Interview with Steve Buckingham

Dublin Core


Interview with Steve Buckingham


Hanford Nuclear Site (Wash.)
Hanford Site (Wash.)
Nuclear weapons plants--Environmental aspects--Washington (State)--Hanford Site
Nuclear weapons plants--Waste disposal--Environmental aspects--Washington (State)--Hanford Site
Nuclear instruments & methods


An interview with Steve Buckingham conducted as part of the Hanford Oral History Project. The Hanford Oral History Project was sponsored by the Mission Support Alliance and the United States Department of Energy.


Hanford Oral History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities


November 13th, 2013


Those interested in reproducing part or all of this oral history should contact the Hanford History Project at, who can provide specific rights information for this item.



Date Modified

2016-05-11: Metadata v1 created – [J.G.]


The Hanford Oral History Project operates under a sub-contract from Mission Support Alliance (MSA), who are the primary contractors for the US Department of Energy's curatorial services relating to the Hanford site. This oral history project became a part of the Hanford History Project in 2015, and continues to add to this US Department of Energy collection.

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Robert Bauman


Steve Buckingham


Washington State University - Tri-Cities


Northwest Public Television | Buckingham_Steve 

Robert BaumanWe're going to go ahead and start if that's all right. 

Steve Buckingham: Okay. 

Bauman: So if we could start by just having you say your name and spell it for us? 

BuckinghamOkay. It's John Stevens Buckingham is the full name, and it's S-T-E-V-E-N-S, B-U-C-K-I-N-G-H-A-M, just like the palace. 

BaumanAll right. Thank you. And today's date is November 13 of 2013-- 

BuckinghamNovember 13, 19--2013. 

Bauman: 2013. 

Buckingham: 2013. [LAUGHTER] I'm still in the last century. 

BaumanAnd my name’s Bob Bauman, and we're doing this interview on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. So if we could start maybe by having you tell us how you came to Hanford, what brought you here, when you arrived? 

