Interview with Jack McElroy
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Northwest Public Television | McElroy_Jack
Robert Bauman: All right. We'll go ahead and started then.
Jack McElroy: Okay.
Bauman: We could maybe start by having you say your name and spell it for us.
McElroy: Yeah. My name is a Jack McElroy. It's J-A-C-K M-C-E-L-R-O-Y.
Bauman: Great. Thank you. And today's date is October 22nd of 2013. And we're conducting this interview on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. So let's start if we could by having you talk about when you came to work at Hanford initially, what brought you here.
McElroy: Right. I was born at Grand Coulee Dam when my folks came out here from North Carolina and grew up in Spokane. And they came out here to work on the dam. After it was completed, we moved Spokane. I grew up there. So at Lewis and Clark High School I took all their math and science classes. And in my senior year, Hanford started an engineering technician development program. And I was hired directly from high school by General Electric. And I came here in the summer of 1955 and started working. I was at the large central store's administration building next to the bus lot for a couple months while they obtained our Q clearances. And the program also involved sending us to classes. So during that time, we also started going to classes. So I basically came here in 1955 at the age of 18 directly out of high school.
Bauman: How many students were there? How many--
McElroy: There was about 20 of us that they recruited. There were several of us from Spokane. In fact, we formed a carpool and would go back to Spokane almost every weekend using the ferry that was here at North Richland, went over to South Landing on the Pasco side. And that was the quickest way to get back and forth.
Bauman: And so how long did you do that then?
McElroy: I did that for a year and a half. And I had some great rotations. And at the same time that I signed on down here, I joined the Air National Guard out in Spokane. And I was interested in flying. So in 1957, I actually left here to go into the pilot training program. But I probably ought to back up to my experiences here.
Bauman: I want to ask you about, you said a different rotation. What sort of--
McElroy: Yeah. My first assignment was radiation monitoring in a 325 Building, where I was basically a technician supporting chemists and also other radiation monitors. I learned a lot about the radiation and monitoring and so on, which was limited to the radio chemistry labs there in the 325 Building. My second assignment took me out to the 100 Areas, where I worked for Larry McEwen and the heat transfer group. And I was assigned to his group in the hydraulics lab that was at the 100-D and D Area. And I brought in a picture and gave that to you of me working there in the lab. I met some really great chemical engineers there including a guy that would have an effect in my life later on by the name of John Batch who was a PhD from Purdue. And they had quite an influence on my future as it turned out. My next assignment, I went to radiation monitoring again with Herm Pass in the 100 Areas. And he was stationed--they had an office at the 100-D, D Area also. And while I was on that assignment, I was very fortunate to be involved in the 105-B outage. And during that outage, we supported the changing out of the old curlicue pig tails. They basically looked like the real pig tail, and that's how they got their name. They were formed just like a curlicue. And they were on the front face of the reactors. And in 1956, on the B Reactor, they changed those out and put in stainless steel, flexible hoses and pipes. And so I was there at the reactor at that time supporting that operation.
Bauman: How long did that take?
McElroy: Oh, it was just a month or so to actually do that. And that was actually my last assignment. And I did pretty good and actually achieved radiation monitor status before I left and went into the Air Force in early 1957.
Bauman: Of those different assignments, did you have one that you enjoyed the most?
McElroy: I think the radiation monitoring at 100 Areas. I got to go out to all the different reactors. I was able to go the rear face on occasion. I mean, the rear face is a really hot, hot area. So you had to stay out to the side. But at least I was able to see the rear faces on the reactors and the front faces on several reactors. And so that was a very exciting assignment. But it was the hydraulics lab and heat transfer unit that probably had the biggest impact on me later on when I decided to go to college after I was in the Air Force.
Bauman: And so what sort of work did you do in the hydraulics lab?
McElroy: Basically took measurements of fluid flow. And then I did an awful lot of graphing for the engineers and realized at that time that, geez, if I had a degree, I could be having somebody else do the graphs for me. So it was very interesting.
