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, metalography or graphite… So I ended up in graphite.

The reactors, when they first started up, they “grew” rapidly… 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. … The temperature would escalate very rapidly, releasing all of that energy, by annealing. So that was a concern.

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 then we became interested in doing microscopy on graphite, with electron microscopy…there’s all kinds of games you play… Graphite is produced at twenty-seven to three thousand degrees celsius, 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.

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

On the site, 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.

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.

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…

And the last stint I had, I was working at N Reactor, and they had some problems with graphite. So I got a committee together to come out and talk about graphic problems, people in the industry, out of the graphite companies, pretty well recognized experts. We talked about graphite, Hanford graphite problems.

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…