Interview with William McCullough
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Northwest Public Television | McCollough_William
Robert Bauman: So let's start by just having you say your name, and spell it for us.
William McCullough: Okay, I'm William McCullough. W-i-l-l-i-a-m M-c-C-u-l-l-o-u-g-h.
Bauman: Thank you. Today's date is October 22nd of 2013 and we're conducting this interview on a campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. So let's start, if we could, by having you tell us how you came to Hanford, what brought you here, how you heard about the place, that sort of thing.
McCullough: Well, back in 1950, my brother Dee--he was working here at Hanford—he came up here in 1944. And in fact he was in a reactor at the time that they started B Reactor up. Anyway, he came down to Salt Lake, which is where I was living, just before Christmas time. I was working for Utah Willow Mills at the time, as a shipping clerk. My wife was pregnant, and it became pretty obvious that a shipping clerk and a wife with a baby just is not going to make it. We don't have enough money. So I knew I had to change jobs. He came up and said, well, if you'd like to, I could probably get you on at Hanford, if you want to come up there. I said okay, let's check into that. Well, I sent in an application, and all of a sudden, all the neighbors started getting visits from the FBI, to check my background. And they finally decided, okay, I guess he’s safe enough. And so, I came up here in August 27, 1951 and started work here. Before I came up here though, I--Whoops, there it goes. Of course, I was born in Salt Lake. And we just had wonderful parents. I hated to leave them, but I thought, oh, I’ve just got to improve myself.
Bauman: And so—
Man one: No worries.
Bauman: Oh, okay. What sort of work did you start with, when you arrived in 1951? What sort of job did you have?
McCullough: [LAUGHTER] Well, we left Salt Lake. I was working, like I said, at Utah Willow Mills. And I worked half the day, went home, and my dad and my wife's grandfather, they loaded up this big U-Haul trailer. In fact, I haven't seen one as big, it was a Croft trailer. It was built out over the wheels, on the trailer. And they kept putting that stuff on, and putting stuff on, and putting stuff on. And finally, I said Dad, you know, it's not going to all go on there. And he said, there's no top on the trailer, why can't you? And it was very top heavy. Find out I was going to have trouble, because the first time I tried to stop at a stoplight, I couldn't. [LAUGHTER] But anyway, drove up there, left on a Saturday night. We stopped at Jerome, Idaho, and then continued on driving, and we got into town at about 2:30 in the morning. Really worn out, crying baby. At the time we had this little girl that was just five months old. And pulled in my brother's yard, he had lived in an R house, which is a very nice house, with a full basement. He told us, you could live here until you get housing. So he pulled me there, and we went out to the employment office. It was 8 o'clock in the morning, and we checked in, and it took about an hour, and they said, well, we're going to send you out to the 300 Area to work. But we’re not going to do it today; you can go home and take the rest of the day off, report there tomorrow. Oh boy, just what I needed. And sure enough, we went and got introduced to the 300 Area, the next day, on Tuesday.
Bauman: What were your first impressions of Richland, and the area, when you first arrived?
McCullough: Well, that first day?
Bauman: Or, in those early days when you first came here.
McCullough: Well, I realized it's quite a small town, but I was quite impressed with it. In fact, we've always enjoyed it, living here. It is, it's smaller, but enjoyable.
Bauman: So you said you started work at the 300 Area, what sort of work were you doing?
