Interview with Robert Colley

Dublin Core


Interview with Robert Colley


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


An interview with Robert Colley conducted as part of the Hanford Oral History Project. The Hanford Oral History Project was sponsored by the Mission Support Alliance and 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.



Date Modified

2016-07-21: Metadata v1 created – [J.G.]


The Hanford Oral History Project operates under a sub-contract from Mission Support Alliance (MSA), who are the primary contractors for the US Department of Energy's curatorial services relating to the Hanford site. This oral history project became a part of the Hanford History Project in 2015, and continues to add to this US Department of Energy collection.

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Robert Bauman


Robert Colley


Washington State University - Tri-Cities


Northwest Public Television | Colley_Robert 

Robert Bauman: Okay, great. Let's start by just having you say your name and spell it for us. 

Robert Colley: Okay. Robert Gibson Colley. It's—spell-- 

BaumanThe last name. 


Bauman: Okay. Great. Thank you. And my name's Bob Bauman. And today's date-- 



Colley: Oh, okay, Bob Bauman. 

BaumanAnd today's date is November 20th, 2013, and we're recording this interview on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. So let's start maybe by having you tell us when you came to Hanford, what brought you here. 

Colley: Yeah. I was at Spokane Air Base, and the general came in and he said we're going to have to reduce the Korean Air Force pilots, but we'd like to keep you in Reserve, Ready Reserve, and you'll fly every other weekend for the next 20 years. And we'll guarantee you a job somewhere. 

Bauman: Okay. 

ColleyAnd so that was on Sunday, and on Monday morning I came to work here in 1954. And it was about a month before I came to work. And I came to work as—nuclear physics—radiation monitor. 

Bauman: Okay. And so how long had you been in the service prior to 1954? 

ColleyI came off active duty on Sunday, and came to work here Monday. 

BaumanWhen did you start in the service? 

Colley: Oh, in—when did I start? In 1942. 

Bauman: Okay, yeah, oh, in '42, okay. 

Colley: Yeah, in 1942. And I had three years of cadet ROTC at Walla Walla. 

Bauman: Oh, okay. All right. And so then you came to Hanford in 1954 in nuclear health physics, you said? 

Colley: I— 

Bauman: Nuclear health physics? Is that where you worked? 

ColleyI worked for General Electric. 

BaumanFor General Electric. 


BaumanAnd so could you—what sort of work did you do? 

Colley: Nuclear health physics. And after I came here, I went and got my tech degree from inside while I worked there. 

BaumanAnd what was the area like when you came here in 1954? 

ColleyWell it was riding buses to school, and they gave us homes. And we brought our families here. And went to work by bus. Buses picked us up right in front of our house here in Hanford and took us to work and brought us back. 

BaumanAnd where was your house? 

Colley: 1940 Benham. 1940, 41 there. It was a duplex. 

BaumanA duplex. 

ColleyAn eight-house duplex. 

Bauman: Okay. 

ColleyAnd my children started school here that year. A boy and a girl. And they started at Lewis and Clark School just up the street. [LAUGHTER] 

BaumanAnd so working in nuclear health physics, what sorts of tasks did you do? What sort of things did you do at your job? 

ColleyAnyplace that anybody worked, we had to be there. And we had to know that the area was clear, the work area was clear, what dose rate they were getting, and set a dose rate for them to work there for a certain length of time. 

BaumanSo you were all over the site, then. 

ColleyYeah. I was—in those days, everybody worked all over the site, wherever you were needed. But I actually went into U Plant my first day out on the project, and that was the beginning of U Plant, T Plant, REDOX. And then I went to Dash 5, and then I went to the PUREX start-up  again. I was there for two years. Then went back to Dash 5. 

Bauman: Okay. So essentially you were setting rates for workers? 

ColleyYes. Uh-huh. We went in and we checked the air. And checked the clothing requirement that these people would wear, and what their mask levels would be. How much--we'd find out exactly how much they were going to take and how much they were allowed to take for any one day. And generally in those days, unless there was something very special where you took a double, why, you normally took  15.  And that was it. If it was a very special job where it was dangerous to pull somebody out in the middle of a job because of the radiation level. Sometimes they would take a double. Then they'd go into overtime. 