BuckinghamOkay. Well, first of all, I'm a native Washingtonian. I was born in Seattle, grew up in Pacific County. Went to Washington--graduated from high school in 1941, and went to Washington State College, at that time, in chemical engineering. Well, of course you know the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7th of that year. I was able to finish off my first year at Washington State, and came back, the second year, the sophomore year, there were just mobs of people on campus recruiting for military. I tried several of them. I tried to get into the Navy V-12 program, but my eyes were not good enough. But I was able to get into an Air Corps program that they were looking for meteorologists. So I signed up for that. I had to get my dad to give me permission, because I was only 18 at the time. [LAUGHTER] But I was able to finish my sophomore year. I had just begun my freshman, my first semester, and I had just started the semester, my second semester, when I got the call to report to active duty. And the program that I had signed up for was this pre-meteorology program. And actually, it was kind of a neat situation. I was sent to Reed College in Portland, Oregon. And it was a little bit of a cultural shock, coming from a rather conservative Washington State to go to Reed College. We could smoke in classes. We could go up to a girl's room in the dormitory. [LAUGHTER] And they sang rather interesting songs on campus, too. [LAUGHTER] But Reed has very high scholastic standards, and I think the best math professor I ever had, I had at Reed College. But we went--we just had almost normal college classes: math, and physics, and geography. It was an interesting experience. Well, after a year at Reed, and also being in the military--because I think we must have had about--we had, what, two flights of cadets there, and we were all in uniform, of course. And after one year they decided they had enough meteorologists, so most of us were looking around for another program to get into. And I applied to go into communications, because I had a lot of physics background by then, and was accepted in that. They sent me to—oh, gosh, I can't even think. It was North Carolina. It was the first time I'd ever been down to the South, which was another cultural shock. [LAUGHTER] To see separate drinking fountains for black--colored and white. That's where we went through, essentially, Officers Candidate School. But the communications part of it was spent at Yale University in New Haven. That was about—oh, I think that was about six months that I was there going through communication. We had to learn all about radio and communications. But there is where I got my--I was commissioned, then, as a second lieutenant in the Air Corps. And about the time that I--just before I finished there, one of my friends had gone up to Yale University--to Harvard, because they were looking for people to work in radar. Well, why not? [LAUGHTER] So I applied, and was sent up to New Haven--not New Haven, up to Harvard. And there we went through a very intensive training on electronics, getting all the background on electronics. I used to kind of laugh. If you dropped a pencil on the floor went to drop to pick it up, you'd be behind three months. [LAUGHTER] It was really intensive training. And after that training, then they sent--most of us went downtown in Boston and worked on the top floor of a building that overlooked the harbor, developing radar they were working on. And that was really kind of interesting. But that was kind of temporary. That was just to give us some practical experiences. So that--then when that part of the training was over with, they assigned me to the 20th Air Force, which was the big bombers that were getting ready to go to Japan, and sent me to Boca Raton, Florida. And that was kind of another goof-off. We were just--we had to go on training exercises, flight training exercises once a week. So I got to fly all over Florida, all over the Caribbean. [LAUGHTER] Just goof-off things. It's really kind of almost embarrassing, because we'd go fishing and stuff like that on the boat, because they'd always had to send a boat out in case a plane went down in the ocean, and so we could go out on the boat and fish. While I was at Boca Raton, then the Japanese surrendered, and the war was over. Well, what are they going to do with all of us that had been trained? [LAUGHTER] I went out to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and they were bringing B-29s back from overseas. And all we did was remove the radar equipment from B-29s and stash it someplace. Well, I guess they decided they really didn't need us anymore. So I was able to be discharged and get back to the Washington State College to pick up my second semester sophomore year. Well, I had accumulated so many credits in going to these other colleges. So I went and talked to the dean, and he says, well, why don't you just switch to chemistry? Get your degree in chemistry or general, and then come back for a master's degree. Well, I had been on the East Coast for two years, and I did not like it back there. Being a--my mom and dad lived out in Pacific County yet, and I wanted to get home. I had two job offers when I graduated from college. One was in Troy, New York, and the other was here. General Electric was--had on the campus quite a bit of recruiting people, because they were getting ready to develop a new separation process called the REDOX process. And they were looking for people with scientific background, chemistry and so forth, to work there. Well, I grabbed the opportunity, and I arrived here on the 26th of July in 1947. I remember the day. [LAUGHTER] And that was really--it was very interesting, because Richland was--GE was really operating under the old DuPont system yet. It was the organization was still the one that DuPont set up during construction. We were in the technical department. And I was sent out to the 100 Areas, waiting for my clearance to come through, and we were just analyzing the water that went through the piles. And then when my clearance came through, they sent me to the 300 Area where they were developing this new separation process, this REDOX process, and we were doing the analytical control for REDOX process. And that was--of course, the development was using just uranium and other chemicals that didn't have any of the radioactive, really highly radioactive material other than uranium. But it was really very interesting, because a whole new line of metallurgy was being developed there. The metallurgy in—old metallurgy was stuff like smelting, and electrolytic, and stuff like that. Well, the chemical separation process they used out at Hanford was a carrier precipitation process, which did not allow them to recover the uranium. So this is why they were developing this new solvent extraction process, so they could cover both plutonium and uranium simultaneously. That was really quite a remarkable new metallurgical process that they were really developing here at Hanford, because how do you contact organic and aqueous phases, and stuff like that? And what kind of a contact? They had all kinds of ones that they were working with there in the 300 Area, and it was really very interesting. We were doing all the analysis for it. And then I was there maybe a little over a year, and they decided we needed to have a little experience with real material. [LAUGHTER] So they sent several of us of to be shift supervisors, out of the 200 Area, and the 222-T and 222-V Plants. That's where we got to work with real material. And it was just another training program. They were still--they had begun construction on the REDOX Plant. And about that time, then there was a little bit of an accident down in Texas, where a ship loaded with ammonium nitrate blew up and practically wiped out the city of Texas City. [LAUGHTER] And that was what we were using as a salting agent in the REDOX process. Well, that set the REDOX process into a