Interview with James Bates

Dublin Core


Interview with James Bates


Hanford Site (Wash.)
Pasco (Wash.)
Kennewick (Wash.)
Richland (Wash.)
Mechanical engineering
Nuclear reactors
Nuclear power plants
Radioactive wastes
Radioactive waste disposal
Nuclear reactor accidents


James Bates was born in Pasco, Washington in 1952 and grew up in Kennewick, Washington. James worked at Battelle Northwest from 1974-2008.

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.


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.




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 the US Department of Energy collection.

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Robert Franklin


James Bates


Washington State University - Tri Cities


Robert Franklin: Okay. My name is Robert Franklin. I am conducting an oral history interview with James Bates on October 3, 2017. The interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. I’ll be talking with Jim about his experiences working at the Hanford Site. And for the record, can you state and spell your full name for us?

James Bates: Okay. James M. Bates. J-A-M-E-S, B-A-T-E-S.

Franklin: Okay, great. Thank you.

Bates: It’s not difficult. [LAUGHTER]

Franklin: No, but you just, you never know. So tell me—so, you’re from the area, right?

Bates: Yup.

Franklin: Okay, so usually my first question is, tell me how and why you came to the area. But you were born—

Bates: I was born in Pasco, went to school in Kennewick, graduated from Kennewick High in 1970. My dad, when I was in junior high school, brought me out to the Battelle Northwest groundbreaking ceremony. My dad was involved in local politics quite a bit; in fact, he eventually became mayor of Kennewick for several years. But he got me interested in the lab when we came out to the groundbreaking ceremony and the discussions of what was going to be going on in the labs kind of caught my interest. I mean, I was in junior high, so there was a long time to change my mind, but I kind of stuck with that as my goal. Graduated high school, went up to WSU, joined the mechanical engineering department. Got my degree, got a job offer from Battelle, came to work one month after graduation, stayed here 35 years.

Franklin: Wow. So did your father work for Hanford, or was he just kind of—

Bates: No, well, he was—right after he got out of high school, back in the late ‘40s, he worked on construction of some of the waste tank storage, the single-shell tanks.

Franklin: Oh, okay.

Bates: He worked out there about two years. But he eventually got diverted into auto parts and managed the NAPA store in downtown Kennewick. So that’s where I worked in the summers, doing inventory. [COUGH] I’m fighting a cough right now, so.

Franklin: Oh, sure. And so what was your first job when you came out to Battelle?

Bates: Well, they had what they called in those days a science and engineering rotation program. It was where you hired in and spent three to six months in various departments where they had openings. I actually started in the facilities department. Good bunch of guys there, still friends with a lot of those guys, and worked there about four months. It gave me a real good chance to learn what the lab was all about. I was modifying facilities for various sections, groups, departments, as project needs changed. So I got to know a whole lot of people around the lab. One of the departments that caught my attention was the fluids engineering section. When they had an opening, I transferred in there and stuck with them for 34 more years.

Franklin: Wow. So I’m wondering if you can—just because I’m kind of a layman when it comes to this—if you could describe to me, what is fluids engineering and fluids dynamics?

Bates: Well, understanding fluid flow, phase change, pressure drops, Newtonian and non-Newtonian fluid behaviors, like I mentioned, multi-phase flow. All of that played very much into understanding the water cooling aspects of our production reactors out here.

In fact, I got on board when they were trying to upgrade NPR, the New Production Reactor, which was actually N Reactor. We were trying to bump the performance, the thermal output of that reactor, as well as the production capability. So we had a chance to refurbish a lot of the old thermohydraulic loops that were used for designing the fuels on the old production reactors, the B, C, D Reactors. We upgraded that facility and began to do a number of tests related to the N Reactor. Critical heat flux correlations, these sorts of things, which helped them improve the fuel design for the reactor.

Franklin: So, if I’m understanding, you kind of drew on the work done to increase the productivity of the single pass reactors.

Bates: Yup. Yeah.

Franklin: And transferred that to the closed loop system of the N Reactor?

Bates: Yeah, I mean, we did work—factory did work on some of the work on the steam generators used that were eventually used to power the civilian power plant out there. But I mean, this test loop chases its roots way back to before I was born, 1950, ’51. They had loops out there to help them with reactor design. They kind of fell by the wayside in terms of use until we refurbished them, got them back online. But we had a high pressure loop out there capable of full reactor conditions, 2,500 psi, 650 degrees. We had five megawatts of power available to us through both rectifiers and motor generator sets. We used electrically—resistance heating to simulate the nuclear fuel rod bundle thermal output. So it was quite interesting for a young guy, just out of school, used to working on tabletop-scale experiments. I mean, this loop was 100 feet long and 100 feet high. [LAUGHTER] Pretty impressive to me.

Franklin: This was located on the Battelle campus?

Bates: At the old—no, this was out at the 189-D area. It was a reactor support building in the D Area complex.

Franklin: Okay.

Bates: So it involved a—when I was out there sitting in my chair at the loop, I was 50 miles from home. It was quite a long commute.

Franklin: Yeah. And so by this point, all the single-pass reactors were shut down?

Bates: Pretty—not completely. They were getting into those issues of thermal output and getting state permits. I can remember one time, in fact, we lost our permit to even do the thermal discharge from our test loop in the middle of a critical program. So how are we going to cool this thing without any river water at our disposal? So what we came up with was we pumped the river water out one pass through our loop, stored it in the old emergency cooling tanks out there that were in the 190 Tank Building. Gave us 5 million gallons’ capacity to store until we got our discharge permit back. Then we opened the valve and let it back out. [LAUGHTER]

Franklin: Oh, that’s to return the water to the river.