BaumanSo did you have to wear any special clothing or carry special-- 

ColleyEverything was special. From the time we walked in and changed clothes, we never our clothing again until we took our shower and went home. We wore special underclothes, special--if we lost our clothes due to some spill or something, we could strip down to our underclothes and get out and still be clear. If we went past that, why, then we had a body contamination. And we would normally clean up whoever got contaminated. And depending whether they were working with uranium, plutonium, americium or whatever. 

BaumanDid it happen very often where--were there very many times when a worker was contaminated and you had to clean them up? 

Colley: Everyday somewhere. And they had to be cleaned up and nasal smears given before they were left to go home. We had to have them perfectly clean, or we had to keep them and give them more tests. 

BaumanSo how would you go about cleaning someone up who had been contaminated? 

Colley: Well, if it was skin contamination, why, we could take off a layer of skin. We'd put on--I forget what the name of it was, but we’d put it on and it would take a layer of it off. Until it's a layer perfectly clean. And if they were clean, then they could go home. If they weren't, why, we had to keep them over. 

BaumanAnd if they had to--if you had to keep them over, what happened? You would run tests, did you say? 

ColleyNo, we'd just have to keep cleaning on them. 

Bauman: Okay. 

ColleyI mean, working with this type of thing, there's some spill, something or other, something contaminated or something broke loose or something didn't go right. And everything had to be cleaned right down to no contamination detectable. 

Bauman: Mm-hm. And so when someone was contaminated and you were involved in cleaning them up, was it just you? Or was there more than one person? 

ColleyOh, no, no. Depending on whether he was a junior or a senior, and after he got to be senior, why you were always the one to clean somebody up. And the juniors would watch. And so they would be prepared sometime, too, in the future. You went through a six-month training period and preparation so that you become a monitor. 

BaumanAnd how long did you work then in nuclear health physics? How long were you at Hanford? 

Colley34 years. Approximately 34 years—just like a little bit--. I went there in--I didn't work there until in January of '55. And I retired in August of '86. I think I figured out about 34, almost 34 years. 

BaumanAnd that whole time you were in health physics? 

ColleyYep. The only time I was gone was when I was on active duty with the Air Force, once a year. 


ColleyNever lost any time. We had a lot of different things happen, but every 15 months, when we had accidents of some sort, spills or contamination levels above level, something like that was always there. Even with fires and explosions and stuff like that. And we--I guess the worst right off the bat was when we had—I can’t think—a place where they mixed in Dash 5. But they had a spill, and had a double. And so they got everybody out in about 10 or 15 minutes. I mean, just real quick. Just walked away. Just left things like they were. And then three of us went back in. We knew each floor exactly. We knew where every crevice was, or where every box or anything was where something might be that might be of value. Most of them might walk away from it and not know it's there. So we had to go back and go through--because we knew all these buildings. We did work down there day after day for years. And we knew where everything was, even if it was just even a change of clothes. We checked everything. And we finally--we were allowed an hour. We were in 1,000 R dose rate. And we were allowed an hour. And we took 100 R. And we were only supposed to take a little bit each day. But it was classified at that time. And no one ever knew how much--except we knew, and the health physics people knew. And we took, in less than an hour, we took 100 R—body. And that's many years of working out there. You normally took three R a year—a whole year. 


ColleyAnd we took 100 R in less than an hour. But no one was left in the building, and we were very fortunate. Everything that would run was still running. And then they would come in to help shut it down and get things cleaned up again. But they brought us down in patrol cars from the Badge House, and we just had so much time once we got out of the patrol car. And we would be back there at that place. And if we weren't there, they would come to look for us. But there was three of us, and the other two boys are all gone. I was the oldest out of the bunch, but they died young. We never knew for sure whether we would--I never felt anything from 100 R. I didn't feel headache-y or sick or anything. And they allowed me to come back to work the next day. 