Bauman: And you said that you and a group of you would drive to Spokane often, basically on weekends. Where did you stay? when you--
McElroy: When we came here, they put us up in the Sanford Hotel, which was on Swift Boulevard. It's since been removed. But it was an old army barracks type of place and had simple bunk beds and so on in it. But in 1955, the government started turning the city over to the community, basically. And things like prefab became available for renting. And so on a group of four of us actually applied for a prefab and ended up in a one-bedroom prefab at 1213 Potter Street. And it was a little bit crowded, but we had a ball.
Bauman: And what was the community of Richland like at the time, 1955, '56?
McElroy: It still had a mess hall. You could go to the mess hall there downtown just across from where the post office is at now and have a large buffet dinner and eat there. As I said, we stayed in the little hotel, barracks type hotel. Uptown Theater was there. It was pretty normal, small community.
Bauman: And so you were here for a year and a half or so.
Bauman: And then if you can talk about what you did and what brought you back to Hanford.
McElroy: Yeah. Well, I left to go in the military. And I actually became a pilot and an officer and came back to the Washington Air National Guard up at Geiger Field and basically, at that time, decided, well, this is a great opportunity for me to go back to school. So I went to Gonzaga University while I was flying with the Guard and Air Force. And I received a Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering. And GE hired me immediately to bring me back down here. So I was back down here in July of 1963. So I was gone for about six years.
Bauman: Were you hoping to get back to Hanford at some point? Or was that--
McElroy: You know, I didn't know. I really didn't know what life had in store for me, but it just kept changing and progressing. And I was certainly glad to get back down here once I had the opportunity.
Bauman: So when you came back in 1963, then what sort of work were you doing? What areas were you working in?
McElroy: I kind of stumbled, or fate or something steered me into waste management and the group that was pioneering the development of waste treatment technology for handling radioactive waste. And they were just based, had a lot of their people, in a 321 Building, which was a building that had a lot of history. Other people may have mentioned it, but it had a lot of history for developing separations technology for the site. And at the time I was there, it was actually being used to develop which treatment technology. And so I got in with that group. And I spent three or four months with them learning about vitrification and also something called calcining, where you take liquid waste and heat it up, and drive off a lot of the volatile materials and turn it into a powder. And then from that, we would melt it, vitrify it, make glasses. So that was my first assignment. Second assignment, I went out to 100-N Area and had a great assignment there. I was a process engineer. And I was actually out there at the site when President Kennedy came in 19--I think was 1963, prior to the assassination of course--and saw him speak. And that was a great event. And N Reactor was a great reactor. It's unfortunate that we had to shut it down the way we did.
Bauman: Do you have any specific memories from the day that President Kennedy was here?
McElroy: Not really, no. I definitely remember being out there and seeing him, and hearing him talk, and the helicopters, pretty routine stuff. Yeah. I had one other rotation at PRTR, Plutonium Recycle Test Reactor, where I worked on the containment system for them. But in 1964, it was announced that they were going to shut down all the reactors. And so I decided it was time for me to pick a permanent assignment. And so I went back to the waste management group. I don't know if I mentioned their names, but Al Platt and Carl Cooley were heading up that organization. And they were real pioneers for developing waste treatment technology and working with other international people like in England and France at that time. So I got in with that group and had a lot of great opportunities with them.
Bauman: You mentioned as early as '63 they were already starting to work on vitrification sort of technologies?
Bauman: What other sorts of technologies and waste treatment were being researched or worked on?
McElroy: At that time, it was primarily calcination and vitrification and looking at three different products, either a calcine powdery dry product for final storage or either phosphate glass or borosilicate glass. And also there was a phosphate ceramic at the time. So it really hadn't been decided what was going to be the choice for the US, what direction we were going to go with the treatment technology. And in the program I was in starting a '65, we actually demonstrated with radioactive material in the 324 Building several different technologies with all these different products. And from that, we chose to go with borosilicate glass, which is the current standard for product form for high level radioactive waste.
Bauman: And what led you to that sort of solution?
McElroy: The processes that we demonstrated, basically that seemed to be one of the best. We actually made it with in-can melting, a spray calciner, and in-can melter. I brought in another photograph of that showing all this equipment in the cell with the spray calciner setting over an in-can melter. And basically the product from that, the borosilicate glass, turned out to be the best product in terms of its durability. And also the process, in-can melting, was a pretty straightforward simple process to--
Bauman: Can you explain that a little bit, just a little detail?
