HANFORD REACH > Oral Histories

Bob and Viola Smith

I came out in this area back in 1951 with my Kansas National Guard unit. I was about nineteen, at the time. I got called into federal service during the Korean War, so we wound up at Fort Lewis, Washington. And we would come over to Yakima Firing Center once in the spring, and once in the fall, and practice firing our long shells for the 155 Howitzer because it's a longer practice area than at Fort Lewis.

I had read an article about Hanford being a secret location and that fascinated me... What's so secret about atomic energy? I wanted to know more about it.

So when we got the Yakima firing Center, my buddy and I were hitchhiking in to Yakima for the weekend, and now this nice-looking Oldsmobile convertible pulled up, let us hop in, and was taking us to Yakima. One of us said to the driver, “You must have a good job to afford a car like this.” He said, “Oh, yes, I do.” We weren’t bashful about asking questions; we says, “What you do?” He said “I'm a guard over at the Hanford Engineer Works, that’s about eighty miles down from here." “Well how much do you make?” And the guy said, “I make a hundred dollars a week.” We said “Holy mackerel!” When I left Kansas as a clerk typist, I was only making thirty dollars a week. I wanted to check that place out… Eventually, I [applied and] got an application back, and they said they could use me: “It will take several weeks to get your clearance through and then, you can come to work.” That was October of '51, and I didn't hear from them for a long time...So finally in June... I got a letter that said, "You can come to work anytime now..." So I called them up, and said, "I'll give my two weeks notice to my civil service and I'll be over there."

All the single people, they had dormitories for people that worked here; it was still a government town. So I was living in this dormitory... Once a week they’d have a dance on Saturday night; single people were invited to go down there, put a nickel in the Nickelodeon machine... So I went down there, and I saw this nice looking lady sitting over on the other side, went over, and asked her to dance. 'Cause I could dance a few steps. One of us asked the other, “Well where are you from?” She says, ”Well I’m from Cherryville Kansas.” “You’re what? That's where I'm from!” The town was only three thousand people. That was interesting. We parted ways when the dance was over, she was there with her girlfriend. Well the next week I went again... Sure enough, she was there. So I asked her again to dance, and we did…

Everybody was from somewhere else, no-one was from here, so that was the first question you asked, was “Where are you from?” It was just a common question… You always were trying to look for someone who came from where you did.

My first job I was hired in for was a building clerk, when they were building the two K Area reactors. So I did that for about a year. And then I had a chance to go into a job called, “Field Assistance.” Well that’s just a fancy name. You’d spend four hours a day typing up construction schedules for the job superintendent. And the other four hours I would go out in the field, and be a radiation timekeeper for the radiation zones, for the construction workers. I was working with radiation monitors, and they would tell me how hot the area was, and I would calculate it out, how long [they] could stay in the zone because they only allowed fifty MR per day, or 300 a week. So it was up to me to keep track of the timing they were in the zones. And when they got to fifty I’d go in and get them, “Gotta come out, you’re burned out, now.” So that's what I did for five years.

And then I had a chance to be a radiation monitoring, they call it the radiation protection field. So then I would go in with my Geiger counter, my “CP,” which was code, it’s actually named a “cutie pie," they called it a CP because it was a code name for it because this was still a secret plant, here. I would take my CP and go out and check the radiation, stay with them if necessary. If I could set it up and leave it, I would. We didn't have self-reading dosimeters, at that time. We had the kind we'd get in the morning, you'd ride out to work, and go in the badge house, they'd have your badge and pencil sitting there for you. You'd pick it up when you went in the badge house, work all day, and you'd come out and drop it in there again. Well you had what they called "pencil girls," that would come in up above the guard house and they had a manometer. You'd stick this dosimeter into it and it would read how much radiation you'd received. They had two pencils that they would check...

And so it was my job to keep the book-work on these guys, how much radiation they would receive each week, and for a month. The badge would come out every month, they would read it, but the pencils would catch anything in between. Course I also had my pencil... So that was my job for five years, as a radiation time-keeper. Then I had a chance to go into radiation monitoring, which lasted for the rest of my working years. Until 1993, when I finally retired.

Going with them into the radiation zones, we had procedures up on the wall that told how many coveralls they had to put on. Some people in the lab, all they needed was maybe a lab coat, a pair of shoe covers, and a white cap. Unless they were going to be working on a sample: then, they would have one pair coveralls, and gloves. If you were working in a high-level contamination zone you’d have two pair of coveralls, two pair of gloves, and a hood and a cap, and then a mask if necessary. Then they would go in, and do their work and come back out.

