Interview with Dennis Armstrong
Nuclear weapons industry
Nuclear weapons plants
Nuclear power plants
Radioactive waste disposal
An interview 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
Robert Franklin: Okay. Are you ready?
Dennis Armstrong: Go for it.
Franklin: Okay. My name is Robert Franklin. I am conducting an oral history interview with Dennis Armstrong on May 24, 2017. The interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. I’ll be talking with Dennis about his experiences working at the Hanford Site. For the record, can you state and spell your full name for us?
Armstrong: Dennis A. Armstrong. A-R-M-S-T-R-O-N-G. D-E-N-N-I-S. Middle initial A.
Franklin: [LAUGHTER] Okay, great. So, Dennis, how and why did you come to the area to work for Hanford?
Armstrong: Well, I thought about what kind of answer it might take to really answer that, and it probably goes clear back to high school days.
Armstrong: I did something along with four other friends. Went to an open house that the Washington International Guard had in Spokane, and ended up joining the group.
Armstrong: Got assigned into a aircraft maintenance group, and learned how to like airplanes. At that time, Washington Air Guard was a fighter squadron. Very close-knit group of wonderful people that I was proud to be associated with for six years. Reason that kind of influenced why I came to Hanford is because all through my four-and-a-half years at Washington State University Pullman in mechanical engineering, I had it in my mind that I was going to go to work for somebody making airplanes. And in my senior year as campus interviews were underway, in those times, it was not unusual for almost all the big companies to come to campus to do interviews. Not so nowadays. But at that time, I picked out aircraft companies. And I got some pretty good offers. Know airplanes, know how they work, know how they get put together. And I got even some exceptionally good salary offers.
I showed them to my advisor, and he said, Dennis, you’re a pretty independent thinker. Just to tell me you did it, go talk to at least two or three other companies besides aircraft people. So, I go up to look at the campus interview schedule, and I picked out two, three companies, including a scheduled interview from General Electric. Not knowing whether GE made toasters or waffle irons or what, to wherever I was going to be interviewed from, I went in kind of blind, and found out it was a representative from Hanford.
Armstrong: It happened that in my work at the Washington Air Guard in the maintenance shops, I enjoyed metalworking, including—well, I was primarily doing sheet metal work and aircraft structure work. And we had a couple nice lathes that I enjoyed working with. Just nothing else, to learn how to work them. And I ended up getting a job at the department of mechanical engineers, two years running, as senior laboratory instructor in the machine shop. So, expanding on that, I did a special senior project on machinability of metals. So that came up in the course of my interview with Doug Tilson, who was the representative from GE. And he says, I’ve got exactly that job right now. I need a candidate for it. We want to hire people into our tech grad program, they called it. And yet I’ll promise you a machining research job, first assignment, if you choose to come with us. So they sent me a letter, and not quite the high salary I had from the aircraft people. But I showed these to my advisor, and he said, that’s a given. Take it.
So I went back and it happened that in the dorm that I had lived in, I had a couple friends whose parents had worked at Hanford, so I knew a little teeny bit about it. Never been here. One time, one of them had brought me over to Richland, before I ended up accepting the GE offer. That time—of course, GE was still the predominant employer at Hanford, and I saw nothing of what really going on at Hanford, but I’d learned a little bit about Richland and kind of liked it. And having grown up in Spokane, I thought, why on earth do I want to go to Los Angeles and work for North American Aviation on airplanes, when I’ve got something right close in Washington State? And they offered me a job that was right in a piece of line of work that I had enjoyed, and wrote them a letter and said I’ll take it. And, well, I went through a couple questions, like, tell me more about this machining research job. And they said, well, we looked at your paper and I’ve even shown it to the people doing it, and they would like to have you come, but that’s about all we can tell you. Okay. I showed these papers to my advisor and he says, that’s a given. Take it.
Franklin: So, sorry, I’d like to just ask, that’s the second time you’ve said that and I wrote that down because I wanted to explore that further. Why did your advisor feel that that was a given?
Armstrong: Oh, he went on to say, I’ve been in the aircraft industry. Very structured engineering. You’re an independent thinker. Get in with some company that’s not quite as structured as the aircraft industry is. And I had no way of knowing other than to listen to him. And then couple that with the fact that here I had an offer close by. Home was still Spokane. And kind of pieced it together and my advisor knew those links and kind of felt that this would be a good placement for me.
Franklin: And were you from Spokane originally?
Armstrong: And that’s how I ended up in the Washington Air Guard in Spokane, because I’d gone to high school in Spokane and wheat farming country south of Spokane.
Franklin: Yup. Okay. So describe coming to Hanford.
Armstrong: Well, I show up, and here there’s 50 other brand new hires and we all report into the building. I forget the number downtown; it was in the old 700 Area. It was GE new employee processing. I would find out I was the only one that had been already named to an assignment. They had the greases on the skids and I was given a badge and said, tomorrow morning, you’ll report out to this place out at the edge of the Earth called 200 West Area, to a building called 231-Z. I had no clue what that meant. Or even what the assignment was yet. But they described and spent all the rest of the balance of that day in terms of processing me in and getting papers signed and all this stuff that goes with orientation.
Next morning, a fellow named Tom Nelson, who was supervisor of metallurgy development, eventually became Battelle, but for General Electric, metallurgy development operation in 231-Z building, he came downtown, picked me up, took me out 231-Z building. And I met a fellow there who I was assigned to to do a project. His name was John Rector. I learned that I was to produce a document on a machinability state of the art of machining plutonium metal. I’d, of course, never heard of plutonium metal before. I got my Top Secret clearance at that time. And they took me over to 234-5 to the production line and I saw what the whole purpose of Hanford was all about, in making parts. At that time, we made weapon pieces here. Not commonly advertised today, but it was not secret then. And still isn’t. But—
Franklin: What kinds of weapon pieces were made?