Bates: To return the water back to the river, yeah.

Franklin: Was that permitting process kind of part of the growing environmental movement?

Bates: Oh, yeah, very much so. When I first hired on, Hanford kind of had free reign on what we could do out here. We didn’t even pay for power. I’d fire up five megawatts of power supply and there was no meter on it. I wouldn’t’ve wanted to pay that bill, but—

Franklin: Yeah, right. And where was that power coming from?

Bates: It was coming off the grid out here on the Site. We had a big motor generator set—I forget how many horsepower it was, like 200 horsepower—that we used to turn AC power into DC. DC power being much better for this electrical resistance heating that we were doing. And we also had silicon-controlled rectifiers, SCRs, we called them, that about 4 megawatts out of that unit that turned AC power into controllable DC power. I remember every time we had to come online, I had to call the guys at the substations and say, we’re throwing the breaker. Get ready, we’re coming online. Because if we didn’t give them warning, it looked like something was failing, and we’d shut the substation down.

Franklin: Oh, because of the immense amount power to be drawn.

Bates: There was a big power draw all of a sudden.

Franklin: Because that would look like a massive—

Bates: Some kind of a surge going on that was unexpected. So we had the phone number pasted on the wall there, before you throw the switch, call these guys and let them know we’re coming online. So it was a—when that motor generator set was running, it was pretty impressive. Sounded like a jet engine running, just off to the side of the control panel here. In fact, I think that’s why I have hearing loss, over sitting there next to that thing for so many hours.

Franklin: Sure. Yeah, I bet there’d be a different industrial hygiene—

Bates: Oh, well, we didn’t have any noise surveys in those days, when our health people finally came out and did a survey, they said, man, that’s about 108, 110 decibels. You shouldn’t be spending more than two hours a day in that environment. And I says, well, let’s see, I’m 14 hours and going for today, so. [LAUGHTER]

Franklin: That’s really loud.

Bates: Oh, it is, it is really loud. I mean, we sat there with hearing protection on just to keep from getting a headache. But there was no requirements for limits of exposure or how many hours we could spend in that environment.

Franklin: Wow. I’m wondering if you could talk about how that permitting—that level of safety and permitting increased during your time out there.

Bates: Oh, it was orders of magnitude. Basically, when I first hired on—in fact, I brought the documents—we wrote our safety documents and we ran them—basically, our operating procedures and what the hazards were. We wrote that all down, and we got it approved by Gordy Halseth. He was the single safety officer for Battelle in those days, he and a couple secretaries and clerks. I mean, if you go out and compare that to the size of the safety department that’s out there now—there must be probably 50, 60 people now doing that same job, just because of the increasing requirements. Basically, in those days, we’d invite Gordy out and give him a tour and get him to bye off. One signature, and we were on our way.

The stuff we were doing—I mean, this is 2,500 psi, 620 degrees—is dangerous. We were careful because we knew it was dangerous, not because somebody told us we had to be careful. [LAUGHTER] So, you know, if somebody tells you that stove is hot, you don’t touch it. You don’t have to have it written down somewhere and sign off on a procedure. But, yeah, the changes that went on increased the efforts required to get project plans approved, safety documents approved, hazardous materials documents approved. All this became a much larger fraction of what we had to do in order to do our experimental work. So I got a little frustrated with it towards the end of my career, because it was just taking so much time.

The ultimate objective, as stated by our safety people, was zero accidents. I kept saying, there’s no such thing. Probabilities play in, and things are going to happen. I told them, the people working for me, the most dangerous thing they do all day is drive to work, statistically. So I said, do you want me to tell them to stay home? Well, that’s not what we’re after. [LAUGHTER]

Franklin: Could you see, on the flip side, though, could you see any tangible benefit to that increase—

Bates: Oh, yeah. If you read the old records of how much the production reactors warmed up the river, for example. When all of the production reactors were online, they could warm the entire Columbia River up by four to five degrees. Which, when you go out there and watch that river flowing by, that’s pretty amazing.

Franklin: Right, and that could have some real cascading effects on different ecosystems.

Bates: Oh, yeah, yeah. And of course, you mentioned the once-through cooling. When a fuel element ruptured, you began to wonder what was going into the river.

Franklin: What other kinds of improvements or changes did your work lead to with the reactors, single-pass and then the closed loop?

Bates: Oh, for example, we worked on improving the pressure drop performance of the spacers that hold the reactor rod bundles together. Any time you got a pressure drop through there, it’s a loss of energy, essentially. So we were trying to improve the performance of the spacer and the mixing behaviors downstream of those spacers. Because if the flow characteristics aren’t proper and you don’t get proper cooling to the rod, you’ll get a hot spot, and that limits how much you can ramp the power up. So, both the physical and the fluid dynamics of that flow were very important to how much power you can get out of a fuel element. So we worked on that a lot. In fact, these pictures I’ve got show huge control panels where pressure drop was what we were measuring. We used to use old mercury manometers in those days.

Franklin: What is that?

Bates: It’s where you measure, like, for example, a barometer. The old mercury barometers used to measure atmospheric pressure by how far it pushed a mercury column up in a tube. Well, if you put high-side pressure, low-side pressure and see the difference in that, you can determine how many psi pressure dropped.

Franklin: Oh, okay.

Bates: So the electronic transducers were just beginning to come onto the market. Which we eventually replaced all of that with.

Franklin: And what is that, just something that electronically measures the pressure?

