Interview with Walter Braten
Nuclear 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: My name is Robert Franklin. I am conducting an oral history interview with Walt Braten on January 18, 2018. The interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. I will be talking with Walt about his experiences working at the Hanford Site. And for the record, could you state and spell your full name for us?
Walt Braten: Okay. I’m Walter James Braten. And it’s spelled B-R-A-T-E-N.
Franklin: And Walter is--? How do you spell “Walter”?
Braten: W-A-L-T-E-R. Middle initial J for James.
Franklin: Thanks. And do you prefer Walter or Walt?
Braten: Walt is fine.
Franklin: Okay, great. So, Walt, tell me how you came to the Hanford area.
Braten: I had been working at a job that became more and more less-satisfying and I was looking for something else. I went into a gun store and talked to the people I’d been visiting with. I said, where’s so-and-so? And they said, well, he’s gone to work for Hanford. He’s got a great job. And I said, really? Tell me about it. And so he told me to come to the Federal Building and look into becoming a patrolman. So I did so, and after a time, they called me and asked me to come down for an interview, and then hired me. As a Hanford patrolman.
But they have classes for people to prepare to be patrolmen, and it wasn’t going to start for some weeks. They said, would you like to come work just any old job we can scare up until the job opens—the training starts? So I said, sure, and I became a delivery guy, running around delivering phone books and all kinds of stuff. And then the training started. And we had several large books of how a patrolman should dress, how long their hair should be, and all the details of their job. After going through all that, we had also a lot of physical training. We had to climb a ladder that was held up by cables and that spooked some of the would-be patrolman. And carry heavy weights and run a certain distance. I did all that. And they hired me. So then I had a training session and it was physical and also information. I had to run a mile in a certain length of time and all that. And I did all that, even though I’d been working at desks for years before. I wasn’t quite as zippy, and I was a little older than most of the other would-be patrolmen.
And I had a pretty good time, and I enjoyed the job. Lots of shooting and knowing what we should do and not do in a radiation area. Then I was hired and at first, I was—I think they called it a red badge or whatever—they didn’t give me a gun until I had some training. So mostly I just let cars in and out of the plant. I had to look at their badges, look in their lunchbox, look in their purses, look in their trunk and wave them on. And that, you can imagine, that got pretty boring. But they had other jobs, like tactical response team and traffic and working at the computer, person in charge of letting people in and out of the plant, making plutonium. And also they had a boat, a jet boat on the Columbia, and they had a helicopter. And I applied for everything. So I worked traffic, and I worked running the computerized protection for the Z Plant. And generally had an interesting time.
Franklin: Okay, what year was it that you started out at Hanford?
Braten: Oh, gee, I don’t remember.
Franklin; Do you remember the decade?
Braten: Pardon me?
Franklin: Do you remember the, like, kind of a guess or like a timespan, what decade it would have been?
Braten: Well, see, I’d say I was in my 50s. And I was born in 1930.
Braten: So—and then I stayed about 15 years.
Braten: At Hanford.
Franklin: So that would’ve been like the late ‘70s, early ‘80s?
Franklin: Okay. So you became a patrolman in your 50s.
Franklin: That is kind of an—older, I think, than the average person who—kind of, new patrolman.
Braten: Yes. But I was able to do it. And I had a degree in—a bachelors—and I was accustomed to working with people in the other jobs I’ve had. So I had a good time. We had to be very careful and not make mistakes and let someone in who shouldn’t be in. And on everyone’s badge, there was information on their level of security and which plants they would be allowed in, and some other things. So it was imperative that we keep the security. Because this is extremely important; it was plutonium. We had to beware of the enemy, of course. Probably knew as much about it as we did. And we had to be aware of the love triangle where somebody wants to kill somebody at the plant. That had happened in another plant, many—out of state here.
Franklin: Are you talking about the—oh, the lady—Karen Silkwood, is that--?
Franklin: Okay. So—sorry, explain this “love triangle” thing a bit more. This is the first time I’ve ever heard of this.
