Interview with Philip Craig
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Northwest Public Television | Craig_Philip
Philip Craig: My name is Philip Craig. P-H-I-L-I-P. C-R-A-I-G.
Robert Bauman: Great. Thank you. And my name is Robert Bauman, and we are conducting this oral history interview on June 24th of 2015 on the campus of Washington State University, Tri-Cities. So, Mr. Craig, why don’t we have you start, maybe, by just telling us a little bit about your background. Where you came from, how you came to Hanford, and that sort of thing.
Craig: Well my how I came to Hanford started back in high school. I had a high school chemistry class. I liked what I saw. And I knew that the Hanford Project was down the road—I was living in Selah, Washington, and the Hanford Project was very interesting to me. And I even wrote a term paper on Hanford, because I really wanted to work here. So, I went on to Whitman College, graduated from high school in ’56—or ’52, I’m sorry. Graduated from college in ’56, and then went on to Washington State College, then, now Washington State University in Pullman, and did a year of graduate work in chemistry. And at the end of that, I came to Hanford for my very first job. And lo and behold, that was exactly 58 years ago today: June 24, 1957. And it was quite an experience, let me tell you. The first thing that struck me, of course I had to have credentials to get in the building. And in those days, we didn’t have badges like you have today that are on a cord around your neck. We had a little plastic folder with our ID in it, and you’d pull that out of your pocket and flash it open to the guard sitting at the entrance desk. And then you could go on into the building and find your office and take it from there. The most interesting thing, I think, about it all was it was a very formal setting. For years we wore suits, ties, long sleeved white shirts only—couldn’t have colored shirts—and the ladies wore dresses. Far more formal than today’s environment. Security, of course, was very paramount. I mean, we were in the years where the Soviets and the United States was competing. And so the Hanford site, being one of the two principal sites manufacturing plutonium in the United States, the other one being Savannah River, most of the stuff in terms of total production and that sort of thing was top secret. A lot of it was not—it was secret, but security was paramount. I remember in my little office cubby hole—it was a room, it wasn’t just a cubby hole, in abig room—we had a three-drawer file cabinet with a combination lock. And I could take a piece of paper out of that file, put it on my desk and work on it. But if I had to go to the bathroom, it went back in the combination file, locked it, go down the hall and come back and you had to unlock the combination and start all over again. And the very first thing they had me do is they handed me about a three-inch black three-ring binder with a red coversheet, marked secret. This was the PUREX operating manual. Now, PUREX stands for Plutonium Uranium Extraction, and it was the chemical process that is used to take irradiated uranium from the reactors, dissolve it in acid, treat it chemically, and come up with a plutonium nitrate solution. And I had to read this manual in about a week. [LAUGHTER] It was pretty daunting.
Bauman: Now where was your first office? Where on site?
Craig: It was on in the 703 Building, which is about where the Federal Building is today. The last part of the 703 structure—it was a herringbone structure. We had offices coming off a main corridor, and there was about six tiers of those. And the very last one is still standing, and the city offices are in there. But later on, the Federal Building took over.
Bauman: And what was your first job title?
Craig: Physical—let’s see. Physical Science Administrator, I think it was. The other thing about the environment is that you handwrote all your reports, and then gave them to a secretary who typed them. There was no computers. So, it was kind of a laborious process to do that. I needed to check out a government car, which I did in the motor pool, and drive out to the Area to PUREX, and see what was going on most every day, drive back, write the daily report, mark it all secret, send it up a line to my boss. But that government car, let me tell you—it was not air conditioned. So those days were pretty warm. But we got it done. About two months later, after getting into the PUREX part of it, the fellow who was a companion office mate had been handling the plutonium shipments. And he went off to Washington, D.C. for another job. So I got the job of accepting plutonium products on behalf of the Atomic Energy Commission and the US government. So it was a very formal process. The products were in two forms. After the plutonium nitrate left PUREX, it was sent over to what is known as the Z Plant. And in that plant, by a series of chemical operations, it was converted to a metal button about this big and it fit in a tuna fish can. It weighed something close to two kilograms. So that was the first product. The second product were manufactured, machined weapon components. And I won’t talk about the exact details of their size and shape at this point. But nonetheless, Hanford was in the business of making weapon components. So my job was to accept this product and make the shipment, every couple of weeks or so, to Rocky Flats. Rocky Flats was about 15 miles northwest of Denver, and it was the receiving site for the plutonium as buttons. They would take that metal and cast it into weapon component shapes and machine those and so on. And of course the other part was the shapes themselves, they’d go up in pieces themselves, and they would go into an inspection process and eventually assemble parts of the warhead.