ColleyBut that was all classified at that time. And nobody--they got it okayed from someplace. But I never had any ill effects from it. I took my maximums every year in all those years, and never had any ill effects that I knew of. 

BaumanDo you know roughly what time period this incident was? 


BaumanRoughly what year that would have been that that happened, that incident? 

Colley: You know, I used to remember exactly right down to the hour. [COUGH] But that seemed like it was '56? '55, '56? Gosh, they've got all the records there, but I--it was fairly soon--no, it wasn’t ‘58. It had to be '60. Because I'd been here a long time then. Got everything back up and going again. [LAUGHTER] 

BaumanAnd you said you didn't experience any ill-- 


BaumanYou said you did not experience any ill effects. Did the other two men who were there with you, did they experience any ill effects from that? 

ColleyI don't hear very good. 

BaumanI'm sorry. You said you didn't feel sick after that at all. Did the other two men who were in with you, did they get sick at all from that? 

Colley: No, not to my knowledge. Never had any ill effects. I've always had pretty good luck. I went through the Air Force Cadets, Army Air Force Cadets, back at the [INAUDIBLE], and pretty good shape and stayed in good shape. And we would fly 50, 60 hours at a time towards the end there. And no ill effects from that, either. Except you get tired and you switch off with crews, you know. And we'd go from here to California or over to China or someplace. Always someplace on the earth. 

BaumanYeah. Were there any other sort of major incidents that you remember from the time-- 

Colley: Well we had A 80--about 10 years later, and I was right in the middle, turning people out. The people that were injured during the blast were taken to Kadlec in special rooms. And they were kept there for all--this was when--I'm thinking to think of his name. I can see him, but I can't--he was the one that got hurt the worst. And he was down here, down at Kadlec, for years. 

BaumanOh, was that McCluskey? 

ColleyMcCartney, yeah, McCartney. Yeah. 

BaumanI see. 

ColleyYeah. He was just quite a guy. And he was an operator out there. And got him out, and we got him downtown and took the—[LAUGHTER] I can't think of all these names. The thing that we took him downtown in. 


ColleyAmbulance. And took it back, checked out it. It was wildly contaminated. And went and buried it. [LAUGHTER] That was what happened to it! But I worked 91 doubles to get that straightened out. We didn't have enough people to keep the place going, and so we'd ask for overtime. And I put in the most doubles that anybody has ever heard of. 91 doubles, straight days. 91 doubles. 16 hours a day. But I'd been used to that in the military, or more. But not that many days at a time. And we finally got back to normal hours. And but this wasn’t ever—but they stopped going more than two and a half days at a time overtime after they got it straight, before they could get back to work. 

BaumanSo during those 91 doubles, was it still working on cleaning up after the incident-- 

Colley: Yeah, mm-hm. 



Bauman: Okay. 

Colley: Yeah. And they got the point for—they didn't ask for it, they just accepted I'll be there and I was. [LAUGHTER] 

BaumanYou mentioned that the ambulance, you'd buried the ambulance. Do you knew where it was buried? 

Colley: Out there in Two West. 

Bauman: In Two West. 

ColleyYeah. But I believe those were about ten years apart. The Dash 5 and the--or the--gosh, I can't remember that name, but the poor fellow that blew up there. 



BaumanNo? Oh, the first one. I don't know. 

ColleyThe first one. I can’t—it gets away from you when you get up in your 90s. If you don't use them, why, you forget them. 

BaumanAny other incidents that stand out in your-- 

ColleyWell we had lots of little ones, but they, we could take care of them. They were generally out there. Once in a while, we'd bring somebody down for a cleanup down to the hospital here. But somebody was with him at all times. And never a chance of spreading anything. Of course then homes were surveyed here every so often by the monitoring people, just to check. Just to spot check here and there. Rounds for people that lived here. And once in a while, you'd get something, maybe a bathroom or something room, somebody had come from the project home, well then that started a whole different series of things. Your buses had to be re-checked. Everything had to be re-checked. Never left anything for chance, because it doesn't go away. But once in a while, you'd find a little bit in home. But nothing really drastic, and nobody was ever fired for bringing home thejust something that was overlooked at the time. They bypassed a monitor some way or another. They got--or they touched something and then went into a clean area, and they thought they were still clean and they went home with it. But no, there was always right orders. 