Armstrong: The plutonium core for the thermonuclear devices.
Franklin: Okay, and so before—how long had Hanford been making weapon pieces?
Armstrong: The history goes—of course, you well know from your study of the origin of Hanford—was to make plutonium metal to be sent to Los Alamos for assembly into the Nagasaki weapon.
Armstrong: They continued to make them at Los Alamos up until like ’49, 1949, at which time this famous 234-5, or now called Plutonium Finishing, that was the name given to the plant later. That was built solely for the purpose of converting plutonium nitrate to metal. And metal—they call them buttons, the product—buttons into cast pieces and machined pieces for the weapon cores. And that started in like 1949, ’50, here at Hanford. And then a few years later, they built a parallel plant at Rocky Flats. Yet I think in the early years, best I knew, Hanford made three-quarters of the production, and Rocky Flats a little less than a quarter. Still Los Alamos made a few, but the stockpile was primarily made at Hanford. And then the balance started shifting a little more to Rocky Flats, until mid-‘60s when all the production went to Rocky Flats.
Well, anyway, back to my pathway. Here I was, being told to learn all there is to know and put it down in a document on machining plutonium metal. And they had had a fella out from General Electric Schenectady who was a machining expert, and he had just left to go back to GE. And he was concentrating on traditional big production, like tooling forces and horsepower to make cuts. I walked through the production line, and they wanted emphasis on accuracy. Not what the program was gearing toward. They wanted emphasis on surface finish. And I turned around the program being done by metallurgy research people, and ended up putting out a document on how to get the finest surface finish we can be able to do with the lathes they had in 234-5 Building, which happened to be some of the finest that existed in the world. So, I wrote that document. It happens to still be classified. I’ll never see it again.
Yeah, that leads me to a thought on classifications at Hanford. I didn’t understand it at the time, but now I do. I used to think weapon design was the big secret; it really wasn’t. It happened that Hanford production rate was the big secret, and manufacturing technology was right behind it. So, we physically protected manufacturing technology higher than the design of the devices. Which is what you see nowadays in how close is Iran to making one? And you can betcha they’re farther ahead than our politicians think they are. Anyway, enough said.
I put in four months writing that document, got published, and a fella, name of Les Brecke, who ran the production line in 234-5, invited me to come over and spend an assignment there. Still on the GE tech grad program. I had a friend that had wanted me to come and spend an assignment with the K Reactor design group, too. And I thought, well, I’ve been in one thing. I think I’ll take the K Reactor design group. And I did that. Down 762 Building, through the winter, so I didn’t have to go out to Hanford during the winter that first year. And I participated in designing a flexible horizontal control rod for the K Reactors. Was eventually fabricated and put in.
At that time, operating problems with the reactors was secret. You actually got one of these flexible rods in your inventory at the museum backup storeroom. And I’ve got one of the three whole pieces of bonded carbide to go in it, because I ended up making those pieces later. I’ll get to that in a second.
That was a fun assignment in terms of really designing a product and getting it approved and getting through design approval from the rather rigorous design approval process. So then I talked to Les Brecke again and said, do you still want me? And he said, absolutely, I’ll take you any time you can get here. And I ended up as my third assignment, then, in the GE tech grad program of going to production line at 234-5 Building. Two—oh, go ahead.
Franklin: Sorry, I just—for those that may not be—including sometimes myself—who may not be well-versed in the numbering system—
Armstrong: Oh, that.
Franklin: What is—so earlier you said 231-Z and that—
Armstrong: 231-Z was an original building that DuPont built to process the plutonium nitrate. And when that was moved over to the PUREX and then 234-5, which I’ll describe a little more later, the 231 Building was turned into a metallurgy development laboratory. And that eventually became a branch of Battelle when GE diversified.
Franklin: And so 234-5, does that have a more common name?
Armstrong: Well, the more common name is Plutonium Finishing Plant.
Franklin: Okay, so that is the PFP.
Armstrong: PFP. Yeah, that name, interestingly, wasn’t coined until after the weapons mission.
Armstrong: The original, it was just called 234-5 or Dash-5 or Z Plant. Never had a word name associated with it. It held a special clearance to even get in the door, you had to have—it was kind of a soft top secret clearance, called a blue tag clearance. You got a model of one of these badges there in your museum. Today, no one carries that clearance anymore, but that’s what it was, was access to weapon data processing.
Franklin: Okay, my last question, what year did you come to Hanford?
Armstrong: Oh! 1963. June of ’63.
Franklin: You came in 1963.
Franklin: Okay, I just wanted to establish that.
Armstrong: And that was, I guess going clear back to the beginning of the story, when I joined the Air Guard when I was still in high school, that was like the 1958 timeframe, see? So all through my WSU timeframe, I was in the Air Guard, thinking of going to work for aircraft people and it wasn’t until ’62 or so that I started in the interview process to eventually take permanent employment. And then the pathway that I described, the interview from the General Electric Company here. It turned out to be here, but I didn’t know it at the time.
Franklin: Gotcha, okay.
Armstrong: So here I am, now, in the, it was called weapons manufacturing operation.
Franklin: And this was with Les—
Armstrong: With General Electric Company. With Les Brecke.
Franklin: With Les Brecke, okay.
Armstrong: So we did two things. We were the receiver of the plutonium button, which is the finished plutonium chunk coming from a simple term called the button line, which is part of the production in this Z Plant, or 234-5 Building, across the wall into the machining. Or first, casting. We casted this. It’s a metal just like you can cast and pour any other—lead, brass, bronze, iron. The process is quite similar. Casted into a shape, machine it to a final product, goes through inspection and package it and send it to the assembly plant.
