Interview with Ronald Kathren

Dublin Core


Interview with Ronald Kathren


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


An interview with Ronald Kathren 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

2016-06-9: 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


Ronald Kathren


Washington State University - Tri-Cities


Northwest Public Television | Kathren_Ronald

Ron KathrenMy name is Ron Kathren. 

Bauman: All right. And my name is Robert Bauman, and we're conducting this oral history interview on the campus of Washington State University. And today's date is July 30th of 2013. So we’re going to start by, Ron, just having you talk about when you first arrived in Tri-Cities, when you came to Hanford, how that came about. 

KathrenI came to the Tri-Cities the first time to a scientific meeting, I think it was 1963. There wasn't much here then, but for some reason I rather fell in love with the place. Subsequently, I acquired a wife who was a native Washingtonian. And I remember telling her how I liked this part of the state. She's from the other side of the mountains, so she was used to the lush green forests and what-have-you. But one thing led to another--do you want the long story, Bob? 

BaumanYeah, go for the long story. 

KathrenOne of the people from Battelle came down to visit. This was common in those days. I was working at what's now Lawrence Livermore National Lab. And he came down to visit me. We did these technical exchanges. And he spent two days. He also had a good friend that he was visiting over at Stanford. And he actually stayed at my home. Well, I couldn't figure out why he was there. [LAUGHTER] And I finally asked him, Harold, what the devil are you doing here? And he really didn't want to say. And the reason was the Atomic Energy Commission in those days, the predecessor to the Department of Energy, had kind of an unwritten rule that one contractor or one lab was not supposed to steal people from another lab. And Harold just finally opened up and he said, well, I'm here to hire you. [LAUGHTER] And I was floored because I had wanted to get up to Hanford. Part of the reason was the type of work they were doing here was really relevant to my interests and what I had been doing at Livermore. And it seemed to be a more, shall I say, happy climate, morale-wise. And so in 1967, in July of ‘67, we moved to Richland. My wife was very pregnant. And we now have three generations of the Kathren family here in Richland. 

BaumanAnd so what sort of work were you doing at Livermore? 

KathrenI was doing health physics. I was actually in charge of the calibration--radiological calibration lab there. And we used film badges in those days. And the film dosimetry group. So had other responsibilities too, but those were my main responsibilities there. And by the way I'll just mention this, one of the things that really intrigued me—we had done an intra-comparison of film badges and calibrations for plutonium, which was of interest. When I say we,” we had done it with Hanford, Los Alamos, and Livermore. Because there was some question about how well we were measuring the very low energy photons--that are actually x-rays--that are associated with the decay of plutonium. And as it turned out, Los Alamos and Livermore were right on target. Hanford, which I would have expected to be the one to match, was quite a large percentage different from our results. And when I got up here, that was one of the things that I figured out. And that's a long story we won't go into. 

BaumanSo you came in ‘67? 

Kathren: Came in July of ‘67. 

BaumanAnd who was the primary contractor at that time? Was that who you were working for? 

