Hanford Reach: In The Atomic Field > Oral Histories

The war hadn't even started yet, I think it was in like 1940, but you could see it coming on the horizon... My dad got a job offer from Du Pont; he was a chemist by degree. And in ’43 he was told that he was going to be transferred down to “the Clinton Works,” which later became Oakridge Tennessee, for training. So we went to my mother's parents ranch, and my dad just disappeared from sight. I mean, she did get letters from him but everything was censored. And this was just part of the war effort, you know; you didn't whine and cry about it... Then one day the mailman came out to the ranch and dropped off a telegram from my dad. It said, go the ticket window; there will be tickets for you and the kids; get off the train in Hinkle, Oregon...

Riding on the train was traumatic. There were service personnel on the train but the preponderance of the people on the train were mothers, like my mother, and screaming kids…It picked up women all across the United States, headed to Oregon to meet their husbands. When we got off the train, women were trying hold kids, carry suitcases, walk across railroad tracks… There were a bunch of old Green Hornet army buses; they started packing women and kids into these buses. And we drove to Richland.

They probably were driving the stakes into the ground for surveys, for the B reactor... I mean they didn't even turn on the project until late in ’43...Matthias had to find a location, and then they had to start trying to marshall supplies… I mean everything was going to the war effort. We had railroad rails ties out at Hanford that were made in the 1800, back around Civil War time... they had been salvaged, and were used, because that's all there was.

They were moving people out to Hanford [Camp], which had forty thousand, fifty thousand people out there. It was the fourth largest city in the state, and it didn't officially exist.

I consider what DuPont did as a blessing. I think it was divinely guided. Because it was so much better, and so much more environmentally benign… Now I'm not trying to minimize the environmental damage. It is beyond human belief. But compared to the Russians… We put it in tanks, and the Russians pumped it into a lake that Eskimos drank water out of, that drained under the Arctic Circle… So just think about it.

There were not very many people who knew what was going on at Hanford. Now my dad, when he came here, his job was to be the manager of the second separation plant, T Canyon. So T Canyon and B Canyon dissolved the fuel from the reactors, and turned it into plutonium nitrate, which is a liquid. And then the plutonium Nitrate was concentrated down to a gel, and that was what was transported to Los Alamos. You’d never see anybody transport plutonium today, they do it in bombs but no other way does it get transported by air because that is an accident waiting to happen… I think we sent plutonium down to Los Alamos for three "pits." Because the first one was at Trinity in New Mexico, the second one was Nagasaki, and then Tibbetts who was the pilot for Hiroshima flew back to America and got the third one to take back in case the Japanese didn’t surrender, after the first two. But fortunately they did.

And my father was doing well from a promotion standpoint, from a managerial standpoint. But… I don't know how it occurred or what caused it to occur... Well, I know what caused it to occur: fifty percent chance that it was caused by radiation... I think he must have ingested some radiation somewhere, because you know, this was in its infancy, and they knew that you could absorb [so] much radiation without bad things happening to your health, but they weren’t at all totally aware: if you inhaled it, if you swallowed it, or if it was just like the sunlight hitting you... Somehow or other he became subject to stomach cancer. They cut out half of his stomach, and that allowed him to live a semi-normal life. He had trouble eating, but other than that he lived a normal life, so he was fortunate.

He just viewed his tour of duty at Hanford the same way that a Marine viewed going to Iwojima. It was just the straw he drew. He drew a straw, and it was a short straw. He could have drawn a straw and joined the military… And he didn't dwell on the fact that he had this stomach ailment. At the time, in his mind, being associated with Hanford, well that just comes with the territory…
You have to do what you have to do…

And then he was hired by the Atomic Energy Commission to be director of safety for AEC. And actually it was because of his connections in the AEC... Christmas of ’66, the lady that had hired my father asked me to stop by for a visit. She said, “I can offer you a great increase in pay and responsibility to go to work for the Atomic Energy Commission as a physical metallurgist; you will you have to get your Q clearance first.” It was a top-secret AEC clearance, which is different from DOE clearance, which is different from CIA clearance… They all have their own acronym. But it was the top clearance that you can get with the Atomic Energy Commission.

And I went to work for the Atomic Energy Commission. I worked side-by-side actually with the father. He was the director of safety, and I was a peon individual contributor, but I got moved up to be a branch chief... My progression was to be a branch chief, and then an assistant director of safety. After my dad died, they asked me to be the Director of Safety. Then they promoted me to be Assistant Manager for Safety, QA Security and Environment; then they promoted me to be assistant manager over all the nuclear operations at the site.

