Interview with Tom Bennett

Dublin Core


Interview with Tom Bennett


Hanford Site (Wash.)
Richland (Wash.)
Nuclear engineering
Civil engineering
Nuclear reactors
Radioactive waste disposal
Nuclear power plants


Tom Bennett moved to Richland, Washington in 1964 to work on the Hanford Site.

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


Tom Bennett


Washington State University - Tri Cities


Robert Franklin: My name is Robert Franklin. I am conducting an oral history interview with Tom Bennett on September 18, 2017. The interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. I will be talking with Tom about his experiences working at the Hanford Site. For the record, can you state and spell your full name for us?

Tom Bennett: Full name is Thomas J. Bennett. T-H-O-M-A-S. Middle initial J. And then Bennett, B-E-N-N-E-T-T.

Franklin: Great, thanks. And do you prefer Tom?

Bennett: I go by Tom, yes.

Franklin: Okay.

Bennett: Unless it’s academic circles.

Franklin: I’m fine with—casual’s fine with me. So, Tom, tell me how and why you came to the area to work for Hanford Site.

Bennett: I graduated from UCLA in 1964. My goal was to get a long ways away from the Los Angeles area. The final choice was between Houston where they were doing the man on the moon which was another five years before that happened, and Hanford, which to me, it was exciting because it was nuclear energy.

Franklin: What was your degree in?

Bennett: Engineering.

Franklin: Engineering, okay. Just basic engineering?

Bennett: Yeah, well, UCLA thought they were way ahead of everyone. In your junior and senior year, if you were an engineering major, you had to take two courses in electrical engineering, a course in nuclear engineering, a course or two in mechanical engineering. They tried to spread everything, because someone had done a study and they observed that people who were a mechanical engineer, five years later they were working as a civil engineer, and vice versa.

Franklin: Oh, okay.

Bennett: So they tried to make it real broad. And then I went to University of Washington, I got a master’s degree in nuclear engineering and then a doctorate in civil engineering from WSU.

Franklin: Oh, okay, and when did you finish up at WSU?

Bennett: ’88.

Franklin: ’88, oh, okay. But you weren’t in school—were you in school that entire time? Or were you working?

Bennett: No, I worked at Hanford from ’64 to ’70, but I took ’67 and ’68 off to get the master’s degree from University of Washington. And then I went over to WSU between ’87 and ’88 to complete my doctorate.

Franklin: Okay. [CLEARS THROAT] Sorry. Tell me about your work at Hanford. What did you do?

Bennett: Well, I started off in the 300 Area. You had to—they had a trainee program, I think it was. You had to work someplace while you got your security clearance. We had the badges. The first one was a red badge, then a yellow badge, then a green badge is when you finally had your Q clearance. I worked at 300 Area; I remember working with Bill Bright and Carl somebody. They had a machine there that they took plutonium in a gassed-out container and then they had a smasher that would—when it was red hot and it’d been out-gassing for an hour or so, they’d have the smasher come down on it, and they wanted to get 99% theoretical density plutonium.

Franklin: So you mean to like turn it into a solid?

Bennett: Well, it was already a solid.

Franklin: Already a solid.

Bennett: But they heated it up to red-hot and a little tube came out the top and then they cut the tube off, and the smasher came down and crushed it. So, good thing it didn’t blow up, too.

Franklin: Yeah! What amount, were we talking grams, or—

Bennett: About a kilogram.

Franklin: A kilogram.

Bennett: I think. Because if they get too much, it goes critical on you.

Franklin: Right. And what was the purpose of that? Why—

Bennett: I don’t know. Well, a guy by the name of John Burnham, I think it was, it was his idea to do this smashing. He got all kinds of credit for it and awards and so on and so forth. It was his pet project. I wound up working there to start with.

Franklin: What did you do there?

Bennett: Watched.

Franklin: Just watched, just observed?

Bennett: Pretty much, yeah.

Franklin: Okay. I wonder if you could tell me about the—talk a little bit about security, since you mentioned Q clearance. Security and secrecy, what was that process like and how long did it take?

Bennett: I think it took about six months, but I didn’t know anything about clearances when I came here. But you had three different colored badges, one was when you start and then you get partially cleared. You get another color. And the green was the final security clearance. I believe they were called—what, do you have—you’ve talked to other people about this, haven’t you?

Franklin: A little bit.

