Interview with Harold Copeland
An interview with Harold Copeland conducted as part of the Hanford Oral History Project. The Hanford Oral History Project was sponsored by Mission Support Alliance on behalf of the United States Department of Energy.
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Northwest Public Television | Copeland_Harold
Robert Bauman: Well, we can go ahead and get started with the interview.
Harold Copeland: Sure.
Bauman: So first I'm going to have you say your name and then spell it also.
Copeland: Yes. I am Harold Copeland, Harold Curtis Copeland, H-A-R-O-L-D C-U-R-T-I-S C-O-P-E-L-A-N-D.
Bauman: All right. And my name’s Robert Bauman and today is August 6, of 2013. And we're conducting oral history interview on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. And so we're going to be talking about your experiences working in the Hanford site. So I wonder if we could start by having you tell me first, how you came to Hanford, when you got here, any first impressions of the place, any of that.
Copeland: My wife and I came here from Denver, Colorado in October 1947. I was working for the Bureau of Reclamation. They were decentralizing their main office, sending people to all the field offices. General Electric came in recruiting and they had received word of this decentralization, looking for engineers. So there were a number of us that thought that's a good opportunity, so we came out here, 1947. We're driving our little three-window Ford Coupe and towing my Harley motorcycle on back. And the first impression of Richland was pretty grim. We came into town and all we saw were these flat-topped, prefab houses. They didn't have their peak roofs yet. And there was dust in the road and not hardly any trees. But we came here. General Electric said there's a job for five years. Well, for the first four or five years, we kept thinking, when do we go back to Colorado? I grew up in Colorado. See, it's a neat place in Fort Collins and I graduated from CSU there, so naturally, it was like home. But after five years, we began to like this place. We had the Columbia River, the Yakima River, had the Blue Mountains, the Cascades, and the ocean, and fishing in the ocean not too far away. So we made it our home for all these years.
Bauman: And when you and your wife first came, what sort of housing did you live in first?
Copeland: They were building houses rapidly. The A and B houses, a lot of those were up and people living in them and prefabs, as I mentioned. Our first few months, we were living with Lee Hall and his son, 700 Sanford, in a two-bedroom prefab. And a wife and I got the small bedroom. She was pregnant when we got here. December 7, the Pearl Harbor Day, but in 1947, our first daughter was born and there was pretty cramped conditions with the baby beside the bed and then a two-bedroom prefab, well, the crying at night. She had not gotten used to sleeping at night. But Lee Hall said he had one bad ear. He says, put her out in the living room and let her cry out there. I'll just turn my good ear down and I won't hear her. So we did and the crying session and nothing happened from it. Finally got the message to Diane that she was supposed to sleep at night, so that was nice. And Lee Hall was so glad to have a woman in the house to do cooking and do furniture. She did curtains and changing paint and putting a woman's touch on the house like women can do that men don't have any idea about. Well, she did that and he was very pleased to have us with us, but they were building the pre-cut houses. And we get in along about in the '48, it was probably in March or April, the pre-cut houses were ready to be occupied. We moved to a two-bedroom pre-cut. Lee Hall was most depressed and dejected because we were leaving and taking all his good drapes away. So we lived at 700 Sanford for several years until about, I think it was 1973, our second child was born. So on the housing list, we were eligible for a bigger house, a three bedroom. We were in a two bedroom. It so happened I was working with the engineer, Verne Hill was his name. And he lived out on Atkins. And he said, they had a housing list. Big board behind the glass, a housing list was posted. You'd go down and apply for housing that became available. Verne told me his next door neighbor was moving, so I applied for that house before it was posted, see? So I was first on the list of eligibility for the house and we got the house at 209 Atkins because of Verne. And it—they were well-built houses, number one grade lumber, and it's been a very durable and good place to live over the years.
Bauman: Where was this housing list that you mentioned? Where was that?
Copeland: They had sort of a housing department located in the vicinity, very close to where the Richland Police Department is, across the street from the Federal Building would be. But they would post this housing list and people that were eligible to move would go in and apply.
Bauman: And how would you describe the town of Richland at the time in the late '40s and early '50s? What kind of place was it to live?
