Interview with William Cliff

Dublin Core


Interview with William Cliff


Richland (Wash.)
Hanford Site (Wash.)
Hanford (Wash.)
Nuclear weapons plants--Environmental aspects--Washington (State)--Richland.


Hanford Oral History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities




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

2016-07-25: 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


Douglas O' Reagan


William Cliff


Washington State University - Tri-Cities


Douglas O’Reagan: Okay. To start off, would you please pronounce and spell your name for us? 

William Cliff: Yes. I’m Dr. William C. Cliff. W-I-L-L-I-A-M, C is the middle initial, and Cliff, C-L-I-F-F— 

O’Reagan: All right. 

Cliff: --like a mountain cliff. 

O’Reagan: Thank you. My name is Douglas O’Reagan. I’m conducting an oral history interview with Dr. Cliff on May 5th, 2016. The interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University’s Tri-Cities. We’ll be speaking with Dr. Cliff about his experiences working around the Tri-Cities community over the 20th Century. To start us off, could you tell us a little bit about your life growing up before you came to this part of the world. 

Cliff: Yeah. I was actually born in Idaho, and then we moved around to Oregon and then to Utah. And then got married in 1969 in Colorado. Took a job with NASA in Huntsville, Alabama, and that’s where we moved to and we lived there for about six or seven years. There were about seven of us that were from around the United States that were hired to work on a special project at NASA. That gave us quite a bit of fun. It was electro-optic systems and we worked on those. And of course we worked into other things while we were there at NASA as well. Huntsville—if you were raised in the West, Huntsville’s a little bit different. For the first years I was there, I never had an American boss. All my bosses were the old Peenemünde group. The Germans--Von BraunStuhlingerGeissler, Horne, Dahm, Krause, and so on. Very nice people, very knowledgeable people. We went down and I got to work on a lot of electro-optics—laser systems for probing the atmosphere and for looking at fluid flow. After which, I got—was over our physics and chemistry experiments in space and was in charge of the first commercial product in space, which was monodispersed latex spheres. So got involved in an awfully lot of things, and finally got involved in the shuttle. Worked on the heat transfer for the solid rocket boosters and the external tank. So my working time seems like it almost started there just about the time of the shuttle and then sort of ended just about the time the shuttle ended. So I guess it was fate. 

O’Reagan: What time frame was that? 

Cliff: Well, about 1970—well, the shuttle started taking design back in ’69, ’70, ’71. That’s when I was running the code for—of course, we were doing a lot of other things, too. Like I say, seven of us were hired to work on a special electro-optics project for measuring the wind fields near the launch vehicles. Because the last decision made before launch is, do I have an atmospheric window? So that was sort of important, too. As a young scientist—engineer space scientist, you had all the toys you’d ever want. Because by this time, NASA had become very popular to the American people. And in 1969, with the Apollo-11 launch liftoff and landing on the moon and returning, NASA could do no wrong. As with many times in history, there’s a gloried agency within the United States. At that time, of course, NASA took over. Von Braun, the head of it, could do no wrong. So as a young scientist, I had every conceivable toy you could imagine: laser Doppler systems, probability density analyzers, I had a Mach-3 wind tunnel that I could use at my discretion. We really had a lot of fun for a young engineer. 

O’Reagan: So what brought you to the Tri-Cities? 

Cliff: Well, the Tri-Cities was very interesting. We had a child, Christina, in Huntsville, Alabama. And before she got school aged, we wanted to come back to the West. Both my wife and I were from the West. It’s just like salmon returning. You want to come back, same place. So we looked around, and I happened to call out here. It looked like I was first going to go to Boulder, Colorado and do some work for NOAA. But I called a friend out here at the Hanford site, and he knew that I did a lot of wind characteristics for NASA. And he said, what would you think about moving out here? I said, well, that sounded like it might be kind of good. So they flew me out, I gave a presentation on laser Doppler velocimetry, which we really were the heads of in the world at that time, at NASA. They had some very, very good people. So I gave a talk on that out here. Chuck Elderkin said, when can you be here, in two weeks? I said, no, no, I’ve got some payloads I have to still get ready for. So signed up to come up here and work for Chuck Elderkin and Chuck Simpson and Bill Sandusky and a lot of these really interesting people in the atmospheric world. And as I mentioned, I think this was the largest atmospheric complex in the United States, because you had to worry about a release going downwind. So you had a huge amount of sensors in this area. And in fact, in my work, in dealing with some of the correlation work that we did, we had seen the work that had been done out here as well. So I was very interested in this area and interested in the people that were in this area that had done so much scientific work. So anyway, we were hired to come, and my first job was actually representing Battelle at--I think it was called ERDA at that time—in Washington, DC. So my first six months on the job, roughly, were actually in DC. We moved all of our equipment and cars and stuff out here, and then went to Washington, DC to live for—actually it turned out to be—shoot. I want to say—many months, and then came out here to take the actual job out here. I told my wife, I said, now, I’m not sure what you’re going to think about it. Said, you’re not going to see many trees. And she got out here and she says, I never want to leave. So, one of those people that this was her ideal site. Been very happy ever since then, and she sort of built up—every time I’d go on a trip, she’d buy another horse. So ended up building a little house with a barn and horses, and each—I remember one in particular that was kind of interesting. I got on a plane—I did quite a bit of overseas work. Got on the plane and they gave me an envelope. And it says, To Daddy. I thought, it’s going to open up and it’s going to say, please come home, Daddy. Well, I open it up and it says, here’s the horse you’re going to see at the barn when you come back. So anyway that was the life of the person traveling. 

O’Reagan: Where did you buy this—where were you living? 