Franklin: And where was the assembly plant?
Armstrong: They went first to Rocky Flats in Denver, and then down to Pantex in Texas where the final assemblies were all put together.
Franklin: Right, right. Okay and so—sorry, go ahead.
Armstrong: My job—the name of the group was called weapons fabrication, and my job was to overview the machining. They had just bought the set of very fine lathes that didn’t quite work as good as they thought they should. First job was figure out why. It was a kind of a combination of electronics problem and hydraulics problem that I think I solved because we made them work. So through ’63, ’64, ’65, I was in charge of those lathes pumping out parts that went to inspection. And then eventually shipped.
I enjoyed it. I really did. I didn’t realize how good a job it was until it was all over. And one of the saddest things I had to do in the course of my career, we had set—we were setting with literally a five-year top secret plan of production, how many parts we were going to make every month for five years. And it went to zero overnight.
Franklin: Mm. Why was that?
Armstrong: : Political. Politics.
Franklin: What year—when was that?
Armstrong: Mid-’65, late-’65. I can’t tell you the politics of it. But the idea was save some money by shifting all the production and casting and machining over to Rocky Flats. Close down Hanford production. So that hit the newspaper and we were in one of the first major cutbacks at Hanford.
It happened that the person I’d worked with in 231 Building, John Rector, had a hobby doing manufacturing in his basement. Of course, it wasn’t but the first weekend I was over to house, seeing what he was doing. He was doing stuff in his basement that was beyond a lot of capability of big production shops. He came to me and said, we’re out of a job. I was promised a position in the maintenance group. I didn’t quite know how I wanted to do that. I’m sure I could’ve negotiated something into design engineering. But John said, been my plan someday to start a full-time business. And if you want to partner with me, let’s do it.
We did, and we operated out of his basement for three or four months while we built Western Sintering Company. It’s over on Stevens Drive, still running today. So I turned in my resignation to GE and we started Western Sintering Company. I enjoyed it. I truthfully enjoyed the independence of a small business for seven years. I’m still good friends with the people that run it today, including the family. I left under good pretense.
And the reason I left was Atlantic Richfield, the employment relations fella named Bill Watson came to me and said, we need an engineering manager for East Area/West Area. Oh. Well, you’ve been selected to be the first offer. Oh, interesting. I’d never mailed out a resume or anything. I was selected by some friends, that when the opening was there, they scrubbed a bunch of names and came to me and said, the job is yours if you want it. And I took it. So I became the engineering manager of East Area and West Area, plant engineering.
Franklin: What was so attractive about the job that you wanted it?
Armstrong: Working with people. I think I saw this particularly in the production line in 234-5 Building. I was frequently being the fabrication engineer of a production operation where we had rotating shifts with five different supervisors. I was the guy that ended up as shift relief now and then. We had the finest operators that existed at Hanford. They were all hand-selected, good people. And I enjoyed working with them. They were all good to work with.
So I thought, here I got a chance to work with engineers. At first I was put into a group that had about eight engineers. And then I took over from Walt Engels, who had chosen to retire under the Atlantic Richfield shingle, and took over a larger group of close to 75 people, including planning engineering for each of their established operating plants. At that time, we were still running PUREX and B Plant and 234-5.
You asked about the Plutonium Finishing name to Z Plant, and that was done as kind of a last ditch, after our weapons mission was done. Rename the plant, try to get some other business here. And we did several projects. We did a couple plutonium fabrication test ingots for the Navy. And we did some plutonium heat source things for NASA. And we took in half a dozen jobs in that plant. We even made the first of the sabot units for the Army, the ones they fired over in Iraq. Those happen to have been secret when we made them. But then later they come out, the uranium sabot units for the artillery shells for tank cannons. Anyway, that was the approach to naming it Plutonium Finishing, as advertising capability out to the world that we could handle plutonium. It really was no other capability. But the bottom line, there wasn’t very many people who wanted to go out and hire that kind of work done, either.
Franklin: Right, especially with the Cold War being over.
Armstrong: It wasn’t until five or six years later that the plutonium uranium mixed oxide fast reactor fuels business came into play. Otherwise that would’ve been a natural for takeover by that building. But it wasn’t understood then. So, at Western Sintering, like I say, I enjoyed it. We made our own machinery.
Franklin: And what did you primarily make?
Armstrong: Small mechanical parts, cold compaction of metal powders into shape. And the sintering process is a furnace to diffusion bond the cold compacted metal powders into a finished structural piece. In terms of things common folk think of, little gears, little bushings, little bearings, little—and I say little because we were somewhat limited by size. The bigger the part, the bigger the press. We had made our own up to 200 ton, and that could make a part of about two-to-three square inches of surface area. Otherwise, little parts can make them pretty fast on the small ten-ton press. We actually made some ten-ton presses for the nuclear fuels industry. Primarily Westinghouse and General Electric and even Areva out here. Back then, they were Jersey Nuclear. And we sold 34 of those things around the world, including four of them to India, and two of them up to Canada. Pretty well established a name in terms of a good operating machine for that particular industry.
As I say, Atlantic Richfield came to me and offered me the job of plant engineering manager, which I took. At that time, the B Plant fuels—excuse me, the strontium cesium encapsulation plant was just in final design stage and not working very good. It happened that Les Brecke had been assigned over to that building, and here I was, previous good stand with him, and suddenly I’m in charge of making his equipment that didn’t work work again. Which we did do, as a group, a team. Ended up packaging the whole inventory of strontium cesium capsules that’s now in the reservoir. It’s been sitting there for 50 years now. 40 years. Anyway, however.
