Going Critical USA: A First-Hand Account
An account of the aftermath of a 1963 Livermore Lab criticality.
By Jack Truher
In 1963, I was a young experimental criticality physicist whose office was a few steps away from the radiation vault in which the accident occurred.
Initial cleanup involved removal of radioactive debris and components from the combustion of some 103 pounds of enriched uranium, plus burned beryllium and graphite components.
After bulk removal was complete, I worked for a few hours in the vault in full rubber radiation protection gear, breathing filtration, etc. Untrained for such cleanup, I was among a small contingent of young staff, mostly professional, who were handed buckets and brushes and ordered to scrub down radioactive residue from damaged or complex experimental apparatus. Each of us could only work in this environment for perhaps 45 minutes per day without exceeding radiation standards. Our efforts were almost completely futile. After a few days of such wasted effort, management became aware that they had no effective scrub down plan. Some staff (not me) began a pattern of not appearing...
My last appearance in the contaminated vault was interrupted when a 55-to-60-year-old radiation safety veteran appeared in the vault without any protective equipment. Without saying a word, he removed his trousers and shirt, throwing them over some bars in a distant corner of the radiation vault. Dressed only in his underwear, the silent veteran turned on the wall-mounted, emergency fire hose at high pressure, spraying a robust stream of water directly on the blackened apparatus, the surrounding walls, etc. He was immediately drenched in radioactive water and traces of black uranium oxide. The resulting runoff water drained to what appeared to be an industrial floor drain. I assumed then that this runoff drain led to the public sewer or municipal storm drainage system. I was not aware of any contained sumps for this building* although their existence was possible...
Confronted with what I viewed as reckless cleanup behavior, I removed myself from the radiation vault. I was never rescheduled to assist further with the cleanup. No further communications were made to me about any aspect of the cleanup.
Thuher's account is from the October Citizen's Watch, newsletter of the Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment in Livermore, California.
End Note: An article in a 1964 Health Physics journal is the only unclassified account of the 1963 criticality accident at Lawrence Livermore known to exist. It was written by lab staffers who suggested the cleanup was remarkable, stating for example, on p. 191, "The off-site environment was in no way compromised by the excursion." Jack Truher believes this report may amount to a "cover up."