Braten: Well, if somebody is involved with someone not their husband or wife and the party being cheated on could decide to kill himself and the Romeo. This is what one person did, I was told. And they had a mess to clean up.
Franklin: Do you know where that had happened?
Braten: I was told it was in Idaho.
Franklin: Oh, okay. So—
Braten: This is all gossip.
Franklin: Sure, hearsay.
Braten: And then there was the disgruntled employee who’s going to be fired and wants to be vengeful and destructive. So we had lots of drills in the middle of the night. After I got on working as a traffic person—I liked it because I could run around. I had certain places I had to check. But they’d announce, intruder at certain place. And I would immediately accelerate, tell them I was coming. They had patrolmen involved in certain positions and jobs in that situation. At first we didn’t know if it was real, and then they made it real—let us know that it was a—I mean, let us know that it was a drill. Because we were going in loaded, with M-16s and pistols and shotguns and—for real. And we’d have some exercises. They brought in some people out of state with lasers on the weapons, and we could shoot at each other and disable and “kill” the other person. This was excellent training. We had a good time doing that, except when they’d have me walking around to be the first guy to get shot. That wasn’t fun.
Anyway, our jobs were much like night watchmen at times, going through the buildings, making sure someone hadn’t left their coffee maker on or water running or anything that shouldn’t be happening. We also were checking for breaches of security. We had some file cabinets that had combinations on them, and they contained secret documents. If I went in the office and tried the handle and pulled it open, that was a breach. And we’d have to call the supervisor to come in and inventory the contents and so on. So that made us popular, too.
Franklin: Did that ever happen?
Braten: I didn’t find any. We would pick up their desk blotter and look under it, because we were told some people wrote their combination there. So we tried to think, as human beings, open the desk drawer if it was not locked and just look. That kept us busy all night. In one of the plants, they had a flood and the water brought up radiation out of the tile. And when I went in, I had—they called it SWP. They had booties and clothes and we went in and I managed to get my feet contaminated. They called it getting crapped up.
Braten: That delayed the normal routine. Periodically, we’d have an hour in the middle of our day to exercise. They tried to keep us physically fit and aware. And doing it right. There were dangers, of course, with contamination. If we went on top of any of the buildings, we had to get surveyed, because the bird droppings were radiated, would contaminate our shoes. We just had to deal with this existence of something invisible, odorless, tasteless, but it could kill us.
Braten: I enjoyed the job. We would examine the people driving in with their glove compartment and trunk and whatever. And when the busses came in, we’d hop on. Many of the people were asleep. Sometimes, I’d say, welcome to Disneyland West, and wake them up. I have to look in your purses and check your badges.
One time, I looked at a guy’s badge and there was a woman’s picture on it. And I said, what’s this? And he said, oh, I got my wife’s badge. She’s got mine! So, we helped him go into the outside of the place he wanted to go in, to the guard’s station, where his manager could come up and write him a temporary badge. And his wife somewhere was going through the same process.
We had some problems with people sneaking in, back when the coyote pelts were valuable. The animals on Hanford were tame, and they would come in and shoot them. So we patrolmen had to roam around in the dark and try to catch them. We never did. But I think two patrolmen managed to bump into each other in the dark. We had a helicopter that was French, had a heat indicator, could fly over and see people or animals. That helped a lot.
Franklin: Were there any breaches or anything while you were working as a patrolman?
Braten: No, not really. We were warned that the peace people would might sneak in and try to make a scene. But that never happened. That I saw. I don’t think it happened at Hanford. Mostly, it was people who were lost. They’d come into the Hanford Barricade and to the T where if they turned left, they’d go down to the Columbia, and turn right, they’d come back into town, or straight ahead into the Hanford Area. We had one guy show up—I didn’t deal with him—who was bound and determined he was going to go straight ahead because he had gone straight ahead, and by God there was a ferry in there. We told him, no, he couldn’t pay his toll. If he’d go out, turn right, and go down to the Columbia, and if there wasn’t a great big bridge, please come back and tell us. He didn’t come back, so he must’ve found bridge. But ignored the “come back and tell us.” Sometimes people would show up and dancing about really needing a restroom. They’d want to come in our guard shack if we’d let them. We weren’t supposed to, but often we did. We were well-armed and—I felt safe.