McCullough: Well, the 300 Area--I don't know if you're familiar with this, but their main job was to make the fuel elements. The uranium came in billets, and they put them in an extrusion press and put them out into rods, 20 feet long. And then they'd send it over to the 313 Building, where they'd machine it to the diameter, and then they would can it. And the uranium really oxidizes fast. So as soon as they machine it, they've got to use it. And of course, they gave it a nitric acid bath, before they can it. And then they sent it over to the canning and dipping line, or what we liked to call it, the dip’n’dunking line, to can it. If you went over to—well, your canning line consisted of four molded, molten metal pots. Each pot had a different metal in it, all molten, very hot. And we essentially canned metal. And to do this, we had to have full coveralls on, we had gloves that went from here, all the way up to here. We had a hood to protect us. And spats on our feet, to protect our shoes from the splattering metal. And the canning line was extremely uncomfortable, [LAUGHTER] and it was not unusual to get a splash, as I said, that metal is running at 550 degrees, so it's pretty hot. And it was kind of an uncomfortable place to work, but the pay was good. We worked two weeks of day shift, and one week of swing shift, which was a nice shift. But we actually had this—they would take your metal, and put it in the first pot, and agitate it. And it would come out this pot, and put into a centrifuge, and throw off all the excess metal. And then they put it into a second pot. I could tell you what it was, but it might be classified, I don’t want to get in trouble. They put it into this next molten metal pot. And again, work it in there a bit, leave it for so many minutes, take that out and put in a centrifuge. There was a clock on the wall, which was going very slowly, and it'd tell you exactly which cycle it was supposed to go into. You'd say okay, pot one, and then you came over and it'd say centrifuge, and you'd put in the centrifuge. And you go on to the next one, pot two, centrifuge, and you go down to—well, you wait for the pot three. And there you washed them a little bit, to make sure you get all, everything off it. And then they pick them up and take them over to the next pot, which is molten metal also, and you'd actually slip them into the cans, under the molten metal, to can them. And you put a little cap on it, and then take it out and move it over to the quench tank, to cool it down. And after they got through there, you'd take it down to a fluoroscope, take the newly canned metal, uranium. And they could see the end of your metal, and so they'd say, okay, we need to cut this can back to here, so far. So they’d cut it to size, to the length they wanted, and then they sent it to the next station, and welded the cap onto it. And then they had to take it out to the next station, another fluoride, to make sure that it was cut right, they made sure it's to specs. And then they'd take it to the next station and they had what they called a frost machine, and they'd run it through induction coil and they'd spray this frost on it and it went through and tried to bake it on. And if it's any air pockets or anything in the can, it would show up and they'd have to discard it and start over again. If it didn't show as it having any air pockets in it, they'd put it into a pallet. The pallet held 300 slugs, pieces of metal, and ship it out to the 100 Areas. And so as a result, as an operator you worked the canning line and also each of the other stations. You rotated so to kind of share the canning line with everybody.
Bauman: You mentioned that the metal could sort of splash and get on the protective clothing?
McCullough: Yes. As I say, we had these leather gloves and this asbestos covering all the way up to the shoulders to protect our arms. And we also had a full face shield over us and a hood. But you still got splatter occasionally and there's something about that molten metal and all the clothes you have on that no matter how many times you take a shower you had this odor about you. It just kind of bakes in. And so my wife could always tell when I was working the canning line. And it was dangerous. We took our break one time--we got a 10-minute break in the morning and 10-minute break in the afternoon and of course a lunch break—but while we was on a break they brought in what they called a coverage crew. Because these furnaces, they're going to keep generating the same amount of heat. So they had to try and maintain the temperature of the pots so that when we as operators came back in, that the pots would be ready to go again. So they'd stir them. They had a big paddle, they'd stir them. Well, this particular paddle had a flaw in it, and this coverage guy, he would take these paddles and put them all in the quench tank to cool it down and then he'd go and stir it. Well, that paddle had a flaw in it and got just a dab of water in it, and when he put that down into it, it blew up. The ceiling was about 20 feet high, and it splattered that ceiling. It just emptied that pot out. You wouldn't think a few drops of water would do it. And then it came down on top of him. Very severe burns. We all worked out there for 150 years, and it's the only time I've ever saw that somebody got hurt. Safety was always stressed so hard out there. They didn't want accidents. But that's the only time that I ever saw it, and it's scary. And they made sure enough that you do not put these paddles in water.
Bauman: And about what time frame would it have been when that accident occurred?
McCullough: That would have been 1951, or '52, because I went out to 100 Areas in 1954, so it would have been in the time frame of '51—it would have been that three-year time frame.