So, at that time, Atlantic Richfield was pretty good a contractor to work for. I’d even rank Atlantic Richfield a little higher than General Electric in terms of wanting the people to understand they worked for Atlantic Richfield. Had good relations there. If they’d have stayed a contractor, I’d probably have stayed there. It happened that they chose ten years as the contract limit, and Rockwell, new contractor, and couple things happened at Rockwell outside of Hanford. The B-1 bomber went down the tube when Jimmy Carter canceled the project. And another parent company they had, called Atomics International was doing reactor research to eventually build some gas-cooled reactors. That was pretty much down the tube.
So Rockwell sat there with two sources of their own people. They brought in quite a few to Hanford. And I was told that my job would be replaced by one of them. And I could go to project management, which I did. And I didn’t care for the project management, because I enjoyed the design work, and particularly the kind of design work we were doing which was plant troubleshooting. Every week we’d have a plant managers’ meeting of all the different site plants. Whoever’s in trouble, I could solve it and—I could put my team onto it and solve it. That’s the way we were set up to do it.
And I laugh at the current problem of the PUREX tunnel collapsing, because I had exactly the same issue happen back in the ‘70s. It happened that there were a bunch of low level waste disposal units called cribs. There were stacked Douglas fir timber underground, meant to be just a big void space to send low level liquid waste. People out monitoring the desert where these cribs were came back with a report over the weekend that one of these cribs had collapsed, not far from the story of the PUREX tunnel last week. And so I’m at the plant managers’ meeting and this is the big flap for the week, why did this happen and what are we going to do about it? So I came back and put one of my good civil engineers on it. He came back in about ten minutes and said, good news and bad news. Good news, I know why, and bad news, every one of them’s going to collapse. Oh, tell me more. Well, these were stacked Douglas fir timber. You’ve got about 40 years on untreated timber and then it’s going to be weak enough to rot away and they’ll collapse. Okay, what are we going to do about it? Well, we’re going to fill up the holes.
So that was our carryover to the plant manager. So we eventually came up with the process to slurry up sand and pump it down every one of these holes and we eventually breached some of them. Problem was, you see, the rodents would get down into a hole and then they’d eat the strontium salts that were in this low level waste. They’d come up and the rabbits would eat the rodents, and then the coyotes would eat the rabbits, and then you’d have hot spots around the desert. And that was bad news. So we ended up vacuuming the desert. That was a legend to live down. [LAUGHTER]
Anyway, I thought about the PUREX tunnel, because I knew how that one was made. And I thought, surely, those timbers are rotted away. And that’s exactly the same story. The only answer was fill it with sand. And then what are you going to do about it? Of course, plan that’s somewhat out in the newspaper is fill them with slurry and probably a grout mix.
Franklin: Well, it’s all—the PUREX tunnel it’s all solid waste, right?
Armstrong: No, there’s no waste in there at all.
Franklin: Or it’s contaminated solid objects.
Armstrong: That’s right, that’s a good way to put it. The object of the design at PUREX Plant, in the earlier fuel separation plant, REDOX, T Plant, B Plant, whenever a failed big vessel or big pump would have to be disposed of, they’d put it on a railcar and drag it out to near the desert, drag it out to the burial ground and bury it. Actually time consuming plus potential for accidents and exposure. So the idea at PUREX Plant was build a tunnel at the head end of the plant. And then it got a failed pump, failed tank, you buy an old railroad car that’s junk, put the pump on it, and send it down this railroad tunnel for somebody to worry about someday. There’s no waste in there, other than whatever residual was on the contaminated equipment. But there still could be some pretty high level stuff.
Franklin: Because of what it—
Armstrong: What it was handling, sure.
Franklin: But no solid—but no actual—
Armstrong: No actual waste like we think of waste in the waste tanks, or waste like the strontium cesium capsules in B Plant.
Franklin: Did you see the infographic that Washington State Department of Ecology had put out of the tunnels? And it had the railcars, but inside the railcars was a green goo?
Armstrong: I didn’t see that. Probably wouldn’t have got impressed with it. I personally don’t like the state being a regulator. I think it should’ve been kept as a federal agency. But that’s my own opinion that they wouldn’t care for today. I don’t think the state’s got any business being in the business. Enough said. I won’t—that’s not a popular area.
Franklin: That’s good.
Armstrong: Ha! You can edit that out.
Franklin: Well, I mean, you know, it’s just an opinion. So you had worked on these cribs and filled them up with—
Armstrong: A slurry of sand.
Franklin: Were these constructed similarly—
Franklin: --to the PUREX tunnel?
Armstrong: They were a hole in the ground with—I forget what they were, like, 20-foot long timbers stacked just to make a big void space, and then a roof over the top and six, eight foot of dirt on top of it.
Franklin: Oh, okay.
Armstrong: The whole idea was to get a big void space down underground to pump low level liquid waste. But over years of pumping low level waste in, it accumulates to high level waste, and that’s why it was bad to have the rodents down in there eating these salts.
Armstrong: So, anyway, with Rockwell coming in, and me going to project management, I had another group of people come to me, namely the Washington Public Power, we would like you to come with us. We’re building five nuclear power plants. And I said, well, I’ll be there. And so I took a job in project management of what was called the equipment qualification, namely to prove everything in the reactor was going to—everything safety-related was really going to work during every credible accident. We had about 20,000 electrical mechanical pieces of equipment that we had to have definitive proof it could stand an accident scenario. So, I’m still involved in Hanford and watching it, but yet direct employment left when I left Rockwell.
Franklin: Okay. But still obviously related.