Cliff: Well we were living in a place called Hills West at the time when we came in. This area’s really interesting because it has ups and downs in prices of houses. So we found that it was easier to build than to buy at that particular time.  So we built a house in Hills West. Then we were living there, and I was doing quite a bit of overseas work. When we were here, we also then were trained by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for reactor operator licensing exams. In fact, the Unit Two out here—I was the lead examiner for the first group of people that ran the Unit Two reactor here at Hanford. So that was kind of fun, too. So for a few years, I spent about half my time going around to different BWRs around the—boiling water reactors—around the country. But I still think my favorite one is the one that’s right here. Got to do a lot of different projects over time. The Canadian government wanted us to blow up some pipelines near Calgary to see if they were accidentally or purposely ruptured where the flow would go. So we went up, and my job was to measure the fluid velocity coming out of these ruptured pipes, which were probably three or four feet down, and they’d rupture and it’d just come up out of the ground. So that was kind of an interesting one. We had one where a fellow named Jim Grier who—great manager—did one with Shell Oil Company to look at taking the mud—the drilling mud from the seas and then putting it back down on the bed. So when you’re drilling for oil you get all these muds and things, and now you got to get rid of them. So we had a big project here to look at how you made them into briquettes and then put them back on the seafloor. 

O’Reagan: This was all working for Battelle? 

Cliff: Yeah, yeah. You had the opportunity to do a lot of different kind of unusual things. And one I mentioned that we started to look into was one of the commercial companies wanted to know how you could take strawberries and make them stand up so you could cut the tops off. So we did a little short project on looking at how you’d use the calyx as a drag device. The calyx, you know, the leafy part which is good for Scrabble. To look and see how you could control the position of the strawberry using a converging fluid system. Anyway, that was kind of interesting. 

O’Reagan: Do you remember what year you came to the Tri-Cities? 

Cliff: 1976, I believe. 

O’Reagan: Great. And you mentioned a couple of names—Chuck Eldritch, something, something like that? 

Cliff: Elderkin. Chuck Elderkin. Chuck was really the person that hired me. I came out and interviewed with Chuck. He was one of the nicest people I’d ever met. In fact, I thought this is really strange. The people at Tri-Cities are very, very nice. But coming in and interviewing for a job, I didn’t expect this guy to take his family and me out for ice cream at night. So he was such a nice man. 

O’Reagan: But he was a well-known climatologist? 

Cliff: Yeah, yeah. Him and Chuck Simpson and there’s Bill Sandusky. I think Bill Sandusky just retired from the Atmospheric Sciences Department. And they ran the Atmospheric Science Department. There’s another fellow named Ron Drake that was there as well. But it was very prestigious organization there at Battelle.  

O’Reagan: One of the things we’re interested in finding out is what was created, what was invented, what was discovered out there on the site? It sounds like climatology was cutting edge out there. 

Cliff: Oh, I think so. I mean, you really had to have your game plan in place, in case something happened. We’ve all heard of cases where the down-winders were saying something happened and we were affected. So you’ve always had a very good Atmospheric Sciences Department out there. I was trying to think of some of the other names that were extremely interesting to me. Coming out of NASA, I had heard of this group and these people, so I was very excited about coming. And then, like I say, we went to Washington, DC and we had one child and two golden retrievers, and to live in DC for a little while. And if you ever have a thought it was tough to find a place with a child, think about two golden retrievers and who wants to let you stay in an apartment with two golden retrievers and a child. Anyway, we had quite a bit of fun. And then we had to drive all the way across the United States. My wife would fly between stops, and I would pull our boat and the dogs and catch up with my wife, Nell, and Christina our daughter, as we came across. So it was kind of an exciting time for us. I don’t think I’d have the energy to do it again. [LAUGHTER] 

O’Reagan: You said your wife really liked it when she got here. What was your first impression? 

Cliff: Well, I was born in Idaho and lived in Utah, so this was very familiar kind of territory to me, and I loved it. In fact, one of the first things I did was get in my car, and I just drove out through the Area and up through by Othello and up by all those little lakes and the backwater, look for fishing areas, and go down and talk to the fishermen and stuff. So for me, this was an ideal location. And it turned out for my wife it was an ideal location. She could do all the things that she wanted to do with the animals. And I could do everything I wanted to do with the fish—and the steelhead and the salmon. Loved fly fishing for the steelhead up here. Probably one of the most significant events in that was that my father was out fishing—he loved to fly fish, too. And I told him, as you go down this river, I said, look over your shoulder, split those two big rocks right there, and when you do you’ll have a steelhead on. And he goes down there, and bang, this huge steelhead comes on. Just—he said he never had a fish fight like that in his life. He said, but one thing, Bill, I had to take him the extra step. So anyway, it’s been a wonderful area for us, and like I say, we’ve had a lot of people over. The work really became significant for us in 1989. US Customs Intelligence Service, Eleanor Lusher called Ed Fay at the Department of Energy and asked if someone would write a couple of articles, one on hafnium and one on zirconium. Ed asked if I would do it. So I wrote these two training bits for Customs, sent it to them. Next thing I know, I got a big beautiful plaque from the Customs Intelligence Unit head at New York. And then Bill Wiley liked that so well, he gave me one, too. So that got us sort of started. And then in ’94, US Customs and I began training. Congress approved a budget to do Weapons of Mass Destruction training for the non-weapon states of the former Soviet Union: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia. So that sort of started us off. And the first thing we did, we did border assessments to find out what they could do at a border and what they couldn’t do. And we found one location that if they had—if the smuggler went across the border down a ways, they couldn’t chase him because they had no gas. So some of the places were pretty rough. But then we went back in the countries and we did the training based upon our assessment at the borders. Then things just sort of took off from there. We began training more and more and more countries, going overseas. One of the problems that we had was when we went overseas—I actually carried a suitcase that was filled with strategic metals, if you will, to show and do training on. But it was very, very heavy. And we couldn’t carry any radioactive material with us at all. And we couldn’t—they didn’t have any trucks or things to pull something through, and there were very few radiation detectors. So we decided that we had to find a place where we could have trucks, cars, set up exercises just like you would have at a real field position, and be able to use real radioactive material, and specifically weapons-grade uranium and weapons-grade plutonium. Because these are two items that, without them, you don’t build a nuclear weapon. At the same time, back then, most smugglers and customs officers around the world were afraid of them, thinking that they’re highly radioactive. When in fact, through your training you find out that the weapons-grade materials are the least radioactive materials that you’re going to be working around for most of the time. The industrial isotopes are the rough ones, so to speak. So we got the Pentagon, Harlan Strauss, we got the Department of Energy, of course, with us. We got the State Department, Pat O’Brien, Non-Proliferation Disarmament Fund. We selected the HAMMER site as the site where we could do all of these things. So there were actually four groups of people putting out customs—trying to think. Customs—there were actually a couple different people that we worked with. But we put these four agencies together, combined them together, and came out and set up the training. We looked around, where could we do the training? Well, it just turns out that the HAMMER site was just being developed, and it was the ideal place. We drove through the HAMMER site, Customs, State and the Pentagon and I, and we saw a little building out there that is actually a rest stop. But it looks exactly like a border crossing in a third world country. We said, this is it. This is the place we got to do. So we then teamed up with HAMMER, and from that time forward it was all a wonderful partnership. In fact, people coming in could not tell the difference between if you were a PNL person or a HAMMER person. I remember one time, Nikolai Kurchenko, a Russian, the head of the Russian delegation came in and he had this beautiful Russian hat. And I thought, oh boy, oh oy, I wonder if he’s going to give it to me. Well he didn’t. He gave it to HAMMER. And I thought, oh man. But anyway, that’s been a wonderful relationship to where PNL and HAMMER worked together and you wouldn’t—couldn’t tell one from another. So that—in September of 1997, HAMMER did the dedication of the HAMMER site. At that dedication, we had Hungarians and Slovak Customs all in full uniform, for the dedication. That was the first class we had. And the classes have sort of continued ever since. So it was sort of a remarkable marriage, I would say, of the two groups. 