big delay. What are you going to do with--we can't use ammonium nitrate. It's just plain too hazardous. They began looking at new salting agents at that time, and it took, oh, maybe six months or so before they finally came up with a new salting agent. Well, we just kind of fiddled around a little bit out in the labs. They were closing the business phosphate process labs. They combined them into just one lab. So several of us just kind of floated around doing other work that was kind of related to the REDOX process. For a while, I was in standards, where we were making radioactive standards they used to control the counting machines and all that kind of stuff. And it was not that interesting. Well, I had an opportunity then to go into an organization that was still there in the old 3706 Building in 300 Area. It was called process chemistry. And they were the ones who were working on the chemistry of the REDOX process. It was just--to me, it was just an absolute perfect fit, because I liked to monkey around with experiments and do research type stuff. And it was a neat bunch of people that we were working with. Some of them I still kind of chortle when I think of some of the stuff they pulled. [LAUGHTER] But I was able to move into that, and I was the third person to move out to 222-S, which was the laboratory for the REDOX process. And that's where we were, for our final laboratory was out there. And I stayed in that most of my working career. I did take a couple years to go over to work on writing the waste management tech manual, because they were--that was another process. We got to work in every new process that came along. We concentrated a lot on the REDOX process, because that was new. And then that chemist down in the Hanford laboratories discovered tributyl phosphate, so that opened up the whole new PUREX process. That had to be developed. And all the chemistry that went in to that development, we worked with. And then they decided they had to do something with the waste, and there was an outfit came in that was going to separate out fission products out of the waste. And we were going to have a big fission product market. Well, we separated out a lot of strontium-90 and cesium-137. And the strontium-90 was all right, because they could use that as a heat source for places where they didn't have much sunshine, deep space probes and so forth. The cesium, unfortunately, the capsule we set someplace leaked, and we had a little bit of embarrassment. That had to be cleaned up. So Isochem had taken--that was when the companies had separated into all these different companies. And the waste management just kind of petered out. We still had waste management we had to do something with. So I continued just working on it, but went back to the process chemistry laboratory. I finally ended up manager there for several years until I retired. But it was a real experience, that's all I've got to say. I feel like I was very fortunate in being able to work with so much new technology. And I think one of the more interesting ones was, we were recovering--out of our waste, we were recovering neptunium-237, and I had set up a small demonstration process in the laboratory. And for three years, I was the total source of neptunium-237 in the whole United States. [LAUGHTER] And that 237, when we first started doing it, we actually would convert the 237 to an oxide, and mix it with aluminum, and make a fuel element out of it that we stuck in B reactor to make plutonium-239. Plutonium-239 is a very unique isotope of plutonium. It is non-fissionable, but if you get a ball of it about the size of a golf ball, it's generating so much heat, it'll actually glow red. So they use it as a heat source for deep space probes. So we were working on snap programs and all this is really fascinating new technology. And I just feel very fortunate that I had been able to have a finger in some of this stuff that's really far out. We were looking--you know that one time they were going to convert that big building next to the FFTF into a facility just to process plutonium-238. That was another program that didn't ever develop. But we kind of had fingers in just an awful lot of stuff over the years. Some of the stuff I kind of laugh about. There was a--they developed silver reactors to remove iodine from our off gases coming out of the plant, because of the iodine contamination. And one of the silver reactors at the PUREX Plant blew up. [LAUGHTER] Well, it was not serious. It was all contained. But we had to try to figure out, why did that darn reactor blow up? Why did they have a reaction in there? And I still remember one of the old chemists, Charlie Pollock. He was the one who was in charge of it. But I still remember him making mixtures and putting it outside the lab door on a hot plate and standing behind the door to see it, was he going to pop? [LAUGHTER] We did an awful lot of innovation like that. It was just really--I think we did have a good time mucking with this stuff. I jokingly say that--every Monday we would have what they called a process meeting where the chemists and the process engineers would get together to discuss what we're going to do this week. And I always said we just got together to see how we're going to screw the plant up this week. [LAUGHTER] There was so much new technology, and every week somebody would come up with a new idea. They were the biggest pilot plants in the world, really. [LAUGHTER] Both the REDOX one and the PUREX one, just developing these processes. The whole--you know, when we first came here, we were living in dormitories. And the men's dormitory was on one side of town, and the women's was on the other side of town. We'd meet in the cafeteria. [LAUGHTER] And I still recall, when we were working shift works, we would gather in the cafeteria after swing shift, and we'd still be in there talking, or doing something with the guys who would come in for breakfast to go to work on day shifts. [LAUGHTER] Graveyard was always hell, because you didn't have time to do anything but sleep and eat. [LAUGHTER] And swing shift was kind of bad because the movie house, the movies didn't start until 4:00, and so we could go to any movies or anything. But it was tolerable. We formed an organization called the dorm club, where we went on--made a lot of camping trips, had a few beer busts. I tell about, I was social chairman for a while, and I found a big bargain on beer, Pioneer Beer. It was made by the breweries that they opened when they were doing construction during the war. It was not very good beer. I think I had five cases hidden under my bed in the dorm for weeks until I got rid of it. [LAUGHTER] But most of us met our spouses at that time. And it was really a unique situation early on in the late 40s and early 50s, because almost all of us had been in the same boat. We had started college. We'd been called into active duty during the war. We'd finished active duty and returned to college to finish our degrees. So we all had had the same type of experiences. Some of them were pretty hairy. In fact, I well remember one of my roommates was telling about being in the Philippines, and sitting on his bunk during one time, and said a big old snake crawled up between his legs. [LAUGHTER] I think I would have been of the roof and never come back down if that had happened to me! [LAUGHTER] But you know we had all had similar experiences, and it was our first time, really, that we were making any money that we could do things with. We could buy cars, and bought cars. So we went on just all sorts of trips. We learned--most of us learned to ski. And those ski trips, that was still was fairly new in the State of Washington. There was a rope tow up in the Blue Mountains at Tollgate. And, oh gosh, I think a season ticket cost $5. [LAUGHTER] And we would—went down, and I think we initiated the chairlift at Timberline, down at Mount Hood. We went to a lot of places just when they were first opening. So, in fact-- 