Bates: Yeah. They use piezoelectrics, for example, is one way of making a pressure sensor. I got to live through all of that, where we went from manually recording manometers on a panel into our log book to tying it into an Apple computer-based data acquisition system and doing it all electronically. You got to remember, when I went to work out there in 1974, there were no desktop computers. My slide rule got a workout the first couple years. [LAUGHTER] And then eventually the company came through and gave us all HP calculators. Which were just beginning to come on to the market.

Franklin: How did that change your work? Just that one tool, that one tool change.

Bates: Oh, drastically. As an old school engineer, the thing I noticed, comparing it to the young engineers coming on board, when you work with a slide rule, you have to keep, basically, order-of-magnitude answers in your head. I mean, the decimal point doesn’t show on a slide rule. So you got real good at anticipating what a reasonable answer is to an engineering problem. The young engineers that were coming in that were all digital or computer, they’d come in and show me the answer. It was off by four orders of magnitude. I said, that can’t be. There’s no heat transfer coefficient that high. You know? You got to keep in your mind what a reasonable answer is. I’m afraid that that tendency still exists today in our computer-based engineering world.

Franklin: So you’re saying, then, that kind of precision of the calculator took away some of that educated-guess work.

Bates: It took away that, like I said, the engineering judgment. You start believing all the numbers the computer spits out with no basis to reject them as reasonable or unreasonable. Some of the older engineers I worked with, like Dale Fitzsimmons and Frank [unknown] and that, these guys were working out there working about the time I was born. They had the ability to do on the back of an envelope, so to speak, very good calculations. Things that we wouldn’t even attempt to do today. Obviously they were approximations but they gave us design parameters so we could go out and buy pumps and things to do the job. We just didn’t have all that software. In fact, the very first computer that was used out here was an analog computer that used manual jumpers on an array of resisters.

Franklin: Wow.

Bates: It was very crude. But because there’s an electrical analog for heat transfer, you could mock up a heat transfer experiment electronically and get some basic answers. Which we always had to confirm experimentally.

Franklin: How long did that practice continue of generating basic answers to then confirm—

Bates: Oh, I mean, right up until the time I retired, we were still doing very detailed studies on turbulence—I mean, turbulence is something computer models can’t model very well. Every turbulence model out there is empirically derived from experimental data. There’s no first principles that can model the chaos of turbulence. And that’s very key to heat transfer, for example. So, even with some of the reactor design codes that are being used now—which other people in our group were responsible for developing the COBRA codes, the VIPER codes—these probably don’t mean anything to you. But in the nuclear industry, they’re key to designing and analyzing accident conditions and so forth. A lot of the empirical models that are in those codes came from our experimental work.

Franklin: Are those acronyms, COBRA and VIPER?

Bates: Yeah, yeah, yeah. COBRA, I’m trying to—Coolant Boiling and Reactor Accidents. I’ve got it, it’s in the old history documents here. They became words to us over the years; you kind of lose track of where they came from.

Franklin: This might be an off-the-wall question; I’m just kind of curious. We have a—I found a box of archival material the other day that referenced something called a TRUMP computer program.

Bates: Yeah, I remember TRUMP.

Franklin: Okay. I’m wonder if you could—

Bates: That wasn’t something I was familiar with, but it was competitive with some of the things we were developing. Our group over the years split and merged many times, but we always had an analytical branch and an experimental branch. There was a lot of things that went on during the split in terms of code development, but we in the experimental group weren’t in the meetings with on a daily basis.

Franklin: Why did they split and merge so many times?

Bates: Oh, it was basically a growth and—when funding grew and it got too unmanageable, it was a logical way to split the group into two management. Because section leaders couldn’t manage 50 people; I mean, that gets a little cumbersome. So we’d split it into two 25-peron groups for a while. Then the funding would dry up and we’d merge. We also, as did every company in the country, we went through the management style-of-the-day process, where we grew management and contracted it. Someday I always wanted to go back through my org charts and chart how many management people there were at any given time as a function of time. It changed a lot.

I even got—boy, when was it? Late ‘80s, I guess, early ‘90s, I got asked to manage a group. I did that for about four years. But I found that management was a totally different animal than the technical work I liked to do. So when the opportunity came when they wanted to merge, I gave up my management position very willingly. [LAUGHTER]

Franklin: That’s great. I’m wondering if you could kind of track or tell me how larger national events play—kind of affected your work. I’m thinking of the drawdown of the Carter administration?

Bates: Yeah, when Jimmy Carter said, basically, no more nukes, that was a huge transition for us. I was working on a program at the time related to understanding liquid metal breeder reactor natural circulation cooling. I’d spent three years designing, building and getting ready to run tests on this very specialized test section. We were some of the country’s experts at that time in laser Doppler anemometry, which is an optical technique to measure fluid flow.

Franklin: Sorry, could you say—laser Doppler—

Bates: Yeah, LDA for short. Laser Doppler anemometry.

Franklin: Anemometry, okay.

Bates: Yes. In fact, when I first came on board we were putting together LDA systems from components we bought from Edmonds Scientific. I mean, big lenses and stuff, and we’d build all the mounts and it was kind of a do-it-yourself. We were doing things very unique at the time.

Franklin: And you were using this to measure—because I see on my bio sheet here, working with lasers and tools to measure coolant flows, right?

Bates: Yes.

Franklin: Measuring heat and—

Bates: We put a mockup of a reactor inside of a test section with quartz windows in it so we could shine through. I built quartz windows that were good through 1,000 psi of pressure so we could measure at-reactor conditions. Some of the first measurements of that—in fact, I published a paper on some of this and got accepted to an international symposium in Portugal. I went over and presented what we were doing. It was pretty neat. I got put in the bound volume of proceedings. It was a very fun experience. But LDA was kind of my first love for about ten, 15 years of work.

