Interview with Robert Bown
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Northwest Public Television | Bown_Robert
Robert Bauman: My name's Robert Bauman. I'm conducting an oral history interview with Robert Bown on June 17 of 2013. The interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University in Tri-Cities. And I will be talking with Mr. Bown about his experiences working at the Hanford site. Okay?
Robert Bown: Yep.
Bauman: Okay, great. So I'm just going to start by asking you if you could tell me how--why you first came to work atHanford?
Bown: Well, I graduated at the University of Colorado, and was looking for a job. And Norm Thompson from GeneralElectric Company interviewed many people and we got together and I was hired. And I was--do you want to knowwhy I was—okay, I'll--well, I was impressed with the idea that here is a new energy system. And I wanted to be partof it. So I was pretty excited about working in this industry.
Bauman: And what was your degree in?
Bown: Chemical engineering. But I consider myself, now, a nuclear engineer by experience.
Bauman: And so what was your initial position? What was the initial job, then, that you had?
Bown: Well, started out as a technical graduate, and spent some time in training. And actually I had to have a securityclearance, so I was in a survey team laying out power lines, things like that, to begin with. Just to mark time. Whenthe clearance came, well then the work started. And I went to--you want an experience?
Bown: As a technical graduate, I sort of made stops at several spots so that they could look at me and I could look atthem. Went to separations and the reactors, and I chose the reactors and they concurred. And we lived happily forsome time.
Bauman: And so what year was this? What year did you start?
Bauman: Great. So how long for General Electric then?
Bown: Well, until they left the project, whenever that was. I don't remember it precisely.
Bauman: And so when you started at the reactors with your first job, were you at the B Reactor?
Bown: I was at B Reactor.
Bauman: What was your job there? What sort of things were you doing?
Bown: Well, first of all, of course, it was in training on shift. Eventually I became a shift supervisor. And then an areasupervisor—or operating supervisor, if you will. And then I went into—since that was shift work—went into a dayjob. And I was the in charge of scheduling and forecasting of the Hanford production and integration with theseparations people and Federal Department or--yeah, the government until I actually went to work for thegovernment.
Bauman: So scheduling and forecasting, what--could you maybe explain that a little bit? What did that entail?
Bown: Well, there were varying numbers of reactors. And I had worked at B and H, but in my day job I worked forall of them. I scheduled the outages, and took care of the accounting for the productionof all the reactors, made the reports, and scheduled their outages. Because that takes a lot of people whenthey're shut down, so you only want one at a time. So you have to be governed partially by the need fordischarging, refueling. So you get those variables, and you come up with a schedule that efficiently utilizes theforce available.
Bauman: And then--so after you did that, what was your next position then? Your next job?
Bown: Well, I went to Washington, D.C. and worked for the Department of Energy there.
Bauman: Oh, okay.
Bown: And that's sort of a big blank period. I don't remember what I did. I must have worked hard, though.
Bauman: [LAUGHTER]When you first came to the area then, where did you live? What sort of housing did you live in? And--
Bown: I lived in a ranch house. I was the prime--first occupant. So when the ranch houses were new, I got one. I lived ina little trailer in North Richland for a while. I lived in that house and ended up with two children and a lot of goodmemories. [LAUGHTER]
Bauman: What was the area like when you first arrived here?
Bown: What was the which like?
Bauman: What was the area like? Richland as a place to live and--
Bown: The area was a mess. The big flood of 1978 had just occurred. Smell was not too good and roads were torn up. Afresh dyke had been built and it was not fully landscaped. And it was sort of a difficult time, but we survived.
Bown: What was that last point?
Bauman: Could you drive a car to work, or did you have to take the bus? Or how did that--
Bown: Well, either one. I preferred to take the bus and let somebody else do the driving, because the areas werequite distant. But you could drive, and I would drive when necessary. And since I didn't always get my workdone in the total allotted time, I'd have to get there on my own to catch up.
Bauman: And were there any other—any security issues at all? Did you--I know you had to get a special clearance to work--
Bown: Had to have a what?
Bauman: Get a special clearance to work on the site?
Bown: Oh, yes. Q clearance. Well, in the security situation, you don't talk too much about work away from work. But Richland—you weren't very far from work, and everybody else was in the same boat, so we could talk shopsome, since they were cleared, too.
Bauman: Right, yeah. So you worked--what various places on the site did you work then? You worked at the B Reactor, youmentioned.
Bown: B Reactor and H Reactor. I think I spent some time at F Reactor also. And then in town for when I was schedulingand forecasting.