Franklin: Kind of hard to turn down someone in need of a restroom.
Braten: Some young woman about to have an accident.
Braten: We had to use our common sense. And then I worked traffic for a while. Took training, breathalyzer training and radar training.
Franklin: Was that traffic on the Hanford Site?
Braten: Just on the Hanford Site. The management downtown would just have a cat fit if we stopped anybody outside the Project. They didn’t want us getting involved. We had to leave Hanford and go over to where there was a pump station, and there’d been some vandalism. So those working patrol would have to drive over there and look around. They were getting alarms downtown, and so we’d all rush out there. Turns out, it was an owl’s nest, and the mama owl would fly in and out and trip the detector system. So that was an example. Crawling around in the cactus and whatever, wondering what’s ahead was kind of tense. But it was just an owl.
Franklin: You said you had to search people when they came in and out of areas. Did you ever find anything—oh sorry.
Braten: We had a thing, you now, that would detect metal. And, well, sometimes people would mistakenly leave things in their cars. I opened a guy’s car once and there was about a metric ton of ammunition and stuff. Of course, you don’t enter Hanford with ammunition, guns, cameras and so on. And he said, oh, my dad’s a reloader and he borrowed my car. Well, he had to take—he or somebody had to take all that stuff down to the Federal Building. And he’d had to go down there later on to explain why and get it back.
Another time, somebody had some guns, he’d been out shooting. One time, a guy had a flare pistol. A guy tried to leave once with his pickup truck full of sheet lead. I said, what are you doing? He said, well, I’ve got a pickup truck and it’s icy now and I wanted some weight to hold me down to get home safely. I’ll bring it back. I said, no, you can’t take all that lead out of here. Put it back. Stuff like that.
Most—one guy had a missile. Turned out it was a model of, I think it was under Rockwell—a model that he’d taken off somebody else’s desk and was trying to sneak it home. That caused some excitement when we called in, there’s a guy with a missile here.
Braten: Once I hit a deer while on patrol and disabled a car, and I had to call that in. And I said, this is Braten working 2-4 and I hit a deer. And there’s a silence, then all kinds of excited communication: are you all right, where are you? And it was embarrassing. But anyway, somebody came and examined the scene. They later sold that car in their junk car sales they had at Hanford. That was broad daylight, and the deer just jumped up in front of me and ran across the road. Must’ve been unhappy and wanted to commit suicide. Anyway.
There were times of a little excitement. Sometimes we had brush fires that were really dangerous. We had to control them and maintain security. People would park along our fence and take naps. And I’d see them; I’d have to wake them up and see what they were doing and send them on their happy way. That’s very—normally very humdrum.
Franklin: Yeah. Had you heard about Hanford—so, you were not born—you’re not a native of Washington.
Braten: No. Peoria, Illinois.
Franklin: Peoria, Illinois. And when did you move to the state of Washington?
Braten: Let’s see, it was in the early ‘60s.
Braten: I came out here to work as a missionary in Toppenish with the Native Americans and the migrants.
Braten: That’s how I got here. And I taught public school.
Franklin: Had you heard about Hanford before you came out to this area?
Franklin: No. Had you heard about the—I assume you would’ve heard about the Manhattan Project?
Braten: Yes, yes.
Franklin: When did you first become aware of Hanford?
Braten: When I talked to that friend about a job that he had, an acquaintance had, that’s the first I’d heard of Hanford. And with my experience of being a juvenile parole counselor, et cetera, they might hire me. And I had—of course, I had a degree. So that’s the first I heard of it. I knew nothing about it.
Franklin: When did you first learn as to what was being made at Hanford, and did it ever worry you to be working so close to atomic material?
