The Fear Factor

Dublin Core


The Fear Factor


Hanford Atomic Products Operation


Roger Rohrbacher, Mary Rohrbacher, and Ray Issacson describe their experiences during the construction and subsequent operation of HEW facilities during WWII and the early years of the Cold War.




Hanford 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




RG1D-4A / T.2010.052.011

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Terri Andre


Roger Rohrbacher, Mary Rohrbacher, Ray Issacson





CREHST Oral History Project

Brown Bag Luncheon Interview

Title: “ The Fear Factor “

Date of interview: October 12, 2004

Location of interview: CREHSTMuseum

Moderator: Terri Andre

Interviewed: Roger Rohrbacher, Mary Rohrbacher, and Ray Isaacson

Transcriber: Robert Clayton


These individuals described their experiences during the construction and subsequent operation of HEW facilities during WWII and the early years of the cold war.


TERRI: First off why don’t I have you guys introduce yourselves and tell when you came to Hanford and sort of what you did in the beginning.

RAY:   Ray Isaacson as I used to be known around here. Then I retrogressed to my childhood and became Bud Isaacson. That was my name that all my family knows me by. I had a cousin come here to Richland one day to go to some kind of a meeting. He looked down through the telephone directory and he got back to RochesterWashington and he saw my mother and he says, “I thought Bud lives in Richland.” “Well he does.” “Well I couldn’t find his name in the telephone directory.” “Well did you look under Raymond?” “No I didn’t know that was his name.” So anyway I came to Richland in 1948 during the construction period. I worked in construction on the ranch houses, and on the SpauldingSchool, and Lewis and Clark, and Marcus Whitman. Then I went back to school at University of Washington and the next year I found my way to Grand Coulee Dam and got into construction there and mixed all the cement plants for the east powerhouse. Went back to school, got my degree, came back here and went to work in the 234-5 building where I worked most of my time. Eventually I got elected to be a state representative and then county commissioner. So here I are.

ROGER: I ‘m Roger Rohrbacher. I came to Hanford in the spring of 1944. I had come from the University of Chicago and even go back one step further. I worked for Dupont in an acid plant in Illinois. My buddies were leaving and turned out they ended up at Hanford. I got in contact with them and said, “What are you guys doing?” “We don’t know.”  Another guy said, “Man it’s sure isolated out here.” I thought I’d head out here too to see the great northwest. So I was told to report to Dr. so and so at the University of Chicago only 40 miles away. And after 6-8 months there I came out to Hanford. Let me tell you a little side story about what it was like here. Bill McQue was one of the early guys out here. He was in “B” when it started up. His wife came out a little later. Came out on the train. And she was talking to the person next to her and the other person said, "Where are you headed?"  She said, “Pasco.” This other lady said, “Honey that’s the end of the world.” (Laughter). Anyway I came here just after the dormitories were built so I didn’t have to live in the barracks.

RAY: Did you know George Thatcher?

ROGER: Yeah that sounds a little familiar.

RAY: He worked under the stands at the University of Chicago.

ROGER: Quite a few who worked there came out here.

MARY: I am Bluey Rohrbacher. Roger came back and we got married in the fall of ’44. And when we came out we got off at beautiful downtown Pasco at 2:00 o’clock in the morning and the fella that was supposed to pick us up was not there. We didn’t know how we were going to get to Richland. Finally Roger saw somebody he knew and we got a ride into town. I went to work at the original Army hospital or Army type hospital and I was a medical technologist. I had a real surprise. It was the most well stocked lab I had ever seen. Most labs are tight with money. They don’t buy binocular scopes and all sorts of good things but this one did. We had 12 med techs when I started and we took turns going out to the areas.

TERRI: Where was that hospital. Was it where Kadlec is now?

MARY: Well it’s just east of there sort of. We called it KadlecHospital then and it looked just like an Army hospital you know a central hall with wings.

TERRI: So it was pretty much patterned after an ArmyHospital?

MARY: Oh yes pretty stark.

TERRI: So by the time you came the secret was out? Right? You came later.

RAY: Yeah.

TERRI: Did you have any misgivings about coming?