BaumanHow long did you live in the dorms, then? 

BuckinghamWell, let's see. I lived in the dorms several years, and then an acquaintance was able to get an apartment over on George Washington Way, and he asked if I wanted to share this apartment with him. You had to share. [LAUGHTER] You couldn't just live in one by yourself. So I then lived in that apartment for a couple of years, until I got married. Then we had a B house. [LAUGHTER] And that's where we were living when they began selling Richland out. And we were junior tenants in the B house, and way down on the move list, so there wasn't much chance of getting a decent house. My wife and I bought a lot over in Kennewick. And we didn't have much money, but we had a lot of energy, and we did an awful lot of building our own house. I think--I'm still living in it 54 years later. [LAUGHTER] So—but it's been--Oh, I don't regret a day of the work that we've done here. It's been challenging and interesting. After I retired from full time, I did a lot of part time work. I helped—was declassifying documents and I was a tour director, taking people on tours of Hanford. And I worked at the old Science Center down on the Post Office, before that became CREHST over there, where it is now. And the Visitors Center out at Energy Northwest, I worked there. And the FFDF Visitors Center. So it's been a wonderful life, really. [LAUGHTER] Fun. 

BaumanI wonder, when you arrived in--was it July 26th of 1947? What was your first impression of Richland, or of the place here? 

Buckingham[LAUGHTER] Well! When I graduated from college, when my folks came over to graduate, and we came back through here. And I still remember going on the old highway, looking over, and seeing the stack of the old heating plant that used to be downtown in Richland, and thinking, oh gosh, do I really want to come here? And it was a little different. Of course I had worked in very highly classified stuff during radar during the war. So I was used to the classification. But Richland was really different. You just didn't talk about your work at all. You kind of knew what your buddies did. And there was the separation technology people, there was the pile technology people, the fuel technology people. You kind of knew what they did, but that's all. You didn't really know any details. And you never talked, we never talked about it. 