KathrenIt was Battelle. There were actually three contractors. What they had done in 1965 was to diversify the site. It had all been General Electric. And they wanted to make this into a more normal community, not so heavily dependent on the site. And so they put out requests for proposals. And the bidders had to put in some sort of normal activity in addition to running the site. Battelle won the contract for the research labs. And their promise was--and they did it—to build $20 million of private research facilities. And they also had what was called a use permit, so they could use the government facilities for private research, paying a fee for this. And the government, in turn, could use the Battelle facilities for government research, paying a fee also. The other two contractors, as I recall, were Douglas United Nuclear, which was a consortium of Douglas Aircraft the United Nuclear. And they ran the reactors. Their contribution was the construction of the Donald Douglas Laboratories which are no longer extant. And among other things, they were working on the artificial heart and isotopic power sources. And the third one, I believe, was Isochem. They didn't last long. They were in the 200 Areas, the waste areas. And their idea was to take up the radioactive species in the waste areas to remove them and use them for various beneficial purposes. You can use, for example, oh, say, cobalt-60. You can take that out of the waste and concentrate it and then you can give high radiation doses to certain kinds of flooring materials--they do this now--that are injected with plastic into the wood and it strengthens them. And it makes them far more resistant to damage. Isochem didn't last long. And they were replaced by Atlantic Richfield. And Atlantic Richfield brought a risk capital venture plan. And also a cattle feedlot facility. So I got here just about the time Isochem was getting ready to go and Atlantic Richfield was getting ready to come in. I'm going to comment quickly about Atlantic Richfield and their risk capital. I got the great idea that the area here is perfect for growing walnuts. I had been living in Walnut Creek. I lived in an old walnut orchard. I'm kind of interested in things like that. In fact, today in my dotage retirement I'm a master gardener. But the first thing I had to do was to convince the county ag agent that this area was suitable for growing walnuts. And I remember he was insistent that it just couldn't happen here. That the frosts were too early, and all kinds of other things. And I was pointing out to him all the reasons why this area was ideal. And also from an economic standpoint, the walnut orchards in California we're being cut down for subdivisions or the trees were being destroyed by a disease. I think it's called black ledge, or black--black--black--ooh oh I can't remember now. Walnut trees down in California are grafted. And at the graft, it would develop this black line and they'd die. The upper part. The part where the nuts were produced. That wouldn't happen here because the winters are sufficiently cold to prevent that disease from occurring. I think it's a viral disease. In any event, when I convinced him, I drafted up a little proposal and I went to Atlantic Richfield's risk capital thing and pointed out all the merits of this. Walnut trees don't need a lot of care. You don't prune them heavily the way you do grapes or apples. They could be flood irrigated a couple times a year, so you didn't need extensive irrigation systems. Harvesting is really fairly easy. One of the ways to do is just put a big net under the tree and come along with a shaker and shake the tree and all the nuts drop, and you gather them up. And to be economically sound, you had to have, I figured, maybe 100 to 200 acres. Because they have to be washed and dried afterwards. But you didn’t need—it was not labor intensive. And Atlantic Richfield, I remember the guy telling me, well, that's a super idea you've got. And can even be done with college students primarily. But the problem is it's not labor intensive enough. And we want to create jobs. So that's a long story, but that gives you some feeling. But I really, we did by the way, my father-in-law brought two walnut trees, volunteers, from our home in Walnut Creek. Kept them in coffee cans for, I think, about two years. And we built our house here and I planted them. Then they just did wonderfully. So sorry to get off on a tangent here. 

Bauman: That’s all right. So when you first arrived and started working at Battelle, what sorts of things were you working on initially? 

KathrenI was hired in as the Manager of External Dosimetry. And external dosimetry maintained and calibrated all the portable radiation monitoring instruments used on the site. It was a site wide function. And one of my chief responsibilities was to update the pool of instruments. I think they had some 1,600 instruments. Most of them were pretty old. I think every one of them was home built. They didn't go commercial. And one of my ideas was to go commercial. And I started to build the calibration lab, which now Battelle has—people who took it after me really did a fine job. One of them was Jack Selby, who just passed away and who we mentioned earlier. His group really built it into a—not that it wasn't under me of course, but a first class standards laboratory for radiological calibrations. And also we oversaw the contractor that did the dosimetry, the film badges for the site, and responded to any potential over-exposures from external radiation. That was basically what my initial job here was. 

BaumanAnd how long did you do that sort of work? 

KathrenI think three years I was in that job. And then Battelle had a reorganization, and I—it was kind of messy, but I chose to stay with my boss. And he had a radiological group that included the dosimetry and so on. But I stayed with them and it did many other assignments. A whole variety of things. I was kind of his go-to-it guy. He was once asked by another manager, how do you manage Ron? And he looked at the guy and said, you don't. [LAUGHTER] He said, you just let him go and do his thing. And if he gets too far down the road you don't want him on, you just jerk him back. [LAUGHTER] But he was really one of the finest people I've ever known. And very good manager. 

BaumanAnd who was this? What was his name? 

KathrenThis was Harold Larson. And Harold was somewhat older than me. And well, we just fit together. For many years later, I was his staff assistant and got all these problems to solve. And it was great fun. Is was a challenge. And you never knew what was going to happen. One of the things we did--that fits in with the history schemethere were what were called service assessment dollars. All the contractors got assessed. A certain amount—percentage in their contracts to pay for plant-wide services. These included the centralized dosimetry records, and the calibrations group, et cetera. After this organization change, and I was Harold's staff assistant, we used to go out and visit our clients, our customers, every month or maybe every three weeks. Well, they're out in the 200 and 100 Areas. And what we'd usually do is we'd take a car and our lunch and go out and visit one in the morning and then one in the afternoon. And in between, we'd go eat our lunch. And sometimes we'd go to the old Hanford town site. One day we were thereand this shows you how Harold thinks—because he was very quick. So here are a couple of guys in suits—coats and ties anyway—wandering around the old Hanford site, which was not supposed to be open as such. We had badges and our badges permitted us in that area. But up drives a security vehicle. And the guy leaps out it comes up and looks at us. And if you're going to be out there, you probably should be wearing some kind of coveralls or what-have-you. [LAUGHTER] He looks at us and he says, what are you guys doing here? And Harold without missing a microsecond responded, oh, we're out checking our environmental monitoring program. We also had responsibility for the plant-wide environmental monitoring program. And that just was the end of that. But if it had been I to whom that question was posed, I'd probably still be in jail. [LAUGHTER] 