Braten: No. I learned what was going on when I hired on. And they gave us extensive training on contamination—surface contamination, airborne contamination. How could we get hurt, what we had to avoid. And if an area was marked, omit. Don’t pick up anything. If you see a big piece of rope or a mask or whatever, don’t pick it up. Notify the people who knew how to deal with potential radiation. So I knew nothing about it until I came.
Franklin: What was one of the most challenging aspects of your work as a security guard—patrolman, sorry.
Braten: Running. We had a captain who believed in running. I teased him and asked, Ralph, don’t you want anybody who’s going to stand and fight? He was an ex-marine from the Vietnam era. Anyway. Running was a challenge, a physical challenge. I could shoot. I was refused as a Navy chaplain because of my vision. But at Hanford, I shot expert, day and night, with the pistol, the rifle and the shotgun. That was no—that was fun. That was no challenge. But running was. Some of the training was a run, fall, shoot, run, fall, shoot. And I just couldn’t keep up to become a tactical response team member. I could, a regular patrolman. But that physical was the most challenging. And paying attention, not getting bored. Not getting lax. Not getting sleepy in the middle of the night.
Franklin: Yeah, I imagine that would be very difficult, especially when you’re—what kind of shifts were you on? Were you on mostly nights, or did it vary a lot?
Braten: Well, this was horrible. And totally unhealthy and everybody knows it except Hanford, apparently. We’d change shifts every week. And not in the same order as day and night. So we’d work a week in graveyard, and then a week in days or a week in swing, and year after year. It was really difficult. Oh, and we had a couple days off on what they call long change. That was hard to be rested.
Franklin: I would imagine trying to switch from day to graveyard or vice versa with just a weekend to make that switch would be really trying on you.
Braten: Well, occasionally—I don’t know what the other patrolmen did, but occasionally I’d show up on my day off. [LAUGHTER] And they’d either send me home or let me work.
Franklin: That’s funny. What was one of the most rewarding aspects of your job as a patrolman?
Braten: Well, occasionally, I’d—when I was out running around outside, I’d be able to help people who were stalled. The thought that I was doing something for our country. We were in the Cold War, back when our presidents negotiated, and we were making plutonium. And we and the Russians were playing chess. If you do this, we’ll do this. So don’t do this. And it worked. We didn’t have World War III. We had a lot of skullduggery and little brushes here and there, but we avoided World War III because we were well-armed. We had missiles in the air. We had weapons that would blow the smithereens out of wherever we dropped them. We had all kinds of missiles and submarines and in silos and in ships. I felt that I had a part in that, that I was protecting America. That was rewarding to me.
Franklin: You eventually found a different—you quit being a patrolman. And how did that come about?
Braten: They examined us physically every year and they gave us a psychology test. They didn’t want people running around with guns who had a loose wire in the nuke plant.
Franklin: Makes sense.
Braten: Yes. Well, at one of the tests, this doctor said he thought I had stress asthma, that if I was running around in an exciting time, I might have to stop and cough. I never experienced that, but they wanted me to stop being a patrolman. So they said, we’ll find you another job. Of course, they didn’t; I had to find a job. And I looked into quality control, which is about as popular as being a patrolman. You’re telling people they’re doing something wrong or have to stop sometimes because they have goals to benchmarks and stuff to achieve. And I enjoyed that. And that’s that packet of certificates I showed you. At first they trained me by follow-him. And then they got real busy and sent me to hundreds of classes, and one long one, about a year, about how to examine wells, if they were good. With the different kinds of wells. So I enjoyed that, being a quality control person.
Franklin: Around what time did you become a quality control person, do you remember the era or—you know.
Braten: Well, it was—let’s see, when did I leave? I left when I was 62. I was born in ’30, what does that make it?
Braten: Somewhere like that.
Franklin: Early ‘90s?
Franklin: Okay, so—
[WOMAN OFF-SCREEN]: But you quit in ’93. So it was the late ‘80s.
Braten: Oh, it had to be before that, if I left at ’93.
Franklin: My bio here, it says—okay, so, you spent several years then as a QC.
Franklin: Which is what they call it.