In fact, LDA became so popular as a research tool that there were several companies started to sell those systems. Thermal Systems Incorporated, TSI, out of Minneapolis. They consulted with us quite a bit on how to improve systems. Eventually marketed complete operable systems you could buy out of a catalogue, as opposed to our home-built systems.

Franklin: Kind of taking what you were doing and standardizing it or kind of—

Bates: Yup, yup.

Franklin: That’s really interesting. I mean, who doesn’t want to work with lasers? [LAUGHTER] Even today, I think people still do.

Bates: It’s cool stuff. I wish I had some of those pictures that—I’ve been retired ten years and a lot of my stuff has kind of disappeared. But we’d have the photographers come in and take a picture of all the mirrors and lenses and things we’d lined up on a layout table to make this LDA system work. It was pretty neat stuff.

Franklin: So I want to go—just ask you—so the LMBR, the liquid metal—you were doing work then to support the FFTF.

Bates: Yeah, and then Jimmy Carter said, no more. Well, in a matter of three days, I went from fully funded for three straight years on this program to having zero dollars. They called and said, end of program, box it up and send it off. Most of it went to excess; some of it got transferred to another lab. And I had to find something new to do. So one week later, I went from working on liquid metal breeder reactors to working on solar energy storage.

Franklin: That seems like quite a—it seems like--

Bates: It was traumatic to me. And our whole group underwent a similar transition.

Franklin: How can you move to solar energy storage?

Bates: That was popular in those days. Alternative energy—price of oil was creeping up.

Franklin: Still is, though, kind of, right?

Bates: Well, still very interesting. A lot of these things we were the first to look at them as alternatives. Some of those now are becoming standard grid power. Solar cells, for example. That was a little—our fluids group didn’t work on the solar cells area, pretty much; that’s the electronics people. But we were working on solar concentrator mirrors and developing proper fluids to circulate through those things and capture the thermal energy, run it through a turbine and produce power.

Franklin: Oh, wow. Did that research ever amount to any industrial application?

Bates: Oh, there were experimental facilities around the country that utilized that technology. I don’t think it ever got to as large a scale as some of the solar cell farms that exist now. You know, they got five-megawatt farms, ten-megawatt farms. The solar salt pond concept that we were working on was a good idea but it had a lot of technical difficulties. One of them being materials. Those brines are very tough to contain and very corrosive, and the materials get very expensive very fast. You got to use—stainless steel isn’t good enough; you got to go to the Inconel nickel-based metals. Pretty soon, the economics don’t make sense.

Franklin: You can do it in a laboratory—

Bates: You can do it in a lab, but the scale-up process is difficult.

Franklin: Right. So, you mentioned that you used LDA for ten to 15 years or so.

Bates: Yeah.

Franklin: And I’m wondering, what came after that? What did—

Bates: Well, like I said, once they commercialized those systems and—we did a lot of work for Electric Power Research Institute, which was a consortium of utilities to how to improve reactor performance, improve safety—

Franklin: And this was for energy reactors, right? Okay.

Bates: Yes. These are energy reactors, commercial reactors.

Franklin: Commercial reactors.

Bates: So we got very much involved on the non-government side of reactor research. At the time, Battelle had a contract that allowed us to not only work for the government, but work for the private side, what we called our 1831 contract.

Franklin: Right. Yeah, I’m familiar with that number.

Bates: So we could go out and sell to—we actually marketed to the various reactor vendors to do research with these tools that we’d developed, primarily for the production reactors. We did research for Westinghouse and Babcock and Wilcox, and most all of the reactor vendors at the time. So it was a good business. Worked hard. When you get on the private side, the budgets are more constrained and the schedules are tight. Many a time, we’d put in 24 hour days. We’d take our sleeping bags out to D Area and grab two-hour cat naps as we were—

Franklin: Oh, wow. So you were still working out in D Area then—would this have been in the ‘80s and ‘90s?

Bates: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Up until—I forget when we closed the building there. They told us they were going to knock down—starting the Site reclamation process, and we had to get out. I wrote Madia a letter to say, these are very valuable tools you’re throwing away and they will never be recreated because they’re too expensive now. But it fell on deaf ears and we basically walked away from that facility.

We did recreate some test facilities in the 336 Building in 300 Area. It was a big highbay building that was left over from the days of the Fast Flux Test Facility. I was responsible for building a big waste tank storage simulation facility in 336 Building where we started developing tools to monitor tank levels and tank mixing and tank retrieval. We tested some of these robotic concepts for going in and retrieving tank waste, which are being used now. I mean, the tank retrieval going on right now has a lot of technologies that we investigated in the 336 Building at a reduced scale.

Franklin: Oh!

Bates: So it’s pretty rewarding to see some of that stuff. Also, Vit Plant, we were in on the early days of the mixing concerns of the tanks in the early days related to the Vit Plant and the treatment of the tank waste. For example, the pulse jet mixer problem, which is still very much in the news, holding up portions of the design. We did a lot of pulse jet mixer studies in 336 Building. I read these technical articles that are still coming out and they’re still doing some of the very same things I was doing back in the late '90s.

Franklin: Right?

Bates: These problems are very difficult. Nobody’s ever tried to mix fluids—well, the kind we’ve got out in these tanks. Very complex.