BaumanYou talked about the chemistry of the REDOX process. Could you explain sort of what that means, in terms of REDOX, what the process was? 

BuckinghamYeah. The fuel is dissolved, of course. They take the jackets off with sodium hydroxide, and then you dissolve the fuel in nitric acid. And then they used this solvent, it’s an organic solvent. The stuff we used was Hexone, for what the chemical name is methyl isobutyl ketone, which is a paint thinner. And to make sure that we could extract, this Hexone would extract uranium and plutonium from aqueous phase into this organic phase. Well, you needed to add a salting agent to be able to improve that extraction. These were done in what we called columns. They were packed columns. They used some stuff called Raschig rings, and they were about 40 feet long. The feed would come about the middle of the column. The organic things would come in at the bottom of the column. And then there'd be a scrubbing agent came in up at the top of the column, and that would scrub some of this stuff out. Oh, it was a complicated process. Then we would oxidize the plutonium--or we would reduce the plutonium through a three valence state, and that wouldn't extract. And that was the separation column. And then you'd have to run both of these stuff through similar columns to clean it up. It was—really, it was kind of a marvelous process. It was a whole new metallurgical processing. It was something that hadn't been done, really, until we did here at Hanford. So just developing all these little techniques was quite a chore. And it worked! 

BaumanThen you said you were shift supervisor in the 200 Area? 

BuckinghamYeah, in the laboratories. 

BaumanIn the laboratories. So what sort of work did that involve at that point? 

BuckinghamWell, that was, then, that process chemistry that we were doing. But whenever there was an upset with the columns, there was all sorts of things, like the columns would occasionally flood, and they would just emulsify, and they couldn't get the organic and the stuff to separate. But why was that happening? And things like that. Sometimes the chemistry would get off a little bit, or we would get a carryover for some reason or other. It justit worked, and it worked very well. But we were able to recover both the uranium and the plutonium. So we weren't putting uranium out in those old waste tanks. Then, you know, when we developed the PUREX process, we used the tributyl phosphate in a more dilute phase to go back in and recover that uranium we had stored from the old bismuth phosphate separation process. So you name it, we did it! [LAUGHTER] I kind of jokingly say that--you know, when DuPont was building this place, the war manpower boards told them where they could recruit, and they did a lot of recruiting in the South, because that was not highly industrialized. So that's why quite a few Southerners came up here to work. Well, Southerners are rednecks. [LAUGHTER] They can make anything work. And I really, I sincerely think it's a lot of the ability of those people to be able to do things, why this place even succeeded. And when you stop to think that that original construction and everything took place in 14, 16 months, it's just mind boggling. 

BaumanGiven the sort of materials you were working with out there, why don't you talk about safety issues? Was safety emphasized quite a bit? 

BuckinghamOh, you betcha. You know, DuPont was a stinker on safety because they made gunpowder. You've heard the story about them getting criticized for making big profits doing gunpowder during World War I. So when they took over the contract here, they said they'd do it for cost plus $1, and they only received $0.80. [LAUGHTER] I think that's kind of an interesting story in itself. But DuPont was really--boy, if you saw something was unsafe, that was corrected right now. You didn't need to continue working in the unsafe condition at all. And I kind of laugh a little bit about. I think we were safer out at the plant than we were in our own homes. We'd have these dumb safety meetings. Once a week you had to go through a safety meeting. Sometimes they were boring as hell. [LAUGHTER] But the other thing was that when we didn't have any accidents for a certain length of time, we'd get a prize. I still have some of the prizes we won over the years. That was another thing. When GE was taking over, we could get GE--we could buy GE products at employee cost. You wouldn't dare buy a frying pan unless it was GE. [LAUGHTER] So there were many little advantages. 

BaumanI wonder, of the different things you worked on at Hanford, what were some of the most challenging aspects of the work you did, and what was some of the most rewarding? 