Bennett: What do they call those clearances? Top secret or something like that?

Franklin: I don’t—yeah, I’m not a clearance expert.

Bennett: Yeah, one of the first colors was yellow and one was red, and then green was when you finally could go out in the Area and work.

Franklin: Right, okay. So what did you do after you got your clearance?

Bennett: I had three or four of the three-month assignments. One of them was at the 300 Area with the crusher or smasher. And then another was at N Reactor, I believe. It was the new production reactor at the time. And I think I had one at B Reactor operations. Because I remember they put me on—they had ABCD shift. And you worked six days and then seven swings and then six graveyards. And you got one-and-two-thirds days off between swing and night and then after you did the graveyard, you got four-and-two-thirds days off to come back and start the ABCD shift over again. What I remember about that was I could not adjust to it. Some of these guys had done it for 20, 30 years and they got along fine. I could not adjust to the graveyards.

Franklin: And that’s where you would be there overnight, right?

Bennett: Well, you’d be there from midnight ‘til 8 in the morning, or 11—well, it took an hour to get out there and an hour to get back, so whatever your shift was, you wound up doing ten or 11 hours. Or if you have, I don’t know what, half hour for lunch, maybe it’s 12 hours to do eight hours.

Franklin: Wow.

Bennett: It was more than the eight. Because the ride out was an hour and the ride back was an hour on the buses. I know I was not real happy with the salary, because it wasn’t as big as I thought I was worth. But they said, well, Tom, you can ride the bus for 50 miles for a nickel. Oh, well, if that’s the—I assume that was the economy, so that the money I made would be a lot.

Franklin: Where did you live when you worked out there?

Bennett: 2009 George Washington Way.

Franklin: And what was that, was it a house or apartments or--?

Bennett: It was a house. I meant—I tried to find it on the way in, but I didn’t—I was past it, the 2300 block before I saw it. I’ll see if I can find it on the way back out. But first I lived there, and then later on, I lived at 2404 Concord, I lived at 1408 Perry Court, and eventually bought a house.

Franklin: Did you live in any Alphabet Houses?

Bennett: F Houses? No.

Franklin: Any Alphabet Houses?

Bennett: Yeah, I know what, B, B, D, F. No, I lived at 2404 Concord—2009 George Washington Way was the first one, and then at 1408 Perry Court for a while, and then eventually wound up at 2404 Concord, and that’s the one I bought.

Franklin: Oh, okay. So when you were working out these graveyards at B Reactor, what was your job, what were you doing?

Bennett: What I remember is, since I was kind of a trainee, I’d go through the records. It was really fascinating to me to read about the early days when they started Hanford up, they had no idea what was going on or how big it would have to be. Enrico Fermi was out here. The old guys were here then that had been here when he was here, and they called him Henry Farmer. But interestingly the older guys were doing the work and the young guys were telling them what to do and how to do it.

Franklin: Really?

Bennett: Yeah.

Franklin: And why was that?

Bennett: Well, this was during the war, World War II. People had to have jobs. If you were in the Army, if you were young, you were in the Army or the Navy or the Air Force or Marines. And if you were older, a lot of them, I think 50,000 people came up here to work at Hanford. They had a big camp out there someplace, fenced in where you lived. Well, what I remember doing was reading the historical records about when it started up. I know it was because of Fermi that first they were going to have just the circular—well, B Reactor, what is that, 1,004 tubes?

Franklin: 2,000 tubes.

Bennett: 2,000 tubes? Well, originally we were going to just have circular form, because that’s the most efficient. But Enrico Fermi made sure that they had the corners, the tubes. And sure enough, the, I believe it’s zirconium that when they started up, everything went great and then all the sudden, phew, everything went down.

Franklin: The xenon poisoning.

Bennett: Xenon! Yeah, the xenon poisoning. Fermi figured that out. They figured it was xenon. They put more, they filled up the rest of the tubes, the corners, and that was enough to overcome the xenon to get things going. And you’ve been out to B Reactor, haven’t you?

Franklin: Yes.

Bennett: Yeah, and you see how big that thing is, and they built that, what, 60, 70 years ago? It was quite a deal.

Franklin: It was. I’m wondering if you could describe a typical work day out at B Reactor when you were out there.