Bauman: So let’s--how long then did you work for Battelle? 

KathrenI worked for Battelle for roughly five years. They had been closing down reactors, there was a lot of unemployment, a lot of people job hunting. Not I. But I had another problem. And that problem was with one of my children who needed special medical care and dental care. I like small towns. In fact, that was one of the real appeals to coming to Richland. But small towns have--and in those days it was really bad--a lack of certain amenities that the big cities have. And at the time there were, I think, two pediatricians in town. One was incompetent and the other was an alcoholic. And here was a child that really needed a lot ofand I didn'tI could see us making lots of trips to Children's Hospital in Seattle. It was very worrying for my wife, by the way. And also Battelle's medical plan at the time had a $25,000 lifetime limit, which they probably would have extended, but we already had quite a bit into that. So, there was a position that came up in Portland working in industry and I jumped on that. It wascouldn't wait to get back here.  

BaumanAnd at what point did you come back, then, to Tri-Cities? 

KathrenWe came back six years later. 

BaumanSo it would have been what year, about, roughly? 

Kathren: ‘78. 

Bauman: ‘78. And did you come back working at Battelle? 

KathrenI came back to Battelle. 

BaumanAnd what sort of position or job? 

KathrenI was a staff scientist and Harold Larson's staff assistant. 

BaumanAnd how long did you, at that point then, remain with Battelle? 

KathrenWell, that's an interesting question. I say it's interesting because I got involved in--I don't know how—but by chance, something I'd always wanted to do. And that was to get involved with the transuranium and uranium registries. And I was doing that. And other program I had was the environmental dose overview for the site. And Battelle had another organization change. I used to joke that Battelle had an organization change, a major change, every other year. And a minor change in every month it didn't have an R in it. So they had this change, and Harold lost the department in a consolidation and so on. And the new department manager was not really a very good manager. And I think he wanted to get rid of all of a people he had inherited from Harold. I being one of them. And I'm on his staff. So that wasn't going the greatest. And working for the registries, that's a different contractor. That's the medical contractor, medical records. And they, for obvious reasons, did not want the medical records removed from their building. You know, there are privacy questions. Even in those days there were serious privacy concerns. And he basically ordered me to stop going over there and bring the things I needed back. Couldn't do it. So I wandered into the President of the Hanford Environmental Health Foundation and basically said, you're paying Battelle so much a year for my time--and I think I was half-time. This might have been only 40%--I said, how would you like me full time for the same money? And how are you going to do that? I said, well, I'll just transfer over here. And I did. I worked out what they call a termination for transfer. So I kept my seniority and so on and went over there. And that was great. That was really outstanding. 

BaumanDo you want to explain what the uranium registry and transuranium registries are? 

Kathren: Okay, how many hours do we have? [LAUGHTER] 

Bauman: [LAUGHTER] Yeah. Quickly, I guess. 

Kathren: Back in the late '60s--well, let me start this way--Plutonium is an anthropogenic element. It's manmade if I can use the politically incorrect terminology that everybody still understands. And so our experience with it has come from the Manhattan District, largely. It's a highly radiotoxic element, but there's no animal data except for what was done in the Manhattan District. But animals aren't humans and you need human data. Human information. And what's going to happen to these workers? So they created, in I think it was 1968, the National Plutonium Registry to study plutonium in people. And this was not the usual epidemiologic type study. It was a post mortem study where people in advance of death volunteered to permit an autopsy. Or in some cases a whole body donation. And those tissues would be analyzed then for plutonium. So that we could determine where it went in the bodywhere it deposited, how long it stayed there, if you got enough data, whether there were any biological effects that you could attribute to it. In other words, we did what are called biokinetics, how it moved through the body. And the dosimetry, et cetera. Well, that was fascinating to me. And I had always wanted to work in that. Well, in the fullness of time, the plutonium registry expanded to other heavy elements including americium. And then a separate parallel uranium registry was created. It's interesting to note that although humans have known about uranium for 200 years, until the Kosovo War, there was interest, there were studies, but there wasn't the concern. Because uranium, always radioactive, natural uranium and depleted uranium are a greater hazard from their chemical toxicity than from their radiotoxicity. So there were these two parallel registries. And ultimately they combined into one. And I guess, does that answer? 

