Hanford Reach: In The Atomic Field > Oral Histories

My dad, my uncle and several cousins were here when the Manhattan Project got underway. They were there at the start; they helped build the B Reactor. And in a little over 13 months from start to finish, that reactor went online. And at the time, they didn't know exactly what they were building and why it was being built. Later, much later, we found that it was a reactor to refine plutonium into weapons-grade materials. They built those reactors to make the plutonium for the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And that ended World War II, or helped end it.

My dad and my uncle, they worked in construction out there. They weren't allowed to work in operations; no Blacks were in operations. And my dad retired from local 348: union workers' construction. The government eventually came out and said: "If you are using government money, then you have to have a percentage of other races working out here. You can’t just keep it lily white." In ’66, that's when the government came in and said, “You will hire other races.” Before then, there were a handful of Blacks out here, but not very many.

My dad, he told us a lot about the work that he did. And he actually ran a crew of men; they gave him a crew of men to run, to build the B Reactor.



Fast-forward to ’51: when I came here after I graduated from high school, I went to work on construction myself. And I couldn't get a job out there until the government said, “You got to give these people a job.” And it was a bunch of us hired, within a year, all Blacks.

And they put us all in janitorial. And then the government said, “That's not good enough; you can't tell me you got this many Blacks working out there, and none of them can do anything but janitorial work.” That's when they started moving [us] into labs, into experiments.

We did experiments on hamsters, rats, goats, pigs; some on cows and horses, chickens and monkeys. You would feed them a certain amount of radioactive material, plutonium… I worked in inhalation toxicology, with the beagle dogs. We exposed them to plutonium, to see what that did to them; every so often we would sacrifice a dog, a hamster, what have you. And you would analyze the feces, the urine, all the tissues, the heart, liver, everything, to find out if it had an effect on the animals. So they would know that if it affected the animals, and you’re working in it every day, then it would affect you, too.



When I got the job and went in, they didn't want me there cause I was Black. I went to work anyway because the government said, “You got to hire these people.” Okay: after a while, they get to a point where they know me. Then: I'm Vanis. And Vanis is okay. But now, if I take one of my buddies and bring him down, they don't know him, so he's not okay. See?

It’s a funny thing: when you work with prejudice every day, you do it because you need a job and you got to take care of your family. But when I retired, I got x amount of dollars coming in every month: I don't have to take anything off anybody anymore. You know, where I once kept my mouth closed, because if anything came up, they were going to get rid of me, and that person was going to keep his job… I needed my job. But after I retired: I don’t have to put up with that stuff no more. And I don't. To this day I don't.

I became a manager, myself. And I’ve had guys come out there, and they’d say, “Who’s the supervisor?” “There he is right there.” “Oh man, stop playing, who’s the supervisor? If he’s the supervisor I’m not working for him; I’ll go back.” I’d say, “You don’t want to work for me? If you don't want to work for me, I don't want you to work for me. But, let me tell you something before you leave: I'm going to send you down to my boss, and guess what he’s going to say to you when you walk in the door? When you walk in that office over there, the first thing out of his mouth is going to be: ‘You are fired, and get off of this project. Now.’”



I left, and I stayed gone for 17 years; and then I went back out there. But in the years I was gone, we went from production to “Hot Standby,” which means they start shutting the reactors down. They started shutting them down in the 80’s. All of them were shut down as far as production of plutonium goes, except for N. “Hot Standby:” that's when they came in and redid everything in the reactor, spent millions and millions of dollars rebuilding everything. They got it all rebuilt, and they turned everything on just long enough to make sure that it would run, then they shut it back off. We went from hot standby to “Cold Standby.”

And when we went to Cold Standby we started to disassemble everything. We took all the oils out of the different engines, and pumps, all of the contaminated tools and everything. We would start at the top of the reactor and decommission from the top, and go down to the bottom floor. And we had all kinds of tools, anything that they thought would help their experiment they would buy; we had to go in, get a reading, find out how contaminated it was. We had to box it all up: box after box after box after box of contaminated material, tools, everything that was in that zone. And then you surveyed it out, and it either went to low-level waste, medium level waste, or high-level waste. And you separated it out accordingly, and disposed of it accordingly. And some of it so contaminated that you may need to be from here to that street out there, before you can get a reading on it of any kind. Which is not accurate, because look how far away you are from it: if you got right up on it, you don’t have an instrument that would read it.

And we took down basins that held what we called “hot water” that ran through the reactor to keep it cool while it was in operations, and then was pumped out into these tanks, and was allowed to evaporate, and siphoned back through the ground into the river… And we started cleaning all this stuff up. And they are still doing it. They’re still cleaning it up today.



And then in the process of all of that you know how humans are: we get lazy, and we don't do what we are supposed to do when we are supposed to do it. In cleanup, we found stuff that was supposed to be put in burial grounds was just, put out there… So you’d find places that are hot, stuff buried that shouldn’t have been there in the first place. But out of sight out of mind, they got rid of it, you know. And then we’d come along and find it.

Sometimes you get in trouble because you get in over your head. Sometimes, you start digging, and the farther you go the hotter the ground gets, which means contamination. And it can be anything from soil, to something they buried in the ground, you know...