Bauman: You said that operator was severely burned. Did he recover?
McCullough: Oh yeah. I think he may have come back on disability, though. Because he was very severely burned.
Bauman: So you worked as an operator there for about three years?
McCullough: From 1951 to 1954. In 1954, I went out—up until 1954, your seniority was all one. To work in the reactors, you had to start 300 Area, and it's all on seniority. And when you got enough seniority in 300 Area, usually you would go to the 100 Areas. Well just in 1953 or what have you they said, we're going to one chance one chance only. If you want to go to the 100 Areas you go right now. If you don't take it now, you'll be a whole new seniority group. You'll start at the bottom again. So my wife and I, we got to thinking about it, didn't want round-the-clock work, but I knew I didn't want to work the Canyon Line all my life either. So at that point I went out there in January 1954, I went out to the 100 Areas to work.
Bauman: And so your job in the 100 Areas was as an operator?
McCullough: As an operator. Your operators out there they had a pile operator that then they decided pile operator doesn't sound right, we’ll call them reactor operators. We had the reactor operator and then had the utility operator, which is essentially an operator that doesn't have the seniority or the knowledge to advance to become a reactor operator. So I went out there as a utility operator, and they have what they called a roving crew, which is they rotate from all the different reactors. Any time the reactor is shut down, they would go ahead and assist them and give the reactor crew some help. Because there was also a lot of overtime because of it. So I was put on this supplemental crew as a utility operator, and I worked out there for about a year, and they shift me into the C reactor. At that time the C reactor was the newest reactor, and they put me in there as the utility operator to work. And so I worked there as a utility operator. What it meant was I couldn't sit at the control board, and I worked outside the control room pretty well. Didn't work in the control room hardly at all, only on an as-needed basis. Worked with a fellow by the name of Ted Lewis. Can I put names?
McCullough: I worked for him. He was a supervisor and the control room specialist was Cliff Brenner. Both were very strict, and if this is what the book says, this is what you are going to do. Well, I worked there at C reactor for a bit, and they were starting to get hurting for pile operators or reactor operators, and my boss Ted Lewis came out and said, Bill, you are not qualified, but I'm going to qualify you if they promise that they will not shift you out and take you away from me until you get trained. And so on that stipulation, after a year out there as a utility operator, I was made a pile operator. And at that time I could sit at the control room and take my turn at the control board with Cliff Brenner looking over my shoulder, and Ted Lewis looking over his shoulder came out pretty good. [LAUGHTER]
Bauman: Can you explain maybe a little more detail what the sort of task that sitting at the control board would mean? What sorts of tasks were you're doing? You're sitting at the control board. What are you looking for? What sort of things are you keeping your eye on?
McCullough: The old reactors they had nine control rods to control the reactor. C reactor, they put in 15 total, and when you sat at the control board you had these selsuns which shows the position of the rods and you had the instrument down here showing essentially where the temperatures of different tubes to give you an overall picture of what the temperature of the reactor is. And so you just sit there and then you had a galvanometer up here showing a change of power level. And then up here you had a big dial which showed you the actual power level. The power level indicator up here is very slow. It's calculated by taking the inlet temperature water and the outlet temperature water, and doing a bunch of calculating through the factors and it comes out as this is your power level. But this is very slow. It takes about three minutes to catch the actual changes and catch up. So you watch this galvanometer to get your fill in for if the power level changes at all, and then you go ahead and pull the rods in or out as needed to hold the power level. And you have the temperatures monitoring showing you where the heat might be shifting to. And so you try to maintain a good, even distribution of the power. Of course the chief operator or the specialist is telling you what you need to do, and sometimes you have to move or swap rods because the temperature is changing quite rapidly. The thing about that called Xenon poisoning, which it's—pours out portions of the reactor, so we have to find out all the time. So the heat is a continual movement all the time, and so we had to know it. And so that's what we were doing at the control board. We had two operators inside the control room, and each operator would sit for two hours at