Armstrong: Well, still nuclear power plant, as opposed to waste management area. Or production in the early years.
Franklin: And how long were you with WPPSS?
Armstrong: 18 years.
Franklin: Okay. So you kind of saw, then, the full—the rise and fall, I guess one can say.
Armstrong: Oh, yeah, in fact, even in organizational dynamics, this was a tough time. Organization staging for—I guess if you think of plant construction, you need one craft for some time, or one set of engineers for some period, and another set of engineers for another period. We had organizations that were struggling with trying to keep their mission alive. When Don Major, who was our general manager then, was trying his best to say, this organization’s got to phase down, because this one’s phasing up to finish the plant.
But the thing that I saw my pathway pretty clear—I was kind of middle management through my whole career path, and here middle management at Washington Public Power Supply System, we could see a clear pathway to make that plant work. Something bothers me about the Vit Plant. People working on it aren’t going to see it work in the lifetime of the people working on it. That’s why I don’t like the idea of the state being involved in it. That should’ve been a small demonstration plant; could’ve been finished five years ago and working. If it worked good, we’d build two, three more of them.
Franklin: Mm. Instead of building one—
Armstrong: State kept insisting it’s got to be so big that once we turn it on, we’ll run all the waste through it and be done. They ended up building it so big that they couldn’t control the design process and still don’t know when it’s going to run. May never run.
Armstrong: There are other ideas on what to do with waste. Some of them still being explored to maybe speed it up. But I—Savannah River has a waste evaporator and a waste melter. The titanium industry’s had titanium vacuum melters for years. We could’ve made one here.
Franklin: Savannah River’s also partway through their vitrification process. But there, though, it’s easier because the chemical—they only used one—they used less chemical separations processes than we did.
Franklin: So they have much less complicated—
Armstrong: I understand that, too. You know, this is one of the things that even took me a long time to digest when I had plant engineering group over the Tank Farms and PUREX and REDOX and those, that each one put out a different product in terms of the waste composition. The process to handle it was somewhat different. But even in the years I was there, we were running the T Evaporator and the S Evaporator, and then the A Evaporator was built just after I left. They were all one mission: take the waste out of the tanks. It was done before I got there to take all the strontium and cesium out. That was done very quietly and successfully. So getting stuff out of the tanks was not a big deal. They knew how to do it.
And suddenly it’s got to be reinvented. Even running the S Evaporator and T Evaporator, they were different processes, but we took a lot of water out and made a lot of space in the tanks. Some of them, they gained a little too much space and they had to put water back in to cool it down. But that’s part of the learning process.
Franklin: It was meant that liquid waste would go in the tanks, right? So now that it’s been largely solidified, doesn’t that make it harder to access the waste via the existing pipes—
Armstrong: Well, it sure does.
Franklin: --liquid material—
Armstrong: It sure does. In the first campaign of—effectively what was in there was liquids, yet a lot of stuff had settled out over the years. As they were extracting the product out of the tanks, they had some kind of pumps to get the liquid out and then some devices they called sluicers which would spray the tank bottoms, loosen up stuff so they could slurry it up and pump it on into B Plant so they could process. Still they cleaned the tanks out tolerably well.
Yet the evaporator process included a type of pump called a salt well that we made in my plant engineering group, where we would literally put a well casing not far from what you see out in the desert for farming—put a well casing down in the tank so you could sift away from the salt product and get the liquid back out and send it to the evaporators. So every one of the tanks went through the salt well campaign of extracting liquids to try to get it solid. So this leaves a little different product to get out of there now. At that time, the idea was remote shovels and stuff like that to dig it out. That, I think was demonstrated doable.
Yet concurrently, we had almost the same game that they got now. I’d get a call over the weekend, this tank’s potential leaker just got a high drywell indication, what should we do? And we’d come up with a plan to route piping and pump it over to another tank. And we think that one’s good so we’ll try that one for a while. Yeah, that one seems to be holding it. And then we had a big master chart—this was before computers could take care of things to count for you—we had a big chart of which tanks were suspected leakers, known leakers, possible leakers, and three or four other categories of maybe they’re okay or maybe not. We got space here but not there. [LAUGHTER]
Same game that you read about in the paper today. But a little different product to have to handle, I do admit that. My own desires, and yet I was current plant operations/plant engineering, and Don Woodrich, in another group was long-range planning, what are we going to do with this stuff eventually? At that time it was dig it out, put it in casks and take it someplace. No one wanted it.
Franklin: That’s a hard sell.
Franklin: What years was that?
Armstrong: That was in the mid-‘70s. Because I left Rockwell. Rockwell came in in, I guess I’m going to say, the early ‘80s. That’s when I left and went to Washington Public Power.
Franklin: How—so you were with them, with Washington Public Power, kind of until its ending—
Armstrong: Well, through—I actually got caught in layoff. They wanted a headcount and they wanted dollars, and we now the four plants were put in first a construction delay and eventually a termination. It was clear that we had too many people. And the general manager had had a stroke and they hired a new guy. He come in and said, get me a list of the high dollar people in engineering, because we’re going to contract out a lot of this business. I was one of the higher paid engineers or managers, and I got hit with a layoff in the mid-‘90s.
Franklin: So what did you do after leaving WPPSS?
Armstrong: I chose it to be an early retirement. And I’ve been active all along in the leadership of American Society of Mechanical Engineers. So I spent a lot of time there; still do.
Franklin: Great. Let’s see here. You’ve answered a lot of my questions, but I have a few more. What were the most challenging and/or rewarding aspects of your work at Hanford?