BaumanYeah, yeah, yeah. That'd be good for you to explain it-- 

Kathren: Okay. 

Bauman: --for people who might want to watch this, yeah. So you've got involved in that. And at some point you also starting teaching at WSU Tri-Cities, is that right? 

KathrenI taught my first class on this campus in 1970. 

BaumanAnd how did that happen? How did you get involved teaching here? 

KathrenWhen I came up here, I had been teaching at a community college at night. I'd set up a program in radiation technology and had taught in that community college in California. I like to teach. In fact, I daresay that my happiest hours have been spent in the classroom, providing I have a tall enough lectern so I can duck down when they throw things. But in all seriousness, that is really what I like to do. So I came here and right off the bat, they had a radiation technology program at the local community college. And I taught in that for a year. And then this was--the predecessor to WSU Tri-Cities, was the Joint Center for Graduate Study. And I offered to teach a refresher course for individuals who are going to be sitting for the Health Physics Certification Exam. There's a board certification exam. And sure, why not? That was my first course. The old Joint Center at that time had three university sponsorsOregon State, Washington State, and University of Washington. And that was done through the University of Washington. And then later I was asked to be a member of the radiological sciences faculty of the University of Washington. Something I did part-time at night. A lot of us did. There were more than 100 adjuncts--UW called them affiliates, but it's the same difference. And so I do that for many years. But a lot of machinations and organization changes. And the perception of people who are affected is far different than the perception of those who make changes [LAUGHTER] as you probably—all you have all found out, I'm sure, in life. Ultimately, the branch campus was created. By that time I had not only an affiliate professorship at U of W, but I also had an adjunct appointment in environmental sciences here. And without going into too much detail, we converted the USTUR, the registry's contract, into a grant and brought it to WSU. This was in ‘92. The official day was Valentine's Day of ‘92, which was a Sunday. But we brought over $3.76 million on a three year grant. And the registries had been subject to a lot of criticism from activist groups. Statements like--and I want to make a point here, so bear with me--these activist groups made all kinds of accusations like body snatchers, et cetera. There's one person in particular, a newspaper reporter, and she was just gung ho. This was a time of real ferment and a lot of anti-nuclear activity. Anyway, we moved them over and I don't think we'd been over here for more than two or three weeks. I had an office in the other building and a secretary. And one day the phone rings and it's some guy from, I think it was the Seattle P.I., but he was from a newspaper in Seattle. This was not extraordinary for me. I have had a lot of dealings with the press. But anyway, he said something about he wanted to know about the registries and about our body snatching. And I said, body snatching? I said, oh, the university wouldn't permit that. And he said, university? What university? I said, Washington State University. The registries are part of WSU. And his words were, oh, well, I guess there's no story then. And he hung up. I never even got the guy's name. [LAUGHTER] So I point this out--you can't always see it face value, things in the newspaper or what-have-you, and realize that you're getting the full story, because one minute we were body snatchers and the next minute, oh, there's no story. [LAUGHTER] 

BaumanSo how long, then, were you connected with running the transuranium registry? 

KathrenRetired in 1999. 

BaumanAnd so during your time at Hanford, the transuranium registry and so forth, what were your list of some of the most rewarding aspect of the work you were doing? And what was maybe some of the more challenging aspects of what you were doing? 

