Hanford Reach: In The Atomic Field > Oral Histories

I was born and raised in Nebraska, on a farm. And one of the members of our family, a cousin, went to work for one of the military arms companies at Hanford. And he was extolling the virtues of Tri-Cities as the "Palm Springs of Washington;" it sounded so nice. I quit the watch factory and the farm; we sold everything, bought a four-wheeled trailer and a car, and we came out driving to Richland Washington… It was late 1954.

I started with General Electric as a radiation-protection individual. But shortly after I started work with GE, the Atomic Energy Commission decided that they were going to pass out contracts to different contractors in the late fifties, so I stayed with the Reactor Areas, and the company that got that contract was Donald W. Douglas.

Initially there were six reactors I believe, five, or six: “The Alphabet Along the River.” I spent a lot of years working at the reactor facilities. And I've been in every Area out there.

They had a contamination spread in the Pacific Northwest out of an effluent stack; it was ruthenium, a radioactive material, and it blew all over the Pacific Northwest. At that time I was in radiation protection, and we had teams all over. And one of the things that we were assigned to do was to determine the extent of the spread of contamination both on-site and off-site.

Understand, this was a distribution of particulate material from the hundred-and-some-foot stack; it just flakes off and blows out all over. Flakes would come off of the stacks, and blow. Now these flakes may be of a minute size, but just strong enough that you could detect them. Some of it was found up in Spokane, even. And it was all over the city. It wasn't hazardous, it wasn't that heavy, there wasn’t that much of it… but it was identifiable, this distribution of radioactive material. In my limited knowledge, it was probably the most significant distribution that we had at Hanford at any time. We've had some worse material get out: we've had some plutonium get out. But not much, not very much. But this was a lot, flaking off of the side of the [stack]. It was fairly innocuous, actually. It scared a lot of people because radiation does that to people sometimes, inadvertently… Sometimes without valid reasons… But it still does.

So we did a survey, and a lot of other people did surveys other places; you put it all together and get some idea of the spread of the contamination. I don't think we found anything significant at that point. But I know they did find some of it all the way up in Spokane.

Ruthenium is primarily a beta-emitter and it dies off rather rapidly. And I know that it was all over the countryside for a long time, but it continually dies off, so you have a lessening hazard all the time. It doesn't deposit and cause much accident or injury; beta is not like alpha. Plutonium has a real long life; ruthenium, I think it's less than a year's half-life. Half of it goes away in even less than a year, I'm sure, so in five years, way down. So it is not a particularly vicious distribution. It really isn’t.

And all of these radioactive materials that’d come out of the stack were beta emitters, and not very hot. Not like the alpha-emitters that you get from plutonium and uranium… Uranium, it isn’t really very hazardous. Uranium isn't. You can get some fairly high levels from solid uranium, but you can handle it: it’s not a big deal. It’s not a problem… Really, it isn’t. And I've worked around a lot of it.

The Atomic energy commission was concerned about people who did not have badges and so forth, how much exposure were they getting from these accidents. We had what they called “Walking Sticks:” monitors with a detection device. You can walk across the field, and do a relatively good survey of the ground levels, and keep track of that. So we had people from north of town all the way out to 300 Area, about ten feet apart, walking several miles and surveying, just to see what kind of levels you would get. It was in the mid-to-late fifties.

And there actually wasn’t very much. And this is weird, but: we’d walk along forty or fifty feet apart and survey, and if we’d find something, we had a minor construction [laborer] with a bucket behind us: “Pick this up, put it in the bucket!” We were decontaminating as we were going. Gloves, shoe covers and gloves, that’s all… and instruments. You didn’t find much of anything. And it wasn't enough to be hazardous. You could pick up a bucket full of rocks or whatever, and there would be but several hundred counts per minute. And you get more than that with an x-ray machine. It is not a big deal, really...

But anyway, we did that as part of the decontamination of the Area. And as we did this, you know: it decays. So the amount of material that was out there was continually lessening.

There are still lawsuits and so forth about people who claim that they had some injury from that kind of thing, and frankly I don't believe most of it. Not from that: not from the discharge from the stacks. I don't believe that there were many people ever truly injured at Hanford by radiation accidents. Not zero, but there are damn few.