BaumanSo you said you worked there for almost 34 years. Did the equipment change over time, the equipment that you used? 

ColleyOur detection equipment didn't change. We had the Geiger counters and we had alpha—I'm trying to think of the sampling equipment that we used and the detection equipment, and the air sample stuff, and that.  And no, in that length of time, nothing had changed yet. But they changed fairly soon after that, I understand. And got a little more sensitive equipment. And people had more schooling after--things that were brought—when you can find instruments going that can detect this much easier. That's what they brought in later. Real handy. Real nice. But other than that, why, Geiger counters and Junosand that was the things that they had when they started, and that's the things that we had. 

BaumanAnd how about when you had to clean someone up, did that sort of process stay pretty much the same? 

ColleyYeah. First you use the normal equipment. If anything higher level, a Juno or alpha, so we'd detect it. And then if it was larger than that, why, they were left out there and cleaned up out there. It wasn't until we got down to the very minor things that we couldn't--it was on skin or in skin, on clothing. But we had justin real clean rooms. So if there was any on them, we could get it real quick. And I don't recall anyone knowingly took any in home. 


ColleyEverybody was pretty respectful of that. 

BaumanSo did you have to wear a certain kind of gloves? Do you have to wear a mask or something? 

Colley: Yeah. Depending on whether it was fresh air or whether it was a salt mask, depending on what kind of work we were on, they were sealed when we were working in the canyons, in the cells, were sealed down tight. And then we had somebody check us as we came out. And so we never carried anything out. We took some time to--sometimes it took longer to get out than it did to do the job. [LAUGHTER] 

BaumanSo obviously there are a lot of precautions that were taken, a lot of safety measures. Did you feel thenobviously you-- 

ColleyI don't remember anybody knowingly took any shortcuts-- 


Colley: --In order to get a job done. 


ColleyEverything was always in a hurry. Everything was on a schedule. Well, sometimes when you're working with contamination and radiation, it just don't work on schedule. And we'd have to hold. They had people on overtime one way or another, but we couldn't let them go. We'd have to call the job off, till they cleaned it up. And when they got them cleaned back where they could handle it, then turn 'em loose. But we were always with them. I mean, by turn 'em loose, you mean they could go to work, you know. 


ColleyWhether it was mechanical or something else, or flow of contaminated material. They had a lot of high-level stuff there. Some of that stuff could--if you get it on you, if you didn't get it off real fast, you could get hurt. There were several times that thought the people were going to get hurt, but it turned out that they came out okay. But they did have it on them, but if they hadn’t have gotten it off of them, why, they would've been in trouble. 


ColleyBut it seemed like—if you worked there, stay clean. Stay clean. And never took any shortcuts. A shortcut could cost you your life. I don't remember anybody ever dying from it or anything like that. 

BaumanGiven the sort of materials that were there and the job you had, did you feel that Hanford was a safe place to work? 

ColleyHow's that? 

BaumanDid you feel that Hanford was a safe place to work? Was there-- 

ColleyOh, yeah. Yeah. Uh-huh. Yeah. Yeah, sure was. And everybody was built around doing the job, getting the job done. But I don't recall any job that was carried on unsafely. It was caught--right in the middle of some pretty--something semi-nuclear, or whatever, we stopped and took care of it there, and then started back again. But that was the way of life. That was the way you did it. And no one ever considered taking shortcuts. 

BaumanRight. What was the most challenging part of your work at Hanford, and maybe what was the most rewarding part? 

ColleySafety. Keeping people safe and taking care of their internal, external safety. And the contamination, always watching for contamination internally or externally. When you went home at night, you felt okay. But some people took a tremendous amount of radiation. But it was radiation, it wasn't contamination. So you didn't worry about going home or exposing your family to anything. 

