THMG124 – SL-1 Radiation Fatalities with Gail Carter

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0 thoughts on “THMG124 – SL-1 Radiation Fatalities with Gail Carter”

  1. Hi Gail,

    Very interesting and informative read.

    Do we know what happened to the firefighters that answered the call that day?

    They were exposed to high levels of radiation, did this cause any health problems after the incident?

    1. Hey Morgan,

      We here at The Haz Mat Guys are unsure to the answer to this question. We will reach out to Gail to ask for some answers.


  2. Morgan –

    Thank you very much for listening to the podcast and reading the articles!

    Did their rescue work that night affect the rest of their lives? Without access to exposure and medical records, which of course are protected personal health information, we can’t be 100% certain. However, most of the SL-1 firefighters anecdotally appear to have lived to an age that is considered to be a normal (read: reasonable) human lifespan.

    Egon Lamprecht, the “young, good-looking Mormon kid” who wanted to make good money as an Atomic Firefighter passed away in 2014 at the age of 79. Judging by how spry he was in many of the video interviews and lectures he gave on the Sl-1 accident well into his later years, there is no reason to suspect that this was from anything other than natural causes. His obituary can be found here:

    Egon was the youngest of the firefighters that responded in that night at the age of 25. He was also later perhaps the most well-known as he was interviewed many times for both print and video media regarding the accident. You can see him on many documentaries done in later years, including the one that was done for the History Channel’s “Modern Marvels: Engineering Disasters” series. He clearly endeavored to keep the memory of what they walked into alive, passing it on to the next generation of nuclear workers and first responders.

    Mel Hess was still alive as of November 2014 when he gave an interview to the Idaho Falls Post Register regarding the response to the accident, possibly around the same time as the death of his fellow firefighter Egon Lamprecht. That article can be found online, but unfortunately the Post Register now requires an account sign-up to view their online content. Although I am sure it is very exciting reading, I’m not interested enough in the day-to-day goings-on in Eastern Idaho (no offense!) to sign up.

    The other firefighters kept much lower profiles. A cursory search of the internet only reveals one possible match out of that entire first-due engine company roster from that responded to the SL-1 accident.

    Vern Conlin, possibly present that fateful night in 1961, passed in 2017 at the age of 82. I say “possibly” because it is not absolutely confirmed. However, the timeline adds up, his name is on the duty roster, and he retired as a Fire Captain after a 30 year career at INL. That’d all have to be a pretty big coincidence. His obituary can be viewed here:

    It would probably take another series of articles and a follow-on podcast : ) to adequately get into the health physics particulars regarding the dose these men received based on their particular job tasks and positions that night. Then we’d have to look at that acute exposure against the bigger picture of the dose they received over their entire lifetime. We’d probably eventually get into acute vs. chronic effects of radiation exposure, dose vs. benefit (ALARA), Linear-No-Threshold (LNT) Theory, etc. etc. etc. Several books out there by individuals much more learn-ed and accomplished than myself can better-explain these relationships, including how the odds shake out regarding deterministic (sterility, cataracts, erythema) vs. stochastic effects (radiogenic cancers, genetic effects). Remember that on a long enough timeline, we ALL will get cancer. Might I suggest this excellent book as a source for further reading on the topic, I have it on my own shelf at home (“Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation” by Professor Timothy Jorgensen, Georgetown University. Bonus: the dust jacket glows in the dark!):

    Some well-done presentations by industry folks I’ve received in response to the original articles ballpark the exposure levels on the SL-1 reactor floor immediately following the incident at 500 – 1000 R/hr. But, you must remember that by then the firefighters were thankfully operating with site health physics techs directly supporting them, and stay times were tightly controlled at 1 to 3 minutes. A responder who stayed at the top of the stairs for 3 minutes in a 500 R/hr field to survey the scene and plan a rescue/recovery would take a calculated hit of 25 R (the currently recognized EPA limit for lifesaving). Remember that this limit used to be 100 R back in the day, and was probably tightened down in large part due to the experience from SL-1! The stretcher bearers who ran into the reactor room could have been exposed to a 1,000 R/hr radiation field worst-case and thusly would have taken a hit of 100 R in 6 minutes if my Sunday afternoon firehouse math is correct. However, they were administratively limited to 1 minute shifts as a turnback limit for safety’s sake.

    The one eventual death that may be directly attributable to internal radiation exposure during the accident could be that of Ed Vallerio, who passed of cancer in 1999. Recall he was the health physics technician who had to remove his SCBA mask and take a few breaths while still in an environment that contained material emitting particulate radiation (Alphas, Betas). As related in the book “Idaho Falls: The Untold Story of America’s First Nuclear Accident” by William Mckeown, Vallerio had been carrying one of the injured soldiers when his SCBA failed. He reportedly did a quick mental risk/benefit calculation of the internal committed dose he would received by doffing his mask and attempting to hold his breath, and determined it was worth it. Supposedly, his companion HP Paul Duckworth had to do the same, but a search yields no results on his fate.

    I sincerely hope all this answers your question. Thanks again, and stay safe!

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