the control board, and the other operator would be walking around the control room, taking readings, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And then you'd swap. The interesting thing about it, I don't know, when you work graveyard—I don’t know if you’ve—you can get extremely sleepy along about 6 o'clock in the morning. The fact is you feel like you'd like to lay down and die. And so then you do things to stimulate your mind and keep you alert. Well, one morning I was sitting there at the control board and I thought, oh boy, I'm tired. And then they didn't allow coffee pots in the control room, so if somebody was going to go out, they'd get some coffee and they brought it back in from the lunch room. And I got my mind going. I thought, gee, you have a coffee pot and it percs. How long would that tube have to be before it wouldn't perc anymore? And we had a good time talking about it, laughing about it, and it kept me awake. And so then about 7:30, here comes in your day shift. And of course they had an engineer assigned to the area. He came in to check how everything was going. I said, "Hey, I've got a question for you. How long could that tube be and still perc?" And we kind of laughed and talked a bit. Well then I didn't see him again. We changed shift and went on change and it probably wasn't until I came back in a month, and by that time he was gone. Well, here he comes back with a three-page document based on you've got to know the quality of the coffee. What brand is the coffee? What is the pH of the water? And like an engineer. But we all looked at him. And we still got a big laugh. I still have that write-up at home that he gave me. But anyway it's things like that we went through.
Bauman: And how long did you work as an operator?
McCullough: I worked at C reactor for--can I look at notes?
Bauman: Oh, sure, yeah.
McCullough: So I was at C reactor from January 1955 to December 1960, so about five years. Then I went on a supplemental crew, and then I went back to C reactor for a while. But then in 1960, they offered me a promotion to be a reactor specialist at the 100 B reactor—that was the initial one. So I went to B reactor and worked as a reactor specialist. That means I had the full responsibility of the control room. Your operating crew consists of a supervisor--by that time what they used to call the chief operator they were now chief reactor specialist. They have your supervisor and reactor specialist, which are both monthly paid supervisory jobs. And then they had five operators, which consists of the operating crew. I forget where I was going now. [LAUGHTER]
Bauman: Yeah, well, you’re talking about being a reactor specialist at B reactor, and your responsibility there.
McCullough: So I just stayed in that position at B reactor from 1960 to 1964. And in 1964 they started shutting reactors down, or before the time. And I watched them go down and go down and I thought, you know, I better get out of here, because I'm going to lose my job. By that time I had six children. I thought, no, I can't afford to be laid off. So I know well I'm going to drop back into the bargaining unit and pick up my seniority so they have a lot more people to lay off before you get to me. And so I stayed back there as an operator for a year or so. And everything quieted down, I thought maybe I'll just go ahead and they offered me, they said, hey Bill, would you like to come back to the reactor specialist again? I said, oh, I'd love to. About a month after that, they announced they were going to shut down the D reactor, and I thought, well, I guess I'll get laid off here. So I started looking for another job. There was something else I was going to say and I got sidetracked.
Bauman: Let me ask you about when you moved to B reactor from C reactor, you became a reactor specialist which meant, as you said, more supervision and responsibility, was there a significant difference between the two reactors themselves?
McCullough: A big difference.
Bauman: Could you explain?
McCullough: B reactor had nine control rods; C reactor had 15, which meant that we had that much better control. The old reactors, there's a big gap between the top bank of rods and the top of the reactor, the active zone, and also the bottom row. As a result, by that time, they had developed these spines and we could put in temporary poison spines and pull them back out again to supplement the control rods. B reactor you had to do a lot more front face work, because that Xenon poisoning built up here and this area will die off and you shift down here and know this rate cycle, and a lot of times you had a lot of front face work to be doing. C reactor you had this other bank of rods, which made a big difference. So the C reactor's a lot easier reactor to operate.
Bauman: Were there ever any, during your years working at either of those reactors, any things happen, any emergencies or critical issues in the reactor?
McCullough: Was there what now?
Bauman: Were there ever any emergencies or critical issues at any time at either reactor?