O’Reagan: What does HAMMER stand for? 

Cliff: Hazardous Material Management and Emergency Response Training Center. It’s actually the Volpentest HAMMER Federal Training Center. That’s the nice thing about HAMMER, is you can do things there that you really can’t do anywhere else in the world. And that is, we’re able to bring out the weapons-grade plutonium from PNNL, weapons-grade uranium, put it in trucks and cars and pass the through the portable monitors and have the people respond, pull them into what we call secondary and do the searches. But it’s with the real thing. And like I said, the first few years, some of the people were very much afraid of going up against those materials, thinking that they’re highly radioactive when in fact they’re not. But even the Russians—the [INAUDIBLE] wouldn’t let the Russians use their materials to train on. So we had—I think the Russians were here four times for the actual training at HAMMER. And then we actually ran a rail test, where we had a railroad train go by the 300 Area here. It carried the special nuclear materials. And when I say special nuclear materials, I mean the weapons-grade plutonium and uranium-enriched and the isotope 235, and uranium-233. So those things that are fissionable that you can make the weapon out of. Anyway, it was kind of interesting because the train test, the Russians wanted us to evaluate one of their portal monitors. These are large monitors for looking for radioactive material. I think it’s the only time that test has ever been run. In the end, we’ve had over 60 countries out there, at HAMMER. As you know, we took a little tour the other day and saw all the different facilities that have been built, and the State Department has built three really nice facilities for the training. The very first training that we did at HAMMER, we actually had phone lines to each participant coming out of the ceiling. Of course, now, in the new buildings and stuff, you got good simultaneous interpretation, the headgear, and you can do it in the field as well if you want to. Normally, in the field we do consecutive translation. But it’s a wonderful facility. As we’ve gone around the world, we’ve seen how people smuggle things and we’ve built traps that look like how the smuggler does it and then we train the people on how to find it. Kind of exciting. 

O’Reagan: What had been your jobs, your involvement in each stage of this? 

Cliff: My involvement? 

O’Reagan: Mm-hmm. 

Cliff: Was I was the manager of the program. We called it Interdict RADACAD. Interdict for the interdiction of materials, commodities and components associated with the development or deployment of a Weapon of Mass Destruction. And then RADACAD for Radiation Academy. Well, you can imagine what happened on that—people immediately picked up RADACAD and that’s what it became known as. And one I forgot to mention, Terry Conway was the main customs officer we dealt with. He came out, and he was the one that thought up the term RADACAD. So that term actually belongs to him. But I’ve gotten calls from people in Washington National Security Council and people say, what does this RADACAD mean? What does it stand for? So we made it to very high parts of government and actually got to be a line item there for training. Andrew Church at State Department in the—I want to say in the training area there—Andrew’s specific area—he’s the one that actually sent most of the countries, or a lot of the countries to us. Department of Energy has sent a lot of countries to us. The Pentagon, with Harlan, sent quite a few to us. But they always came in as a joint effort, if you will. Andrew Church, Export Control Cooperation, ECC, and the State Department, is probably the first group that actually provided funding out and spread it—it would go through Customs to go to us. And he’s—Andrew’s still there. He’s still a good sponsor, living sponsor, if you will. Oh! Now that we’re talking about it, can I bring this out? 

O’Reagan: Yeah, please. 

Cliff: This is kind of a cute little storyboard. Of course, you probably can’t see too much of it. But this actually shows one of the classes from Azerbaijan that came to visit us. My wife probably has had 40 separate nations at her home where she would spend three days preparing food so they have a banquet at the house. Some of the nations have been there to the house more than once. So this is the Azeris here giving my wife a souvenir. She got so many souvenirs that she had to build a case there at the house to put all the various souvenirs in. Ali here was a boxer for the Azeri Olympic team. 

O’Reagan: And then he went into radiation safety? 