Braten: And I wanted to change because I thought I could make more money in communications. They sent papers around advertising the various openings. I went for an interview and the lady who interviewed me thought I was well-suited. I had a degree in English and speech and all this other stuff. And after we worked together a very short time, she decided she didn’t like me. It was—my feelings were the same. Anyway, she said I could apply for another job. We weren’t supply for another job for something like six months or a year, but she said I could start immediately looking for another job. And I finally retired. But then they called me back periodically to work as a QC again. But at my inflated wages. So that was great for me.
Franklin: So you got the QC as the communications wages.
Braten: Right. And of course, I was getting my pension, too, from having retired. So I worked various weeks when they wanted me and needed me in quality control. And I worked all the plants and places where they’re making models and experimenting. That was interesting, I learned a lot.
Franklin: Did that work take you pretty much all throughout the Site?
Franklin: At that time?
Braten: Patrol did, also.
Franklin: Right, so you have a pretty good knowledge, then, of the whole—
Braten: Yes and no. I was in all the plants; I knew what went on. But if Russians tried to torture me to tell them how we made plutonium, I couldn’t tell them. Everything was still in that wartime need-to-know. You needed to know your job; you didn’t need to know the whole thing. And that was a mistake. I didn’t pay attention; I should have and learned all the other things. Because the security was lessening all the time and I could’ve done other things. They had jobs for locksmiths and laundry and—you know, everything. Map-making. So it was a pretty good place to work; you just had to mind your Ps and Qs.
Franklin: Yeah. Can you describe a typical workday as a quality control officer?
Braten: Well, I’d come roaring in from where I lived in Yakima or Sunnyside at the last tick of the clock usually. I would check in and see if there’s anything pending that I needed to go right away. Then I would go over to wherever we were working and suit up and go into the hot zones and look around. I’d be a pair of eyes and look for things to do, to look at.
Every box where they made plutonium had gloves, lead-lined gloves. Each glove had a date on it and had to be changed out within a certain time. Well, sometimes, I would go into these areas and pull out the glove enough to where I could read the date and do the whole area and find gloves that were past their due date. They called these snapshots surveillances, and they could be solved either satisfactory, unsatisfactory corrected immediately, or unsatisfactory. And nobody liked the unsatisfactories. So I’d write up a surveillance and right away send copies to the people I should.
Also, we had steel drums containing contaminated tools and other items. And these were—I had to inspect the drums when they came in to make sure the inner lining had a zinc coating. These, then, would be numbered, the lid and the drum. And when they had radiated material—radiation-contaminated, they would put a big bag in it and put the material in it. It wasn’t supposed to have liquids and some other things. And then they would seal it and then the outer rim had to be torqued and put pounds. And then a little pop-valve was torqued in inch pounds. I had to watch them while they did it, and the torque wrenches had to be calibrated within a certain time; I had to look at that. And sometimes tell these well-paid operators what they were supposed to do. As you tighten the ring, you’re supposed to hammer it with a mallet, and tighten it and hammer it. I said, now you hammer the ring. And he took the torque wrench and went, wham! I said, no! So we had to get another torque wrench while that one was recalibrated. So I did hundreds of those. And they took them out to a big pit and lined them up and then covered them with I don’t know how much dirt. They’re supposed to last hundreds of years. We also had attempts to create places where they could last even longer than that that were thwarted various ways.
Anyway, so, I was busy inspecting drums, I was busy doing—if they called over and wanted somebody, they had a new job going in, and I had a little stamp with my number QC that I carried around. And I’d have to go in and watch them while they did this job. I’d look at the work order, what steps they were to do, and where I was supposed to verify it, and then I would. And then I’d stamp it and initial it and date it. So I did a lot of that.
When the plastic shop made—they called it a greenhouse because it was made of plastic. It wasn’t green, but you could see through it. They would seal that to the front of a glovebox where they were making plutonium, unbolt it and open it up. And we were on supplied air, or tanks, and they would fix whatever needed fixing. Sometimes—one time, they had a broken front of the thing made of some kind of thick—it wasn’t Lucite, but of that sort. It had a couple of ports, a port down here, and where you could reach in and work. They came, I watched them while they drew up a plan of it. And I stamped that off. When they announced it was ready, I went in, they took off the front, had everybody sealed, you know. And they got the new one and they had turned the model over and the holes were all in wrong places. And this stuff costs a mild fortune. So they had to put the broken one back on, seal it all up, measure it and make sure, and then go make one right. That was an interesting time. They couldn’t blame me, thank God.