McCullough: Not really. We had lots of problems in that during the charge/discharge quite often the hot fuel elements were dropped down amongst--instead of dropping in the basin they'd fall in the back pig tails and get so you couldn't go in the rear face at all. Then you had to figure out how to get them out amongst the tubes. You had to bring in fire hoses and everything else, and yet you couldn't stick your head around. You had to do it all by mirrors to get them out. But in general, not major problems. I might point out, I guess it's when I was at C reactor, they decided they was going to build a nuclear ship, NS Savannah. And so they brought the captain, or there was two of them came in, to the C reactor. Now not too many people know this, because it's dropped off in history, but they came in and trained and learned how to use nuclear material at the C reactor and after they left, they sent a ship. They presented a nice big model of the NS Savannah, which C reactor kept in a control room as a memorial to the fact that we did do this work towards turning atoms into plowshares. That was something we were always real proud of.
Bauman: So you talked about shifts starting to take place, the beginning of the shutting down of reactors and less production at some point. How did that impact your work? Did you shift to other kinds of jobs there?
McCullough: Do you mean out there?
McCullough: Not in the reactor, of course. If the reactor goes down, that takes everything down. So if you wanted to--Yeah, so if the reactor goes down, it's just your jobs are lost. Let me see if there's anything else.
Bauman: Did you work at N reactor for a little while?
McCullough: Actually what happened is that, following my progression, I finally decided I had to leave. I started looking for jobs, and I heard that they were going to build a brand-new reactor, the FFTF, the Fast Flux Test Facility. So I thought maybe I can get on that. So I put an application down there and I got in contact that said they wanted an interview. So I went on and interviewed with Pat Cavil. He says, we are going to monitor the engineering and help them to you build this new reactor. And so I took that job. I didn't know anything about engineering—about planning and scheduling, but they said, we'll train you. So I went down there with three other men, and he gave us an extensive class on planning and scheduling. And we'd go on and contact the engineer and say, okay, what job is it that you need to do? And what needs to be done before you can do that? Which actually made a critical path. And then we'd monitor their progress to see how—if it’s going to show up in time, to help them out. So we did all the planning and scheduling for the engineers and the planners. And it’s enjoyable work. Didn't have much in the way of computers them days. If we had to get information, we'd use a mainframe. They had a great big, big, big computer in the Federal Building, and we'd use that and take it down there and they'd put all the information into the computer and it draws a great big chart and we looked at it and showed people where they're at and what's going to have to be done in what order. It's fun. I did that for several years down there. There again, like everything else, things didn't look too good. [LAUGHTER] It's funny on the FFTF they said we ought to make that into a power producer. That way you can go ahead and do your experimental stuff and get some electricity out of it. And the engineers and no. No, no. This is our toy. You're not going to dictate to us when we shut down and when you're going to operate it. We want to do it without any outside influence. And here when they shut the thing down--the FFTF down finally, if they would have just listened and hooked that up to produce electricity, it would still be going. That was a 400-megawatt plant. And it would still be going now if they didn't have the idea that we're not going to be dictated by a bunch of power producers. We're going to run it the way we want to. Well, they did. They shut it down.
Bauman: I wonder, taking you back to the 300 Area, B Reactor and C Reactor, what was the most challenging part of your work at Hanford? And maybe what was the most rewarding part of the work you did at Hanford?
McCullough: The most rewarding and challenging is when I was made a reactor specialist. It was real rewarding to go in there and find out you have a bunch of heat up here and cold down here and figure just do this, this and this and maybe I can get it all on your control recorders that are right next to your operator. We would select tubes representative of the area. So we would select a tube up here, a tube over here, a tube here, a tube here and on down to monitor. And then we'd try and bring the temperatures closer together so that the reactor is more balanced. Of course the more balanced you get then you're further away from the limit, so then you raise your power level. So that was a real challenge to go in there and see what a mess the previous shift had left you and then go in there because the heat is always--the heat, which is also in reactivity, is always shifting in the reactor. So it was fun to go in and see just how flat you can get it. I thoroughly enjoyed the job. It was is nice. It was a good job, a very rewarding job. That's probably the most rewarding job I had.