Franklin: Yeah, I don’t know a lot—what I know is there’s many different characteristics, like there’s solids and semi-solids and they all have very different—

Bates: They behave—what they call non-Newtonian fluids. When you start worrying about transporting non-Newtonian fluids and transporting the solids fraction in that fluid, like the plutonium particles and other radioisotope particles, these things settle out in the wrong places, you got problems.

Franklin: Right. And a lot of these things will react to heat in different ways.

Bates: Oh, the chemical—the tanks, we used to refer to them as a periodic chart soup. I mean, they’ve got a little of everything in them. And just the characterization of that waste is a very difficult problem.

Franklin: Sure. You mean how to—

Bates: Understand the chemistry that’s going on. I mean, you probably remember the SY-101 Tank with the hydrogen generation problem. That’s something that we worked on.

Franklin: Actually, I’m not familiar with that. I’m wondering if you could tell me about that.

Bates: Oh, it’s one of the old double-shell tanks. They started noticing that the level was going up on occasion. And then it would go back down. Well, what was happening is, due to a chemical process, thermolysis, they call it, hydrogen was being generated in rather large bubbles in that tank waste. When the bubble got big enough, it would burst to the top. The headspace in the tank would go above the flammability limit for hydrogen and if there were a spark from whatever source, you could have a rather major disaster.

Franklin: You could have a tank blowup, basically.

Bates: Which did happen in Russia. I don’t know if you’ve ever read any of their—they had some incidents like that.

Franklin: Yeah, they had a major incident in the ‘50s, right? Where they had a--

Bates: Yup, I don’t know the exact date, but they had a--

Franklin: Yeah, where a cool—a waste tank blew up—

Bates: They ruptured a tank, right.

Franklin: Yes, and it killed a lot of people.

Bates: Well, of course when DOE found out that they had these hydrogen events in these waste tanks, it was all hands on deck, we got to solve this problem.

Franklin: Right, we’ll likely have the same—

Bates: Right. So a lot of our computer models got diverted to modeling that situation. We on the experimental side got excited about coming up with mitigation techniques. How can we improve the mixing? How can we prevent this hydrogen bubble buildup problem? That consumed us for a number of years.

Franklin: Yeah. Was it solved?

Bates: What’s that? Oh, yeah. SY-101 was eventually solved and the hydrogen release problem was mitigated.

Franklin: What was the solution?

Bates: Well, I think—you’re going back, really testing my memory here now. Probably better to read some of the technical reports on this, but they did a lot of transfers in and out of the tank. Add liquid, bring contents of several tanks, get the chemistry to a more acceptable condition, and improve the monitoring and the mixing. They basically got it to where the hydrogen is still being generated, but it wasn’t being stored and released in these periodic events which can lead to—you know, if you save up the hydrogen for a couple of months and release it all in a single event, the concentration goes up drastically. But we came up with mixing techniques that allowed it to do a slow release and keep the concentrations down.

Franklin: So it’s still building hydrogen—

Bates: Oh, yeah.

Franklin: --but it’s not in these massive bubbles that then—

Bates: Well, that thermal generation of hydrogen is always going to happen. The chemistry can’t be changed. But you got to prevent it from building up to concentrations of concern. So hydrogen generation is a problem they’re dealing with in building the Vit Plant. They don’t want any incidents like that to be occurring in the process lines of the Vit Plant.

Franklin: Right, because they have heat there. They could conceivably spark it.

Bates: Well, yeah. You don’t have to necessarily heat it. I mean, these isotopes self-heat. [LAUGHTER] They will generate hydrogen. So that is very much on the radar screens of everybody doing design work now. But we were in on the early days when the problem first came to light.

Franklin: Did that problem—sorry if you mentioned this, but did this problem come to light—that came because of discoveries here at Hanford, not because of the Russian incident. Or was it kind of—did they kind of inform each other?

Bates: The Russians didn’t publicize much of what was going on. I mean, they didn’t write technical papers that we could reference. So it was a problem that was understood—I mean, the chemistry and the generation of hydrogen was understood, but the physical characteristics of the waste and how it could retain this hydrogen in bubbles, that was all pretty new stuff.

Franklin: Okay.

Bates: We had to understood the mechanisms by which it was happening before we could go about coming up with a fix to prevent it from happening.

Franklin: Sure, sure.

Bates: So, took a lot of—there was a lot what I call grade-five engineering going on out there to understand this problem. We had chemists and physicists and engineers all collaborating on a daily basis to, what’s going on here? And we got to solve this problem and it can’t wait. [LAUGHTER]

Franklin: I’m wondering if—I’d like to ask you about a couple more events and how they impacted you or if they did. I’m wondering, did you ever work on any of the WPPSS reactors or do any work for WPPSS?

Bates: Oh, I did work for them. We did some, for example, I was in routine business for a while of doing flow meter calibrations, and they have a lot of large flow meters out there. Out at 189-D, we had what we called our low pressure loop with very large pumps. We could do flowmeter calibrations there in the lab up to couple thousand GPM.

Franklin: What’s GPM?

Bates: Gallons per minute.

Franklin: Oh, okay.

Bates: In fact, at one time we did a flowmeter calibration for the City of Los Angeles that we needed a million gallons per minute. We fired up a couple of the old K Reactor river pumps. This flowmeter was in a pipe that was six-and-a-half feet in diameter. This was largescale engineering. And actually did a flowmeter calibration for the City of Los Angeles so they’d know how much water they were pumping into their domestic water supply system. So we got involved in all kinds of little tangents, because of the capabilities we had.

Franklin: I’m wondering how Chernobyl affected you and the Site?