Copeland: Very safe place. Good schools. Good housing. No crime. Everybody that worked at Hanford had had their background checks. They wouldn't hire any criminals or background violators. So we could leave our cars unlocked, we could leave our doors unlocked, and it was a very safe place. The main thing was security for the plant. The plant operation security was very, very strict then, but living conditions were very good. They had 700—420 Wright Street. We rented the house. $38 a month. It's a two-bedroom pre-cut called a U house. And the electricity was furnished, the water, the sewer. They even give you grass seed to plant your lawn, and if you had some maintenance to be done in the house, call them up and they'd come and fix it. The wind blew a lot. There were no ranch houses at that time. And the wind came—they started building the ranch houses. The soil was all very fluffy and stirred up and we would get one of those terminator winds as they were called, the way they would blow dirt into our yard. And there was a terminator wind and there was probably three to four inches of sand blew into our front yard. The way they took care of it was the fire department came out with their tanker trucks and hoses and hosed this off of our lawns. They also learned, they gave you the plant seed, but they only gave you enough seed for just about one quarter of your lawn at a time. When you get it going, then they give you seed for the next section. Trying to water it and keep it growing, the whole thing they learned, was too much for the residents. So it was a very safe, good place to live.
Bauman: Do you remember any community events, any special events sort of things in the community during that time?
Copeland: Community events, the one that comes to mind, there were probably some but I can't think of was the boat races. And it was called the Atomic Cup, which nowadays is not politically correct. They call it the Columbia River, then it was the Atomic Cup for several years. And it used to be a nice place to go and watch the boats, but recent years, they're so crowded and unruly people that I don't have any reason to go down there. [LAUGHTER]
Bauman: Let's talk about your work in Hanford then. What was the first job that you had when you first came to Hanford in 1947?
Copeland: Well, my degree is in mechanical engineering and that's what I was doing in Denver with the Bureau of Reclamation. They came out here and I had an engineering job in the--I think they call it the 1100 Building. It was a single story Army barracks type of building. It was in the location of, I would say where the parking lot is now on the lower side of the Federal Building. That was its location. And so I worked there until I got my Q clearance and then I was sent to 200 Area after I got the clearance. After I got to the 200 Area, they were in search of instrument engineers. No college courses taught instrumentation. The one up in Yakima was teaching good technicians and the one up at Milwaukee had good technicians, but no engineering. Well, I'd been in the Navy and my training in the Navy was with electronics gear: radio, transmitter, receiver, sonar, LORAN, and there might have been something else. So I had a lot of this electronic training and I had one semester of electrical engineering at Colorado State. So I transferred over to instrument engineering and shortly after I got to the 200 Area and followed that through all my time there as an instrument engineer.
Bauman: So what sorts of duties did you have then? What sorts of things might you do on a typical work day?
Copeland: Well, I would work with the instrument technicians, help them with their work. If they needed new parts, I would go write purchase orders. If some of the instruments were getting old and wearing out and needed total replacement, I would write orders for those and oversee the installation and help the craftsmen, the instrument techs with calibration. There's one funny story that I just can't forget. Most of my work, some, not all, but most of my works in the 184 steam power plants, which provided the steam for emergency use during outages. And this took place at the N Reactor, at the 184. And he was an instrument specialist. And he was the--what do you call them? The steward. He was the instrument steward for their craft, Jay Lettingham. And we'd gotten all these new Foxborough DP cells in that we were installing to replace some other instruments that were obsolete. There's a much, much better system and we were in this little instrument shop in the 184 Building and I was reading the manual and he was trying to turn the screws and nuts to get it calibrated. And he tried and it didn't work and he tried and it didn't work. And then what he did, well, he said, here, you take these tools. And so I did it and showed him how to do it. He being a steward, see, I wasn't supposed to pick up a tool or touch one, but he had me do it. [LAUGHTER] I thought that was a real amusing situation, but we got along. We worked as a team.
Bauman: Mm-hm. And how long did you work at the N Reactor then?