BaumanSo as you look back over the over 30 years that you worked at Hanford, how was Hanford as a place to work? 

ColleyGood. Yeah. Everything was taken care of. They got you to work. They made it so that you didn't worry about coming to work. And that was good, because a lot of people were, you know, had some pretty high--there were some lethal dose rates out there if you had to get around them, and you took very, very small amounts of it. And so you didn't really worry about--I mean the only time was when we had some criticality and some of us would volunteer. But we would volunteer because we were older. We weren't having families. We--well, I don't know. We would take the necessary precautions. We'd back off if something didn't seem right and look at it again from another angle. So if someone took an overdose, it'd be because of too many days of overtime. And they finally got that down to where if you had taken so much dose rate for a number of hours, why, you couldn't take anymore. And it was always within the safe limits. I don't remember anybody getting an overdose of radiation. Except for us that had to in order to find out if our buildings were clear. And there was nobody left in them. To search the buildings, we had to take an over amount. And it was supposed—like in our big building, Dash 5, there were only three of us volunteered. But there's three floors, and we knew before we went in about how much time it would take to go to every room on every floor. So that we wouldn't leave--if anybody fainted, had a heart attack or something like that in getting out would still be there, because nobody's back in that building for two or three days. You were just clicking and clacking away. [LAUGHTER] You just--kind of different sounds, you know, make you feel a little anxious because all the alarms were going, and which alarms are the ones that you're watching for that might be external. And dose rates or contamination or type of things like that. Most of the contamination bells were all around [INAUDIBLE] were going off. And we had to find where that spread was, how bad was it, and what it was going to take to clean it up. And it took quite a while. But they'd give people their maximums and send them home. That's where you got all cleaned up and back to work again. 

BaumanSo did you have to have--you talked about safety. Did you have like regular safety training, did they have that at Hanford? Did you have to-- 

ColleyYes. Yeah. Everything was safety. And you had special meetings. If you were going to do a special job, say down in one of the cells or something like that, you had training on it, a dry run training in another cell that was clean. So you knew exactly what you were going to handle, how long you were going to handle it, how many people it was going to take to handle that, and which sets of dose rates. They would only take maybe an overtime of—of one overtime--not overtime, but taking a double in exposure. And then if it took 10 people to do that, you just lined up 10 people and dressed them and got them ready, and you got the others out. And so nobody took any extra over what they were supposed to take. And then their badges were red. And they knew right then that's where they were going to--whether they were okay or not, if they were concerned about it. And once in a while, you'd open up something that, in trying to get that job done, you'd open up something else. And then, of course, we were right there, and our instruments were—and we're dressed, too, so our instruments would tell us right there we were taking it from that, right here. And then we could do—tell them they could work two inches, five inches, a foot, two foot, or arm’s length, and then what the dose rate would be. So tried to keep everybody as healthy, as good we could. And it went off pretty good. Everybody felt comfortable with it, anyway. Maybe sometimes--everybody's human. Sometimes they make little boo-boos. But if you caught them, you never let them back in again. You know, some people will just for some reason or another, they just want to get into trouble. And when you find out that person, you get him out then. You never let him go back in. He's a hazard. So he'd be put on a cold job somewhere here on the project, or he's fired. But never played around with him. I don't remember people by name as to any particular one, but-- 

BaumanI want to go back. You mentioned earlier that when you first came here and moved into a house, you took a bus to work and it would pick you up in front of your house. How long did you do that? How long did you take the bus to work? 

Colley: You know, you think you—that was a big thing for people to drive. And some people didn't even have cars. They'd pick you up. And you got a bus stop real close to your house. They go all through Richland here. And they'd pick you up, they'd bring you back and drop you off back at your house. But it was--gosh, I never did drive to work. I always took a bus.  

Bauman: Took the bus.  