Bates: [LAUGHTER] In my mind, Chernobyl was the beginning of the end for graphite moderated reactors. The emphasis was on shutting those things down.

Franklin: Right. And that’s what was at Hanford.

Bates: I lived through Chernobyl and I lived through—I was working when Three Mile Island happened.

Franklin: Oh, right.

Bates: I got to go back and visit Three Mile Island about three or four months after it happened.

Franklin: Why was that?

Bates: Trying to understand how that happened. And, as you know, I think it finally boiled down to operator error. They closed some valves that shouldn’t’ve been closed because they didn’t understand the thermohydraulics of the reactor. So once we understood that and could simulate it with our codes, they started doing extensive training to the operators so they understood how this worked. Trained their whole—changed their whole training procedure for reactor operators. Made a big difference. [LAUGHTER] They needed to understand the very—the subtleties of what was going on in a reactor. If the operators had got up and walked off, the reactor would’ve been fine. The automated systems would’ve done the right thing. They overrode some of those and caused a problem. Anytime that we—we had enough expertise in our group, anytime there was a reactor problem, we usually got involved. Even the Fukushima tsunami damage over there, some of our people went over there and spent time with the Japanese helping them to resolve—look into that problem, what could be done about it. So a lot of history in our group in helping the world with nuclear problems.

Franklin: Yeah. Did you ever get to—did you ever go to the Ukraine or Russia after—

Bates: No, unh-uh. A good number of our people did. We certainly got involved with some of our personnel in the Chernobyl encapsulation project where they were trying to put the big dome over the reactor to prevent the further spread of the contaminants. I forget the name of that project; again, there was an acronym. But, yeah, our people got involved in that, too. Understanding airborne transport of contaminants and particulates. There’s still efforts going on in that area. That problem is not going away anytime soon.

Franklin: How did the transition between production and then the signing of the Tri-Party and the beginning of cleanup, how did that affect your research and your efforts?

Bates: Well, we had a lot of good tools developed. I mean, a fluid is a fluid. Nuclear waste is a very interesting fluid. Just trying to come up with simulants for it is very difficult. We spent years trying to develop formulations that can, in a cold environment, allow us to do testing with properties of fluids that are similar to what the waste exhibits. That’s a difficult problem. Many a day, we were out there mixing up different batches of waste simulant. It’s a very dirty job because it involves a lot of fine particulates and clays. Many a day, I came home, red dust head to foot. [LAUGHTER] But we eventually came up with some very good simulants, and they’re being used not only here onsite but other labs doing similar research. So those were interesting days, too.

Franklin: How was morale onsite with the switch from production to cleanup?

Bates: Oh, obviously when you put—for example, like that project, I put three years of my life, night and day, long days—

Franklin: Are you talking about the FFTF project?

Bates: Yeah, where I was working on the natural convection cooling of—basically, an accident condition analysis of LMFBRs. I mean, I traveled to vendors all over the country and worked with them to develop hardware and come up with special pumps and instruments. I designed a test section with sapphire windows in it. Each of those sapphire windows was $10,000 and I needed like 20 of them. We only installed two or three of those windows and the balance of them got shipped off to excess. I mean, that’s not good for morale. [LAUGHTER]

We had to have the sapphire because of the frequency of the lasers we were using to do the LDA work. You can’t use normal glass, or even—and quartz wasn’t strong enough to stand up to the conditions we were testing, so we had to use synthetic sapphire. Yeah. So, I had to work with the vendors to come up with the production techniques and how to machine these into our special shapes. Anyway, I had half-a-million dollars in hardware that was ready to run a test and I never got to run a test. So, yeah, there were similar stories all around the lab where it was this transition was very difficult.

Franklin: You mean the end of the ‘80s transition from production to—

Bates: Yes. The end of the ‘80s, the death of the nuclear industry so to speak—

Franklin: The ending of the Cold War.

Bates: The transitioning—yeah, the end of the—as some of our folks used to say, once the Soviet Union proved to be such an unreliable enemy, when they split up and the wall came down, and production became less important, and the environmental movement of course. We had to clean up this mess. That was a transition for all of us. [LAUGHTER]

Franklin: Yeah. Was there a lot of enthusiasm for this new job?

Bates: Yes! As you get into it and find out just how complex it is. I mean, it’s not like opening a can of soup. I mean, you got to understand the problem first and that takes a lot of research. Then coming up how we could best simulate it, how we can model it, both computationally and experimentally, a lot of challenges.

Franklin: Yeah, I bet. I’m wondering, how did that transition affect the Tri-Cities as a whole?

Bates: Well, Tri-Cities, you know, has undergone numerous transitions. The biggest one was when they shut down the WPPSS reactor construction. Housing prices tanked and tens of thousands people leave town.

Franklin: Because there were supposed to be three reactors here, right?

Bates: There were supposed to be three, right. The remnants of the other two are still out there. In fact, I’ve been involved in numerous visits out there of saying, what else could we do with these things? I mean, there’s all kinds of pumps and piping. We were looking at it for additional test facilities.

Franklin: Oh, okay. Because they just walked away from construction, right, when it defaulted?

Bates: Yup. Yup. Yeah. Several monuments to stupidity out there. [LAUGHTER]

Franklin: I like that. Oh, that’s good. I love hearing about these things from people who were out there.

Bates: You can imagine being an engineer out there working on getting a new reactor online and saying, oh, never mind. You can go home; we aren’t going to do that now. That’s hard on people. You commit your lives to it and now you got to go find something else to do.

Franklin: Right, and you wonder if that’s really the best fiscal choice.

Bates: Yeah, oh, yeah.