Bauman: Okay. At the Federal Building in town?
Bown: The what?
Bauman: At the Federal Building? Or--
Bauman: Okay. Do you remember any--were there any events that really stand out to you? Any strange happenings ormemorable events that took place during your years working at Hanford? Things that really stand out to you?
Bown: Well, there was always something happening, and usually it was bad. And you spent a lot of time recovering fromincidents, or radiation problems, or fuel element failures--for which becoming quite common when power levelswere raised up to very high levels and quality of the fuel wasn't. Incidentally, I spent a year or two in fuelproduction, too--fuel fabrication in the 300 Area. I think between the time that I was a shift supervisor and the timeI became an operating supervisor, I spent a year or two building—making fuel elements as aforeman for the crew of people working with the bare uranium.
Bauman: When you worked at B Reactor and you said H Reactor also, how large of number of employees generallywere there?
Bown: Well, we had--the crew was generally an operating supervisor, called an area supervisor, a shift supervisor, achief operator, four pile operators, and a couple of the next level down--whatever that was. Utility operators, Iguess they were called. And then we had side groups that didn't report to me, but were helpful. Health monitoring--or HI--health, whatever it is, and the maintenance people, we would work with. So just a general plantoperation.
Bauman: Yeah. Okay. One quick thing I want to ask about was President Kennedy came to the Hanford site in 1963 todedicate the N Reactor--
Bauman: --and I wanted to know--ask if you were there? Were you at the event? Any memories you have aboutthat?
Bown: About when the President was there?
Bown: Well, I wasn't personally involved with--I was just doing my job. I was impressed, of course, with the President,and the notoriety or fame that we enjoyed.
Bauman: Did you and your family go out to watch him do the dedication at all?
Bown: I think we did, yes. And my daughter says, okay. She was there.
Bauman: Yeah. Must have been a pretty interesting—I mean it sounds--as I talk to other people they said that itwas sort of one of the first times they really opened up the site to let family members come on to the site, to seethe President.
Bown: Well, it was just a big holiday. And I think they were impressed with the operation. And I hope they are againtoday. It's still there, but not operating.
Bauman: Yeah. So you worked at Hanford from 1948 to 1971, you said.
Bauman: Of course much of that, the height of the Cold War. Did you have a sense ofsort of the important work youwere doing? I mean what did you--what of your, sort of, thinking about—the Cold War would have been--
Bown: As I mentioned earlier, I was pleased to be associated with a new energy at nearly the ground level. It had beengoing for a while before I got there. And I enjoyed working there. I took a part in community functions, too. Electedto City Council and my wife was elected to be one of the freeholders--20 freeholders--that wrote the--whatever it'scalled. Wrote the charter--
Bauman: The charter--
Bown: Charter, yes.
Bauman: For—the City of Richland Charter?
Bown: Yes. So we were involved, both of us--myself and my wife--in the founding of the city itself. It was a goingoperation before that, but under government control.
Bauman: Can you talk about that a little more? When were you elected to the City Council? And what made you decide torun for a seat on the City Council?
Bown: Well, I can't remember the exact date, but I was sort of encouraged to participate by an old friend, Fred Clagett,who has better credentials as an old timer. And he kind of encouraged me to work there—or to work in thecommunity. And I served on the Planning Commission, things like that.
Bauman: So you were very involved in--
Bown: I was quite active.
Bauman: --city government--
Bown: City government, yes.
Bauman: --in an early period. And you said your wife was involved in the--
Bown: Yes, freeholder operation.
Bauman: Yeah. Why did--do you know why she chose to get involved in that? Why you thought it was important? I know you saidRichland initially was a federal city under federal government control. Why you thought it was important tomove to becoming a sort of independent city?
Bown: Well, you like to be independent of the government control. But since they're picking up the tab, you have to listento them and accept their advice, usually. And still remain your own person. We tried not to be a servant ofthe Atomic Energy Commission, whom I generally ended up working for. But we cooperated quite nicely. We workedtogether. I think it was a fruitful situation where we--
Bauman: So what happened then when the transfer happened from federal government control to becoming anindependent city? In terms of the homes, for instance? Were people able to purchase their own homes? How didthat--
Bown: Well, they sold the homes to us at a bargain rate. It was 75% of assessed valuation, I think. So we got a gooddeal. And we were proud to be property owners. Real citizens of a free city--atomic city--famous.
Bauman: Were there any--in those early years in Richland, any community events, special celebrations, or communityevents that were important to the city early on?