BuckinghamWell, I think one of the most rewarding ones was this neptunium-237. That was really a fun project, because about once a month we'd have to start up this little pilot plant, and you had to run it 24 hours a day for about a week to separate out this 237. That was a very challenging and very rewarding project, because it had a lot of interest. That, and the fact that it was also highly classified. They kept changing the classification, I think every month, you'd have a new name for it. One time it was Palmolive. [LAUGHTER] Let's see, what were some of the others? Birch bark. You never knew what you were supposed to call it from one month to the next, because it was a very high-priority thing. Also, when we had--they begin shipping most of it back to Savannah River, because Savannah River could make the 238 easier than we could here at Hanford. But I would separate out this 237, and I'd have to deliver personally to the mint car. That was the car that took the plutonium down to Los Alamos. I'd have to take that 237 up in a cask and put it on that mint car. [LAUGHTER] So there were a lot of little things like that. Some of the challenges, we had some technical problems over the years that were real problems. Like we had a ruthenium problem out at the REDOX process that was a little bit of a challenge. We spewed some plutonium out on the ground out there. And plutonium is kind of a nasty stuff, because it doesn't absorb. It migrates towards the river fairly fast. So there were a few of those little things that were a bit of a problem. Also, then, during the Cold War, when production was so criticalyou know you just didn't shut down for hell or high water. And we were running out of waste storage space. We came up with a way we could treat the waste and make it crib-able, so we could put it just to a crib, an underground crib, like a dry well. And that was kind of a dumb thing to do. [LAUGHTER] But it was necessary, because we had to get plutonium out, somehow or other. And we didn't have waste storage space. It takes too long to build a waste tank. And some of the interesting little things is some of the crushers found that nice salty stuff down in the soil, and we had an awful lot of hot poop spread around in the desert at various places. [LAUGHTER] Some of those challenges were kind of challenging! We didn't get too involved in it, but somebody was getting involved in it, and we always knew who it was. 

BaumanSo the situation where you said that you sort of spewed a little bit of plutonium, was that at PUREX? What happened with that situation? 

BuckinghamOh, they were recovering americium from the plutonium down at 234-5, and they had a criticality event down there. That was a very challenging situation. I happened to--the engineer who was in charge of that was a good friend. He was at a Boy Scout—at a heat down along the river, and they went down and got him, and brought him back, so we could do some work out there. But that was really kind of scary. That's the only really serious incident. That and Mr. McCluskey’s, when the glove box blew up in his face. And I always blame the union on that, because the union was being very stubborn about settling the strike, and that's why the column had sat with this acid on it for so long. Then when they started it up, it took off. 

BaumanAre there any other incidents or things that happened during your time working at Hanford that really stand out to you? Humorous things, or serious. 

BuckinghamI can't think. I can think of several humorous situations that occurred, particularly when I was a punk kid supervisor out there in the 222-T Plant. We had quite a few women workers out there, and I swear, I think those women used lay awake at night to see how they could embarrass me. [LAUGHTER] And this onethe hot water tank was in the women's restroom, and it had a check valve in it. Well, the toilets were all these pressure-type toilets. And this one woman went in to use the toilet, and the check valve didn't check. She burned her bottom. [LAUGHTER] 

Bauman: Oh, no. 

Buckingham: And I had to take her to first aid. And she was not at all hesitant about telling me exactly what had happened in detail. [LAUGHTER] I about died having to write up the accident report! Had employee been instructed on the job?, and stuff like that. [LAUGHTER] But I still chortle about that. 

BaumanYeah. You talked earlier about how during the peak of the Cold War, there was focus on production, production. At some point, that leveled off, and there was sort of a decreased emphasis on production, and of course, eventually, a shift toward cleanup. But I wonder if that sort of shift away from really high production, how that impacted your work at all? Did that change? 