Cliff: Customs, yeah. [LAUGHTER] Went into customs. Yeah, it’s interesting, the people that come and take the training, when they go back home, and then we go back and visit them in maybe six months or so, they will have moved up in the organization. Getting a certificate from RADACAD was a very, very big thing for most of these countries. It actually meant almost an instant advancement. This is when the missile came in that you saw the other day, the SCUD missile which is on loan to us from the State Department. Some of the exercises that they’re doing.  

O’Reagan: Could you tell us a bit more about the SCUD missiles for the cameras? 

Cliff: Got a call one day from a friend there at the Non-proliferation Disarmament Fund, said, Bill, do you want to have a missile out there to look at? And I said, sure! And then all of the sudden, one day it shows up out there, and the driver said it was the strangest thing he’d ever picked up. He said he went over to—I guess by the State Department where they had it, and he said I wonder who’s going to be driving that. So he drove it out here and brought it out to HAMMER for training. And—oh shoot, one of the pictures I think I brought with me—I know I’ve got it over there some place—is Bill Gates. Bill Gates came through and toured the Hanford site, and the last stop was there with the missile. So I’ve got a picture there with Bill Gates and I, looking over that missile. Kind of a fun toy. 

O’Reagan: Do you know how the State Department got the missile? 

Cliff: It was provided by the Soviet Union. 

O’Reagan: And the fear was that that would be—somebody would try to drive that out of the Soviet Union? 

Cliff: Oh, now that one is one that’s been cut up, as you could tell. It’s been set up as a demilitarized system, so it cannot ever be used. In the United States, however, there was one that did come into the United States legally, supposedly, and demilitarized. And my understanding was that another one came in that Customs took and they had the paperwork from the first one and it was drivable and everything else. So you’d think how could something like that every go through a country? But they can. So I’m not sure where that missile is right now, but Customs took it over and if they did all the paperwork right and demilitarized it, the person probably got it back. Let’s see. I thought maybe one of these we were holding—oh. Harlan Strauss. Oh, missile components. Anyway, this is sort of a fun one. And then Customs gave us this plaque here from the Northwest Laboratory for the Interdict Training Program, 2004. Now the nice thing about this is we continuously got letters from customs officers saying it’s the best training they’d ever had in their career. So when people walked out of the training, they actually felt comfortable. And you’d always ask them, well, what’s going to happen if someone comes across and your radiation alarm says you’ve got plutonium. They say, I’m going to stick right there and handle it. Years ago, they’d say, I’m going to take off running as fast as I can. So just that little bit of knowledge is very helpful. We have had people, of course, that just don’t like any radiation. Some people contend that a little bit of radiation has made the human species actually better, if you will. And that if you have a small amount of background radiation, it’s more healthy for you than none. It’s called hormesis, so it actually—your body upregulates itself to take care of itself a little bit better. 

O’Reagan: How is HAMMER run? What is sort of the organizational structure of it? 

Cliff: Well, HAMMER actually is a training facility that’s headed by Karen McGinnis, who does a wonderful job of making sure that the site needs are met. It’s actually set up for the Hanford cleanup to give all the specialized trainings so that the person in the field is safe. That’s pretty much it. It has, I think, about 50,000 man days of training a year. Every person on the Hanford site there that deals with radioactive materials is actually trained right there on the HAMMER site in the radiation building, the one that we took a tour of the other day. Volpentest certainly was a forward-thinker, in knowing that you needed to have something like this for the Hanford site, and knowing that it’s going to be a major cleanup facility.  

O’Reagan: Do you know much about Volpentest’s role in getting all of this organized? 

Cliff: Volpentest was the key person with the willpower and the tenacity to—my understanding is that he thought the project up, he fought in Washington, and he fought in Washington, and he fought in Washington. And I wish I could remember his words one time when—at HAMMER—not a dedication, but like ten-year anniversary. He said something about, they said what was so hard? He said, just again, and again, and again, you just had to be persistent to do it. And then finally, he got it and it’s, like I say, it’s the best training center in the world. You can do things out there at HAMMER that you can do nowhere else. We have brought in containers, we have fiber optic scopes to look behind walls, you can bring the special nuclear materials out there, and you can drive through the scenarios. And we mock-up. We mock-up our international seizures. In fact, one that we were accredited with in May of ’99 was a Bulgarian seizure where a fellow had gone out of Romania and up into Turkey and was coming back through Bulgaria, Josef Hanifi. He got to the border there and the Bulgarians had just been out training at RADACAD. They noticed that he seemed a little bit nervous. So they questioned a little bit and finally they sent him over to secondary. So they moved him to secondary. The car was perfectly clean. Nobody should be driving that car; it was way too clean. They found—a screwdriver was the only piece of equipment in the entire car. They were about ready to let him go, and apparently then he offered them a bribe. They said, no, no, we got to find it. So they started looking and they found a little piece of paper with a star on it, which was a Kurdish separatist group. So they said, okay, now we’re going to look a bit more. And the next thing they found then was what we call a passport. This is a piece of paper that gives the isotopic items that are in an element. It always goes with the material. When you get something that’s very sensitive, whether it’s radioactive or not, you’re going to have this spike assay, or what we call a passport, with it. And if you find it, the other stuff is there. So here it was and it said uranium-235, and said 99.99% uranium-235—which we train everybody, if you see that, you know that’s at least a partial. You do not enrich uranium to that amount. But now they knew what they were looking for. All their sensors—none of their sensors would work. I mean, the handheld radiation devices weren’t going off. Then finally the guy remembered the screwdriver, and he picked up a tire pump. The tire pump was like one he had but it was heavier. So he looked at matched them up and pulled it apart. And sure enough the compression cylinder inside the pump had been pulled apart and a lead pig—when I say lead pig—a lead isotope holder—radiation holder—they pulled it out and it had uranium-235 in it when they pulled it apart. It’s a great example to show that uranium-235 is easily concealed. Because you put it in there. One of the pagers that I brought with me that are used all around the world for detecting radiation was laid actually up against it and it still showed zero. Trying to reach around, see if I can open this up. This is the one we saw the other day. This particular one is my favorite. We’ve distributed thousands around the world. There’s actually several makers of these. This particular one is Sensor Technology. But you just turn it on, and then you wear it. As soon as it turns green it’s ready to pick up any radiation you’ve got. Very, very sensitive, and yet—this water bottle is just about the size—about like that was the lead pig that was in the container. So put it on the outside and if you press the button there—[DEVICE BEEPING] Reads zero. You’ve always got a little bit of gamma background radiation, but it read zero. And then of course as you pulled it open, pulled the top off and expose the little amount of radiation, then the thing goes wild. So that was one of the seizures that we were accredited with. And in fact, the customs officers that made that seizure were brought to the United States and brought out to HAMMER again to give a little talk to everybody on how they did it. So it was kind of interesting. We had a couple of other seizures, too, that were quite interesting. The Bulgarians, when they first were over here the first time they actually made another seizure. So they were extremely dedicated.  