Franklin: Because you spent all this—

Bates: Well, I mean, in hindsight, would it have been better if we had had those reactors online and we didn’t have to burn as much coal and oil? Now that global warming is the big concern? I think there might have been some different things done.

Franklin: Yeah, that’s kind of always that tension. I know the nuclear industry, that’s one of their main talking points now is that it’s carbon-free.

Bates: My best example I always bring up is France. They’re 85% nuclear. They’ve closed the fuel cycle with reprocessing. They don’t have too much of a concern about generating their carbon footprint in the power production industry. We could’ve been there, too. But we made some wrong turns. [LAUGHTER]

Franklin: I’m wondering kind of two questions back-to-back, kind of one’s a flip of the other. What were the most challenging aspects of your work at Hanford over your 35 years?

Bates: Challenging aspects, oh. Because we’re a research institution, we’re always doing things for the very first time. Anytime you have to invent the hardware to do the research, that’s—you can’t just open up a catalogue and order three of item A and three of item B and go do your test; you have to design it first. That puts a lot of pressure on you when the budgets are fixed and the schedules are fixed and you’ve got to come up with an answer. That’s the nature—

Franklin: In fact a lot of the stuff you’re building then gets later put into catalogues, right?

Bates: Oh, yeah. We generated quite a number of patents and so forth in the process of building these things. But nobody ever factors in the fact that this has never been done before, and you want me to give you a fixed budget, a fixed schedule, to get this job done? I found that tough. And I’m sure people today are still challenged with the same difficulties. Everybody wants to know when you’re going to be done and how much it’s going to cost.

Franklin: Any notable successes or failures in that aspect of kind of building this hardware for the first time?

Bates: Oh. You learned a lot from your failures.

Franklin: Yeah. I’m wondering, is there an example that comes to mind?

Bates: Oh. Phew. Well, the one I always remember that was kind of traumatic to me is, I mentioned those sapphire windows we were building. I was doing a test for basic energy sciences in Washington, DC, trying to understand a basic concept called thermal [UNKNOWN] vapor generation. This is where, for example, in a reactor blow-down condition, where you superheat a liquid and you wanted to understand how the process of turning that flash into steam.

Well, I had to get visible access to my blow-down venturi nozzle. And I built one of these sapphire windows. It was about 20 inches long, three inches wide. Cost me—I forget what the number was, $60,000 a copy for these windows. I took it out of the box. We had special silver plated gaskets designed. I put it on there, put the frame on, tightened the first two bolts. Cracked it right in the middle. [LAUGHTER]

I went down—first I went home, because I was done for the day. The next day, I went back and went down and talked to our machinist down in the optical shop, and I says—I forget his name; I think his name was Doug—what can we do here? He says, well, I can take those two broken pieces and turn them into two smaller windows. So I went back and redesigned the test section with two small frames. It was cheaper to rebuild the metal parts than it was the windows. And we made that one window into two small windows and proceeded to get the test done.

But [LAUGHTER] those are the kind of days where you go, yeah, we should’ve checked the dimensions on that retainer before we tried the assembly. I trusted that the shop had gotten them right, and they were slightly off. So you learn lessons there. I never broke another window.

Franklin: I bet! [LAUGHTER] Not at $60,000 a pop. What were the most rewarding aspects about your work?

Bates: Oh, what I found was coming to work every day, up until—you’re always working on something different. I didn’t get stuck in a rut. For example, Boeing made me a job offer that was very lucrative, but I found out I would be designing landing gear struts. And I just thought, could I do that for 30 years? I don’t think so.

Franklin: Was this at the beginning of your--?

Bates: Yeah, this was at the beginning of my career. The reason I went to work for Battelle is because of the variety of the work they were doing. My example I always used to tell our—when we were actively hiring and brining interview candidates through is, I said that simultaneously I was working on liquid metal fast breeder reactors and peanut dryers. I worked half the week on peanut dryers and half the week on fast breeder reactors.

Franklin: Like for industrial—like, agro business to dry peanuts.

Bates: Yeah, like, salted-in-the-shell peanuts. Getting the moisture out of those things is a difficult job. And especially trying to do it and conserve electricity and natural gas in the drying process.

Franklin: So that would’ve been some of that 1831 work.

Bates: That’s some of that 1831 work, yeah. So I had to put—I had two different hats. Doing that simultaneously was sometimes a little traumatic to switch gears. But that kept it interesting. There wasn’t a day I didn’t come to work where I thought, there’s something interesting to do today. There’s not many jobs you can have that are that way.

Franklin: That’s great.

Bates: In fact, I shed a few tears when it came time to retire.

Franklin: Yeah, so I wanted to ask you about that. You retired in 2008, and what was the impetus for—because you’re still a young guy. So what was—

Bates: Well, my wife and I love to travel. We’ve been to Europe, I don’t know, 18 times. We love the history and that. Trying to squeeze that in with a 40- to 60-hour work week is pretty tough to do. When we first got married, we said, let’s set our objective on trying to retire early so we could do some things while we’re young enough to enjoy it. So it was tough. I had two sons, and trying to put all that money away and meet that objective to retire early was tough. We stayed in our old house and didn’t upgrade to a new and bigger house like everybody else. But we made it. Best decision I ever made. [LAUGHTER]

Franklin: Do you miss the work sometimes?