Bown: Well, nothing really stands out. We had the general celebrations. And it was just normal--a normal city. And wehad a good time living it.
Bauman: You know, what would you like future generations—maybe somebody will watch this video 20 yearsfrom now, or 50 years from now. What would you like people in the future, who might see your interview, orwatch part of it, or listen to it--what would you like them to know about working at Hanford?
Bown: About what?
Bauman: About working at Hanford? And what that was like.
Bown: Oh, working at Hanford.
Bauman: And what it was like to work at Hanford? And/or living in Richland during that--
Bown: Yeah. Well, since it was my first job, I didn't have an awful lot of experience. Well, I'd worked construction jobs,and things like that, but it was--I was proud to work for General Electric. I didn't have an emblem tattooed on me or anything, but I was a faithful cheerleader for them. And I still like General Electric. I still like the federalgovernment. And they were good to me, and I think I gave them a good--my best.
Bauman: And how long--you mentioned that you worked at Hanford from 1948 to 1971, how long did you live in Richland?Did you move at that point? Or--
Bown: I left Richland in 1971 for a job in Washington, D.C. with the Atomic Energy Commission.
Bauman: And how long were you there?
Bown: Until 1986. Through several employers--General Electric, and Douglas United Nuclear, Energy Research andDevelopment. It seems like there's one--Was there another one in there? Two? Then the—yeah, Energy Research andDevelopment. Well, ended up with the Department of Energy, anyway.
Bauman: And when you were in D.C., what sort of work were you doing in D.C.? What was your job there?
Bown: Bureaucrat. [LAUGHTER] Well, it's hard to tell you my actual responsibilities, but--because they kept varying. But I don't know. I kept busy. [LAUGHTER]
Bauman: And then I'm going to go back now to when you first came to Hanford, you said something about sort of being amess because of the flood that year. And I know some people who came here in the '40s talked about thetermination winds, you know--
Bauman: --when the dust would blow and a lot of people would leave.
Bown: The winds blew. They still blew. And the dust blew. But I didn't terminate.
Bown: I was from a dry Midwestern situation, so the desert wasn't too serious a problem.
Bauman: It wasn't too unusual for you.
Bown: No. During the Depression and drought, the wind blew and the tumbleweeds collected in the fences, and the dustdrifted like snow and you could walk over the fences. So I'd had experience. It wasn't too different from theHanford--
Bown: --situation. It wasn't—it did rain a little more, but not much.
Bauman: In your various positions working at Hanford, I was going to ask you a question about unions. Were there unions on the campus?
Bown: Well, there were not, to begin with. And they were organized. And I was not involved in the bargaining unit, but Ihad to learn to work with a union as well as the people. No problem.
Bauman: Did you have a favorite part—what was your favorite part of working at the Hanford site? Do you have somethingthat you really enjoyed doing during your time here that--of the various things you had to work on?
Bown: Well, the scheduling and forecasting was pretty interesting. I started out just scheduling. And then they cut thenumber of reactors and I also took over the forecasting operations, and some inter-site work--the shipping off of aspecial products that you made at the reactors. I handled those. And it was a varied job, and quite interesting. Ienjoyed it.
Bauman: Clearly, yeah. Is there anything I haven't asked you about that you would like to talk about? Anything about yourexperiences either working at Hanford or living in Richland? Any special memories or things you'd like to sharethat you haven't had a chance to talk about?
Bown: Well, I got myself a ski-boat and we whizzed up and down the river quite a bit. And we spent time with our family inthe Portland area, so we weren't too far from friends--from old friends and family. Climbed a few mountains.Travelled a lot--Europe, Alaska. We had a pretty full life there.
Bauman: It sounds like a good place for recreational activities.
Bown: Yes, and for growing a family it was real good.
Bauman: And you said you had two children?
Bown: Two children, daughters, are both here.
Bauman: And they both grew up in Richland? Went to high school and so forth in Richland?
Bown: Let's see. Where did you go to high school?
Daughter: We moved when I was in 9th grade.
Bown: Oh, okay. We moved east. So they ended up in Maryland for high school--most of high school. Robin went to the University ofMontana, and Karen, the younger one, went to Evergreen State College.
Bauman: Well, thank you very much. Again, is there anything else that you want to talk about? Or memories you have fromworking that I haven't asked you about?
Bown: Well, you've asked all the right questions. I hope I gave the right answers.
Bauman: Well, thanks again, very much. I really--
Bauman: --appreciate you coming in and sharing your stories and memories.
Bown: Thank you for the opportunity.
Bauman: Thank you.