O’Reagan: Had there been any particular—I don’t know—international politics or sort of big events that have shaped what people are looking for at HAMMER, or HAMMER’s mission? I’m thinking like—as the world’s sort of security concerns change, has that changed what HAMMER is looking for? 

Cliff: Well, HAMMER, of course was really set up to handle the cleanup of the Hanford site. But the society area, if you will, has been a blessing for the world of bringing people in for training. Just going back in history, in December 14th, 1994, Josef Wagner, who is well up into the nuclear world in the Czech Republic, was actually caught by a man named Kamil Klozerski, the second command of the criminal police in the Czech Republic. And he was carrying with him 2.72 kilograms of 87.7% enriched uranium, which is almost weapons grade. That sort of set the tone for the world, I think. Because that had been brought down from Moscow by train, by car, and gone through a lot of different country border crossings, and it sort of showed the world that there really wasn’t any way of catching or stopping it at that time. So after that, you began seeing the portable monitors, began seeing the radiation detectors and things of that nature start cropping up. In my mind, there was sort of a changing segue way, I guess, for the world. Now the United States, I guess, lacked behind a lot of the other countries in putting up portal monitors and stuff because we sort of consider ourselves isolated. But as recent events have shown us, of course, we’re not. So the United States then took up and protected all of its borders with these large portal monitors. And if you walk off on the plane and you look very carefully, your customs officers will be carrying something like this. Normally, it’s just called a personal radiation detector. This particular model is called a pager from Sensor Technology. So the United States is doing a real good job with its people and getting its people trained for detecting radioactive materials. There’s been several seizures around the world. I guess maybe I’ll leave it at that. There’s been less than what we call a significant quantity, bag quite a bit that has actually been seized. We know that a lot of nations and a lot of groups who’d like to have the material. So as we talked about the other day, if the IAEA says that if a country has eight kilograms of plutonium, you could not discard the fact that they may have a full-up weapon, or 25 kilograms of uranium-235, or eight kilograms of uranium-233. So that’s sort of the baseline, so for nuclear smuggling, we always compare that. There’s been 18 seizures since 1992 of weapons-usable material. And when we say weapons-usable, we mean greater than 20% enriched uranium-235 or plutonium. So there’s not been a lot. And there’s a lot of equipment out there to try to stop it. But as we saw with the Bulgarian seizure, certain things can be fairly well-masked. A lot of times, people will ask, well, hey, a small number of grams you found, like in the Bulgarian seizure, you’re not going to make a bomb out of that. And the answer is yeah, that’s correct. Normally what happens on a smuggling operation, they’ll give you a very small amount of material, and if it’s good material, they’ll give it to you to take and analyze. And then they’ll say, we’ve got three more kilograms or five more kilograms back there. So when you see the small ones, they become very important, because that’s what people are trying to push and say, this is a sample. We had a case out here where zirconium—which is non-radioactive, but is used in reactor systems—smuggler sent us a small piece that we analyzed, and it was really, really nice zirconium. A customs officer was embedded with him and he was saying he was from Iraq and he wanted to buy it for Iraq. So it went on, and they’d give us another piece, and it wasn’t quite as good, but it was still good nuclear-grade zirconium. So eventually, customs arrested him, and he had five tons of zirconium there waiting to go to Iraq. It was stored in the World Trade Centers. I went back and looked at it. It was kind of interesting. Oh, I had one other—I got another picture over there some place where I showed two—that Eleanor Lush, who we talked about that actually the program started with, her and another person using a piece of our equipment to look at roofing tar from Venezuela. It was suspected that something was hidden in the roofing tar. Why are you buying roofing tar from Venezuela, which probably the cost of shipping it is as much as the material’s worth? So here at PNNL, Dick Papas and Jim Skorpik had built some equipment—some acoustic equipment—to look and find chemicals that—actually it was originally developed for looking at chemical weapons. And in this particular case, it was for looking through this tar keg to see if somebody had accidentally hidden a rubber ball in the middle or something. But anyway, we worked on several cases. [DEVICE BEEPING] With customs. And it was always kind of fun. I was called in on one case where I was able to go and testify, was the first to testify for the US government against some smugglers. So it was kind of interesting, back in Brooklyn. Anyway we had sort of a fun life. The HAMMER site, like I say, sort of came as a godsend for doing this. They were built up to handle and move materials around in a method—and they’re on the Hanford site, so you can actually use the radioactive materials. And of course we used not only the weapons-grade which we talked about several times, but we also used the commercial items, because those are ones you’re going to find most often. That is the cesiumscobaltsthings of that nature. We have those in the training as well, and the people have to identify what they are. 

O’Reagan: You mentioned testifying—was that because--just as an expert witness? 

Cliff: Yes. 

O’Reagan: Or were you actually involved in--? 