Bauman: So when you say—you’re accepting them from the contractor, or--?
Craig: I was accepting these materials from the contractor. I mean, General Electric Company was the contractor, and their job on a cost-plus-fixed-fee contract basis was to run all these processes. And there’s hundreds of people involved in this. But at the end of the line, I had to make that transition from Hanford to the next step. So it was a couple of months into my first job, my buddy left for Washington, and here I am, learning how to actually accept these components. Now, you need to understand that plutonium was very radioactive. It emitted some gamma radiation, but not huge amounts. I mean, you could actually handle it. But it also emitted alpha radiation. And so it had to be contained in some kind of container, like a can. And then you could hold it in your hand. Interesting. It was warm. It was—the radioactive decay—was producing heat. So this can felt like hanging onto a 60 Watt lightbulb. Now, the other part of the business of plutonium is that if you got too much of it together in one spot, you had a criticality event. And of course, the bomb itself was designed to make a lot of it go critical at the same time, and that created an atomic explosion. But the point is that if you’re handling plutonium, it had to maintain a certain degree of separation at all times. In the chemical processing plants, they used different sized columns of chemical solutions and whatnot, depending on what was going on. And that was to maintain this critical geometry, so that you didn’t have any kind of criticality event. And after the plutonium was made into these buttons we called them, and canned in the tuna fish cans, they were stored in a vault. And the vault had pillars of metal rods, and little rings on that rod that you could put a can in. But it maintained the separation. So on shipping day, what we would do is we operators of the plant would go into the vault and take these cans and very carefully put—I don’t remember exactly how many—something about five or six cans in a little red wagon. Just a little kid’s wagon. But there was spacers in there so that these things didn’t get too close. And they’d bring it down the hallway to the room that exited to the building where it then could be handled further. And this assembly area, in this room were birdcages. Now a birdcage is a metal frame that’s about this big, this big, and this big. And in the middle was a metal pot with a lid. And the idea was that you took—one at a time—one of those cans from the red wagon, and you put it in the pot. And then I think the birdcage held like three buttons. Then there was a lid, and a bunch of bolts in places where you could put a wire with a lead seal on the end. And my job was to squeeze the seal closed with an imprint and record, of course, what the identity of those cans were, and the weight, and that sort of thing on paperwork. And at the end of that, I would sign this receipt for this material, and give it to the contractor. The weapon components varied a little bit differently, depending on the size and shape of the weapon component. Eventually, those were a much bigger birdcage, and it contained a couple of pieces of weapon material. The business of shipping, then—I owned that plutonium for maybe 15 minutes [LAUGHTER] before the government. Then I would transfer it to armed couriers, AEC couriers. They were not only armed with side arms; they were armed with machine guns. This was serious stuff. And they would load these birdcages into a truck, and eventually ship that off to Rocky Flats.
Bauman: How often did these shipments--?
Craig: Well, every couple of weeks or so.
Bauman: And so, they were shipped by truck then, to Rocky Flats?
Craig: That was a method used in later years. They didn’t really like shipping by truck that well. We actually had another system that involved—all I’m going to say is it involved rail. Because the exact details was highly classified.
Bauman: And did the amount that was shipped vary significantly, or--?
Craig: It varied, yes. Depends on how the production was going and what the requirements were on the other end.
Bauman: Oh, okay. Sure. And so how long did you do this, then? How long were you--?
Craig: So I shipped a lot of plutonium.
Bauman: [LAUGHTER] Yeah.