RAY:   Not at all. As a matter of fact I chose to go into the nuclear area being a graduate chemical engineer with lots of physical chemistry background and inorganic background and so forth. I just thought Hanford would provide a lot of opportunities in that general area and the nuclear part of it.

So the bomb went off but the next phase was going to be producing electricity from nuclear power.

TERRI: Roger at what point was it that you knew what it was that you were working on?

ROGER: After it was announced in the paper. We had suspicions but that was all. One of the operators had a fuel element and he saw it was heavy. He said, “You know I used to work in a uranium mine in Vancouver, British Columbia.” He says, “This feels just like uranium.” His boss says, “Gee that sounds interesting.” and turned around and left. He didn’t want to spill the beans. Things like that would come up. I worked the instrument part of it and I was moving a neutron saver under the plant.

Neutron saver and I said this ain’t a chemical plant because that was the rumor. That Dupont was running this big chemical plant out here. Everything came in and nothing left and we got suspicious. Because, actually, for the start of B Reactor there wasn’t any big announcement at Hanford or anyplace. Even though I was probably in one of the 100 areas at the time nobody told me. But the official word was when the paper came out and said, “IT’S THE BOMB.” It was the Villager or something.

TERRI: So you were doing actual science or engineering type work but you only knew one piece of it?

ROGER: Well that was a strange quirk Dupont had a habit of moving people around where they needed people. Like I worked in a chemical engineering group at the University of Chicago, which was under the Manhattan Project. When I came out here this fella I interviewed for said we would like to have you in the instrument department. I play a trumpet so I’ll fit right in. (Laughter). I said I don’t know anything about instruments. He said it doesn’t matter we will train you. So then there was some few months of classroom training and hands on training and then working with another fella. Finally I was working on my own. Most of the time I worked at Hanford I worked in instrumentation.

And another change Dupont needed some people in the pile technology group that was before they had reactors and I worked there for a couple of years.

TERRI: So you were working in the medical field. Did you have any inkling that anything unusual was happening?

MARY: Oh no although the med techs rotated out to the areas we had no idea what was going on. The labs as I remember were in windowless rooms and we were not allowed to go out any place. We had to stay in there all day.

TERRI: So you were escorted out to the areas?

MARY: We went out on the bus and if we were lucky we got a ride in with the doctor that was out in the area.

TERRI: So you wouldn’t have to come in on the bus. (Laughter.)

Mary: Oh yes. Those busses were horrible. But we had to stay where we were going in the lab. We were not allowed to go out. We hadn’t the foggiest idea what was going on. They didn’t tell us and we didn’t ask. That was one thing you don’t ask.

TERRI: So that was pretty much accepted.

MARY: Oh yes, yes.

TERRI: Now when you came out was there still a great deal of secrecy about different work that was going on?

RAY: Oh absolutely yes. As a matter of fact it took me quite awhile to get my Q clearance. Then I got my weapons clearance and then I got my top-secret clearance. Everything was secret.

TERRI: What can you tell us that you did work on that is no longer classified?

RAY: Well I did work in the 234-5 building which was the plutonium processing building. We received the plutonium nitrate initially from T plant and later on from REDOX and PUREX. Those plants were much larger and more efficient. We received plutonium nitrate solution initially in the 231 building and they converted that to an oxide and that went over to the 234-5 building and that was converted to a metal in 234-5.

TERRI: My head is spinning...234-5 OK.

RAY: Well 234-5 was the plutonium processing and plutonium fabrication building. One of the big studies that was made was Senator Hikkenlooper said that the AEC spent way too much money building the 234-5 building. And so there were a lot of investigations going on before they started up. But once we started up I came in 1951and wound up down there for my assignment to help the processing engineers.

TERRI: Now in the past few days there has been a lot of B Reactor talk because of the 60th anniversary of the start up. And one of the things that kind of surprised me and I thought may have caused a little quiver of fear was when they talked about when the very first plutonium product was done how it was transported down to California. Were there things like that that may have afterwards kind of raised an eyebrow and thought you know there might have been a little safer or we would have done it differently now?