Bennett: Well, I’d ride the bus out there. The older guys on the bus, they played cards all the way out there. I thought, these guys are kind of crazy. But then six weeks later, I’m playing cards right along with them. I learned how to play pinochle. I didn’t know anything about, virtually nothing about cards. But it cost me quite a few nickels but I did learn. I got to be as good as the rest of them after a while. I thought it was kind of weird, because these guys would play cards all the way out, during lunch they’d play cards, and they’d play cards all the way back, for nickels. Pinochle for nickels. Eventually I was in there with the thick of them.

I do remember at N Reactor, a fellow named Milton Lewis. He had been a teacher at UCLA when I was there and I ran across him again. They had three guys there. One was Milt Lewis, another was Warren Macadam and the third was Roy Shoemaker. And the workers there nicknamed them the Shoe, the Jew and the Shrew.

Franklin: [LAUGHTER] I’m wondering—stories about the bus are great. What was your day-to-day job at B Reactor, besides reading up on the history, what were you tasked with doing out there?

Bennett: Well, it was cold operations. They ran the reactor, they sat there and watched the reactor go. From time to time they’d have to refuel it, and I’d watch that, be on the front face. Like an idiot, I wondered what was inside the tubes, so I looked inside one when it was empty. And then I realized, there’s probably radiation coming out of that into my eyes, probably not a real good idea. But I’m a young kid, 23 or 24, not knowing anything. But that was—

Refueling was one of the things. Around back—well, when the tubes or the fuel elements, when they’d been irradiated enough, they pushed them out the back, they went into a little pool that was 20 feet deep. And you’d go around back—not while they were discharging them, but afterwards, you could go around back and you could look into that 20-foot pool and you could see the glow. It had a greenish-blue glow from the irradiated fuel elements. And they’d sit there for a while, then they’d take them to the 200 Area and process them. Interestingly enough, 2,000 pounds of uranium would make two pounds of plutonium, or maybe one pound. I mean, it was extremely small percentage.

Franklin: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Bennett: When you think of the 200 Area where they did all those separations, how much—well, they put the things in double-shell tanks, now those tanks are rotting, it’s leaking into the Columbia River. All this is still going on and it’s, what, 60, 70 years later.

Franklin: Did you ever go out to the 200 Area at all?

Bennett: No. Well, I drove by it every day on the way to work.

Franklin: Sure.

Bennett: But I didn’t go and look at it. I knew they had tunnels. When they built it, I remember from reading a long time ago that they were going to have to use remote control to handle these things, so they used a remote control to build it. Then how deep were those troughs, those trenches? Were they—

Franklin: Oh, I don’t remember off the top of my head.

Bennett: I remember reading about it. They were long.

Franklin: They were very long. I think they were something like 20 feet deep and then 40 feet wide. They’re all cells and they’re all—yeah.

Bennett: Almost a mile long or whatever they had, yeah.

Franklin: Yeah. Really, really long, yeah. Like several football fields.

Bennett: Right.

Franklin: Yeah, huge. So you worked at 300 Area and then N and then B. Did you work anywhere—and how long did you work at—

Bennett: Each assignment, I think, was three months long.

Franklin: Oh, okay.

Bennett: And I think I had three or four of them.

Franklin: Then what did you do after that?

Bennett: I worked at—I believe I worked at N Reactor. And then I left in ’67 to go over at University of Washington to get a master’s degree. Came back in ’68. And from ’68 to ’70, I’m pretty sure I was at N Reactor. And that was exciting. They were producing power as well as plutonium.

Franklin: Yeah. What was your job then at N Reactor?

Bennett: I was called nuclear engineer. I worked for Roy Shoemaker. There was seven or eight guys in the group. What I noticed—because I noticed that all the new engineers that came in, in six months to a year, they were gone. I was just aware of it, sort of in passing. Then after I went and got my master’s degree and came back, instead of working for the old guy, he’s gone now, Shoemaker is, but he’d been an engineering instructor at Oregon or Oregon State, one of those colleges. When I came back, I worked for Paul Cohen. He was a young guy; he was 30, 35, something like that. He had a fairly good-sized group. I think—this was back in I think the 300 Area, it was downtown. I worked for him. And the contrast between working for Shoemaker and working for Cohen was like between night and day. I understood why all those guys left Shoemaker after I worked for a good supervisor. I was a brand-new kid fresh out of college; I didn’t have any experience, didn’t know who a good instructor—or good teacher from a good—what do you call it, supervisor from a bad one. But after I had two supervisors, I realized why all those guys left after they’d been there not very long.