Armstrong: Oh, early years, like I mentioned, being selected to go into the weapons production group. That wasn’t a group you got into very easily. The best operators and the best supervisors that existed at Hanford. We had a final mission: make parts, put them in a box and ship them. I worked there for over four years for Les Brecke, who was a tough one to work for. Never missed a single shipment.
Franklin: Wow. And what about the later years?
Armstrong: Atlantic Richfield years, same story. I had a wonderful group of people. I had five subsections in my plant engineer group, specifically one for each plant. But I had them all structured so if they knew I was in some trouble someplace with whatever it be, I could draw from one group and put it into another group to get through a complicated problem. And we had some issues with evaporators and with—the Tank Farms were a constant headache.
Even PUREX, when they started to shut it down and then ramp it up for what was to be the last run, I somehow—the production manager’s name was a fella named Chuck Malady, and I ended up being his ghostwriter for letters that went to, it was Energy Research and Development Administration, now DOE. I wrote two letters from the president of Atlantic Richfield to DOE, then ERDA: please, let us run PUREX one more time. We’ll be done with that N Reactor fuel forever. Twice the answer came back, no, can’t do it. Please don’t ask again, because Jimmy Carter wants no more waste in the waste tanks. Instead, they let the fuel rot away in K Reactor basins. We were campaigning, let us run PUREX. We could’ve done it and been done with it. It would not have added that much waste. But that was the decision made at the presidential level. It probably cost this country a hundred billion dollars, and we’re still not willing to admit it. They still haven’t got the mess cleaned up. We had PUREX ready to go to do it.
Franklin: Right, right. Interesting. Thank you. What are some of your memories of any major events in Tri-Cities history? I guess, for example, were you around for President Kennedy’s visit?
Armstrong: Yeah, in fact—[LAUGHTER] it’s kind of comical because I was working in the production line, and the message that came out was essential operations must continue, but non-essential people will be released to go to President Kennedy’s visit. And there’ll be buses to bus you down there. Les Brecke had maintained we were essential, so we weren’t going to go. And then he had a change of heart the last day, said, well, I want to keep my operators busy, but Armstrong and two or three others, you can get on the bus and go. So I was way back in the last row with the last bus that came in. I watched from way back, afar. It was fun to see it.
Franklin: Yeah. Do you remember President Nixon’s visit?
Armstrong: Oh, I do, but I actually didn’t—I wasn’t here. I was traveling someplace. So I didn’t get in on the festivities.
Franklin: Any other major events in Tri-Cities history, plant shutdowns, startups, that kind of stand out to you?
Armstrong: Well, certainly the contractor changes. Even one of the comical parts with General Electric, I worked directly for this Les Brecke, and he had a rather seriously assembled dossier on every one of his people. I forget who it was that came out, it might have been George Saylor from General Electric, who was high up in the employee relations group. He says, your secretary tells us you’re not going to release your files. You must turn them in! That’s GE property. That’s not your property. Everyone will start with an empty folder when Atlantic Richfield comes in.
Actually, it wasn’t Atlantic Richfield; it was an interim company called Isochem, who was a rather short-lived vendor. They were supposed to build an isotope separations plant. Never did. And then Atlantic Richfield got that contract assigned to them. Interesting style then.
But anyway, bottom line is, that was kind of a comical thing. I sat out on the outside of the row and then George Saylor comes out. I was outside of his office. My office was from here to the wall from his, and I could hear him arguing, you must release your employee files because those are GE property. Not yours. Well, he eventually had to. [LAUGHTER] So we started with an empty binder on everyone. But I think he kept a few things out of there. But that was kind of an interesting thing.
Another fun one that happened, still with Les Brecke—I mentioned I’d been active all along in ASME in local and national activities. Well, it happened that another fella in 234-5 Building came to me and said, hey, I see you just moved to town. Would you help us with our local section meetings? I said, oh, yeah, sure. What do you want me to do? Well, here’s ten names. You call these ten members and remind them of our next meeting. I can do that.
So I put the list in my drawer and come a week before the meeting, I pull it out and start calling people. Get down about four names, and there was a boss’s boss’s boss on the list. Me, little guy on the totem pole, going to call him? I’ll skip his name. And then I call the rest and then I put the list back in my drawer. Next day, I said, hey, I promised Marv I’d call these people. I guess I’ll do it. So I called him up. He answers the phone himself. Hugh Warren here. Oh! I wanted to remind you of our ASME meeting coming up this week. Oh, yeah! I got that notice. I’m going to be there; put me down. And he remained a lifelong friend, forever.
Armstrong: And the comical thing that happened is, he says, where do you work? I said, 234-5 work. I work for Les Brecke. Oh, I’m coming down there this afternoon; I’ll stop by and say hello. So, my office door was within viewing door of Les Brecke’s office door. And in comes boss’s boss’s boss, said hello to me and we talked a few minutes and he left. Pssht! Brecke comes out, what was Warren doing down here?
Armstrong: Oh, he just popped in to say hello. Enough said, anyway. It was just kind of a comical event. There’s probably hundreds of examples like that through the years. Like I say, when I had the plant engineering group, I had wonderful people working for me. Some of them unfortunately were older than I was and we read about one every weekend now. They’re passing away.
Franklin: Yeah, that’s true. What was it like living in Richland—so you would’ve moved here after Richland had become privatized. What was it like living in Richland in that area of the Cold War in the ‘60s and ‘70s?
Armstrong: I can’t say that there was anything spectacular. Downtown—well, I had an apartment when I moved in to Richland across from the old Kadlec Hospital. It was one block to what was called 700 Area. They were just building the Federal Building and knocking down all the old Federal Building offices. So I had one—that K Reactor design group assignment was in 762 Building, which I’d walk half a block from my apartment into the gate on the north end of the 700 Area and walked two buildings to my—I didn’t know much about what else was going on down there, other than that it was most of design engineering for the whole site. I was specific to the K Reactor and we were in one building.