We already knew that in order to get enough radiation to kill you, it took between four hundred fifty to six hundred REM... REM included gamma, beta, and alpha. R stood for Roentgen, which was gamma only. And then there was RAD, which was beta and gamma, together. So we knew how much it would take to kill a person. So that's why they had the limits set at five REM per year, here, for the workers, in 1959.

Well, they had a building called “Hot Semi Works...” The Radox building and the Purex building both, they would run through their chemical reactions and test them in the “Hot Semi” building: test it out before they built this big building that would cost millions, make sure that everything worked. And if it worked right, then you'd go ahead and build your big building.

Well... Sometimes you’d have to take the portable roof off the building... We had some pretty bad winds around here sometimes; a whirlwind might come whirling along and go right over that open building, pick up some contamination and spread it around... And sometimes, they might have an accident where somebody didn't check themselves out good enough. They had a lot of self-monitoring locations where the workers would come out and check themselves for alpha, beta or gamma... We were finding hot-spots out on the sidewalks, or out in the street. And we just automatically assumed that since they had had the roof off, it came from that. Since we had had the roof open, we just assumed that some of it got out... The next day, people were out there checking... and they found out it was from an old contamination spread, several months or maybe years before. And they just didn't clean up the direct contamination, that was still there. When I went out there to check it, it was still in the concrete pour... So I kind of learned from that. You've really got to know the history. Because Hot Semi Works was shut down for five, ten years... You could get booby-trapped sometimes by an old contamination.

They opened up this Hot Semi Works after five or ten years, probably closer to ten years, our biggest hazard was Black Widow spiders. [Your shoes], you got so you shook 'em out good, maybe turned 'em wrong side out to make sure there wasn’t some Black Widow spider… At that Hot Semi Works, the biggest hazard was Black Widow spiders... And I’d sometimes survey them out and bring them home, make sure they were clean. Check them with both alpha and beta, gamma, to show the grand-kids some Black Widow spider or scorpion.

Sometimes at the Redox facility, the stack filters, that would monitor the radiation before it would get airborne, these stacks would be thirty, forty, fifty feet tall. Sometimes when they would be changing out the stack filters, they might get some contamination that would come out and fall off over the sagebrush and everywhere else. On the streets... When I was in the tank farms, we would have to take the concrete lid off of them to change the filters out. To do that, there's always the possibility that a wind gust could come along...

So I would periodically take my outside rubbers off and I’d have a pair of clean shoe covers that I would put on; I would check them, before I put them on. We had a company laundry here that supposedly would get all the radiation but sometimes they didn't get it all out... That way you felt reasonably sure that you wouldn't spread contamination...

Viola: "He came walking home one morning, I think he’d been working night shift. And he’d get a bus that would drop him at the corner here. He came stomping in with his shoes loose. He had gotten his shoelaces contaminated, and had to leave his shoelaces... I just remember the shoes… He came walking back, shoes loose… You left them out there."

Bob: "It was near the end of the shift; I didn't have time to clean up the bottoms of them. The way you would clean them up was either soap and water, or a file brush, you would pound them on the floor about three times... Sometimes the bus left at maybe four a.m. and you might be working right up till three-thirty am. And you didn't have time to clean your clothes, if they were your personal clothing, you’d just bag them up in a plastic bag, and leave them out there, and come back the next day and you would clean ‘em up..."

Viola: “I think that when he walked home with coveralls, and he’d say, 'Oh, I got my pants contaminated,' or something, 'My shoelaces;' the day he came home with no shoelaces...

And you know, growing up in this area, I don’t think I gave it much thought. I don’t think I really understood. We were busy raising children... And I don’t think I really worried, that much... I don't think I understood that much.”

We had the best radiation protection people on the job, they hired this guy from England to come over and tell us what we needed to wear. He was well respected, world renowned; we had the best radiation protection people affordable. That was back in the forties… Remember that we if didn't get started on that, we’d probably be speaking German, or Japanese, about now…"

And they had a unit called the F farm. They would buy these little pigs, and dogs, and snakes, and they would expose them to exterior radiation, or internal radiation. They had little white pigs, small ones, because they had a digestive system and everything else similar to humans. And they would feed them radiation to see how much it would take to make them sick or to kill them, even. And the same with the dogs: they would put a mask on a dog, and have him breathing in strontium 90 or cesium 137, and see how much it would take to get to get in his lungs, and what kind of damage it would do.

It’s better to experiment on animals than humans. So that’s why they had to go that route. You’re talking about 1945, at that point in time. This high-powered doctor from England knew as much as there was available in the world to know; how he learned that… He had a doctorate, in whatever he did. So evidently he went to school enough to know.

And anyway people like us: you might say we were guinea pigs. Because we were the ones working out there with it…