McElroy: Yeah. Basically we sprayed liquid waste into the spray calciner, which is heated to about 700 degrees centigrade. And as the droplets came down, they dried. And it would be hot enough to where you'd get rid of all the nitrates and convert it to oxides. And the oxides would then fall down into the melter. We had a couple different melters at the time. We were actually looking at a continuous melter, that was made out of platinum and far too expensive, and the in-can melter, which is made out of Inconel. And we would add additives, boron and silica, to the calcine, and then heat them up to over 1,000 degrees centigrade in either the melter or the in-can melter and convert to the glass.
Bauman: So about what time period was this conclusion made to go with vitrification?
McElroy: The program was from '65 to '71. And so it was around 1970 that we basically decided that the borosilicate glass was the preferred route. And then things changed. And they actually didn't support doing any waste work for about a year and started it backup in 1972. And in 1972, I was recruited to be the manager for the development of the vitrification program. I was recruited by Al Platt, who I mentioned earlier and John Batch, who was one of the PhD chemical engineers out at the 100-D Reactor at the time I was there as a technician. So it kind of came back around again with one of the people that I word for earlier. So they recruited me to head up the program to further develop technology for using in the United States, for vitrifying high level waste.
Bauman: So were you actually able to begin the process of [INAUDIBLE]?
McElroy: In '72, we started building the program with the focus on the spray calciner and in-can melter, which was the choice from that earlier program, and also decided it was time to look at something that would handle large quantities of waste, such as what they have here at Hanford. Because when you just melt in a can, you're pretty well limited in terms of size and processing rate. So in 1972, I hired an engineer, actually Battelle hired him. Hanford Labs under General Electric became the Pacific Northwest Laboratories under Battelle. And so in 1972, I was then working for Battelle. And at that time, we started developing and hiring engineers. And so one of the engineers was Chris Chapman out of Kansas. He was a mechanical engineer. And we put him in charge of developing a new melter technology, a Joule-heated ceramic melter. And to jump further ahead, the Joule-heater ceramic melter now is the heart of the waste treatment plant. There's two of them in the low activity waste facility and two in the high level waste facility. But anyway, we started developing that technology in early '70s. And by 1975, we had a prototype working in the 324 Building of a liquid-fed Joule-heated ceramic melter. And I brought in a picture of that also to share with you.
Bauman: So that's almost 40 years ago now that you really started developing some of that technology.
McElroy: Right. If you add that up, that's probably 41 years. So it's over 40 years.
McElroy: Yeah, time flies. Anyway, that technology--1977--we were developing most of this technology actually for the commercial nuclear fuel cycle with the expectation that the United States would develop reprocessing and have a complete fuel cycle here. In 1977, President Carter put a moratorium on reprocessing and that just threw everything into turmoil. And fortunately, there was a gentleman by the name of Frank Baranowski that was running the Department of Energy Defense Waste sites. And he chose to pick up the technology. And so we then turned all of our efforts from the commercial fuel cycle to supporting the Defense Waste facilities. So we spent several years working with DuPont to transfer the know-how for the spray calciner and in-can melter, as well as the Joule-heated melter for use down at Savannah River. And they initially started out choosing the spray calciner and in-can melter. But after they figured that there was a huge cost savings by eliminating the tall calciner in terms of canyon height for hot cells and processing cells, they decided to go with the Joule-heated melter. So we worked with DuPont and helped them get that technology in place in the Defense Waste Processing facility at Savannah River. And it's been very successful. It's been running for about 20 years.
Bauman: So you came initially in 1955--
Bauman: --and the focus at Hanford was production. And came back in the '60s. It was just about to shift to definitely reduced production, right, and then--
Bauman: I guess if you look back at that, you've seen a lot of the changes in mission, changes in technology.
Bauman: In thinking back to the years you worked at Hanford and the changes, what--I mean, obviously impacted your work in terms of what you were focusing on. But the changes in technology must've impacted your work as well.