Bauman: You mentioned earlier that the incident happened when you were working at 300 Area of the worker who was—the pile exploded. Were there ever any other incidents--and it doesn't have to be a safety incident--but things that sort of stand out your mind that in your memory is really unique things that happened during your time working at Hanford? Any special events or happenings that really stand out in your mind from your time working there?
McCullough: No, off hand I can't think of anything. Could I have a drink of water?
Bauman: Oh, yeah. There's water right there.
McCullough: Let me look at my notes here and see if I’m missing.
Bauman: Oh, okay.
McCullough: Okay, one thing about the reactor specialist is that I had essentially control of the reactor, but I didn't have any manpower problems. The supervisor, he had personnel problems and everything else, but as a reactor specialist, if the people were bellyaching, I'd say, go see the boss. [LAUGHTER] It was very good. Also, backtracking, the bus system out there was phenomenal. If you lived in Richland, the bus system, the buses—you wouldn't never walk more than a block and you'd be picked up to go to work. And you'd get on the bus and do your thing. What was interesting, some people, they would play cards. They would get the four seats and put their leg through the seat so they're all facing, and they'd play bridge or play pinochle. For many years before I got there they were playing poker. In fact, reading I find out that a lot of people they did such a good job on poker, they'd just ride the buses back and forth. [LAUGHTER] But the buses were just absolutely fantastic, and people were reading, sleeping, what have you, but good bus system.
Bauman: And that's how everyone got to work, pretty much, is that correct? The buses?
Bauman: How would you describe the community of Richland, during the 1950s especially?
McCullough: Oh, by the way, just one back to the reactors. To give you a feel for the advancements we made in the reactors in operating. I can't talk pell-mell with a guess, but the design rating of B Reactor--by the time I got out of there, it hasn't quite doubled the design of it. Well, by the time I go out there until I left, they, by a factor of eight to ten power level. They just cranked that pile up just because of a better knowledge, better fuel. And it's amazing that you do take a Model T and you go ahead and you can drive down the highway at 10 or 15 miles an hour and say, boy, look how fast I'm going. And all of a sudden you're, going 150 miles an hour, that's about what they out there with the reactors is take these old Model T's and kept improving them, and improving them, getting the water to flow into them. And it just is amazing how much power we got out of there. In fact, we got it at such a high power level they said, okay, let's cut back to try and preserve the reactors so they could operate longer. So we actually took a mandatory cutback. We really did a good, good, good job or reducing plutonium. Of course, by the time I was out of there, I got thinking sooner or later they're going to say, hey, we have enough plutonium—we have enough plutonium to destroy the entire world. Someday they're going to start shutting the reactors down, and sure enough they did. That's kind of it.
Bauman: Overall, how would you assess your years working at Hanford? How was it as place to work?
McCullough: I found it a fantastic place. In fact, working at Hanford, working in that community, you figure that—We ended up having six children. My wife never had to work out of the home. I made enough money out there--there was a lot of overtime--but we had both agreed that we would not use overtime to live off of. It would be stuff that we wouldn't normally buy like a boat, or a trailer, a camper, a new truck. Hanford itself has been good to me. And the area is fantastic. You couldn't ask for anything better than that.
Bauman: Well, I thank you very much for coming today and sharing your experiences working at Hanford. I appreciate it.
McCullough: Well, I sure appreciate being able to get in here and talk with you. Because it's exciting, too. I'd like people to know what went on out there and how safety was a primary concern out there. Everything we did it had to take your safety always, always came first. It has been good place. As I said, I raised six children, and they love this place so good that they all live locally, except one. Her husband thought maybe he had job advancement, so he moved to Tennessee about three or four years ago. Up until that time we have the whole family living here. Pretty nice.
Bauman: Yeah. All right, well, thank you again, appreciate it.
McCullough: Thank you.