KathrenWell, this may not be the answer you're seeking, but if you ask me what the most rewarding aspect of my career was--and I've often said I would not swap careers with anybody else. I just had a lot of frustrations, a lot of difficulties--But they’re over here and they're far outweighed by the pleasures. And my greatest was with the students and with teaching. I look back, a lot of my former students wandering around, and I look back on them and the successes that many of them had. I presume you get the same kinds of feelings, Bob, when you see what they do. And I'd think, who are my all-time best students? Well, there's one that--maybe yes, maybe no--was the all-time best--how do you rate the best? But she was certainly one of the top three. And she's now the Chairman of the Nuclear Engineering Program at Oregon State. Another one is one of the Assistant Directors, or whatever, at Battelle. And he's done incredibly well. The third one was a lady that I had known. And when we were in Portland I had association with Reed College. I don't know if you've ever heard of--okay. In any event, she was a big, tall gal. And I'm not very tall, as you know. And she must have weighed at least 220 pounds. Very large, very large woman. And I remembered telling her one day, Ellen, you are arguably my best student. But unarguably my most obnoxious. She was from New Jersey and you can figure--I loveher. II might breakup when I tell you this, [EMOTIONAL] but I really did love her. And I'd see her at scientific meetings and she'd run up to me and put her arms around me and it's just great. She came here and got a job on-site. She's a good teacher. She's a great teacher. I remember she's teaching at the community college somewhere in the East, in New Jersey. And that dried up and she got a job out here. And here she was an absolutely brilliant lady. She wasn't all that difficult. You just had to understand her. But she was just wonderful in her technical knowledge and in her drive to get things done. And just wonderful. But she had one thing that was a problem. She got stuck in training because she was a woman. And that's what you did in those days with women and minorities. It's like, they were stuck. Showcased. She wanted to get out and get her hands dirty. No way. So she started looking for another job and she finally found one at University of Arizona. And it was great. She was the radiation safety officer, she also had a faculty appointment, and she and I were actually very close. And we had worked--we were planning to give a one week, special, short course. And we worked out the outline. And we were going to do this the next summer at the Health Physics meeting. In early December I got a phone call from somebody I didn't know, who was her department head, who said that she died. She had valley fever, compromised immune system, 41 years old. And when she knew she was dying, she told him, when she died to please call her mother and me. Dad was dead. That's the kind of thing thatand in other ways, you touch lives. And hopefully you touch them in a beneficial way. Did a lot other things in my career that I had great fun with in the teaching, the registries. That was terrific. I think those were the most productive years of my career. Earlier on, I was involved with radiological measurements, calibrations, and so on. And trying to make our measurements better dose-wise. But I did a whole bunch of things. Even the years I spent in industry at the utility—and boy, did they have a different philosophy--you learn a lot. And I just feel as if I've made a contribution. I've certainly been satisfied. 

BaumanOne thing I want to ask you about is your involvement with the Glenn Seaborg papers project. How did that come about? How did you get involved in it and that sort of thing? 

KathrenI grew up in Los Angeles. And I remember taking high school chemistry and learning about the heavy elements. And I was just fascinated by these. So in the back of my mind that was always there. Many, many years later I became the President of the Health Physics Society. One of my colleagues, good friends at the University of Utah, actually said something about, we ought to invite Glenn Seaborg to talk about plutonium. He was a plutonium chemist, this guy. [LAUGHTER] Well, I also had another good friend who had worked with Glenn at the Met Lab. And he said, well, I can just call Glenn. That impressed me quite a bit because Glenn Seaborg, of course, a Nobel Prize winner, former Chancellor at University of California, and worked with [INAUDIBLE]. Just a towering figure. Well doggone if I didn't talk to Glenn and invite him down and he agreed. So I had seen he had written—he was a diarist--and he'd written these diaries for the World War II that were published as internal documents from the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. And I thought, jeez these are terrific. This would make a great book. And edit it, and so on, and identify people. But anyway, he came down to the Health Physics meeting. I had one night free and I set up a reception for him. Just a private reception. And by the way, the guest book from that reception I think I've donated to the archives here. Glenn was just the most humble person. He was great. And I asked him about doing that book. He said, what a wonderful idea. Why don't you do it? [LAUGHTER] So we did. I enlisted the aid of a real historian; that was Jerry Gough. Jerry enlisted the aid of one of his graduate students; that was Gary Benefiel. And we edited and annotated with over 700 biographical sketches. Identified just about everybody in the Section C-1, I think it was, the one that did the plutonium work. Glenn gave it the title. I said, what do you think we ought to call this? Well, The Plutonium Story, of course. But he was great and we had a lot of interfaces after that. I also wanted toanother thing he wrote that I was planning on doing something similar with, but unfortunately Glenn died before that could be done. Does that answer that? 

BaumanYeah, yeah it does. 