Cliff: No, no, just as an expert witness. Yeah, no, no just as an expert witness on what we had analyzed. 

O’Reagan: How has your sort of day-to-day work changed over the time that you’ve been working at HAMMER? 

Cliff: Oh, not—I’m just pretty much retired and I get to do the fun things I want to do, and I get to do kind of an outreach and talk to the people that we’ve with over the years, the various agencies: the State Department, the Customs and Border Protection, and the Department of the Defense and Homeland Security. I really don’t do much anymore. If a class comes in, I’ll maybe give a talk on nuclear smuggling and maybe a couple of other little talks.  

O’Reagan: When did you retire, or start to retire? 

Cliff: Pardon? 

O’Reagan: When did you start to retire? 

Cliff: 2011. 

O’Reagan: Okay. What was your sort of day-to-day before that? 

Cliff: Well, when we had the classes, of course it was—phew—early morning to late afternoon, but it was a labor of love, setting them up and getting all the people. When the training went on, I one time, somebody asked, well how many experts do you use? And I counted up, I think on one class, 27 that you would run into. 27 different experts you’d run into in that class. We had people from Oak Ridge, for instance, Steve Baker would come down and that’s where the uranium enrichment was, and so he would talk about uranium enrichment. We had the MSIC people come in—Missile Space Intelligence Command—come in and they’d talk about some of the missile systems that we had. So I guess I really wouldn’t call it work; it was kind of fun. And then HAMMER is even more fun. I go out there and it’s sort of like a large family that you blend into. My wife keeps saying now, when are you going to really retire? I think that day is coming pretty soon. 

O’Reagan: You mentioned going around looking for fishing spots when you first got here. 

Cliff: Yes! 

O’Reagan: Is that a big hobby of yours? 

Cliff: Yes, I love to fish. To me, this was a very interesting and exciting area because I went up there in the desert area where these—all of the sudden, there’s water and there’s fish in these lakes. I watched the people catch them and how they did it. I’d go down and talk to them. So then we’d begin doing that, and got with friends, and we’d walk into a little lake called Virgin Lake, which is about a mile walk-in, so there’s not a lot of people. Haven’t been there lately, though. But, yeah, I love fishing, and my dad took my brother and I out. I think—I think he said we were either three or four when we first started going out and going fishing. I remember him buying these old bamboo fly rods, which would be very expensive now. And I remember walking and holding the tip down, snapping the tip off on the ground. My dad said, no, no, Bill, you have to hold it up. So that was in Idaho, when we lived in Idaho. I guess I’ve been sort of lucky: I’ve always found something that was fun to do. Even when I went down to NASA, I remember they came out looking, like I say, for seven of us from around the United States to work on a particular project. It was kind of a thrill to be able to go down and sort of play and have all the toys you ever wanted as a young engineer. It just seemed like my life said, well, here’s the next thing, here’s the next thing. So I guess the next thing probably is we’ll maybe settle down even more. Maybe one day do a full retirement. Although I still like talking about nuclear smuggling and talking with the people. When I was in the Czech Republic, and actually it was December of ’95, and we were talking with the criminal police there. So I spewed out all we’d heard, about Josef Wagner and any co-conspirators and stuff. And they said, oh, well, we thought we were going to tell you about that. No. But it was interesting because they were really into it. And when the breakup of the Soviet Union occurred, I said, what have you noticed? He said, well, people think they’re free. But he says, people think they’re free to do whatever they want, so we’ve seen an increase in murders and really hard crime. Which I never thought about, because under the dominant rule, nobody dared do anything. Then after they broke up and were free, they could do all these different things. So the criminal police actually had their hands more full, I guess. The Josef Wagner case was just a very special case. 

O’Reagan: How have the Tri-Cities changed in the time you’ve lived here? 

Cliff: Oh! More people in my fishing spots! Yeah, the Tri-Cities have gotten many more people.  In fact, we live up on Keene Road, which is part of Richland, going toward Yakima there. The traffic has gotten almost unbearable at rush hour. I mean, it really is amazing. When we built our house, 1990, Keene Road was a little two-lane road that did this. As you drove along the road, and if you come up over this rise, you’d see our house. But the house would look like it was a stick figure, just looked like—because you would look through one octagonal window, straight through to another octagonal window. So it looked like there was no depth to the house. It was a very strange feeling. And then the next thing you know—whoomthen they came and bladed out the road, made it a four-laner, and the first thing happened was they cut it a little too steep at the end of our driveway, so our driveway went like that. And I had to call them up because it snowed and I said, I just slid into the road. So they came back and fixed it. City of Richland has been very good. But we’ve certainly enjoyed it, like I say, we’ve had a pretty good life here. 

O’Reagan: Have you followed local politics at all? 

Cliff: A little bit, but not too much. I mean, the national politics have been something interesting to watch, kind of fun to watch. I always watch the news and hear the people say—it’s a very fun thing to be watching and going over. Anyway, I don’t get involved in politics very much. 

O’Reagan: Okay. Let’s see. I guess that’s most of our sort of preset questions here. Anything else that comes to mind that I haven’t thought to ask? 