I have had cancer, and I had radiation treatment for it that cured it. Now I didn't get it, well I don't know where I got it, it doesn’t matter… But I know that radiation cured it.
So I have no hard feelings about working at Hanford at all. And I worked around a lot of it, in the reactors.

Part of my job experience at Hanford was with Donald W. Douglas laboratories. We got plutonium from AEC and in very secure locations made it into little pellets. So this is all inside of a glove box… It’s a controlled atmosphere, shielded, you don't get in touch with it: completely isolated. And any effluent from it is surveyed, shielded, filtered, controlled, so it never gets out. Or it’s removed before it can get out.

There are some buildings out at Hanford that they’re in the process of destroying now that used tons of plutonium… The concern I have with plutonium is way, way down on the list of the normal concerns of living: driving a car, eating food, or walking around; you know. You can worry about whatever you want, but these kinds of things. Don’t forget, I’ve got kids, I’ve got a family, and they’re of concern to me. I'm of concern to me. If this was a place where my kids could get, whatever, from radiation, I wouldn’t be living here.

Now, right now, I'm exposed to radiation from outer space. From everything… Very small amounts, but still it's there… I've been exposed to a lot of radiation, both deliberately, for teaching, and for medical reasons... So, what do you worry about?

I was exposed deliberately. It was part of my job to measure levels of radiation to be sure other people didn’t get it. And it’s not a big deal, because to my satisfaction at least, that didn't cause a problem. I've been here since 1957. I've been exposed to this whole plant out here. I've been inside of reactor buildings; I've been exposed to a lot of radioactive material. The surveying: thousands of tons of uranium. But it's not a big deal.

I pick my risks differently. Normally, people don't go in there, inside the reactor, you know. But, every place you go, step outside, the radiation level may go up or down… it's not zero. It's not zero right here. Because everything's got a certain amount of some radioactive material. You could get less, or more…

I have been involved in accidents where things got out of hand. Now there have been instances, and I've been involved with some of them, where somebody goofed somehow or other, and a hot slug has been dumped out on an elevator, with people. Okay? And it's thousands of R, thousands of Roentgen of radiation, each slug. People [yell]: “Get the hell out of there now!” And they do! I've had people jump from an elevator down to the ground floor, ten or fifteen feet, not realizing they did! They were trying to hurry to get out.

But they didn't get very much exposure. And they were limited as to what they got per year. The whole plant is limited. There are a few people that have exceeded those limits; there are a lot of people that have been irradiated by doctors, way over those limits. And there's some pretty good information on how risky that is.

Radiation can cure, and radiation can kill… You know: that's life! Right now, you step outside the door: there are all kinds of risks that you run. There are risks involved in anything. No matter what it is.

Now, I spent a lot of years out here in Hanford: ’57 until ’96. All that time, I have worked with and around radioactive material: uranium, ruthenium, plutonium. I've been all over this country to evaluate facilities. Most of them are pretty damn good. Not all. There's a few of them… I walked into a president's office and found several thousand counts per minute on his carpet. I won’t tell you where it was, but that’s happened. Not everybody is careful. But not many people have enough exposure to actually be hurt. Now, some… But nothing like most of the other industries.

Why are we in a hurry? Most of these concerns that we’re facing right now, we have had them for years. And there have been scientists and nonscientists that have identified them, and had the world told about them, and yet many times we ignore them. Because we’re not that conscious of safety. And we’re too used to dying. And we have to, anyway…
But you know what, I still am very interested in nuclear energy, and I still believe that we can use it to our advantage, and not have any severe risks from it...

Why not put [the high-level nuclear waste] down in New Mexico, underground, and leave it there? There’s only a problem because somebody doesn't want it there… Now: I don't want them to bury it in my basement either! They don't necessarily know what they're doing… How do they know how long that cavern down in New Mexico is going to last? Who does? How long is it going to last, here?

Okay: but look at the alternatives. How are we going to generate electricity, what are we going to use: gas, oil, or nuclear? It’s a big question…Where is the most risk? It ain’t from nuclear. Hey: In my opinion, it isn’t!