Another time they did blame me. Somebody decided I should carry a Top Secret stamp and in the various steps in the making of these hockey pucks, plutonium, I had to watch while they made it. And when it first came in, I stamped the paper—the card that went with them, Top Secret—or Secret, not Top Secret. It was supposed to stay with that item. Well, the operators and managers had never had that to contend with, and they didn’t care. A whole bunch of those tags got lost. Well, anything marked Secret that gets lost, we have people from God in Heaven and whatever, in demanding to know what happened. So I had to go all over to wherever there was plutonium stored. When they made it, they put it in a double bag and then a tin can and you could feel the heat when you took hold of them. You couldn’t feel the radiation, but thermal. Well, I must’ve examined hundreds of them, exposing myself to find those. I found them everywhere in a little red wagon they used to haul them around, and on the floor, and on the wall. When they summed it up, they blamed quality control—
Franklin: Of course.
Braten: --for the security breach. Which I thought was a crock. Anyway, no one cared what I thought. I was a grunt.
So that was quality control. We were a second pair of eyes, we were trying to help them do it right. We were sometimes unappreciated, but—oh, another time, they had some counterfeit bolts that were marked as though they were hardened enough to hold a great weight or twist or torque. But they were counterfeit; they were from China or somewhere. And they were mild steel and they would break. We found them on hoists, man-lifts, we found them everywhere. And for a long time, that was my job, going over and everywhere there was a hex head bolt, look at it. And you could tell the counterfeit by the counterfeit stamp, the way they arranged the markings. So we had sacks and sacks of them, and they said they were going to have us send them somewhere. Finally they said, junk them, we don’t want them. And we had a ton of those things. But we replaced every one of them with an accurate bolt. They apparently had gotten in the aviation industry and all over America.
Franklin: Oh, wow.
Braten: So we would test things. They had a container for shipping plutonium pellet—they call it a pellet or whatever. They’d drop it and see if it would break and so on. So we were doing, anytime they were testing anything, testing the elevators with weights, testing the hoists. We’d put on a hardhat, like that was going to help if anything broke. And watch them. So anything they did, quality control was there.
They were very, very concerned about confined spaces, because people have died—one suck of breath and they die. You got to wear supplied air and have somebody watching you, or you can’t do it. So I’d have to go, and there was a supplied air job, standing up on the surface and watch. Also, they had boxes on all kinds of machines to turn it on and off, and they had a way to turn it off and then put a lockout device on it so somebody couldn’t come along while the guy was inside working and turn it on. They were lockouts. Well, they had a lot of education on it, and they had all of us QCs roaming, watching every place that was being worked with the lockout device on. And we made everybody keenly aware of that. We didn’t hardly find anything like that wrong, because they want to protect themselves.
We went behind the scene for accidents. High voltage box blew up and melted copper and stuff blew all over everybody around it. They would send us films about the Valdez and every other—the place where the poisonous gas got loose in India. They’d examine every accident, why did it happen, how could it have been avoided, and they would show us those films to try to forewarn us of how it could be avoided. We had a person scalded because this area had been shut down and it was turned on. For some reason when they shot the steam in, it blew up and scalded a guy. They examined, very carefully, any accident, because they were very security-conscious. They didn’t want anybody hurt.
Some of the Navy guys came in, nuke people. Of course they thought they were great stuff. I was dying to ask them, how many people a year get killed in the Navy by accidents? How many people at Hanford? None. So if you’re going to tell us how to do it, we’ll consider it. We didn’t have a choice, though. They were high muckety-mucks.