Cliff: Hmm. I’m just trying to think of some of the fun little projects that we’ve done in the past and the people who we’ve worked with. Seems like we’ve always had some—well, it was kind of interesting, because I used to do quite a bit of research. When I was at NASA, we built these large laser systems for what they call a coaxial laser system—for actually looking at wind for probably 20 kilometers out or so. Very, very accurate. And when I came here, one of the first things I did was I went back and I got with our old NASA people and set up a program to scan San Gorgonio Pass with an airplane flying over and taking the wind velocity measurements, so you could see. And now there’s large wind turbines down there—wind turbine farm and stuff. And that’s what we wanted to assess, was how deep did that maritime layer go as it came down from the coast. So that was sort of fun, as it led to the stuff we did at NASA with the laser Doppler systems. But we did it out here at PNNL. And then I got to work with a fellow named Jim Davidson. He was over our national security back then, and probably one of my very favorite bosses, if you will. So with him, I got to be—my training—the Nuclear Regulatory Commission training—and with Jim, I actually became one of the US advisors for the International Atomic Energy List, which is now the Nuclear Suppliers Group. So all those things you wanted to keep away from Russia and China, there was a thing called CoCom, which was NATO plus Japan, minus Iceland. And we’d meet in a secret place in France and in England and go over all these lists. So one of the jobs that I had with Jim was to work on that International Atomic Energy List, to be sure that we’d try to keep special things away from Russia, so that they couldn’t reprocess materials, or they couldn’t do this, or they didn’t have that, per se. So that was actually kind of fun. And I think that I probably enjoyed Jim as much as anybody that I’ve ever done—he’s retired now. I think I mentioned, he’d be an interesting one to talk to because he gave perhaps the best tour I’ve ever had of going out through the Area and dealing with the old reactors. Anyway, he got us involved in a lot of very interesting, interesting things. Oh, one—do we have time to bring over a picture? 

O’Reagan: Yeah, sure. 

Cliff: Maybe we can take it. This is just a short picture of some of the things that go on at the HAMMER site in training. These are many of the people who are involved in the training. This particular picture, I think was interesting because we’re holding an eight-kilogram ball of Tungsten, which has the same density as plutonium. As a result, you can see how small that is. So if you’re smuggling, if I’m smuggling drugs, I’m going to have a large area. But for smuggling nuclear materials—the special nuclear materials, you don’t need a lot of space. Where with drugs, you’re going to smuggle it and you’re going to have it where you’re going to have take it open, put it back in, take it open, put it back in. With weapons of mass destruction, you may only make one carry. So it may be completely sealed up. Maybe welded. But the size of the materials that you’re going to be dealing with don’t have to be a lot. Not going too much detail, this is over in Holland, when we were in Holland. You see the big Dutch shoe, there. I don’t know if you can see that or not. Oh, this is nice. This is where we—one of the buildings that was turned over to HAMMER from the State Department. Karen Nicola. Oh, shoot. Jim Spracklen. Jim Spracklen was at DoE for a long time and he really was a blessing for HAMMER. He just has been so supportive of everything at HAMMER. Of course there’s the missile again. Paul Van Son was the State Department person. I believe that this one was where they handed over the State Department building that we took a tour in the other day. So, yeah, at the signing of the turnover here, this is Karen McGinnis, who’s the head of HAMMER, the director of HAMMER, who’s very, very supportive of all these activities. 

O’Reagan: Do you know how she became director of HAMMER? 

Cliff: No, I don’t. 

O’Reagan: We’ll have to see if we can get her in and ask her. 

Cliff: Yeah. I’m not sure if I want to show that one too much. This is a picture down in Mexico where we’re putting on a little bit of training for the Mexican National Police. They loaned me their gun. So I look like I know what I’m doing. Anyway, that was some Weapons of Mass Destruction training that we did. This is the interesting picture, to me. This is Eleanor Lusher. This is the lady at Customs Intel in New York that actually started us getting involved in the training aspects of it. And that’s the roofing tar from Venezuela that we went up to inspect. This is an ultrasound system that was put together by Dick Papas and Jim Skorpik at PNNL to evaluate if there was things that were accidentally being left inside of the roofing tar. Roofing tar is an ideal thing, because you can’t go through with an x-ray or anything. So if there’s something inside of it, you can hide it very well and it can get through. Except if you’re using an ultrasound system. Ultrasound goes right on through it. So it’s really kind of interesting. But anyway that’s one of the few pictures we have of Eleanor. And Eleanor, I believe, retired this year—in fact, at the first of the year. But she was central in bringing us a lot of cases. Remember the case we talked about in New York and stuff? That’s where we got it from. Now, I should point out—that’s one of the interesting things that we’ve done over the years. We’ve worked for a lot of different sponsors. We began working with Eleanor here at Customs back then. Of the thousands of customs people that we’ve dealt with, they’ve all been the nicest people you could ever imagine. So, one after the other after the other, very, very nice people to work with. So I guess I take my hat off to Customs and training their people to deal with people on an everyday basis. This is a picture by the missile that’s out there. That’s Bill Gates. He came in. He’s actually kind of excited about seeing the missile. He was actually excited about old Von Braun stories that I told. Anyway, kind of cute. Did you get that picture? 

Camera woman: Yeah. 

Cliff: Good. During the training, we use a lot of different types of material—training material. This particular one here is actually put out by the Department of Energy, Dr. Noel Medding. If you want to know everything about radiation in a single sheet while you’re eating, this was an ideal training aide. We always tell people at your Thanksgiving you can put this down in front of you and say, well, when Aunt Martha takes her mammogram, she’s going to be receiving so much radiation. And if the conversation dies down, you’ve got something to talk from. This particular one is a radiation playing deck. We always say it’s a field training manual for radiation. It has four chapters, thirteen pages in each chapter, for a total of 52. So each one of them actually gives you a different item on radiation. You didn’t get one the other day.  

Camera woman: What’s that? 

Cliff: That’s for you. 

Camera woman: Oh. Thank you. 