Copeland: Well, N reactor from about 19--probably '66 to '87. I retired in 1987. But my first work was assigned in the 200 Areas. And I was fortunate. One day, I got in on the startup of the 234-5, which they now call the Plutonium Finishing Plant, but in those days you're probably aware that they named the plants and the facilities in a name that did not relate at all to what they did. See? Plutonium Finishing Plant would have been giving away a secret, so it was 234-5. Everybody referred to it as the Dash-5 Building. I was there on the construction and startup of 234-5, mainly working on heating and ventilation. Had three big air supply filters and washers and fans for the building and it was a real tough ventilation because there were three separate pressure zones. The office zones were the higher pressure and then there was an intermediate zone. And the zone where the hoods and the work was done was the lowest pressure so that all contamination wouldn't flow from the work area to the shops and clean areas. And it was very difficult to get those pressures to be stable and maintained. I got in on the construction and startup of REDOX plant. And then I also got in on the construction and startup of PUREX. Now, part of the PUREX work, I had an office under Webster in the 3000 Area, North Richland, where we were working on design work and approving drawings and specifying the type of instruments to be procured. Then I got to go out to the field and saw them being installed. And I worked for Copeland, R. W. Copeland. That was a coincidence. No relation that I know of, but he was a good guy to work for. He was, I think, Blaw-Knox Construction, if I remember right, that he was in charge of all the construction there. So I got well acquainted with a lot of welders and pipe fitters and electricians, and everybody worked together. It was a very cooperative effort in those days.
Bauman: Your first job was with GE, right?
Copeland: General Electric, yes.
Bauman: And then what other contractors did you work with?
Copeland: Well, it was, I think about 1964. GE's contract was running out. They chose not to want to extend it and so United Nuclear came in and took over the contract for the 100 Areas and I think Westinghouse had a contract. There were several contractors for the 200 Area, so Uniroyal and couple others. I don't remember the name, but anyway, United Nuclear took over the 100 Area, so I worked for them and retired for them. And the plant was down in 19--I got my neat belt buckle. 20 years, 1964 to 1984. So the plant went down in 1984, but I retired in 1987. The neat thing I remember doing there, our maintenance work could only be done when the reactor was down. The reactor running was producing plutonium and steam for the steam plant. That was a money earner, so the downtime was kept at a minimum. When it went down for good and we thought that it was always going to restart, we went in and replaced a lot of tubing and instruments, valves with upgraded material, upgraded design. And we thought—I believe that that plant was in better condition, had better equipment than when it first started up and we always had that hope that—we didn't have any doubt at that time--that it was going to start up again and that all this good stuff in it was really going to run good. But then because of the Chernobyl incident, the politicians shut it down. It didn't make a scientific and engineering gradual shut down, which would have saved a lot of money in handling nuclear fuel and processing it. But they shut her down because of Chernobyl. And I'm not a real good nuclear physicist, but they think it's a two factor or an n factor. You'd have to talk to a nuclear person. But it was designed in this N Reactor so that it would not run away and meld itself like the Chernobyl plant did. It was impossible, but the politicians didn't know that.
Bauman: Obviously, security, secrecy were a big part of the Hanford site. Can you talk at all about how that part of it impacted your work at all in any way or any interesting stories about security?
Copeland: Yeah. Some of the security men would hang out in restaurants or bars. I never experienced this or saw it happen, but I've heard about it. And if the customers in there talked anything between themselves or anyone else about anything, the work they were doing or what was going on out there, they were out the door. And most people knew that and obeyed it very, very strictly. For a long time, my wife and my daughter, see, they didn't know what I did out there. I couldn't tell them. I'd go to work in the morning and come back in the evening and ride the bus. So it was that tight. And another funny story, the kids in school were talking about what does your daddy do out there? Of course, they didn't know. And they'd say, my daddy is making toilet paper. He brings it home and his lunchbox. [LAUGHTER] It was one of the answers that the kid that didn't know what's going on was doing because, I guess toilet paper at the times was not readily available, but there was still always lots of it out at the plant.
Bauman: JFK, President Kennedy came to visit.
Copeland: What's that?
Bauman: President Kennedy came in 1963--
Bauman: --to dedicate the N Reactor [INAUDIBLE] came. What are your memories of that day?
Copeland: He dedicated the reactor. Well, I was working that day and didn't see it, but my wife and daughter went out and got to watch Kennedy designate. He moved the radioactive wand over the receiver and the motorized shovel, big, earth-moving shovel, scooped the first scoop of dirt out there, so the way I heard about it, he started it up.
Bauman: Okay. Were there any events that sort of stand out in mind from the years working? Any unusual happenings or strange occurrences, sort of, when you were working out at Hanford at that time, or funny stories?