BuckinghamIt didn't seem to change it an awful lot. Those are very complicated processes out there. There not just simple processes, and they seem to have a tendency to something always going wrong. Like we had a situation of the columns flooding. And it was detergents that was put in through the Columbia River, up in Spokane and Wenatchee, up above us. Our water treatment system didn't remove this detergent. It was a phosphate detergent, and there it came through with our water purification stuff that we were doing. I think it gave us a bit of a headache for a while, of why there were these columns flooding all the time, and little situations like that. They seemed to come up, they'd crop up at weird times. Or a piece of equipment would fail, and how do we do it. Just—if you ever go out to the area, as you pass the old PUREX Plant, there's a tunnel that comes from the end of the PUREX Plant almost out to the highway, and there's a vent out there. And that tunnel is full of equipment that failed in the PUREX Plant that they shoved it into this tunnel and left it there. That's got to be cleaned up someday. 

BaumanI was going to ask you, President Kennedy came to visit in 1963 to dedicate the N Reactor. Were you present that day? Were you able to see-- 

BuckinghamOh, you betcha. They took us—anybody who wanted to go in a bus down to the place where they were going to have the dedication. My wife, and her sister, and my two kids came out. And I don't know how my daughter ever found me in that crowd down there, but she spotted me somehow or other. [LAUGHTER] We were so far back you could hardly see him. But that was the first time they actually allowed people to come on the project, too. So it was reallyI think my wife and her sister said they sat for an hour waiting to get through the barricade before they could come out. They were both quite amazed at what they saw when they got out here. [LAUGHTER] 

Bauman: [LAUGHTER] Right. And as you look back at all your years working at Hanford, how would you assess it as a place to work? 

BuckinghamWell, some of the companies were much better to work for than others. I really enjoyed working for General Electric, because that's the company I first came to work for here. And Arco was a good company to work for. Isochem was just kind of iffy. They were very small—and I don't--they didn't quite have their act together yet. Some of the other later companies, I thought were just, nah. That was one of the reasons I quit when I did. I quit a little early. I took retirement at 63, because I just couldn't stand the company that was here at that time. They knew how to build airplanes, but they didn't know how to run a chemical plant. That shouldn't be in here. I hope you edit that out. [LAUGHTER] 

Bauman[LAUGHTER] You did talk earlier about some of the technology that you saw. I wonder, are there any other examples? Or you could talk about some of the new technology that you saw develop during this time you were there?  

BuckinghamWell, gosh, the technology was moving so fast. You know, they had this Fast Flux test--they built the Fast Flux Test Facility. That was all new technology. And the plutonium recycle reactors—that was all new technology. I'm just amazed at the technology that they were developing here. And it was all developed here. We didn't get a lot of credit for it, unfortunately. [LAUGHTER] And I feel kind of bad about that, because it was the cleverness of the people working here that developed some of this technology. Even up there in that--in what they called the old separation plant, the old bismuth phosphate plant, the design of the equipment in that is just very unique. It was the first time that high-level radiation radioactive material was being handled, and they had to come up with a technique of handling it. There was a crane operator--there was a big long crane that ran the whole length of that 800-foot building. He sat in a lead-lined cab behind a concrete parapet. The only thing he had was optics that he could see down into the cells. And how he could take those--you look into one of those cells down there, and it's like looking into a plate of spaghetti. There's so much junk in it, so much stuff in there, pipes. And all everything that comes in has to come through these connectors. And he, the crane operator, had to know which one he had to take off first to get in, and another one in behind it, or something. 

Bauman: Wow. 

BuckinghamAnd just the technology they went through, and the learning process. I don't know how anyone was ever to do it. I've talked to one old engineer that, fortunately enough, I could take on a tour one time. He came out here with DuPont during the early construction, and he worked on quite a bit of it. He was here, and they gave him a special tour. And I happened to be the one who took him around. It was one of the funnest days I had, because he told me all sorts of things about some of the stuff that he had worked on. He had helped design the cask carts that carried the fuel from the reactors up to the separation plants, and he knew the people who would design the connectors for the separation plants, and some of the design on the waste tanks. To me, some of the stuff that they were able to do here, it still just boggles my mind. There was an awful lot of smart people working on this place, that's all I've got to say. A lot smarter than me! 

BaumanOne more question. I teach a course on the Cold War, and of course most of my students now were born after the Cold War ended. 