Bates: Oh, yeah. In fact, back a few years ago, I was kind of hoping to go back to work. But the rules were that I couldn’t go back to work until age 62 once I took the retirement package. They had rules in their contract that they couldn’t rehire retirees. Those have since been changed; I could work now. But we’re kind of lacking in experimental facilities out here now that I would be interested in working on. I still tell my old section manager that if you ever get the budget to rebuild some experimental facilities, I’d be happy to come out and help. [LAUGHTER] But just don’t ask me to write a safety plan. [LAUGHTER]

Franklin: Oh, red tape. So I guess two questions left. I’m wondering if you could describe the ways in which security or secrecy about what you were doing at Hanford impacted your work.

Bates: Oh, I mean, secrecy—when I first hired on out there, it was still very hush-hush. Everybody out there had a Q clearance in those days. And we worked on some things that we couldn’t write papers on. We were doing a lot of leading-edge stuff, but we didn’t go off to the conferences and present our findings. We got involved in the tritium production, supporting production. That was a very big project. But, boy, very closely-controlled. Classified computers, classified phone lines, classified fax machines. I mean, communications were very tightly controlled.

Franklin: What did you do for the tritium project?

Bates: Oh, there were some thermal aspects that our group got involved in. I mean, I can’t—even now, I can’t talk about a lot of this stuff. I mean, just because I retired, it doesn’t King’s X my security requirements. We worked on some stuff for the military that related to weapons; we worked on stuff for kinetic projectiles—I mean, this is really interesting stuff. Made my day. But we couldn’t go out and write papers about it and put it in the general literature. So it’s much different than a university environment where it’s publish or perish. If we published, we’d perish. [LAUGHTER] So, a lot of people we hired—we hired some, not retired, but professors that wanted to come work in research. It wasn’t an easy transition for them to come into the classified environment, where you have to be so careful. We had a couple people that just never did make the transition.

Franklin: That’s still a constant tension within university research, when it deals with—for Army applications or things that are export controlled, there’s always that—the export control office fights with the—and how freely—that kind of tugs at the essential purpose of the university, which is to create and disseminate information. Yeah.

Bates: I got a little exposed to that as an undergraduate research assistant up at WSU. Professor Clayton Crowe up there was working on some experimental simulations of underwater rocket launchers related to ICBM rocket launchers from submarines. We were trying to mock up some of that stuff. I got a briefing on how much we could say and couldn’t say about some of this stuff we were working on. That was kind of my introduction to working in a, it wasn’t what I would call classified, but it was certainly sensitive information. I was able to handle it; I tried to take as much satisfaction I could from just what I was personally working on. I didn’t want to—resume building wasn’t what I was after. Some people don’t have that same priorities, I guess. They want to make themselves look good rather than just enjoy the work they’re doing. I mean, publishing is still encouraged, highly encouraged. That’s the only way we really got of advertising our abilities out here.

Franklin: There’s kind of a tension there, too.

Bates: Oh, yeah. Yeah. But, you know, over the years, I’ve probably published 20, 30 papers. And enjoyed going off to the conferences and interacting with our peers and learning new things. For example, there was a yearly LDA symposium held in Portugal. We usually had somebody there for about the first five or six years that that conference was held because we were doing leading-edge stuff. It was fun to share the information with people.

Franklin: And probably fun to go to Portugal, too.

Bates: Oh, yeah. I mean, there’s worse places in the world. The first time I went over there, it was really interesting. Bottle of water was a nickel and a beer was a nickel. So you can guess which one I drunk.

Franklin: Right.


Franklin: Oh, that’s great. [LAUGHTER] My last question—of course, not, like—on your off time, right?

Bates: Oh, yeah. In fact, we went over and did—the conference was over the 4th of July holiday. I actually presented my paper to 2,000 people on the 4th of July. So, I took a comp day the next day, and we went and tour Lisbon.

Franklin: Fun. My last question is—what would you like future generations to know about working at Hanford and working in Tri-Cities during the Cold War?

Bates: Being a lifelong resident of the Tri-Cities, I’ve not known any different. It’s not like there was any kind of trauma involved with moving here and seeing the big nuclear symbols and the Richland Bombers. That’s just normal to me. And I think if I were to tell somebody, it’s a very stable community, it’s a very healthy community. There’s a lot of interesting things going on. And what we’re doing out here has the ability to diversify into many different areas that make a difference. I’m sure by the time we’re done with the Vit Plant, 50 years out in the future, we’re going to be doing some things with that technology that will impact commercial aspects of our economy in all kinds of ways. But when you do leading-edge stuff, you make a difference. So I guess that would be a short summary.

Franklin: No, that’s great, thank you.

Bates: I think there’s a lot of personal satisfaction in that. Like I said, when we were doing the early days of LDA, it was an idea that came out of University of Minnesota, and we got one of their PhDs to come out here and go to work for us and bring that knowledge, and we continued to develop it and make it better. It eventually became a commercial market, selling literally hundreds of these systems to research institutions all around the country. There’s a lot of satisfaction in that. So it goes from a concept to a standard tool. That’s where I got my kicks, anyway.

Franklin: That’s great. Well, Jim, thank you so much for coming and talking about your work.

Bates: Yeah. Okay.

Franklin: It was really amazing.

Bates: Okay. Thank you.

Franklin: Yeah. Awesome.

Bates: Go Cougs!

Franklin: Yeah. Go Cougs.

View interview on Youtube.

Hanford Sites

B Reactor
C Reactor
D Reactor
N Reactor
189-D Area
190 Tank Building
FFTF (Fast Flux Test Facility)
336 Building
300 Area
Vitrification Plant
WPPSS (Washington Public Power Supply Systems)

Years in Tri-Cities Area


Years on Hanford Site



Bates, Jim.JPG


“Interview with James Bates,” Hanford History Project, accessed October 28, 2021,