ColleyBut during that--towards the end of that, some people were driving. And depending on where they worked and what job they did and if they had to move around with it. And they could drive to the Project parking lot. And then they had to go over to--well, just like the rest of us worked.  No, it was so gradual, that never—and those dates were all so familiar at the time, boy! We were going to be able to drive, and they were going to go take the buses clear off. And that would have been a big day. And I'm trying to think. Just, I can't remember. But they sold the houses in '58. So I know it was--we'll say it was before then. 

BaumanAnd so did you buy a house then after '58? 

ColleyUh-huh. Yeah. I was allowed one house, an A house. And I'd already been in it for 10, 15 years. I lived in that house 40 years. Or either had it for 40 years. I bought it, and then I kept it a long time. We paid $7,200 for an A house. All told, before I sold it, I built a new house out in Keene Village. And we got $109,000 for it. But needed fixing up a little bit here and there, you know. But really a good house. Very easy to heat and easy to--they were comfortable, nice rooms. And they're all--most all of them are still standing! [LAUGHTER] 

BaumanAnd do you remember anything else about the community of Richland at the time in the 1950s? Were there any special community events or things like that that you remember? 

ColleyWell my spare time was with military. So I didn't have much spare time. Towards the end, I flew to China for 12 years. Every other week, never missed a week. And worked here full-time. But I was flying the old C-141s. That was quite a drop from B-52s and 36s. [LAUGHTER] But it was a mix, good mix. But everything, regardless of where you went, if you--like in Japan, had family there. I had to have somebody go with me because of my job here and my Air Force job. Classification all the time. Never talked about it. They knew that you worked here, and that was good enough. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, it was a lot of classification. Some jobs were, gee, you were afraid to talk to anybody. [LAUGHTER] 

BaumanSo could you tell your family what you did at Hanford at all? 


BaumanThey didn't really know what sort of job you had? 

Colley: As far as my family was concerned, my children were going through grade school here. And my wife didn't work. She just took care of us all. What they read in the papers or from things like that. And they know better than to ask. Because it was classified. But they'd got used to that in the Air Force. SAC was, boy, it was as much or more so than Hanford. But you got so you just lived with that. Gosh you never--but also you remembered a lot of those things for a long time even after you could've maybe talked about them. But this time nobody was particularly interested. [LAUGHTER] 

BaumanWas that difficult at all to be working and then come home and not be able to talk to anyone about your job at all? 

ColleyNo. When you got off the--out of your building, why, we just didn't do it. Once in a while, they'd say, where do you work? And they'd say oh, you know, or something. Try to not answer. But if you did, why, you'd tell them what building you worked in, yeah. And every building had a classification about it. They wanted you to--if you worked in that building, you didn’t have any business talking about it. 

BaumanIs there anything from your experiences working at Hanford that we haven't talked about yet that you'd like to talk about or think you should talk about? 

Colley: Oh, yeah. There’s things, things, oh gosh--at the time, there was a lot of things that I would like to have talked about. But now I can't remember anything right off-hand. Anything you'd like to talk about, it was classified. And you'd go to specialty school, special this, special that. And guards. But I enjoyed working there. I worked lots of overtime because I enjoyed the job. My outside interests was the military, and every spare minute that I had, why, I was with that either in Walla Walla--I was base commander at Walla Walla in the Reserve side, recovery units. So I was pretty busy all the time. I was looking ahead to either here or there. And then when I retired from the military, then I had more time to work here doing things, and with my family. Go places and do things. But it all worked out good. 

BaumanWell I want to thank you very much for coming in today and sharing your experiences with us. I really appreciate. 

ColleyI'm sorry I can't remember a lot of things. Gosh, it's surprising me. When you stop using it and you weren't supposed to talk about it, then you just disappear it. I mean, unless someone mentions something, and then brings it up to you. 

BaumanWell you did a great job. 

Colley: A lot of years! 

Bauman: Some really interesting stories, so, appreciate it. 



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Hanford Sites

U Plant
T Plant
Dash 5 Building
Reduction-Oxidation Plant (REDOX)

Years in Tri-Cities Area


Years on Hanford Site



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Hanford Oral History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities, “Interview with Robert Colley,” Hanford History Project, accessed July 16, 2024,