Buckingham: [LAUGHTER] 

Bauman: You know, I wonder, as someone who worked at a place like Hanford during the peak of the Cold War, what you would say to a young person who would have no memory of the Cold War at all, or much of an understanding, what it was like to work at Hanford? 

BuckinghamIt was a little scary, because we were surrounded by gun emplacements. And I still remember going home after shift one day, and there was some gun emplacements right at the bottom of the Two East Hill, and they were all raised, like they might be ready, had a warning or something. And you kind of wonder about that. And we went in, we always had to have these--in all of the buildings, we had supplies that we could hole up in case of an attack. And all of us had junk in our cars, an evacuation plan. I know my wife and I did. I had canned goods that I would put in the trunk of the car. And if we were attacked, she was to meet me at a certain places in Yakima, and we were going to head for the Willapa Hills. [LAUGHTER] The Willapa Hills are a very remote part of Pacific county. [LAUGHTER] 

BaumanWow, so you did have preparations in place in case, because-- 

BuckinghamYeah. And some people even built--there were a few bomb shelters built around. 

BaumanWell, is there anything else about your work at Hanford, or your experience there that we haven't talked about yet that you'd like to share? 

BuckinghamOh, gosh, there's so many things that went on. I could sit here and talk probably all afternoon about some of this stuff because new ideas would come up that I can't remember. Well, I can remember shortly after I had gotten into the laboratory down at 3706 Building, one of the women that I was working with, she and I did more uranium analysis in one shift than anybody had ever done. [LAUGHTER] We were very proud of that. We just hit every sample size as perfect. And it was--we just were boiling out uranium analysis like crazy. [LAUGHTER] I can't remember now, but it was--there were little incidences like that that were kind of fun. And for a while the coveralls that they were giving us had pockets on them to take the size. They were colored. And there were some of those women, I tell you. I like women, but I think some of those gals that used to work down there had a warped sense of humor. They loved to grab ahold of these pockets and rip. They'd rip the pockets off! Well, they came up behind me one time and grabbed the pockets, of and ripped, and the pockets didn't come off, but the whole seat came off. [LAUGHTER] That was when I was still single, and embarrassed very easily. And I had gotten a blue sock in with my white underwear. My shorts were blue! [LAUGHTER] Oh, they got such a kick out of my blue underwear! I could have slapped them, though. 

BaumanOh, that's quite a story. [LAUGHTER] 

BuckinghamOne of the things that we did, I think we were a lot closer. We worked closely with each other. And we'd have wonderful--we'd call them safety meetings in the tavern. [LAUGHTER] They were just--We'd have a lot--we had a lot of parties. But they don't seem to do that anymore. I don't know why. We were more like a big family, and if anything happened to somebody, like a death in the family, we would all rally around them and do things like that, like families did. And Richland was really a very close little community back then. If anybody got into trouble, boy, you sure knew it. 

BaumanWell, I want to thank you very much for coming in today, and sharing your memories and experiences. I really appreciate it. 

BuckinghamWell, I enjoyed doing it, because I think it was a very unique time in history. And I'm afraid that we're beginning to lose that, because my--now, I'm getting to the age where World War II veterans are dying off like flies. [LAUGHTER] So many of my friends have already gone, and it's just a little shocking. 

BaumanRight. Thank you, again, for coming in. I really appreciate it. 

BuckinghamYou're very welcome. Thank you for asking me. 



Bit Rate/Frequency


Hanford Sites

100 Area
200 Area
300 Area
222-T Plant
222-V Plant
222-S Laboratory
Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant (PUREX)
Reduction-Oxidation Plant (REDOX)
N Reactor
B Reactor
Plutonium Recycle Test Reactor (PRTR)
234-5 Building (Plutonium Finishing Plant)
400 Area / Fast Flux Test Facility
Building 3706

Years in Tri-Cities Area


Years on Hanford Site


Names Mentioned

Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963
Pollock, Charlie


Buckingham, Steve.jpg


Hanford Oral History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities, “Interview with Steve Buckingham,” Hanford History Project, accessed July 16, 2024,