Craig: The other thing that was kind of interesting—I was explaining to you about the criticality. I hadn’t been on the job more than, I don’t know, a couple of months, shipping. I knew what to do, I knew the whole process, and I knew the sensitivity of it. One day one of these chemical operators who worked for the contractor had gone to the vault, and he came down the hall carrying about five tuna fish cans in his hand, and holding it with his arm like this. Well, that was absolutely high risk criticality event waiting to happen. And he walked in the room, and I said, ooooh. Just stop right where you are. And I instructed one of the other operators, take one of the cans from him and put it in the birdcage very carefully. And we got that shipment loaded and we were on our way. And then I went to the manager’s office—the plant manager’s office. Now, this fellow was like 60 years old. Kind of a salty southerner with—I mean, he was definitely in charge. And I’m 23 years old. Fresh out of college, wet behind the ears. And I gave him a real lecture about safety. And he didn’t like that. He called my boss. And my boss said Mr. Craig was right: you really almost had an accident today. That’s the end of that story. There was more to the whole weapons system. Since I was in the whole process, one of the small cogs—there was uranium coming from Oak Ridge. There was plutonium—some plutonium—and tritium coming from Savannah River. There was high explosives coming from Pantex. And then Hanford plutonium. This all had to be scheduled into what was known as the US master nuclear delivery schedule. It was the weapons document for all the weapons made in the country. It was a top secret document, and representatives from each of these sites got together, usually in Albuquerque, New Mexico, or at the Rocky Flats Plant. And we handwrote this schedule. There was no computers. There was a spreadsheet format, yes. But we didn’t have computers to do all that. Everything had to be balanced. This whole process had to bring all these materials together for processing at Rocky Flats. And so, about once a year we got together to do the master nukes schedule. I found I was pretty fortunate to be a part of that. I was pretty young. But it was a challenge. I had a lot of help, of course. But I was very impressed. One of the things that kind of scared me though was—and let me check on the date. October 22 to 24, 1962. That was the Cuban Missile Crisis. We were in Denver and Rocky Flats to work on these schedules. Now, that was ground zero for the Russians. If they were going to attack the United States, that probably would have been one of their targets. And it was kind of scary working there for those two days. I was very thankful that President Kennedy convinced Khrushchev to back off and no ill things happened.
Bauman: Were you here when President Kennedy came to Hanford in ’63?
Craig: Yes, yes.
Bauman: Do you remember that?
Craig: Oh, I remember that. We got to drive out and see him out at the reactor site. It was quite an experience. I think that was one of the only Presidents I’ve ever seen in person. And it wasn’t long after that, you know, a couple months or less, that he was assassinated in Texas.
Bauman: Do you remember much about that day?
Craig: It was hot! [LAUGHTER] It was still warm when he was here visiting. But it was a big event. There was thousands of people out there in the desert. But it was very thrilling experience to see the President come.
Bauman: Sure. So, you said you were working on the shipment from ’57 to ’72. So did that process change much over those years, other than shifting from—
Craig: Well, yes. In about ’66, we quit making weapon components at Hanford. And the process moved to Rocky Flats entirely.
Bauman: So that part changed.
Craig: Yeah. That part changed. But the plutonium buttons didn’t.
Bauman: And so then in ’72 then, how did your job change? What did you start doing at that point?
Craig: Well, the other significant activity that I was involved with was in 1968. The site was in a state where we had 149 single-shell waste tanks and 28 double-shell waste tanks. Actually, that’s not quite right. There were four short of that on the double-shell. And these were boiling waste tanks. The others were not boiling waste. But it was all liquid, and we were concerned about the integrity of the tanks and the lifetime of the tanks. And so at that time, the Atlantic-Richfield-Hanford Company, ARCO, was the contractor. And two of their engineers, Sam Beard and Bob McCullough and I co-authored a document that was called “The Hanford Waste Management Briefing.” And the purpose of this was to explain the Hanford situation to our headquarters—our AEC headquarters staff, and Congressional staffers who were then going to be funding what is now known as the Tank Farm projects. And this document was a briefing document, and the key—one of the key charts that we were particularly proud of is to try to show people how complex the business of the Hanford waste system was. And this chart shows what happens to a ton of uranium that’s been irradiated and then processed at PUREX, and the wastes that come out of that whole process. And some of it’s boiling waste, because of high levels of radioactivity that are in that particular section of waste, and some was non-boiling. For example, you’re dealing with—for that ton of waste—680 gallons of non-boiling waste and 220 gallons of boiling waste. And in the non-boiling tank, you have 900 pounds of salts, chemical nitrate—nitrates and so on, and about 350 curies of radioactivity. But in the boiling side, there’s 230 pounds of salt, but 300,000 curies of activity. That’s why they’re boiling. And then there was a low-level stream that had like 55,000 gallons of waste that went to a crib—a crib is like a septic tank—tile field—and the swamp, which is just an open pond. There was another 560,000 gallons went there, but their radioactivity was less than a tenth of a curie. I mean, it was just negligible. On the solid side, there was about ten cubic feet of solid waste. There was about 10 million cubic feet—I’m sorry—of gases that came out. And here’s the number that it was radio—a surprise to everyone that it was published. It was secret then, but it’s been declassified since. Out of that ton of fuel came 530 grams of plutonium and four grams of neptunium. So the chemical process that started with a ton of material and ended up with just a very small amount. So it’s kind of like finding a needle in a haystack.