Franklin: And what was it about Shoemaker versus Cohen that made it—made people leave so early?

Bennett: Well, one of the things was Shoemaker had a pet. He’d give the same assignment—like a college professor—he gave me an assignment he gave his pet. And I remember, I was fairly good at math, so I figured out an exact solution to this thing. And this other kid, the pet, he did an approximate solution. He came out to my office—I was out in the Area a little bit. It was a different building. It wasn’t the N Reactor building; it was an outbuilding. He came out there, because he had an office inside, and he wanted to know all about my performance of calculations for such a thing. Eventually I figured out he wanted to know what I’d done because I’d done a better job than he had and he was the pet. This didn’t go over well with him.

Franklin: Oh, so kind of playing favorites, playing people off—

Bennett: Well, he’s playing favorites but the un-favorite did a better job than the favorite did. So the pet didn’t like that.

Franklin: Yeah, I bet not.

Bennett: But then that didn’t happen with Cohen. Cohen was a very good supervisor.

Franklin: And you worked with Cohen at N Reactor as well?

Bennett: No. I wish I could remember—wish I had those sheets that I lost, because it would tell me where I worked and when. I can only remember three of the four assignments; I don’t remember what the fourth one was.

Franklin: That’s okay.

Bennett: It’s been 60, 70 years.

Franklin: So when you say nuclear engineer and working with a group of people, what kind of job is that? Is it a lot of calculations work, are you in the control room--?

Bennett: Well, one of the things we did, we had a—we put a bunch of thermocouples in the back of the reactor in a tube. We wanted to get the heat distribution. It was a tube-in-tube fuel element. They had about an inch diameter tube that went down the middle, then they had some struts, and then they had another tube outside it, which was kind of an interesting arrangement, so they could get water flowing between the two tubes. We wanted to get the heat distribution of that, so we set up the thermocouples to measure the heat, and then figured out how hot it was getting and we could use that to improve the design for the next generation. It was that type of work. That’s one assignment I remember.

Franklin: Oh, okay. Do you remember any other assignments?

Bennett: No.

Franklin: Okay.

Bennett: I did like doing the math, though. Figuring out that—you get the regular dimensions and the tolerance, plus and minus, so you figure out all the variations and how much difference there can be from smallest to largest and how much fluid would go through it and what the approximations are.

Franklin: Cool. And then after ’70, did you leave Hanford?

Bennett: I went to WSU to work on a doctorate.

Franklin: Oh, okay. And when did you start that?

Bennett: In ’72, I believe. I think I was there from ’70 to ’72. Do you remember, Mary Ann? Okay. Because I worked from—I went to work in January or February, no, late January of ’64, and I worked there until ’67. Then I went over to University of Washington, ’67, ’68. Came back in ’68 and ’68 to ’70, I worked here at Hanford. And then ’70 to ’72, I taught at WSU. I taught statics, dynamics and fluid mechanics during those two years at WSU.

Franklin: Okay, and that’s while you were working on your doctorate?

Bennett: Right. But they gave me a title, pre-doctoral teaching associate. I taught those three courses. And took classes, too.

Franklin: Okay. And then you finished your doctorate in ’72?

Bennett: ’70—no, ’88.

Franklin: Oh, okay.

Bennett: Yeah, I didn’t—how—what—I’m trying to remember why I didn’t—there was a reason I didn’t finish it in ’72. I’ll think of it later and tell you.

Franklin: Sure. And then were you at WSU that entire time?

Bennett: No. Just ’70 to ’72. And then I went to—I took a one-year temporary teaching assignment at a community college, Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake. I went there for one year, because Big Bend had finagled themselves a contract in Germany. What they did was they taught Army guys, well, servicemen, they gave them classes so they could get their—before Big Bend went there, they got GEDs. Big Bend had the bright idea of instead of giving the Army guys GEDs, they’d give them actual high school diplomas. This brought a lot of money in to the college. Because, you know, high school diplomas are a lot better than a GED. I used some of that money to start a circuit writer type program. Between ’72 and ’79, I think it was, ’78, I taught computer classes in 17 different high schools all the way from Cooley Dam in the north to Connell in the south and east and west from Quincy to Washtucna.

Franklin: Oh, wow.

