn’t that worried because you suffered no symptoms of any damage, so you thought “what the fuck?” The work actually seemed clean. I liked the benefits and they never hassled you about overtime. So I was working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and felt lucky. My wife suffered, we had no social life, but I can’t say I suffered. Then in ‘72 I started getting chest pains and really feeling the pressure of getting the work done. It was too much aggravation. I started getting cold sweats, having nightmares. I know the scabs on my hands, they started peeling…

FG: Did you transfer out of nuclear?

James: No, I quit the shipyard. Just quit instead of taking disability. I went up to Northern California and spent a year and a half building commercial boats and fishing.

FG: Why did you come back?

James: I’m not sure. Didn’t enjoy the weather up there that much.

FG: Did you return to nuclear?

James: Yes, but I wasn’t so gung ho. I came back as a journeyman pipefitter and then I became a pipefitter instructor. Around this time a change came down. Every week we’d have safety meetings, every Friday afternoon. There was a big push by Washington for REM reduction. They changed their guidelines and made it so that refueling should be accomplished with the least total exposure to the crews. Logically, you think they’d train twice as many workers if they wanted to reduce the overall exposure by half. But what they did instead was actually reduce the number of people involved in refueling, using only the best workers, the ones they knew could get the job done fastest. That way the overall exposure was reduced but to those of us doing the job, it was actually increased.

Kevin: Our supervisors could look good in the eyes of whoever they were reporting to in Washington.

James: After Three Mile Island I heard an NRC official saying that with 500 REM there was a significant chance of getting cancer. I’ve gotten more than that in a day! By this time I wanted into non-nuclear but I couldn’t apply for it because it wasn’t a promotion.

FG: You can only apply for a step up?

James: Exactly. And the shop superintendent wouldn’t recommend me for the transfer because a lot of other guys were feeling the same way — they wanted out of nuclear and back to black-iron jobs.

Kevin: Working in nuclear wasn’t officially considered hazardous. We couldn’t apply for hot pay because saying how hot it got would violate security.

FG: What’s involved in refueling a nuclear sub?

Kevin: It’s conducted by a team. Remember the football team? That’s how they run the team. With half-time pep talks, the whole trip. The shipyard commander, the head of security, they tell you you’re the elite. “Team! Team! Team!” We even had a second-string team in case you got burned out on first string. They’re not quite as good as the first team, but they’re okay.

FG: How many men are on the team?

Kevin: That’s classified.

FG: How many men are on the team?

Kevin: There might be a thousand men trained in nuclear. But the majority of them are not on defueling teams. I’d say there’s more than a hundred, less than 200. There are others like transporting garbage – nuclear waste – and doing contaminated jobs in controlled areas. But they’re not working with fuel. 

Defueling and refueling are basically the same on a submarine as at land-based power plants. Whenever the fuel is spent it has to be removed and replaced. 

FG: How often does that occur?

Kevin: It depends on the core type. It may be eight years. It may be that the contamination level requires that the plant be shut down and flushed out after only five years.

FG: When the submarine comes through the Golden Gate, is the reactor powering it? Where and when does defueling begin?

James: It’s going until it lands at the pier. The subs come in San Pablo Bay, up the Sacramento River, finally up the Napa River. The reactor is providing power until the vessel is berthed. Then it goes through cool-down. That means the plant gets shut down and you wait until the inside of the reactor is below 140 degrees.

FG: What’s special about 140 degrees?

James: That’s the temperature you can stand to go inside and look around.

Kevin: But it’s still hotter than a firecracker. 

FG: What happens next?…

James: The stores are unloaded and the vessel is put in dry-dock, where most of the work is done... There are four dry-docks, two equipped for refueling. 

Kevin: It takes months until the new power unit is installed. What we’re talking abut, really, is thousands of steps. First thing, we start installing the refueling equipment: aluminum buildings – complexes – that fit around the sub. These enable you to burn a patch out on the top of the vessel and get at the reactor compartment. Welders working around the clock burn out the patch. If all goes well it takes one or two days to cut the hole, which is bigger than a living room. 

FG: What’s exposed below?

Kevin: A 14-inch-thick stainless steel vessel. An incredible piece of equipment! From the pictures we’ve seen, I’d say the vessel on a nuclear sub is a much stronger, much safer piece of equipment than the kind used in private industry.

FG: Next step?

Kevin: The head is removed – the upper containment vessel, the top half of the reactor. And this is done at top speed because it’s highly, highly radioactive. That’s why they came in to refuel – they’re losing power because it’s totally crapped up.

FG: Crapped up with what? 

Kevin: The waste product we were concerned with was Cobalt-60, a highly radioactive waste product of Cobalt 59, which is used to case-harden stainless steel valves and pumps and pipes. When exposed to ionizing radiation it becomes Cobalt 60. It’s in the water in the cooling system and the fuel itself.

James: The most radioactive elements are lead-blanketed. But every time you do that it takes someone actually putting on the blanket.

FG: How did you meet Gerry?

James: Originally, he was an apprentice. Then after he got laid off and came back as a truck driver, I told him to put in as a pipefitter in nuclear. I knew he was a good worker and I wanted him with me.

 (To be continued…)

* * *

A Fan’s Note

The first round of the NBA play-offs is, for people with my drug of choice, the most wonderful time of the year. For reasons I can’t fathom, the phrase, “dropping a dime” is now commonly used by men and women broadcasting basketball games, to mean “making a precise pass.” Originally the phrase meant to inform on somebody so as to get them in trouble with the boss or with the law — to ”squeal,” “snitch,” “rat,” “be a stool-pigeon,” etc. “Dime dropper” was a synonym for “snitch,” “rat,” etc. The term came into use when pay phones were ubiquitous and it cost ten cents to make a call. (After three minutes a live operator would give you the option of buying more time. We complained about “Ma Bell,” meaning the telephone company, not knowing how nice the old dame really was.) Listening to games on TV this year, it appears that “dropping” can be dropped and “dime” can stand alone as a synonym for “good pass.” Maybe some hip-hop artist too young to know the snitch-call etymology heard the phrase, thought it had a nice ring to it, and applied to a perfect lob.


  1. Adam Sage April 27, 2023

    I think this needs some fact checking. I won’t say much else, but I’m a retired Navy Nuke who has done refueling complex overhauls and the numbers here are way off. This is doing an injustice to an entire group of people. Thanks.

  2. fred gardner May 7, 2023

    My apologies to you and anyone else who was offended. It’s a story I was told by three Mare Island shipyard workers who may well have been “disgruntled employees” and not objective whistleblowers. If you want to set me straight. I’m reachable –

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