KathrenIf you--one quick thing about Seaborg. He came to the meeting, this annual meeting of the Health and Physics Society. I hadn't met him yet. And he's standing in one of the lecture rooms. And he's up on the dais and I'm with this friend of mine who had worked with him. And we walk in and Glenn looks up and my friend says, hi, Glenn! And Glenn looks at him, hi, by first name, you know. And it was justhe's just one of the guys. I've never met anybody—I’ve met, in my day, I've known three Nobel Prize winners. They're all different. One quick story about another one. I was at a meeting in San Francisco and I was doing some work on carbon. And I asked this individual, we were chatting on something about carbon. She's says, oh, I got a big file on it. Why don't you give me your card and I'll send you a paper on that. Okay. So, I gave the individual my card. And about ten days after the meeting, I got a package in the mail. All—I guess the entire file on radiocarbon had been put in there, including a paper that I myself had written. [LAUGHTER] It was apparently unlike Glenn. It was just, well, I'll just send him everything and get him off my back. Glenn would have sat down and well, let's see. What is it you want and how can we best accommodate you? 

BaumanSo when was it that you first met Glenn? When was it? 

KathrenOh gosh, I was Society President I think ‘89 or ‘90, somewhere around there. 

BaumanAnd so you were very actively involved in the Health Physics Society. How long have you been involved in Health Physics Society? 

KathrenSince 1960. I'm a life member, so they can't get rid of me yet. 

Bauman: [LAUGHTER] And then I wondered if you could talk a little bit about the Parker Foundation? Explain what that is and how that came about. 

KathrenHerb Parker was an interesting person. He was a medical physicist initially. And he was from England, Manchester. Happens my grandmother was for Manchester, but that's neither here nor there. And Herb, in the 1930s, developed along with a physician—radiologist named Ralston Patterson, a technique for doing radium dosimetry. Radium was the only radioactive material. And it was widely used particularly for uterine and cervical cancers. And doing the dosimetry you have to calculate the doses based on the shapes. If they're a needle or some other geometry, calculations can be very difficult. But it's important to know the doses obviously, because you're destroying a cancer, hopefully. And the Patterson-Parker techniques evolved from that. Herb came here in the 1930s. He went to Seattle in the late 1930s to work on what were then called super voltage x-rays, very high energy x-rays. And of course, now we have a lot of high energy stuff which is useful at treating cancer—certain cancers. More useful than and radium. And he went to work for the Manhattan District first at Oak Ridge and was basically hand-picked to come here because of his abilities. Herb was an interesting person. He did not suffer fools gladly. In fact, he did not suffer fools at all. [LAUGHTER] He did a lot of things. He was the firstthere was actually a unit. Well, in the old days, all we had was a unit based on air ionization called the rankine. And that worked for x and gamma rays, but it didn't work for other things, particularly, neutrons and beta rays. And Herb really came up with the concept of absorbed energy. Not ionization and air. And he created a unit that enjoyed a short lifespan. It had quantity. Quantity was energy absorbed in matter. The unit was, he called it the rep, for rankine equivalent physical. And it also got the name of the Parker. If you look at an old McGraw-Hill dictionary of science and technology, you'll see the Parker in there. And that later evolved into a more useful kind of thing. It didn't change the basic concept, but he did that. And he set up the program here. Which was remarkable, because we had no real experience with plutonium. Zero. So to shorten that up, Herb was actually the head of the Hanford Laboratories. Under General Electric, the Hanford Laboratories were a research group and they were world famous. When Battelle came in, Hanford Laboratory ceased to exist. Herb was retained as a consultant to Battelle. And ultimately, he passed away. I think in ‘83 or thereabouts. Bill Bair, who you're going to interview I'm sure, had worked closely with Herb. Bill is a radiation biologist and he was manager of the biology department. Or maybe the Life Sciences Center at the time. But anyway, he got Battelle and the Parker family to kick some dollars and start a Parker Foundation, the idea being to give a lecture, public lecture, once a year. And it has since now evolved. It's a separate nonprofit, but tied to WSU. We turned over all our assets to WSU, because Battelle had lost interest in supporting them. Which is understandable, I'm not faulting Battelle for this. They were very generous when they started it. And we promote education, give a couple scholarships out of the endowment, and still try to have that lecture. That lecture was to honor some scientists and to promote public understanding. And we also are interested in history. And so, this should interest you most as an historian, the Parker Foundation will be supporting the RASC collection, or maybe not dollar-wise in any large amount, but that's one of their things. And you should come to one of our meetings, Bob. 

Bauman: [LAUGHTER] So is there any topic we haven't touched on yet in terms of either your Battelle transuranium registry, anythinalong those lines, that you would like to discuss? Or that you think would be important to discuss at this point? 