Bennett: Remember I talked to you earlier about when you first started? My first year of doing those computer classes, I thought I’d really done a good job. And I looked back at it three or four years later, I was ashamed and embarrassed at how little I’d done the first year. Once it caught on. And at that time, Big Bend had a music teacher named Wayne Freeman. He had some kind of contacts with Hollywood, and he’d bring in people from Hollywood. They had what they called a play. What did they call—do you remember the names of those plays, Mary Ann?

Mary Ann Bennett: Musical production.

Bennett: Musical productions. The first time he brought Leonard Nimoy up and he played Oliver, played the lead role in Oliver. For eight or twelve years while Freeman was the music instructor, he brought these Hollywood-type people up. And they’d have a play, they had a 700 or 800-seat theater and it was packed for all four or five performances.

Franklin: I was going to say, I imagine that’d be a pretty big deal for Moses Lake.

Bennett: Oh, big deal. And that was the time I was doing the high schools and I’d have my high school classes come down to it and they just—they loved it. It was great.

Franklin: When you say computer, were you working with mainframes and that kind of thing?

Bennett: That’s what they had started off with, upper-left-corner-cut carts. You’ve seen them.

Franklin: I’ve seen them. Never had to use them, but I’ve seen them.

Bennett: Well, I would carry—I had a pickup truck. I would take the key punch machines to the high schools, and the kids would punch out their cards. I’d take them back and run them through the computer, and take them back with the output. And then they’d go back until they got them to run. That was a big deal then. But that was, what, in the ‘70s? It was long before they had the personal computers. Everything was mainframe.

Franklin: Yup. So did you ever come back to working at Hanford?

Bennett: No.

Franklin: Oh, okay.

Bennett: No. I did that high school—what was really interesting to me was the only kids in these high schools that would take these classes was the top 2% or 3%. The kids that would go on to Harvard or Yale or BYU or some big type, University of Washington. These were really, really bright kids. I knew that they were smarter than the kids I was teaching at Big Bend. It took me a while to figure that out, too. Because I realized later that all I had was the top 2% or 3% of each high school. But I knew—why is it these high school kids are smarter than my college kids? Well, because they’re the top of the line.

Franklin: So what were some of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your work at Hanford?

Bennett: Well, being involved with what ended World War II was a big thing to me. Because my dad was in the Philippines getting ready to take part in the invasion of Japan, which they figured, if that did happen would’ve been a million casualties. What was it, the Civil War only we took 750,000 from both sides in four or five years. I mean that would’ve really been bad because of the atomic bomb because of the crash program. In some of the reading I’ve done, what they essentially did was they took 50, 60 years of automatic research and condensed it into two or three, and the result was the atomic bomb.

Franklin: Sure. So that was very rewarding to you, to be involved in kind of the continuation of that?

Bennett: And what I thought—I thought it saved my dad’s life, probably.

Franklin: What about the most challenging aspects? Earlier you mentioned that the graveyard shifts were pretty challenging.

Bennett: Yeah, that was challenging. I couldn’t—I realized I couldn’t do it. I thought I was Superman, but I’m not.

Franklin: Was there anything else that challenged you out there? Maybe the structure or some of the work or--?

Bennett: Well, I thought it was exciting to do that type of work. And I enjoyed it and liked it.

Franklin: Were you there when—no, you got there in ’64, so you weren’t there when Kennedy visited.

Bennett: No, no, I wasn’t. But he had been out there.

Franklin: Yeah. Yeah. Any memories of like the social scene or local politics in the Tri-Cities and Richland when you got here?

Bennett: I remember a guy named Mike McCormack. He lived right behind us. Near, a block or so from George Washington Way. But he eventually got elected to Congress. I don’t know how long he stayed. Do you remember? Have you heard of him? Mike McCormack? Congressman Mike McCormack?

Franklin: I’ll have to take a look at that.

Bennett: I know he was in the state house and state senate and then he got elected to Congress. In the ‘70s, I’m pretty sure.

Franklin: Okay. I’m wondering if you could describe ways in which security or secrecy at Hanford impacted your work?

Bennett: Well, I did read a lot about the—when I was doing those three-month assignments, there was a good deal of focus on security. Like I said, it took several months for me to get my clearance. You had to go through gates and somebody would check. If you didn’t have your pass, you didn’t go through the gate. That was for every place.

Franklin: Did you ever forget your pass?