Copeland: Yeah, I think of one that was very amusing. The instrument techs who I worked with, all of them were a bunch of good guys. They would play jokes. They had subtle humor and played jokes on people, harmless type of things, nothing to harm. This occurred in the 221-T, the separations building in the 200 Area, 200 West. And I'd often go over there early in the day, see the instrument foreman, what he was going to assign to the technicians and what was going on, what was to be done that day so that if it involved something that I needed to know, I would be there to hear about it. And one time, we had these ring balance instruments, we called them pen draggers. They had little pens. They would make a mark on a round chart, a moving chart and they were a very small pen with ink in them and made a very small line. And we were having this, I guess, a safety meeting was finished and we were talking to this--they had a secretary. The instrument foreman had a secretary. I think she was Eleanor, but I'm not sure. Well, one of the guys rigged up one of these ink pens, held it about waist height and he had a squeeze bulb with water in it and he squeezed it right at Eleanor. So she became all wet on her front side there and everyone was smiling and giggling and she didn't know what was going on until she looked. [LAUGHTER] You couldn't see the stream it was so fine, see? It was a fine stream. I thought that was funny! Another one in the same building, at quitting time, the guys that have their lunch buckets set on the workbench and when the bell rang, it was time to go rush out and get on the bus and go home. So this one guy, he was especially quick at grabbing his bucket and getting out so he could get a seat on the bus that he wanted. Well, we had a lot of lead bricks. They're the same size as red bricks that we have. This was a lead brick. They put it in his lunch bucket and he came along and grabbed this lunch bucket and all he got was the handle on the top part. [LAUGHTER] That was a funny one.
Bauman: I wonder what you see as were some of the more challenging aspects of working at Hanford were and what were some of the most rewarding parts about working at Hanford?
Copeland: Challenging and rewarding. Well, the challenging, and to a certain respect of keeping the secrecy of the plant, one of the challenging things was the dust storms called the terminators. And the rewarding thing, I think, was the men that I got to work with. They were all good guys, cooperative, pulling together. There was no territorial protection. If somebody knew something that the other guy didn't know, he would share it. That was very rewarding to me. There were different technical problems that I was faced with during the time, which we were able to take care of and never had any bad accidents.
Bauman: And you were there for 40 years--
Bauman: I imagine you must have seen some changes take place.
Bauman: Either technological changes, or instruments. I wonder if there were any changes that you saw that you thought were important?
Copeland: Yeah, there were a lot of changes. The older instruments in the power houses were--can't remember them. But they ran on a five to 25 psi signal. Then we got these newer Foxborough instruments and then they were three to 15 psi. And before I left, they were going to forward a 20 milliamp electrical instruments and controls. And the computer age was just getting started when I retired. And they would allow computer measurements—I was in the 100 Areas by then, of course—instruments, they would measure pressure temperature and position, could be done with computers, but the control the people had, the men, the operators had to maintain control. They allowed no computer control of the reactor. That was a limit at that time, but that's gotten past that, present day. But we had computer programs on the old IBM cards, punch cards, that punched the little square holes, and there was a giant computer in the basement of the Federal Building. There was a Boeing computer facility and all the cards went down there to be processed and problems and answers, solutions work out from that. That was just the beginning of that age that I just got in on the start of it, but not anymore.
Bauman: The site, of course, at some point, shifted from focus on production to focus on cleanup. I wonder if that shift impacted your work at all, the sorts of things you did?
Copeland: Yeah. Well, to back up a little bit more, at one time, we had nine reactors up and down the river operating. And N Reactor was a first one in the country and maybe in the world that produced power. It was one of the first power reactors, of which there are quite a few of them now. So that was a neat thing, but--give me your question again.
Bauman: Oh, I was asking about the shift from production to cleanup.
Copeland: To cleanup. I got in on a little of that before I started working at N reactor, the other BDF and DNDR were all being shut down and I worked for Wind Chimer, WW Wind Chimer. We were on--I was probably for about a year--helping with some of the cleanup on that and our motto, our mission was, drain and dry the piping and store the mercury. That was our mission that we were doing. The other groups were doing other things, but I know that we were tending to that for the shutdown. And at that time, it was shut down, not that we were not involved in the cleanup yet.