You talked about Kennedy; even going back to high—excuse me, college, I had an interesting experience with him. I lived in a dormitory the first couple years. And I guess it must’ve been like 1959 or ’60, it was a Saturday, and I was on phone duty. We had one phone come in to the dorm. You’d answer it and then call a room of somebody. Well, they were holding what they called a mock political convention. I wasn’t going to go to it, but in comes this call from somebody. Hey, we’re the State of Massachusetts and we got a big deal guy here, and he’s senator, and we’ve only got two people to represent our state. Send people over here!
So I could put out a message on the public announcement through the whole dorm, and then my shift was coming to the end. I decided—we gathered three or four other people and we went over to the gymnasium to be part of the Massachusetts convention for this political convention. The famous senator was John Kennedy. We sat around, the eight of us, around the room—around the circle. Oh, thank you so much for you folks participating in this important political activity. He signed my program. And did I save it? No.
Franklin: So he was actually at WSU?
Franklin: Wow, I didn’t know that.
Armstrong: In fact, I think the yearbook that year has got his picture and I’m in the shadow in the background of it or something. But I didn’t save that program that had his signature on it. He signed them all.
So then, years later, he’s president, and I’m in 762 Building in the K Reactor design group. Right next to my office was the resident office of the FBI. So, I probably knew it, among the first three or four at Hanford that Kennedy had been shot. Because they came over and—we knew the FBI guys, and they knew us. I could stand in their doorway and listen to their radio chatter. Of course, we assembled in the hallway to try and learn what was happening from the FBI chatter coming in on the radio. It was a whole story that was just emerging on the national news. So kind of a close couple paths crossings there.
Franklin: Yeah. That’s really interesting. Thank you. I think that might be the most detailed—one of the more detailed Kennedy visit stories I’ve ever got, you know, from an interview.
Franklin: So, I guess, in closing—
Armstrong: In fact, the neighbor down the street from me was a fellow named Swede Holmquist who was safety director for all of Hanford under DuPont, GE, appointed by Matthias to be safety director.
Franklin: Oh, wow.
Armstrong: He brought home a lot of stuff when he retired, which I have some of it now. Which you’ll get someday. But meantime, I’m going to enjoy it.
Armstrong: Including the press release notebook on the Kennedy visit.
Franklin: Oh, wow.
Armstrong: Thick notebook.
Franklin: Wow. So in closing, what would you like future generations to know about working at Hanford during the Cold War?
Armstrong: Well, it was serious business. And I took it that way. I had very high security clearance. I took it serious. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to students in the university environments. This is my advice to them. If you get involved in either corporate security activity or government security activity, take it serious. I did. And there’s stuff I couldn’t tell you today that I was involved in. Mostly, interestingly enough, on manufacturing technology. One time the highest level security thing we had at Hanford was production rate. You can read about it in the paper right now how many devices we made. I wouldn’t have dared told you that in the ‘60s.
Franklin: Sure, but that manufacturing technology, though, is still very much—
Franklin: Because of the danger of nations making--
Armstrong: Yeah, people picking up on how to do it.
Franklin: Yeah. Yeah.
Armstrong: And even though what we did 50 years ago was probably different than what they do today. I was down at the University of Nevada Las Vegas a month ago, and I met a fella that was doing the laser work on the stockpile proof-of-reliability. He knew where I’d come from. I’d been through the whole test site. They took that job serious, too. But there’s been more released on what they did than ever will be released on what Hanford did. And yet even—I meet people around the country, everybody knows about Oak Ridge. Not very many people know what happened at Hanford. And I think it’s an important thing to tell, and this is why I’m excited about seeing the B Reactor elevated. And I’d go so far as to include the other facilities. T Plant’s an important part of the whole story.
Franklin: Oh, sure. I mean, the fuel doesn’t pop out of B Reactor and then just go to Los Alamos.
Armstrong: In fact, when I was plant engineering manager, one thing Rockwell did when they first came to town—there were seven people, and I’ve got a picture of all seven of them, that had like 35 years of total experience going back to DuPont. They were all given a Rockwell 35-year gold watch. Two of them worked for my group. One of them was kind of a simple story; he worked at Remington—excuse me, DuPont at Salt Lake, came up to Hanford. The other had an amazing story.
I held a staff meeting when I gave out these two watches to the people. Had all my people and anybody else who wanted to come. And I said, Max Yeats, I want you to—he did not know what I was going to do. I said, I want you to tell us all where you were on a certain date in 1942 or ’43, like that. I didn’t know you knew that date. Well, I know the whole story, and you’re going to tell us right now, what happened that day and forth. Well, I haven’t talked about that much. Well, you can tell it, or I’ll tell it, because I know it.
And he said, okay. I went to work for Remington Arms in Kansas City. I was in charge of tooling. Machinist background, mechanical engineering graduate. One day I was called in to the boss’s office, and told I was selected for a special corporate assignment. They knew nothing about it, I was supposed to take it. What do you want to do? And he said, I don’t know, I guess I’ll take it. What would you do, you were a kid out of school, worked for six months for DuPont? So he said, here’s an envelope; open it when you get home. You’re off now. Go home.
Got home, told his wife—new wife, opened the envelope: Report to Dr. Do, University of Chicago in two days. Dr. Do was code name for Fermi. He went into Fermi’s office and said, go to that meeting room, get some other people, we’ll come in and talk. He learned the whole story of what was going to happen. And his mission in being taken in to Chicago was he worked on making the fuel for the Chicago Pile. And then there were six of them sent from Chicago to Hanford, and he was project manager on construction of B Plant. Not the reactor, but the fuel separations plant. And his whole career, he stayed as this senior, strong, individual contributor, including working for me, 40 years later.