I mean three are three different levels of waste, there’s high-level intermediate and low-level. And the low-level liquid waste was put directly into the soil. And the low level solid waste was put in fifty-five gallon drums, and put in the soil.... This is really hot stuff, thermally as well as radioactively... The tank is seventy-five foot in diameter and anywhere from twenty-five to fifty feet tall, and then it's under fifteen... feet of soil. So the concrete in the soil makes it so no radiation shines through from the surface to irradiate people. They had stumbled onto the ion exchange properties of Hanford soil: it’s just like a water softener. So I mean, there’s some radioactivity that goes straight through: tritium goes straight through, but strontium, cesium, plutonium, uranium, these things have an affinity for and being attracted to the ions in the soil, and so it it bonds.

Try to get your head around this... The original process was you had fifteen tanks, in a tank farm: five rows of three. And they would put the waste in tank number one, and it would fill up, and then it would cascade into tank number two, and then it would cascade into tank number three, and the particles that were heavier than the liquid would settle out. Ok? And then after tank number three filled up, it cascaded into the ground. That was the way that it worked. That was Dupont’s design. And it was maybe in the fifties they stopped doing that; started building the double-shelled tanks.

All of this was going down 300 feet into the ground. It’s contaminated from the surface down 300 feet to the water table. And you can’t dig up twenty-five square miles, three hundred feet deep: what are you going to do with it? You can’t just put it back in the ground again…

The early single-shelled tanks were five hundred thousand gallons. And seventy-five feet across. And fifteen feet high. And the dome would be another twelve feet, and then it would have had fifteen foot of dirt on top of the dome. So I mean these things are like fifty feet under the ground. And I think they were like three-eighths-inch-thick steel. And this is my personal opinion: I think every one of those tanks will probably fail. Fail.

This is the last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River, and so it’s a great natural spawning ground for salmon and steelhead. So the really serious fishermen launch at White Bluffs. And this is where they fish… And they do well.

When I was a kid there were still dugouts on the banks of the Columbia River: huge trees that they burned and hollowed out. Canoe anchors were laying all over the shoreline… My parents, their entertainment was hunting arrowheads. You’d could go down along the river, scratch in the river rock, gravel, and find them.

These are a hundred, twoo hundred years old. Then you get to two thousand, three thousand… This is before Mount Mazama went-off, which is Crater Lake. Those points up there: every one is over ten thousand years old. Just think: you found something that somebody made by his own hand ten thousand years ago. He lost it, and you found it. Think about it, there were human beings that were annihilated at that time. Hundreds of floods came through here, some within three hundred feet of the top of Rattlesnake Mountain. There were human beings and animals living here then; man occupied this area fifteen thousand years ago…

Compared to the Russians, we were extremely safe. The Russians did it the cheap way. They dumped their waste into a lake. And the lake drains out under the Arctic Ice cap. And the Eskimos are living along the damn river, drinking that water that they were dumping this radioactive waste into. I mean… You can’t believe the shit that they did.

In 2080 when this site is cleaned up as good as it can be cleaned, they’ll have roughly a
five-by-five mile chunk out there that will have a concrete pad of some sort on it with all kinds of warning signs, and a fence around it, and it will be there for perpetuity. In the meantime, you don't have to worry about anything escaping through the air… But if you lived in Portland, or if you lived in Richland… Think of Richland’s drinking water: it comes right out of the river... It can't be too damned dangerous, right?

It’s hard for you to visualize but if you just think of a five-by-five square, twenty-five miles squared, three hundred feet deep. How would you dig that up, and what would you with it after you got it? It’s going to be there forever.

All radioactivity has a half life. Cesium is twelve years. So every twelve years, half of it’s gone away. Another twelve years, another half of it’s gone away… But plutonium, in round numbers, its half-life is half a million: four to five hundred thousand years. So from a human perspective, it’s never going to disappear, in its entirety.

For the Hanford site, the vast majority of the radiation will be gone in five hundred years. But five hundred years is still a long time to make sure nobody accidentally gets in there, and does something foolish…

They’ll make it so there will be unhindered access along the river, and there'll be, like, consider it like dominos: nine dominos, sitting along the river… Enclosed: don’t call it entombed.

Oh it will probably be, obviously it will be in English. It will probably be pictorial. You know, pictorial… So that whoever looks at it will understand…

If you walked up and saw a pad that was five feet thick of concrete and asphalt… You wouldn’t think that somebody would… And it’s surrounded by an electric fence or something… You wouldn’t think that somebody would do something stupid… Would you? You can’t just assume that people will do what you want them to do…