Bauman: But the shutting down of some of the reactors.
Bauman: I wonder if you could—so in a sense, overall your experience working at Hanford for those 40 years--
Copeland: What about the overall?
Bauman: Yeah, what's your overall assessment of your 40 years working at Hanford? What are your thoughts about--
Copeland: Oh, very proud. Very positive. I'm proud that I was able to work out there and support the Cold War effort. My first job out of college was with Fairbanks Morse, Beloit, Wisconsin where they made the diesel engines for the submarines, the OP, opposed piston engine. So I got to help with the war effort. Then I got the letter from my draft board that said, greetings, you are a selected volunteer, so that's when I got into the Navy. So I got into the Navy parts and then, as I told you I didn't have to get shot at, but I was working during the war time, then out here for the Cold War. So I had those three parts of my life, I think, contributing to the growth and the safety of our nation.
Bauman: I want to ask you about your running.
Copeland: Oh, yes.
Bauman: At some point, you got involved in running. When was that, and how did that get started?
Copeland: Elijah Galloway. Dear, dear friend who’s gone now. He was the Brown Shoe Air Force, that's the Army Air Corps. Before the Air Force—the present day Air Force was formed, the Air Corps was a part of the Army. He said I was part of the Brown Shoe Air Corps. So he flew missions and did things, but one of the jobs where he got started running was CIA, Russia. Both he and his wife got trained. They had probably most of a year of training in Russian and how to conduct themselves as observers, but really getting spy information, but they were just called observers over in Russia. And then he participated in all the Russian parties. They had lots of caviar and vodka and pretty soon he was overweight. And his doctor, when he went to Germany for a checkup or leave, he said, you need to lose weight. So he encouraged him to start a running program, which he did. And he lost weight and he lost weight and whenever he would go out on one of these surveillance programs, he'd just go out walking, then he got to running. He'd count the number of insulators on the power pool, just simple stuff that he could observe while he was out, then there was always a Russian counterpart that was with him and following him. He was a runner. And pretty soon, Elijah got so good he could run out and leave this guy. [LAUGHTER] And so one time, the story he told me, he went out for his run with his counterpart, Russian guy, and he finished his run and then he told the Russian guy, well, let's go out and run your course. Now, I want to run your course. He was too tired to do it. [LAUGHTER] He was a specialist on antennas, jamming and communication, that was his specialty in his work. He had an electrical engineering degree and antennas was his thing. And so he was involved in a lot of that communication and jamming for the US over there. The one amusing thing that was taught to his wife. The Russians would have a big parade. They would have these big wheel movers with the missiles on them and they'd have a big parade celebrating how great we are. And Elijah and his wife, Beryl, would have their trench coats on and have their Leica cameras down at waist high, just barely pointing out between the buttons. And they would take pictures and just the time they'd click, they'd go, [COUGH]. And there were always Russians around spying on them. If they heard a camera click, well, then bad news for them. But they could cover this up with [COUGH]. Just cover it up the click of the camera. That was one of the neat stories that he told me. But from his experience with losing weight, he retired and his home was in San Antonio, Texas. And he couldn't stand being retired. And he'd gone to school with Paul Venter, a name that I mentioned. I think it was probably at Whitworth. I'm not positive, but he knew Paul and he kept in touch over the years and Elijah didn't like being retired and he had this electrical degree and Paul says, why don't you come up to Hanford? There's some jobs here. Elijah came up here, got a job. He was my office partner and I think I already told you part of it, that he and Jerry and I, in my office one day, Elijah said, let's go out on our noon break and go for a little run. Because it had meant so much to him and he felt so much better getting down to a trim weight that he wanted to influence other people to enjoy that same feeling and the euphoria—the endorphins get into your body when you're running to where you just feel like you're just going and can go forever. Of course, you can't, but you have that wonderful, elevated feeling. He wanted to share that with everybody and I wanted to share it with other people too that I have run across in my running years. So that was Elijah. It was about 1972 that this happened and I started running and within a year later, I ran my first marathon. He coached me on how to train for a marathon. It feels good, but don't keep going further than, you know, increasing not more than 10% or a few miles each day. Hold a very strict schedule of gradual training and conditioning. Because if you do try and get too much, you get injured, disappointed, then you quit running. That has happened, so one thing that he taught me and another people. And so we ran the old Cheney Marathon up at Cheney, Washington. And that Cheney Marathon only lasted, I think, about three years and they discontinued it. But the neat thing, I still hold the first place for 50 age division at the Cheney Marathon. No one came along later and beat my record because the marathon was stopped. [LAUGHTER] A lot of other marathons, why, someone else comes along when they turn 60 and they beat my record. That's how I got started running and I'm a advocate of—if not running, I swim or bike or kayak, whatever suits your fancy, whatever you feel good doing, do it, but keep doing something.