Bennett: No. But I do remember when I was on these assignments, because I was a trainee, I did not get holiday pay. So during one graveyard shift, I was home sleeping and I did not work that day because they’d have to pay me time-and-a-half. But at 3:00 in the morning the guys out there called me, wanting to know how I was doing. You know, that type of humor. You sleeping okay, Tom? We’re getting paid holiday pay, you’re not.

Franklin: How come you didn’t go back to Hanford after going to WSU?

Bennett: Well, I took the one year temporary assignment at Big Bend. And like I said, they had the money from Germany. So I spent the next six or seven years teaching high school kids at like 17 different high schools. By then I was pretty much associated with the community college and I worked there until 1990. I left to get my master’s degree and somebody else took that program over and it collapsed. And I just taught at Big Bend until 1990. And then—I’m trying to remember what I did from 1990 to 2000.

Mary Ann: You ran for office.

Bennett: What’s that?

Mary Ann: You ran for office. State representative. You ran for office.

Bennett: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I didn’t—but that didn’t—that was just one run. What work was I doing?

Mary Ann: You worked at Boeing.

Bennett: Oh, that’s right, I did from ’79 to ’81, I went to Boeing, worked there. They were developing the 767 and I got to be senior engineer in tool design. That was really fun, working for Boeing. I loved that.

Franklin: I bet.

Bennett: When I went there, they just built this great big huge building. Somebody said, come on, we’re going to tour the building. So I went on a tour of the building. It was empty. At Hanford, they had all these programs, they’d schedule when it’s going to happen, they get stretched out, stretched out, stretched out. Something that was supposed to take two years would take ten. At Boeing, there’s an empty building, they’re going to do the 767. That was 1979, I went to the empty building. In 1981, airplane number six was rolling out the door. They have their schedules, they keep them. They said, if you don’t get your assignment done, you will stay there until it’s done. The one guy had to stay there for 36 hours. I went and talked to the supervisor. He wasn’t any good after 15, 16 hours, why’d you keep him 36? The supervisor says, Tom, do you know how much Boeing has to pay every day they are late delivering an airplane? I had no idea. $50,000 per day for a late plane. You have an assignment, you get that done or you stay until it’s done. So that was a different attitude and atmosphere than I’d had at Hanford.

Franklin: Interesting. I guess that’s kind of the difference that a private company would—

Bennett: Commercial.

Franklin: Yeah, commercial company would take on a project versus—

Bennett: You get an assignment, you get it done.

Franklin: Right. I should’ve asked this a lot earlier, but I’m just kind of curious, how did you hear about Hanford? When you were in college and you were looking at places to go work, how did you hear about Hanford?

Bennett: They had a job fair at UCLA. No, no, wait a minute. I went to—I think it was in Canada, there was a job fair I went to. That’s where I found out about Hanford. Which was back in United States and in Washington.

Franklin: Right.

Bennett: Which was where I lived anyway.

Franklin: So they had like a booth or something there?

Bennett: Yeah.

Franklin: That would’ve been General Electric at the time.

Bennett: Mm-hmm, it was General Electric at the time. But I went to a job fair, that’s how I found out about it.

Franklin: Okay, interesting. So my last question is, what would you like future generations to know about working at Hanford during the Cold War?

Bennett: Whatever you can get out of them.

Franklin: What?

Bennett: Whatever you can get from all the people that worked there. I’d like them to know that.

Franklin: Okay.

Bennett: Are you going to do a summary of this when we’re all done?

Franklin: What--?

Bennett: Of your own?

Franklin: What do you mean?

Bennett: From what you’ve learned. You’re learning a lot of things, interviewing people like me.

Franklin: Oh, yeah, yeah, I do.

Bennett: And you’re going to put it together like Ken Burns did with his Vietnam thing?

Franklin: Maybe. These—

Bennett: That’s what I’d like to have them know, is your Ken Burns approach to this.

Franklin: Okay. Well, we collect these and create—we do this more to generate primary sources, then researchers go through our archives of these interviews and draw what they want. It takes a lot of time to set these up and do them, so I don’t have as much time for writing as I would—

I guess I’m asking you, if you kind of give me the opportunity to tell future generations what was the most important thing about being at Hanford during the Cold War? What would you like them to know about working in plutonium production during the Cold War?

Bennett: It was exciting and dangerous at the same time. And like I say, I’m just one real small piece in it. I’d like to have them see the big picture.

Franklin: Sure. Did you ever feel any danger being, either occupational or working at a site that was so important for the national defense effort?

