Hanford Reach: In The Atomic Field > Oral Histories

So I came here in the in '52; it was in the fall. I applied and of course right away they wanted the application for security clearance. And they were sort of debating about who was going to end up with me, metallography or graphite… So I ended up in graphite.

My first job was to measure thermal expansion of graphite with an interferometer. And some of the powers that be decided that maybe a laboratory assistant wasn't the right category for me, so they promoted me to junior engineer... So, I took over the irradiation of graphite samples, and I was the guy running the micrometer, measuring samples, irradiated and non-irradiated...

On the site, there are many programs, many Areas. I was in the 300 Area, in the “materials development program.” And... they had a neat way of disguising what we were working on: they called it “non-metallic materials.” It was the graphite room.


And I became interested in metallography, doing microscopy. There were some people in the labs out there that had some techniques for using electron microscopy.

And so we learned a lot about what the fabrication of graphite would do to radiation behavior. And that was useful, because, look, if you want to get graphite for a future reactor, you want to know how to put it together in ways that will make it more stable... The big problem was dimensional stability. The reactors, when they first started up, they “grew” rapidly. And they were starting to push the upper part of the reactors up, and they even shut one down because of that. You know when they designed the reactors, they had no idea what the behavior would be; so it was kind of a surprise... The physical dimension of the graphite stack was growing, and pushing the top off the reactor... Graphite was a peculiar beast, lots of different problems.

The expansion of the graphite was because carbon atoms got knocked out of their original locations in the lattice, and they ended up between the layer planes. And that pushed the layer planes apart, and that’s what the growth was all about. Well this expansion, this change in dimension and this dislocation of carbon atoms created a situation that, if you raised the temperature rapidly, you would anneal it rapidly, and the temperature would escalate very rapidly, releasing all of that energy, by annealing... So that was a concern.

So one of the things we did to monitor the reactors was take samples and send them to a place where they could measure the stored energy. So we had a method to go in and cut corners out of the graphite in the reactor, with a device that screwed in and took a little bite out of the core of the bar of graphite. I inherited that program eventually, to go out and take those samples... It scared a lot of people, when we would start to pull the core out. We had monitors with instruments; they were very excited when we were doing it. But it actually was not very hot. The graphite was pure, the core graphite in the reactor. So it was not very hot at all; it was something we could handle easily.

I would sample each reactor about once a year. And we’d take maybe three or four cores, different locations... Around the fringe of the reactor it was running colder, and we were sampling the fringes of the reactor, the graphite that ran colder, to find out what the stored energy was. And of course measurements indicated that we didn't have a real problem with stored energy. Oh but if you indicate that, say, in the fringe it was the getting to the point that it might be a problem, what they would do is raise the temperature and anneal the stored energy. You could anneal it out. If you raised the temperature very slowly, you could anneal it, which meant you could remove the stored energy without getting a sudden release. And so that's how you would take care of that problem… We never had to do it...


When we sampled, took the cores out of the reactor, we were on the front face of the reactor, and we were suited up in double-layer canvas and all covered. To do that job we were well protected. We had test holes; we’d go in the side of the reactor, we’d go in to take samples; we would suit up with all the paraphernalia. I don't recall wearing facemasks, with air… Anyway, we were pretty well covered...



And then we became interested in doing microscopy on graphite, with electron microscopy… The technique we used, you could look at a lot of different graphites without really destroying [them]. You’d polish the sample, then you’d oxidize it a little bit, and then you’d take a replica, and I remember we did that with a sample. Took a film, and then irradiated the sample, and took a film after, to look at it before and after the radiation… There’s all kinds of games you play…

That technology of looking at graphite became of interest to one of the managers in the department I worked in. They had contacts with other people in other sites, and he had contacts at Los Alamos with people working on a Rover, proposing rocket fuel. They had problems with coating that fuel; the fuel was a graphite matrix. So they decided to see what electron microscopy could do to add to the picture of what was gong on.

Graphite is produced at 2,700 to 3000°C, so if you put it in an inert atmosphere, you can take it to those kinds of temperatures and it survives; a lot of materials don’t survive. So nuclear rocket fuel was of course operating at very high temperatures, the fuel itself was uranium oxide or carbide in little spherical pellets, with graphite around it, in a graphite matrix. I spent some time looking at fuel for the rockets. The fuel was made in Los Alamos, and another outfit in Oak Ridge was making it. So I traveled back and forth to those places, looked at their fuel… I got to do a lot of traveling between Oak Ridge and Los Alamos, and I became acquainted with the electron microscopist at Los Alamos. And he used a different technique for looking, but we traded trade secrets.


Now in the early ‘60’s... the Mid-Columbia Archaeological Society got permission to survey the Columbia River for Indian sites. So we surveyed roughly from the 300 Area, the lab area, just inside, all the way up to Vernita, where you cross the river. And I think there were something like two hundred sites that we surveyed. That was interesting.

We actually excavated on Locke Island. We got in trouble… Before we excavated, we had to get rid of the tumbleweeds: it was full of tumbleweeds. So the way to do that of course was, put a match to it. Trouble was, the wind was blowing… So we burned the southern end of Locke Island… We got kind of in trouble.

One late winter and spring, I spent my days walking the banks on the west side of the river, all the way from 300 Area up to the lower end of Hanford Townsite. And we worked the Area, a quarter to a half a mile in. We walked back and forth, back and forth, surveyed that whole area. And there were of course Indian occupation sites in there, and Chinese gold-mining sites, and more exotic sites where there was equipment left behind, where they had mined gold… They were mining in the river, they were using the gold that was deposited in the river. We could see evidence of that. That was kind of interesting.


And along the way, one of the other survey members was the son of Rex Buck: one of his sons.



Every reactor had a rail line into the reactor, and this was to carry the casks; on the flat cars, they had casks. Anyway, the fuel element went into those casks, and then it was carried over to the Separation Area, T Plant, and that's where the plutonium was extracted from the fuel. And it left the area in the middle of the night on trains... I lived down by the lower end of town, and I could hear the trains go by. I didn’t know what it was, but that’s probably what it was: it was carrying the plutonium. There’s a red line right here that goes down, and connects with the other terminals over in Pasco, and the rail lines, that go all over…



But it’s interesting, you talk about exposure: a lot of the places that I visited, like Oak Ridge and Los Alamos, those jobs, some of them were classified and some weren’t, but I had no problem interacting with those people. We all understood what was classified and what wasn’t… It was just that, in the early days, you just didn’t talk about work.

And my wife, soon after we get married, the summer after I started work here in ’52, she applied with the AEC, the Atomic Energy Commission. And she got a job with the assistant director as a secretary... And she didn’t talk about her work, and I didn’t talk about mine. It was just understood, it was just a natural thing…

I have a book of mineralogy; it’s called “Dana’s Mineralogy.” It’s got all the minerals in there, and descriptions of them. And there's a page in there for graphite. In my old Dana book there’s a lot of penciled-in numbers. Guess what those numbers are? Combinations… for safes. We had to change combinations about every six months. And I’d get a new combination. I’d go to graphite, write it down, so I wouldn’t forget it…