Craig: Because these wastes were boiling, we’d started building—had started building double-shell tanks. A double-shell tank is a steel tank within a steel tank within a concrete barrier. And this diagram in that briefing document showed what a double-shell tank was all about. These were million-gallon tanks. And in those days, it was about a dollar, maybe a dollar and a half a gallon to build those tanks. A million-million half dollars for one of these big tanks. Far, far, less than what they would cost today.
Craig: At any rate, we made this presentation to the staffers and the ultimate activity was to remove as much as water as we could from the single-shell tanks so that we ended up with a salt cake that was not going anywhere. We isolated cesium-137 and strontium-90 by another chemical process, carried out in B Plant, to bring those short-lived emitters of radiation to a point where we could encapsulate those in steel cylinders. That was done and they’re stored. I think they’re still stored that way, but I’m not entirely sure. I kind of lost track of what’s happened since. We also built—were recommending that they build four more double-shelled tanks and that’s why the number finally grew to 28 double-shell tanks. And then, of course, it ultimately led to the pretreatment plant that’s in the process out here now, and the Waste Vitrification Plant.
Bauman: You mentioned one of the reasons for doing the report was there were concerns about the integrity of the single-shell tanks. Were some of them leaking at that point, or just concerns that they might leak?
Craig: I think at that point there were some that had displayed a little bit of leakage, yes. There’s other documents that showed some leakage, but, again it wasn’t into the concrete overpack, if you will. There was some, of course, got into the soil column, but it was not a series breach, and it wasn’t any radioactivity that got down into the groundwater. But we were afraid that it would. I mean, 1968, these tanks have been—the initial ones—had been built in 1944! ’45, ’46. So there was some that were approaching the end of life, and those tanks are still there today. And that’s why they’re so concerned about trying to remove some of the waste from these tanks and process it.
Bauman: So, who initiated—was this ARCO or AEC that sort of initiated the study that you helped write?
Craig: Oh, I think it was—collectively, the Hanford folks at engineering—folks on both sides of the contractor and the government were saying, we got to do something about this. Anyway, I think that’s about all I want to say about the creation of that document. I thought it would be interesting for you to look into if that ever showed up in the REACH literature as the kickoff document to get this thing going.
Bauman: Right, right. Yeah. And did you continue to be involved after this report in some of the tank—waste management end of things?
Bauman: Right. So, you were involved with that in—
Craig: I was involved in—
Bauman: About ’85?
Craig: Yes. And then I left the—at that point, this will be—okay, you can go back on. At that point in 1985, I left the government, went private, went to work for a packaging—an engineering and design company that designed high-level waste shipping containers for use on transportation. They started off—their first big project was the Three Mile Island cask, to move that waste. And then from that, I marketed to the government a high-level waste—any kind of high-level waste that could be put into a cask and removed. And then the TRUPACT-II cask for use in transferring transuranic waste, or primarily plutonium waste, from the government sites to the waste isolation pilot plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. And from there, I got involved on a couple of other organizations. Eventually, in 1991, I went to work for Lockheed. In 1996, Lockheed, along with—well, Fluor Daniel was the primary contractor, but we were on the Fluor Daniel team, and Lockheed was to manage the Tank Farms. So we came full circle, and I helped Lockheed win that contract.
Bauman: Right, you did come full circle.
Craig: So then, Lockheed moved me from—I was then living in Federal Way, and Lockheed rewarded me by moving me back to Hanford and letting me work on the Hanford site in ’96. And I did that until December of 2000. And there I was involved in the new contracting method. Instead of cost-plus-fixed-fee contracting, it was cost-plus-incentive-fee. And what we would do was we would create a document for a scope of work, a performance agreement. And the contractor would say, here, DoE, this is what we’re going to do for you, and here’s how long it’s going to take. And DoE said, okay, if you do that, we’ll pay you this fee, and if you don’t get it done on time, we’re going to cut your fee. And if you don’t do it well, we’re going to cut your fee. And my job was to, at the end of the work performance, was to write up the actual work done in a document to present to DoE that says, okay, pay us the fee. We were very successful in getting our award fee. And then I gave it all up in December of 2000, after 43 years.
Bauman: I wonder if I can go back—and this is really interesting stuff, fascinating career. I wanted to ask you just about the community, when you arrived here in 1957, what was Richland like at the time? Could you talk about that a little bit? And did you live in Richland, or--?