Back when I was in “Decon,” [Decontamination], before I became manager in operations, I was in the 300 Area. And we had “basins:” big old swimming pools, four of them. And they were doing experiments. And the waste, like the water they used to cool, to clean something with, it came down to the basins; I had to sample the basins. And whenever one of them was hot, didn’t make any difference what time of day or night or what day it was: you loaded trucks with that contaminated water, and out to the tank farms it went. On tanker trucks.

Okay now: we had sludge that came down there also. We neutralized it with caustic. That went into railroad cars. And about every two, three days, we'd have enough that we would pump it into railroad cars and send it out to be pumped into underground tanks. And no one took the time to say, “Well, you got so much iodine… Make it real simple: you got this much salt, this much sugar, this much pepper, this much, whatever. You just, everything was mixed in there together; you took it out there, and put it in the ground.

And that's where we are out there now: they’re trying to empty those tanks. All the different chemicals in them, they have eaten through the tanks, you know, and they are beginning to leak. And we have to get that pumped out. You don't know exactly what you’re pumping... And it’s been 25 years since I was out there; technology has changed so much since then, they’ve learned so much. But you still can't just reach in there and go to pumping… You’ve got to know what you are pumping.



The railroad tracks: I can't remember all the [junction] names, but the railroad tracks… They ran the stuff on railroad cars by remote, because it was so hot that they didn’t have enough shielding for a person to be around it. And I don’t know if they’ve still got them sitting out there; it’s been almost 25 years since I was out there. But, they would just set it out off somewhere by itself, it was that highly contaminated. Rope it off, and you couldn’t go out there where it was, it would just sit there… Anything that is contaminated, you want to try to get it fixed, so that it will stay right where it is. You don’t want the wind blowing it around or anything like that. Because the wind will blow it…

Buried trains: they’re in what we call “cells.” What happened was, they were so hot, and things were going so fast at the time, it was cheaper to just push them in and leave them than it was to try to figure out how to decontaminate them and reuse them. So they just pushed them in, and left them in there. And three years ago the tops of those “canyons” start to deteriorate, falling in. And one of these days they’re gonna have to go in those canyons, and get those railcars, trains and engines, whatever they got in there. They’re gonna have to get all that stuff out of there. But technology will get to a point where you can safely go in, and remove all of that stuff.



All the reactors have been cocooned; they have been covered and are in standby mode. And they’ll go in once every 5 years and take samples, get readings. In somewhere around 75 years, unless they come up with new technology, they may be able to go in and check the cores of those reactors. They are just that highly contaminated.

In 1943 when B reactor came online, it took 14 months roughly from the start, to starting up that reactor. Today if you built that reactor, you never would get it built. Because of all the restrictions, and the hoops you got to jump through… With the way things are now... That vitrification plant, when it started I think it was something like seven billion. Now it’s somewhere up around 20 billion. And they still don’t have it finished.

At one time, the government didn't have to answer to anybody for anything that they did. It was government business, and government business only. Then they came up with the “right to know…” But like I say: when they started those reactors, my dad, any of them, they didn't have any idea they were building something to separate
plutonium and make a bomb out of it… They had no idea.



I have worked in radiation and contamination enough, and learned enough, and read enough, that I know that every day they are breaking new ground on how to control this stuff and how to clean it up. When I left from out there, they weren’t going to empty no tanks out there. But they’re emptying them now. They are going to clean it up.

Now: whether they'll clean it up to a point where you can put houses and stuff, and people can live out there… There’s going to be places out that you can't put any industry or anything on, see. When you’re talking about 542 square miles out there or something like that… They have reduced it down. Contamination has what we call a half-life; it will dissipate.

Plutonium: they may eventually come up with something where they can cut that lifetime down. See, everything here on earth was already here. Plutonium was here, been here all along, uranium, been here all along, you know… So, what we have here, has been here… We gathered it together to make what we needed out of it. Now we got to learn how to separate it back out. I mean, man may eventually outsmart himself, you know…

I don't know where they're going to bury it; they got to bury it where it won't get into the groundwater… Now, “ERDF:” that's a great big landfill. It’s like a swimming pool, with a liner. And everything is dumped in that liner. And you got low-level, medium level, high-level waste in that liner. They cover it up, and they mark it. They allow it to decay… They’ll develop a process they can take it through and clean it up, and everything is back like it was… Nature has a way of replenishing itself.

They are going to clean it up. They are going to clean it up. I worked in it long enough to know, and saw the advancements: where we were when I started, and when I retired. Where we were was like light years apart. They got people that are studying how to do stuff all the time, and believe it or not, they got some of the smartest people in the world right here in the Tri-Cities...

Well, the deal is: You've been to Richland, you’ve been to Kennewick, and you’ve been to Pasco; you see how big it is... Guess what? 90% of what you have seen, and the way people live, and what they own, and what they got, is because of Hanford. Is because of Hanford.

Now, I some people have been hurt. Some people have died. And all of that, I'm not taking it lightly. But that is part of the price that you pay for progress. That might be kind of harsh, but everything is not gonna always go favorably. You’re going to make some mistakes, some people is going to pay for your mistakes, it’s going to cost something…

And those people are martyrs. They should be recognized for their sacrifices. It’s just like the Army, any branch of the service. You go and fight. And then you come back to the United States, and you’re still a second class citizen. And the people that you fought for are the people that’s putting their foot on your neck. And you fought for them to be free, and do what they want to do… And they got their foot on your neck…

That: it’s bad. But that's the way it is.