Bauman: Sounds like you were running pretty regularly at your last time period working at Hanford.
Copeland: Pretty regular. My routine for many years was up at 4:30. Do my toileting, strap on my shorts and shoes, out the door at 5:00. I'd run 7 miles in an hour and I was back to the house and Evelyn would have breakfast. I'd quick shower and get breakfast and then I'd catch the bus at 6:30, about a two-block walk from my house, catching the bus. That was my routine, seven miles every weekday morning and then six miles at noon with the guys at N Reactor. So I got 13 miles a day, weekdays. Saturday was the long run day. Do 20 or 22 miles. You have to have some long distance training to train your body to learn to burn fat when you run out of glycogen. And the person I did that most with was my dear Chinese running friend, Yao Ming Chein. “Chee-in.” We would meet Saturday and run our 20 to 22 miles. Sunday was a rest day, so I'd ride my bike about 15 miles. That's a different exercise. It rested your running muscles. But Chein, I remember, he would, at one of our wedding anniversary parties, Yao Ming and is wife were there and I was introducing him and he says, Chein, E before I. He says I before E and everything except Chein, C-H-E-I-N. It wasn't C-H-I-N as Chin, but he was Chein. That made a difference to him. So he's still around. He lives over in Bellevue. I talk to him every once in a while. We formed a—a lot of marathoners, you form a bonding, a marathon bonding with these people that you run 26 miles with and you look for them and wonder how they are and if they're not at the next marathon, you wonder if they're ill or accident or anything happened. It's a bond that, it's hard to describe, but it's there.
Bauman: Is there any things that I haven't asked you about in terms of your working at Hanford that you think is important to talk about and would like to talk about that you haven't talked about so far?
Copeland: There's one more funny that I didn't include. We were working at the PUREX plant, 200 East. And this instrument specialist, Web Madison was his name, he--to back up a bit, they needed instrument technicians that could find work and work on instruments. So they were looking for watchmakers, all search the country. Watchmakers would qualify. They knew how to do fine, delicate work. Well, there were a lot of watchmakers out there because there was no training for them early on except, later they had the Yakima, forget the name of it, instrument school and the one in Milwaukee. But Web had tooth problem, teeth all decayed. So he had upper and lower plates, all new plates. Had them built by the dentist, you know, nice. And then the one thing that I'm leading up to, if an instrument needed a part and you couldn't buy it, they could make it and they could build parts that were broken and replace them, they were so good. So Web got his new teeth and he looked at them real close. He built himself a set of stainless steel teeth, a whole set of stainless steel teeth. And one night when he come off shift and through the badge house, the guard always looked at you and looked at your badge and he'd know who you are and he knew who he was. They checked him out. But he flashed those stainless steel teeth at the guard and the guard just about fell over. It was a riot. [LAUGHTER] Another thing they did, they were practical jokers. Another thing they did there to the going off shift, I didn't observe this, but I heard about it. An instrument tech, they were getting ready to go off shift and they called up at the badge house and said, we're going to flush the phone lines. And we want you to unhook your phone, take your phone off and just hold it while we flush the lines. And so he did that and they took some air nozzle and made some noises. It sounded like flushing noises. And then he went up to check out to catch the bus and they really ribbed that guard. What in the world are you doing on the phone. Oh, they had him put it in the basket. They had him put it in the wastebasket. What are you doing in the wastebasket? Practical jokes like that. There are so many of them that—so, good to think about.
Bauman: Yeah. Well, I want to thank you for coming in today and sharing your stories and experiences. I appreciate it.
Copeland: It was my pleasure. I am hopeful and I'm sure that what you're doing will be very educational and important to your students over the coming years. So I want to thank you for doing this work.
Bauman: Well, I'm glad to be a part of it. Thanks again.