KathrenI'll just—yeah, I’d like to comment on a couple of things. One of the reasons I wanted to come to Battelle—or, it wasn’t Battelle then, I wanted to come to Hanford was, in doing research for my thesis I kept running across these reports. They're very practical, down to earth, and just the kind of thing I like to do. [LAUGHTER] But Hanford wasn't really well known. In fact, one of my profs said, you know, you're going to go out and get a job one day. He said, you ought to go to Los Alamos or some other place, I don’t even remember. Never mentioned Hanford. Which was not extraordinary, because I had hardly heard of it myself. When I went to work for Livermore, we had a lot of plutonium there. And Hanford of course was the plutonium production place. And you naturally pick up things. And they ran this wonderful life sciences symposium. And that's when we came up. And that's when I had my first experience. And the guys from Hanford were just the kind of people that--down to earth, very nice that you could talk to. And I actually applied for a job, it was like 1966, and I didn't know the ins and outs, but the guy I talked to had just been demoted. [LAUGHTER] So, that didn't work out too well. But then a year or so later, that's when Harold Larson came up. But I really--the work that was done here was so different in a sense. The way it was done, it was more practically oriented. Another thing that it intrigued me about this place was, they not only did things differently, but in a lot of ways they were playing catch-up. In fact, maybe you should turn this off, but I'll say it anyway. After I'd been up here for a while I found that a lot of the workers were suffering from a terrible disease known as the Hanford syndrome, which was characterized by three symptoms. The first one was there will always be a government to take care of us. The second one was if it hadn't been discovered here at Hanford, it wasn't worth discovering. And that applied to all levels of things. And the third one was all change is bad. And I'm going to give you an example. It's kind of a fun example. I got a call one day when I had been here a few years and was managing the external dose group. And we bought all these portable instruments from a young engineer who had been asked to obtain what were called, cart poppies. These were not portable instruments, so I didn't have any—they were portable in a sense. They were a huge instrument in a cart. And the poppy referred to the fact that they would make popping noises when they measured alpha particles. And this was I think about 1968, or thereabouts. And he called me up and he asked, do you have the most current plans for the cart poppies? Because we're going to order some and the vendor wants the plans, obviously. And I said, oh, yeah. He said, oh good. The latest ones I can find are like 1956 or thereabouts. Maybe was earlier than that, I don't remember the exact year. And I said, well you've got them. And he was astounded. The arguments were just unbelievable, but basically it was, they worked. We won't change them. He finally ended up ordering 30 of them for $30,000 plus a copy. $1 million. I could have purchased for him, on the open market commercially, a transistorized unit that did everything the cart poppy did, better, and did a heck of a lot more also, for about $300 a copy. [LAUGHTER] But the mentality of a lot of the old timers was such that that was the way it was. 

BaumanSo was that one of the challenges that you found then? 

KathrenThat was a big challenge for me. Because here I was tasked with upgrading the instrument pool. And how do you get people to change? We've always done it this way. Little things, this instrument's been proven. But we did it. We did it. And that led to--after I left that job and others took it over, they built on that. And now everything is commercial. Not that commercial is better than what you do yourself, particularly if you have a special need, but saved the government a lot of money. Saved the taxpayers a lot of money. And so that mindset has been pretty much gone. But it was really, really strong here. And I remember just one thing that I had in mind. I wanted to change the neutron monitoring instruments. Neutron monitors in those days were big heavy things. And what we used at Hanford was a device that required two separate measurements you carried—it had a handle with a big thing of polyethylene and another instrument package. And you had to take two measurements. It wasn't very good and it wasn't very accurate. The Swedes had developed an instrument we call a REM meter because it actually measured the REM, or biological dose—dose rate. And the Navy was using them. And that's what I wanted to replace these with. I got more static from my own staff. The guys won't use them, this, that and other thing. This was proven, we did it here, and it's wonderful and so on and so forth. But we put them in and now they only need one measurement. And granted, it was big and heavy, but people loved them, because you turn it on and you got a measurement. You didn't have to interpret anything. So there was a lot of resistance to change. And over the years I've thought of that. One has to be very careful. You can't come in, as some people have, well, this is the way we did where I used to work. Well, that doesn't wash. You have to really demonstrate it. Actually, I think what I did was I bought two of these Navy type instruments. Sent them out to the 100 Areas. Try these guys and see if they work. And they loved them. [LAUGHTER] 

BaumanThat's a great example, yeah. One of things obviously that happened was that the site at some point shifted from a focus on production to focus on clean up. Did that impact you in any ways--your work at all, or not? 