Cliff: We also built some other cards which don’t have very many left on, but rather than having hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades as your suits, you had missile, chemical, biological and nuclear. So you had your four Weapons of Mass Destruction as your primary suits. In fact—see if I can open this one up. So each one of these, you’ll deal with the different technologies associated with them: missiles, or chemicals or biologicals. Like this one here says Nuclear Terrorism. If terrorists have it, they will use it. Oops. Well. One of the things we do train on—this is going to be hard to see—the Man Portable Air Defense Systems. Man PADs. We heard about those an awful lot. Two things when we say weapons of mass destruction, we also normally cover Man PADs and we cover radiological dispersal devices—iother words, just casting radioactive material around. Can cause quite a bit of economic damage. Well, maybe I left it in the bag. Oh, for crying out loud. I could have searched that all day long. Okay, here you go. Here’s my two favorite cards. Of course, we have the card with the picture of the SCUD missile coming in. And then we have a card—this is Pat O’Brien, State Department, the one that’s helped with all the buildings. And he and I are over there in Poland, and this is one of the SCUD missile engines that they left in Poland. Most of the SCUDs were destroyed in these countries. State Department let them keep a couple of engines and a couple of missiles, you know, for the museums. That’s kind of embarrassing, huh? This one—special nuclear material signatures. It says gamma and neutron—tells you what plutonium has, and what uranium has. Plutonium has gamma and neutron you’re going to detect, and uranium is going to have the gamma you’re going to detect. But if you play it left-handed, like a left-hand person would, then what you’re going to see is going to be the little nuclear weapon. If you play it like a right-hand person would be, you’d see spades. Okay, these are very special, so be sure and don’t lose them. The cards turned out to be probably one of the best training aids that we had. Because people—you give them this big book, or you give them this disc, people end up not looking at them. 

O’Reagan: Mm-hmm. 

Cliff: Then the Field Exercise building, which you were in the other day. This actually came as kind of a surprise to me. We’d worked on getting the State Department to support that for a long time. And the State Department always wanted to support it—the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Fund. But we finally got them to build the building. Then they were going to dedicate the building, and they said Bill, you got to come, you got to come, Bill. And the reason they wanted me to come was because they put my name in there saying—dedicating the building to me. So now I have to make a big deal out of it. 

O’Reagan: That’s great. 

Cliff: Anyway. You get it all? 

Camera Woman: Yup, got it. 

Cliff: This is a nice one, because here’s Sam Volpentest. Sam, who as we mentioned, was the thinker behind the HAMMER site. And so there he is, and there I am, showing some of the different sensing units that we have. Remember we talked about the Bulgarian seizure and the people that made that seizure noted around the world? Anyway, there they are. Theres two of the three guys. The other guy had retired. But they came out and gave us a talk. Here’s Jim Spracklen and I. Like I say, Jim is one of them that’s been behind this program forever and now runs the RADACAD program. Really, really a good guy. This is the Dutch. This is Pat O’Brien, and he’s the one that built the Port of Entry Building that we saw the other day, NDF. And he’s the one that sent—oh, just say he’s one that’s provided a lot of the support tools. If we look at it, Customs provided people for training. The Pentagon provided some funding and selected the nations. The State Department provided all kinds of training materials, so all of those—most of those Conex boxes, the big Conex boxes you saw out there, and a lot of the equipment out there were originally purchased by the State Department for our group program. Then this one here is just one of the storyboards. Let’s see what else we got here. Paul Van Son. Of course the famous picture of the missile coming in. The missile was kind of a cute story. I came in, and somewhere or other the local news found out about it. So they had the missile and we were trying to put it into a little building out there. I never even thought about this, but—it was Tri-City Herald, and they had the people there. Next thing I know is they’re cornering me and turning me around to talk to me. Next thing I knew, I turned around and one of the ladies jumped up on the missile and was riding the missile. So it was kind of cute. But they didn’t know if they would be let to do that or not. So this is kind of nice, because you’ve got a nice picture of Sam Volpentest in there. Earlier, we had one of Karen McGinnis, the director of HAMMER. Patty Murray. The HAMMER site’s had all the political people out there, it seems like, for a long time. They stop in. Very supportive. 

O’Reagan: Well we can hopefully maybe get a scan of these at some point. If you could maybe bring back in another time, we could get our intern team to scan copies of these. Then we could have a version of them. 

Cliff: Yes. You certainly can. 

O’Reagan: Great. 

Cliff: Well, let me just say, this is one of my favorite ones. This is an Army program for the 120 millimeter Abrams M1 Tank Cannon. And this was a special—very special projectile that we built at PNNL and fired, actually, down at Socorro, New Mexico. But this is what we call a streak camera picture. Normally, when you take a picture you open the shutter and you open it and you get a shot. In this particular case, you got a shutter that’s open and you strip the film across. So depending on how fast you strip the film across, you get a different picture coming out. But the projectile there is going at like a mile a second. So you got to do something pretty fast. So anyway that’s one of my favorite pictures. And this is the only time that this—you can sort of see that the projectile is still exhausting out of here, sort of like a rocket exhaust. And this is the first time that this had ever been accomplished. In 1989. So VAGAS stood for Very high burn rate per pellet And Gas Assisted System. So it was sort of an acronym. You can tell it’s not spelled like the normal Vegas. But I love this picture and in fact I had to run around looking—I had to take this out of my house to bring it in. 

O’Reagan: Great. 

Cliff: I told my wife, she said it was okay. 

O’Reagan: All right, well, thanks so much for being here. 

Cliff: Hey, thanks for inviting me. You guys didn’t think you’d get bored to death like this, probably. 



Bit Rate/Frequency

248 kbps

Hanford Sites

300 Area
Boiling Water Reactor

Years in Tri-Cities Area


Years on Hanford Site


Names Mentioned

Elderkin, Chuck
Simpson, Chuck
Sandusky, Bill
Grier, Jim
Drake, Ron
Lusher, Eleanor
Fay, Ed
Wiley, Bill
Strauss, Harlan
Brien, Pat O'
Conway, Terry
Church, Andrew
Gates, Bill
McGinnis, Karen
Volpentest, Sam
Papas, Dick
Skorpik, Jim
Baker, Steve
Nicola, Karen
Spracklen, Jim
Van Son, Pau
Medding, Noel
O’Brien, Pat
Murray, Patty


Cliff, William.jpg


Hanford Oral History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities, “Interview with William Cliff,” Hanford History Project, accessed June 24, 2024,