Bennett: Well, I do remember when we worked at the assignment where they smashed the hot thousand-degree plutonium when they compressed it. One day the alarms went off, and they all went off.

Franklin: The radiation alarms?

Bennett: Yeah, the radiation alarms. And Clarence Munson, I remember he was there, I asked him, what’s going on? He said, well, maybe we’re all crapped up. That was the expression, crapped up, for being irradiated. I think that the alarm had just misfired. But it was—everybody was scared for a while.

Franklin: Sure. Did you have protection on, or were you just wearing a dosimeter?

Bennett: No, you wore white. White. You had to have a radiation badge and then you had a white coat and you look like somebody in a hospital.

Franklin: Right. Did you ever have an instance where you did get crapped up or a small amount or were contaminated?

Bennett: Well, when I worked at N Reactor, I had several what was like fuel elements on my desk, I used them for paper weights and stuff. I didn’t realize there’s probably a lot of zirconium in those things and that’s not good for you.

Franklin: Oh, okay.

Bennett: So I probably got some exposure to zirconium that I didn’t need. I used them for weights. I thought I was young and strong and I’d do like that with them.

Franklin: [LAUGHTER] That’s funny. Funny in kind of a—

Bennett: Stupid way.

Franklin: Yeah. Well, Tom, thank you so much for coming and interviewing with us. I really appreciate you taking the time out. And thank you for sharing your stories about Hanford.

Bennett: Okay.

Franklin: Did you have anything else that you wanted to add before we—

Bennett: I’ll probably think of all sorts of things on the way home.

Franklin: Okay, well, you can always send us an email.

Bennett: And if I can find those papers that describe everything I did at Hanford, I can probably go twice as long as I’ve gone now.

Franklin: Sure. That’d be great. Maybe you can—

Bennett: Now, who—where would I go to get that, do you know?

Franklin: Oh, to get copies of the papers?

Bennett: Copies of my—somebody kept track, because they gave them to me at one time.

Franklin: Oh, goodness. I don’t know. We’re just—here at WSU, we’re kind of on the outside looking in.

Bennett: Okay, where’s the inside now?

Franklin: You know, it’s all run by Department of Energy. MSA is the main contractor. But I just—I don’t know—

Bennett: Where’s the Department of Energy headquarters? In the big building downtown, the Federal Building?

Franklin: Yeah, yeah, Jadwin, yeah.

Bennett: Jadwin. Okay, that’s probably where I should go.

Franklin: Records, yeah. That would be, that’s where I’d start.

Bennett: Do you have a card?

Franklin: What’s that?

Bennett: Can I have one of your cards?

Franklin: Sure. Yeah, we can get you that. Yeah. We good?



Franklin: Okay.

Bennett: When I was in the 300 Area, they had these fuel elements. Anyway, the guy had two of them, and he said, here, Tom, take these. So I was going to put them together. This was a trap. They had a guy on each side of me. They grabbed my arms like this. They said, if you had put those together, you’d see a blue flash and be dead in ten days. That was the type of coarse humor—kill a guy.

Franklin: Jeez. That’s a really serious thing to joke about.

Bennett: It is! Well, I didn’t—and that’s part of the reason I did so much study when I was doing the rotating things. I wanted to find out what—

Franklin: What could kill you?

Bennett: Yeah, yeah.

Franklin: Wow.

Mary Ann: There was also the beryllium.

Bennett: Yeah, well, it was beryllium? What did I say, zirconium? Well, it’s beryllium I think gets in your lungs and screws you up.

Franklin: Yeah, yes it does.

Bennett: And they use beryllium to assemble those fuel elements.

Franklin: Yes. And they use them in the can monitoring units as well.

Bennett: Yeah.

Franklin: Yup. We have one of those in our collection and it took quite a lot of paperwork to get it to be released. Because—I mean, it’s inside a spring—you’d have to take the thing apart to be exposed, but, yeah, it’s—beryllium’s not something to play around with.

Bennett: True, true.

Franklin: Okay.

Bennett: Yeah, I’ll go over to Jadwin and find out.

Franklin: Yeah, yeah.

View interview on Youtube.

Hanford Sites

300 Area
N Reactor
B Reactor
200 Area

Years in Tri-Cities Area



Bennett, Tom.JPG


“Interview with Tom Bennett,” Hanford History Project, accessed October 28, 2021,