McElroy: Yeah. I still do a little consulting. It turned out to be a hot area, [LAUGHTER] waste management. So I'm still involved in it on a small part-time basis. I've retired two or three times. And I actually ran a small company for Battelle out there called Geosafe. We actually went out and we developed another technology called in-situ vitrification, where we literally clean up sites by putting electrodes in the ground and melting the earth and the soil. And we brought that along and made it to where it was capable of actually using the same method to melt in a large container. And so for a while here, Hanford was looking at that technology, it was called bulk vitrification, as a way of supplementing the current Vit Plant. And it's possible that that technology might still have a use here at Hanford.
Bauman: Mm-hm. So you came back and '63. And then how long did you stay working at [INAUDIBLE]?
McElroy: I worked for 30 years as an engineer and retired in '95 from Battelle. But I retired to run a small company for Battelle, the Geosafe company.
Bauman: Right. In looking back at the various things you've worked on, was there a part of your work, an aspect of the work that you found most challenging or part of it that you found the most rewarding?
McElroy: Probably the most challenging and rewarding was trying to make things work in a hot cell. The 324 Building—which is still there and may be there for a while, because there's contamination under the cell where we were doing the processing. Making things work, making them reliable, and getting week-long tests completed without major interruptions that was very challenging and very rewarding. And it could be done. Sometimes the only way to solve the problem was to put it in a hot cell and make it work. You could spend a long time outside playing around, but you really didn't know what the issues and problems were until you put in it in there and tried to do it.
Bauman: And then also during your years at Hanford, were there any incidents that stand out or problems or events that happened that stand out in your mind above some of the others?
McElroy: Hmm. Not really. I mean, some little events, but probably wouldn't want to put them on tape. [LAUGHTER] I would have to say that I am so amazed at the Manhattan Project and what they did so quickly and successfully. And even when I came here in '55 and then on in the '60s, we were able to do things pretty quickly. I mean, we could build it, put it in, test it. And somewhere '70s, '80s, things started to get too bogged down in paperwork and overly cautious. The safety culture was always there. But somehow or another the safety culture got to where it really slowed things down. And it's unfortunate. It just takes too long now to get things done.
Bauman: Is there any specific examples of concerns about safety or security that sort of thing that you can think of?
McElroy: Just the requirements for dotting the i's and crossing the t's and undergoing inspections and being afraid. I mean, I mentioned that sometimes the best way to get something done was to put it in there and make it work. Now, you can't put it in there until you're positive it's going to work. The Vit plant's a great example of that. And they have a truly big concern associated with these Pulse Jet Mixer tanks in the black cells, where they're going to be in there for 40 years. And I mean, that's a legitimate concern. But the fact is I believe that 90% of the waste could be processed without that concern. And then we're holding up the whole plant because of this other 10% of the waste. And that's frustrating.
Bauman: Looking back on your time working at Hanford, how would you assess, overall, your experiences working at Hanford?
McElroy: I had a great, great career, great experiences. A lot of memories, a lot of good memories, a lot of great people. And I raised my family here, too, my wife Carol, and daughter Toni and Jill. They're Bombers. It was Col High, Columbia High, at the time that they went to high school there. Now, it's Richland High School. And they had a great, great life and experience here also.
Bauman: I wonder if you could talk about the relationship between Hanford the workplace and then the community. How would you describe that relationship as you were living here in the '60s and '70s?
McElroy: I don't know, just business as usual. I don't set it apart from any of the other businesses around the area in terms of being different or unique. So just business as usual to me.
Bauman: I wonder, is there anything I haven't asked you about yet related to your work experience at Hanford or something that you'd like to share or talk about that you haven't had a chance to talk about yet?
McElroy: I don't think so.
Bauman: I wanted to make sure.
McElroy: There's probably something I'll think about later.
Bauman: Yeah. [LAUGHTER] That happens.
McElroy: Yeah, of course, right.
Bauman: Well, I want to thank you for coming in today. This is a really interesting--as someone who came like you said as a--just out of high school, really.
McElroy: Yeah, I think that is kind of a fortuitous event, to come directly out of high school as something like this and to be a part of history. It basically impacted my life and my future decisions of where I was going to go and what I was going to do, very positively.
Bauman: And then you came back in a very different capacity in many ways.
Bauman: Well, thank you again for coming in.
McElroy: Okay. Thank you.
Bauman: I appreciate your coming and talking to us.