You know, irritating things. We had fun with the PAC system. We could hit a number and talk in the phone and all over the area, we could say we need a QC at a certain point, and we’d all hear it. Sometimes people would mess with that, too. But anyway. Less I contaminate myself—
Franklin: [LAUGHTER] What were the most challenging aspects of being a QC at Hanford?
Braten: Doing it right. I didn’t have the eyes of eagles, and sometimes I had to look at a tag or something from, through a walled-off area and see it. So I thought of bringing a small monocular, binocular. I usually was able to do it. But I had a little trouble seeing some of the things. And I had to keep in mind what were the steps, what was I to do. And that was challenging to do it right, because I felt like, well, somebody told me that if a QC knowingly okays something and it’s not okay and somebody gets hurt, I could go to prison. Well, that made me highly motivated, even more than I’d been, to do the job right. Not because of punishment; because I wanted to.
It was sometimes a challenge to interpret and to deal with some of the personnel. Most of them, we had fun with. I mean, not hilarious, but we treated each other like people. Occasionally, a patrolman would get badge-heavy and ruff, ruff, ruff. But most of us realized we were working with our friends and neighbors. We were going to do the job, but we weren’t going to jump down anybody’s throat.
Franklin: What about the rewards? What was the most rewarding aspect of being a QC?
Braten: I guess it was being part of a team that was doing something worthwhile. We had excellent rapport with our other patrolmen, mostly. Once in a while there’d be an oddball, but we were carefully screened and then have the written, and examination with the psychologist every year. If we screwed up, we heard about it. We could get time off, we could get fired. So I thought it was good to work there, with good people doing something worthwhile. There were irritating things. There were rattlesnakes out there and a few other hazards. But running into a deer when you’re driving 80 is really exciting. Or an owl with your windshield. You had to be careful, stay awake.
Franklin: Yeah. I wanted to ask you about some major events that took place while you were working at Hanford.
Franklin: I’m wondering if you could tell me how Chernobyl impacted Hanford and the community and your work there.
Braten: Well, we were told—somebody told us, I don’t know TV or Hanford, that we should take iodine tablets. We were keenly aware that this stuff was circulating in the clouds, radiation. We kept close tabs on what was going on. We didn’t have to have much to do with it; we just had to deal with it.
The most troublesome was the blowup of Mt. St. Helens. It dumped stuff that was the size of tiny, you could breathe it, to beach sand. We couldn’t stop with our duties and we couldn’t not drive. We had to put filters on our air filters, and we had to drive our cars in there through that. So I put filter material over my air intake and hoped I wouldn’t ruin my engine. We had to be careful driving in that poor visibility. On places it was ruining the paint on our cars and whatever. But we had to come. That was keen—we had to come. Whether it was a holiday or a graduation or whatever, we had to be there. So, it made us, whatever, committed, you might say. Maybe with a little grumbling, but committed.
Franklin: How did your job change at the end of the Cold War, when Hanford shifted from production to cleanup?
Braten: Well, I had changed jobs, of course. But there was an air of freedom and relief. Because we knew we’d be a target if there was war, or even without war, for espionage. Anyway, I think we went into a cleanup mode.
They had tumbleweeds out there, lots and lots of tumbleweeds. But they were contaminated. What they were going to do was collect them and burn them. Well, they couldn’t burn them, because it would put radiation in the air. Then they brought in bales—like farm machines, to bale them. So what they did was, there’s a lot of sand out there, they built walls along the roads with these baled tumbleweeds to keep the drifting sand from drifting over the road and needing to be cleaned up.
We dealt with the radiation and the potentials, and tried to lead normal lives. We found out the drinking water in our headquarters in 2-West was possibly contaminated. So, they had that changed with bottled water. And I didn’t know what they did then. There were interesting quirks.
We had a big company picnic every year. That was fun. We’d get together and put races and picnic. And occasionally the management would call us all to a big meeting, and they would bring in buses and send us all somewhere downtown. And management would tell us what they wanted to tell us. The theory was they were helping us be onboard and take ownership—that was a big word. They were telling us what was going to happen. We really didn’t have any say-so in it, except yes or—
Braten: But I liked working there. Occasionally I had problems, but I perhaps shouldn’t discuss them.