Craig: Oh, yes. Yes. We were allowed to rent from the government a B house—half of a B house on Haupt. This was June 1957. And by then—a couple of months—the government started selling off the town to private citizens. And we were in the first block to be sold. The senior owners in the other end of the B house bought the B house. And at that time, we moved to the other side of town, into a ranch house, because that had been sold to its owner. This is kind of an interesting, because the ranch house that the owner—I mean the resident who was able to buy it bought for like $7,700. And then when we bought the ranch house, I think we paid like $9,500. And of course, those ranch houses today sell for over 100. The town was very—initially of course, it was very caste-oriented. I mean, if you were a contractor, management, you got to live on the river. If you were a lowly government GS-7, you got to live in a B house. And there was a certain level of, you know, if you weren’t in this class, you weren’t part of it, you know. And I think that’s changed dramatically over the years. It doesn’t make any difference who you work for and how much money you make and all that stuff. People have changed for the better.
Bauman: Anything else about the community that stood out to you at the time?
Craig: Well, the first thing that Richland did was they had to celebrate their founding as Richland. They set off a mock atomic bomb, and it was a bunch of fanfare out in the park, and made a poof of smoke that was to represent a mushroom cloud.
Bauman: So, was this at Howard Amon Park?
Craig: Yeah. It was.
Bauman: Anything else that—memories that stand out, either about in community of Richland, or your work—any stories or memories that really stand out to you that you’d like to share?
Craig: I feel confident that this waste document that shows particularly how much plutonium was made, that was a very revolutionary thing. I mean, the idea how much of material you got out of a ton of uranium was—
Craig: Very classified. And to see that declassified and whatnot. It’s—
Craig: Kind of mind-blowing. But there’s the document. And it’s legitimate to talk about.
Craig: Not sure I want it on the local news tonight, but—[LAUGHTER]
Bauman: So I don’t know if you want to talk to us about the McCluskey incident and your involvement in that?
Craig: Well, at the time, I was responsible for the Z Plant operations. And so, one morning, early, about 4:30 in the morning, I get a call from the plant that there had been an accident out of the plant, and I needed to get out there. And so I threw some clothes on and got a government car and went out to the site. What had happened was the plant had been operating on the recovery of americium-241 as part of the reclamation activities. And it was a chemical process. Inside this chemical process were criticalities tanks, small tanks like this, long, inside of a glovebox. Earlier in that summer, there had been a labor dispute, and the plant was on strike. And so the process had been shut down. Well, what was going on was americium was loaded onto the ion exchange medium inside this long column. When the dispute was settled and we had several days of reviews, conducting interviews with the contractor people, are you ready to restart? Have you checked this? Have you checked this? Have you checked this? And finally they were authorized to start. Well, what happened is that when they poured strong nitric acid on that ion exchange column to take, you lose off the americium. The americium had decayed the resin beads of the ion exchange medium ‘til it was kind of an organic gunk. And that acid reacted with it, and that violent chemical reaction blew open that column. It breached the glovebox, and it sprayed chemicals and americium all over Mr. McCluskey. And he was taken to an initial decontamination spot onsite, and then downtown. But my job, when I got there, was to fend off the media. What had happened—as soon as this became knowledge, and the media got hold of it, here they come in helicopters, landing inside the secure area of 200 West. The guards were going nuts. I mean, here’s these people that are not supposed to be there! Eventually, they didn’t do anything but try to manage it and bring them over towards the building, the end of the building, where behind the building walls was this processing cell where everything had taken place. And they were standing there, I was standing there outside talking to the media, trying to explain what happened. And I had an alpha copy machine. I was standing there, showing them that there was no contamination on my feet, there was no contamination around. They were panning everywhere with their cameras, and they found a sodium hydroxide feed tank that had just a little bit of salt cake around the valve on the outside. Non-radioactive, nothing—I mean it was a nothing tank. And they filmed that like it was the biggest thing since sliced bread. And I remember I went through all this and—to find out that it made the national news. But I didn’t get to see it, because I was out there. [LAUGHTER] But it became a non-event. It was not a disaster, there was containment, there was—all the safety things worked as well as they should. The public was never in any harm. But that was a—
Bauman: [LAUGHTER] So, what happened, then, with the room, or whatever, where the incident took place?
Craig: Oh, they sealed that room off right away. And then it remained sealed up until very recently, when they went in and took it apart. And processed it for disposal.
Bauman: Did you know Mr. McCluskey at all?
Craig: No. He was a chemical operator. I didn’t know who he was, hadn’t met him. But it was one of those things that—
Bauman: Well, thanks, again for sharing that story. Glad we remembered to do that.
Craig: What was funny about it—I was trying to stand up. I used to be able to do this. I could stand there and hold my foot up and balance. And then I realized I couldn’t do that.
Bauman: Oh, watch the microphone there on your—
Craig: Oh, yeah.