Hanford Reach: In The Atomic Field > Oral Histories

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, I was a freshman in college. So I signed up to become a meteorologist in the army Air Corps... But... my active duty in the Air Corps was going to colleges: I had done a lot of physics and chemistry and math, so they put me in communications, at Yale University. And while there, they were looking for people to go into radar, so heavens, I might as well apply… This was in 1944... Radar was being developed primarily at MIT.

And we didn't even realize at that time that they were working on the atomic bomb. It was ’43 when they started to develop Hanford. I came in ’47.

During the early construction, in the forties, there was this big construction camp that was farther out. And that was kind of interesting. Workers were shifted around so they wouldn't become too familiar with what they were doing. Your mail, any mail with service people was read...

That feeling was still here pretty much when I came to work here: we knew what they were making, but you didn’t talk about your job. Still. You didn't talk, even in ’47. You never said uranium, you always said “metal;” and it was never plutonium, you said “product.” You just didn't talk about what you were doing. It carried over. I had worked in high-security places during the war, and there was still a hangover from the war: “Loose lips sink ships,” and all that stuff. And the radar: I had to have a high security clearance to work in radar. So I was used to it.

Richland was not a closed town, but you had to have a job here to get a place. You couldn’t just come in and get a room at the hotel, for example. If anybody was suspect they could be investigated by the FBI, and if there was any hanky-panky going on, you might know somebody, you might see somebody on the street, twenty-four hours later: they’re gone. Well what happened to so and so? They were booted out. There was no crime, in Richland. If anybody, if even a kid got out of line, the old man would lose his clearance, and they'd have to leave. And it was not just, “Tomorrow you can leave.” It was, “You’re out of here within twenty-four hours.” It did happen.

We just didn’t talk much about what we were doing. A little bit, but not a great deal. We knew pretty much, because the war was over. We knew what we were making. But there were certain aspects of it… Like you didn't know too much about how a bomb was made, for example. You knew just a few very basic things. But you never went into much detail. Because it because it was such new technology. It was before the Cold War actually started, but we knew that they were developing a new separation process. And it was an entirely new metallurgical process; it was all brand spanking new. It was called the “Redox Process.” My job was in the analytical laboratory, analyzing the material that they were developing in their pilot plant.

I have to take my hat off: Dupont was just absolutely brilliant in the way they designed things around here. There's stuff that they came up with that, just, I don't know how they ever thought of some of the stuff they came up with. They had some exceptionally smart engineers working on this process.

When you go out into that reactor, and you look and see what was done in 15 months, it’s just mind-boggling. To see the thought that went into the construction… You can look down this long gallery… We didn’t have… We were using slide rules…

Dupont had a terrific safety ideal; they were they were really right on top of it. Even a lowly worker, if they thought something was unsafe, could shut the facility down. And we had safety meetings. A lot of it was the safety of handling nuclear materials, and our health was being constantly monitored. They also they had a big animal farm out at the project; they were checking the effects of radiation and contamination on animals, and on plants… a lot of that stuff was going on; it was developed here.

I've been here since 1947. I have eaten a lot of fish out of the Columbia River. And we used to go swimming out there, every summer. I think a lot of it is overblown.

You know, there’s a lot of things that we kind of stumbled on accidentally. For one thing: the soil around here has a lot of natural zeolites, which absorb radioactive material... Zeolites, they’re a natural ion exchanger. One of our tanks out there leaked ten thousand gallons into the soil, and it only went thirteen feet: we didn't find any activity past thirteen feet. It’s not going to go migrating to the Columbia River... People are scared it is going to get in the river.

There were a few “cribs” down close to the river, that were leaching into the river; there was radioactive material getting into the river, and concentrating in the shellfish out at the mouth of the Columbia River. It was in the fifties. They have done a lot to clean up along the river. That’s where they need to do the cleanup.

We put other things out there, too. We used to use sodium dichromate to clean our reactors. And dichromate affects the fish. Now we have a bunch of dichromate we have to clean up out there, and there’s techniques that we’re using to clean up the dichromate. Some of the things we’ve done were a little dumb, when we think back about it… But that's what keeps us busy. I worked full time, and the twenty years after that I worked part-time, looking at some of these problems we created.

There’s a few radioisotopes that migrate kind of readily, like tritium, which is a heavy hydrogen. And we have found some tritium plumes that have migrated; we can’t find it in the river, but we know it's there. It’s close. And some of the other shorter-lived fission products we’ve found have migrated to the river. But the bad ones, the long-lived ones, seem to absorb pretty well. The plutonium certainly absorbs awfully well. And that's a nasty one of course, ’cause it’s so long-lived.

It's really kind of in the last stages of cleanup. They've got it pretty well cleaned up along the river. The reactors, except for B reactor, have been cocooned; for seventy-five years they will keep them cocooned. In seventy-five years a lot of that radioactivity will be gone. And eventually they will probably figure out how to go in and move that massive reactor up to the big burial ground on the plateau... Away from the river, which is always a big concern.

I suppose this business of converting it all to glass is a good idea, because glass has a very low leach rate. But I think it's kind of a little over… overwhelming.

A lot of the stuff we do is science fiction...

So even the Japanese realize that that if we had to have invaded the Japanese mainland, there would have been a tremendous amount of deaths. Because the Japanese just didn’t surrender; they went to death. I think most people were so relieved that the war was over… I was.

When you look at such things as happened over in Japan with the tsunamis; that problem is going to be permanently solved. You’ll look at that potential of any nuclear plant built in the future, and I think they're designing nuclear plants that can almost be put in neighborhoods. I think the capacity is there. It’s still a very good power source. And you can't convince me that wind and solar power is the solution to massive amounts of electricity. I'm sorry, I’ve had enough engineering, you don't generate enough electricity with these dumb windmills to do an aluminum plant, for example; that needs a lot of electricity, to purify aluminum…

Along the river, it’s a National Monument now. And Rattlesnake Mountain is part of the National Monument. They're trying to preserve those things. And they’re trying to keep the river. But the rest of it… You go up around the 200 Area: there is a big burial ground up there. And that’s got to be there forever. The 200 East, 200 West Areas, they'll be there… And I don't think they'll ever be turned over to the public.

But I think there's a lot of land out there; you know, there’s eight hundred square miles. It's a big hunk of land, and it's good farmland. So I think we'll see farms come back out there, sometime…