Franklin: You can if you want to.
Braten: Just—some of the—sometimes somebody in management would fuss at us without cause, just because they could, I guess. We, in patrol, were told that we were paramilitary, and saying pseudo-military just to have fun. But we had excellent weapons and excellent training. And we took pride.
Some people would call us rent-a-cops. People who didn’t want to obey simple rules. You’re going to work there, you’re going to be searched. You’re going to have to obey security. And I felt like saying, you know, you should go to work for McDonald’s. They don’t have to put up with this stuff. But they’re getting super pay and they begrudge every day, every time they came in or left.
At Christmastime, people would bring in, for gift exchange, wrapped gifts. As they came in, they had to unwrap it and show us what’s in there. You want to feel like a Grinch.
Franklin: Should’ve just brought the gift and some wrapping paper.
Franklin: Yeah. That’s funny, though. I could see how that would be tough to do gift exchange in a secure area.
Franklin: Yeah. Could you describe the ways in which security and secrecy at Hanford impacted your work?
Braten: Well, of course, as a patrolman, that was part of our job, to see that the rules were obeyed. The badges we had that told all the stuff, we weren’t supposed to wear them out in public or be photographed. It was Hanford. It was secret. I had no trouble—I didn’t want to blab about anything. We had somebody in management in security that blabbed. Somebody came in and said, hey, my sister down in California says you got Uzis now. We didn’t tell anybody.
Oh, another thing, the security around the plutonium plant, we didn’t tell our wives what was going on. But one of them gave a newspaper report and even brought reporters through. And I thought, what?! Anyway. It wasn’t for me to question. I just wondered in my mind that it wouldn’t be the way I’d run a war.
Franklin: Different standards, I guess, for different levels of management.
Braten: Oh, yes, most of the management was really good. Just once in a while, somebody’d be a cross patch. We weren’t always angels, either.
Franklin: I’m sure. Well, you could talk about it now, because what are they going to do, I mean, fire you? You know?
Braten: Burn something on my lawn or whatever.
Franklin: [LAUGHTER] I don’t think they’d do that. I think they have bigger problems to worry about right now.
Braten: Well, it was handy, though, when we were going to Europe, my wife and I, for a vacation, I could call Hanford at a certain number and tell them where we were going. And they could say, okay, and they would say, well, when you’re in this country, beware of this, this, this. So they gave us a heads up about potential dangers.
Franklin: Mm. Kind of like the State Department publishes those periodic reviews—
Braten: Oh, do they?
Franklin: Yeah, of different activities, like, meant for tourism. Like, if you’re going to this country, beware of x, y, z.
Braten: Gee, I didn’t know.
Franklin: Oh, yeah. It’s on their website.
Braten: We just went for a big trip a couple years ago.
Franklin: Oh, okay.
Franklin: My last question is, what would you like future generations to know about working at Hanford during the Cold War?
Braten: Well, mostly you hear complaints about radiation release. People who moved in down wind and felt they were contaminated. My feeling is they should’ve known we were not making popsicles. But anyway, I guess I’d like them to know that we filled a niche in history where we helped prevent World War III. And that we furthered research in nuke medicine and a whole bunch of good things evolved from Hanford. So, I’d like them to know the good things as well as the contamination. We have to deal with the waste and we have to deal with radioactive materials and for a long time, it has to be secure. So I’d like to know some of the good that we did.
Franklin: Great. Well, Walt, is there anything else that you’d like to add before we wrap up?
Braten: I guess not. I liked the jobs. I was grateful for the jobs, I was grateful for the pay. They gave us lunches when we had to lunch over—forced overtime. They gave us uniforms, did the laundry, you know, a lot of nice things. And a lot of training. I appreciate that, and I think we did a job that America needed to have done.
Franklin: Great. Well, thank you, Walt, I really appreciate your taking the time to interview with us.
Braten: Well, you’re welcome. Thank you for being interested.
Franklin: Okay. Yeah, very much so.
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