KathrenNot really because I was working at the registries and on other projects that didn't involve cleanup. Although, Mount St. Helens--do you have a few minutes? Okay. The Mount St. Helens eruption was something else. It happened on a Sunday. Actually when it happened, I was in the bathroom, I think. It was in the morning. And I got up late Sunday morning. I think I was brushing my teeth actually [LAUGHTER] when I heard this tremendous bang. And I thought, jeez, my wife must have dropped something in the kitchen. So I yelled out to her and she said, oh, it was a sonic boom. We had neighborhood event, and everybody was—a potluck. And a couple hours later we were walking to the neighborhood event, it was getting dark. [LAUGHTER] There was stuff falling out--if you want some ash, I can give you some ash. But it's very, very interesting. And this will show you my relationship to Harold Larson too. We learned what happened. Well some Battelle scientist talked to a newspaper, I think the Washington Post it may have been, but he talked to a newspaper in the East. And he said that Mount St. Helens had released more radioactivity than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. Just natural radioactivity, which was not correct. Incidentally that morning, there's a lot of dust and so on, and fallout. A lot of interesting things about that that you never hear. The fallout, the lighter pieces carried further, but the fallout at the Yakima airport was very thick and heavy. They had to clear the runways—or, runway I guess. And one of the ideas proposed was to use electromagnet because the fallout contained so much iron that you could actually pick it up with a magnet. There were a lot of other things. There was also a guy who the following day got on the horn, he was driving to work, and he had picked up some ash. And when he got out to the 100 Areas where he worked, I guess he stuck on a counter and came up with the idea that was loaded with radium. Just loaded with radium. He didn't measure the radium directly, he measured the daughter products and back calculated. And that doesn't give you the right answer. He called on one of the radio stations to tell all of the people coming to work to roll up the windows in their cars. I mean this is the kind of--even scientists screw up. In any event, that and the statement of that other scientist about more radioactivity led to a lot of concern. And the President the United States was coming to Portland, I think, to give a campaign speech. And that was Jimmy Carter, by the way. Harold Larson came into my office and said, I want you call DOE right away. Air Force One has some questions. [LAUGHTER] Now that's pretty big because I'm just a little town guy. I mean, really. And I told them that there were errors made in the calculation. And that there was not a huge amount of radioactivity. We had actually pulled some of our environmental monitoring samples and they just showed the normal amount. And the soil was exactly the same as the soil around here. The concentration of radium as was in the Mount Saint Helens eruption. So these people panicked. But anyway, I got to get my oar in. And there's my claim to fame that's never been documented except on this tape, if you keep it in. 

Bauman: [LAUTHER] All right, well, that's probably a good place to end. 

Kathren: Okay, I'm sorry. You get me wound up. 

BaumanNo, that's a great story. 

KathrenThere's a lot more that. Let me just quickly give you another piece of it. The guy that had made this pronouncement of all this radioactivity compounded the thing by saying that it was all due to radon. From the decay of radium, radon gas that had built up and created a lot of pressure and caused the explosion. That's just an impossible or very extremely unlikely scenario. We had given him our monitoring data and other things. And he wrote a paper for Science with about 40 authors and did not include any of us using all of our data. Scientists are sometimes not the most ethical and honorable people in the world either, much as I love them. But you know, think of lawyers. Occasionally the barrel has a good apple in it. But anyway, we had to do something. And you're going to interview Joe Soldat Joe and I and Dale Denham—I think you're going to interview Dale also and one other person. Anyway, we wrote a little note for Science calculating out the doses, which defused what they had done. So you wouldn't misinterpret what they had done. Get me off on ethics in science sometime and it's just— 

Bauman: [LAUGHTER] 

KathrenAll right. I've taken all of your time.



Bit Rate/Frequency


Hanford Sites

100 Area
200 Area

Years in Tri-Cities Area


Years on Hanford Site


Names Mentioned

Selby, Jack
Larson, Harold
Seaborg, Glenn
Gough, Jerry
Benefiel, Gary
Parker, Herb
Bair, Bill
Soldat, Joe
Denham, Dale


Ronald Kathren.jpg


Hanford Oral History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities, “Interview with Ronald Kathren,” Hanford History Project, accessed April 21, 2024,