Franklin: Wow. That’s quite a story.
Armstrong: And that’s never documented anyplace.
Franklin: Yeah, the plants really seem to suffer from a lack of documentation and just awareness. The reactors get all of the—
Armstrong: Yeah, yeah. And, you know, he’d have been a wonderful person to have in your interview system, see? So I can tell the story about him now. All that came out as a result of Rockwell saying, we want to do something for the old-timers that are here. And they selected, it happened that they had some gold watches that said Rockwell on them, and they had them all in a—I gave the watches out at my own staff meeting, but then later they all assembled in the famous PUREX conference room for a group picture. And I went with them on that. I’ve got a copy of that picture with the seven people.
Franklin: That’s really neat. Well, Dennis, thank you so much. It’s been a really great interview.
Armstrong: Well, I could probably talk for an hour and two hours. I’m getting hoarse here, but I enjoy the history. I think you know that Don Sorenson and I both kind of partner in researching what we can. He’s two lightyears ahead of me and yet I’ve got stuff he’d enjoy having. I kind of got hooked on it when I cleaned out Swede Holmquist’s house. I wish I’d’ve saved more, but unfortunately, he’d brought home boxes full of historical papers, put them in his basement under a window where the sprinklers were running, and I opened up these boxes and they were all moldy. I didn’t want to kill myself. Including a big, thick white binder on the collapse of the second PUREX tunnel. I opened up, looked at the pictures and threw it in the dumpster. And probably that was the only one that existed. Yet that report might be in the library someplace. But it’s so hard to find stuff in the library. Don’s got access to more pictures. He has thousands of pictures. And his son collects pictures of Richland. Kind of an interesting tie.
Franklin: Yeah, his Vintage Tri-Cities Facebook was just in the paper the other day. He likes a lot of our Facebook posts. That’s when I first found out about him.
Armstrong: Yeah. Yet I’ve got some safety plaques that—I’ve got one 1944 from the National Safety Council to Hanford, 1944. And I’ve got 1945. I’ve got three bronze plaques that Holmquist lugged home. And I’ve got one that Kennedy gave the Site. In fact, have you been to the Nevada Test Site Museum?
Franklin: I have not.
Armstrong: Worthwhile going and see what they’ve done there. I’ll sign your travel authorization if you want to go. It won’t mean much when the dollars come, but. I’ve been there a number of times. In fact, I went again when I was—the student conference I put on in the University of Nevada. When the afternoon was quiet, I’d go over to the museum. Well, on an earlier visit, I’m standing inside the library. They’ve got a public reading room in addition to the museum tour. They’ve got this plaque hanging there, John F. Kennedy presents to the Atomic Energy Commission Sites. Docent walks up to me and says, isn’t that neat? You ever seen one of those? I said, yeah, I’ve got one hanging just like it in my room! Oh, you do? [LAUGHTER]
I suspect it was a case where one had been given to each site. So probably half a dozen of those exist; I might have one of two that remain. I don’t know if Oak Ridge’s still exist. But these bronze ones, you’ll get them someday. In the meantime, I offered to give Connie a couple of them once. And I said, only one condition: you hang it in the museum. If it’s going to go in a filing cabinet, you can’t have it. And as you’re aware, museums don’t take things with conditions.
Franklin: That’s true.
Armstrong: Unless it’s a loan to special purpose. So it’s still hanging in my room. [LAUGHTER]
Franklin: Well, Dennis, if there’s other—if you think of things later on that you want to talk about, we’d be happy to schedule another interview with you.
Armstrong: Or my experience might even be more broad than a lot of other folks. So if you get into an area where you want to amplify something, I’m on recall. I’m happy to do it for you. Because I think preserving the history is critical to the good work that so many thousands of people did at Hanford. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Paul Tibbetts and probably half a dozen of the crew with the first missions. Every one of them said the same story. People ask them, would you do it again? And the answer is, we were young Army officers, we were described a problem, we saluted and we did it. It wasn’t our position to challenge it.
I kind of feel the same way, having been involved in production at Hanford. Didn’t bother me I participated in making many thousands of warheads. We only used a few of them, and those are the ones that I know got shot down in Nevada. And I learned later which ones got shot, because in my last year or so I was by I guess seniority, I was declared to be the authorized shipper of the final product out of Hanford. So every one of the shipments, including—
I remember one time, the couriers would show up at the backdoor at 234-5. We’re here to take today’s shipment. Okay, sign here. And you got them. So they got sent down to Rocky Flats on a railroad car. It had a code name, Redwood car. It was always kind of parked up in the West Area shop area. Nobody knew what it was, unless you knew what it was. It was a US Mail car. It was painted just, US Mail No entry. I said to one of the couriers, hey, I want to see the inside of your railcar. Oh, yeah, come on up! No problem. Oh! I’ll be up. He took off with the load, and I went and got a car and took off. I got to be in the vault there that was normally off-limits to GE people. They closed the door and a guy sitting at each end of it with a machine gun, and off they went to Rocky Flats on a railcar. So anyway, those are fun little stories. I could probably have a thousand more. But I had fun during my career and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I really would.
Franklin: Good. Well, Dennis, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Armstrong: Well, thank you for putting the time into it and the effort. I think it’s a good program.
Franklin: Well, good. Thank you. Thank you for contributing.
View interview on Youtube.
200 West Area
Plutonium Finishing Plant
WPPSS (Washington Public Power Supply Systems)