ROGER: Well there was one thing after the fact I heard about it. When B Reactor was loaded there was concern about how much fuel should be put in. Enrico Fermi said, “1500 tubes.” Dupont people they always had a couple of special terms. One was contingency. And this fella from Dupont, a technical consultant, was Crawford Greenewalt. He went up to General Groves and said, “What’s your contingency?” Well Groves didn’t know what he was talking about and he said, "Well, Fermi said 1500 tubes. That’s what we are going to do.” And Crawford Greenewalt said, "If this thing shouldn’t work who do you think will get the blame?" Groves was no dummy, “How many more tubes do you want?” And Greenewalt said, "500."

TERRI: I understand the shape changed too with the extra tubes.

ROGER: Yes they provided more fuel and more area for the neutrons to interact with the plutonium. As a matter of fact that was a fear an unknown. When the reactor first started up it slowly decayed and the power level went to zero. That’s when the top-secret people got involved…Enrico Fermi, John Wheeler, and Crawford Greenewalt sat in the room and tried to figure it out. One story is Fermi was waving his slide rule around and they were talking back and forth and the story that came out was they were taking a pool to see when the reactor would start on its’ own. And whoever got the closest would win a bottle of wine.  Gambling on government property. (Laughter).

RAY: With a nuclear reactor. That had never been operated before.

TERRI: What’s the funniest thing that you have ever seen out at the Hanford area? Something must have broken up the days of just dust.

MARY: Yeah there was plenty of dust. Well one funny thing that happened to us was we were assigned to a one bedroom prefab. Oh it was lovely. No lawn and the desert was one block across the street and we had about a three-inch gap below our door. We had invited some friends of ours for Thanksgiving. I set the table ahead of time and when we lifted up the plates there was a circle of dust around them. I remember that so well. (Laughter). It was dirty.

TERRI: I think I would have been worried about spiders and things coming in.

MARY: They probably did. I don’t remember spiders but oh that was a small house. Believe me.

RAY: Being that this is the CRESHT museum you probably should have some of Dupus Boomer’s cartoons.

MARY: Oh we do down the hall.

RAY: That explains it.

TERRI: What about you guys? Something maybe that struck you as a little odd or funny.

ROGER: Probably more odd. One of the problems of the reactor the graphite expanded. It grew to the point where they were concerned about keeping the reactor operating. After a while they decided if they could heat up the graphite that would help the problem. But still the expansion was kind of bad and the reactor itself had a sheet metal covering on it and the corners had neoprene seals. These seals were being stretched by the expansion of the graphite. So they put an oddball looking clamp in the upper right hand corner to stop this. A visitor came in and said, “B Reactor is held together with a giant C clamp” (Laughter)

TERRI: At least it didn’t look a giant cloths pin. That would have been even funnier.

RAY: Well I think the thing that really impressed me more than anything else was when Max Roy was at Los Alamos and the Department of Energy, not DOE. but literally the Army, decided that they needed more plutonium. Of course we were limited on our capacity here with the old reactors that we had. So then the question was is there anyway that Hanford can produce more plutonium? And the answer was well if we change the specifications yeah. So this got bounced back to Los Alamos and the design engineer says, "No way." and Max Roy came back and said, "No way." and the Army said, "Yes there will be a way and we will increase the production at Hanford." And what was sacrificed was the quality of the plutonium. The longer you leave plutonium in a reactor the more some of the higher isotopes grow into the material. Some of the isotopes are varieties of plutonium. Like 239 was the target plutonium to be made but when you leave plutonium in a reactor for an extended period then Plutonium-240 grows into the other plutonium. And so when you separate you can’t separate the two except by some other more classified process.


TERRI: O.K. will let that one slip by…classified processes.

RAY: But anyway they decided to increase production by 20 %. That changed the kind of isotope mix that we had. So now it was necessary to go back and change the comparations of the reactor. Well Max Roy got kind of in a fit and he had a little cabin in Mexico so he went down to Mexico from New Mexico to his cabin. He stayed in his cabin for about 6 weeks to show them that he wasn’t really needed. (Laughter) But he came back and picked up where he left off. Well at that time I was in the inspection of the plutonium parts as they came through the 234-5 building and how do you cope with this because they put a cap on there. So the question was how does the isotopic ratio come out from each of the reactors? Well we had B Plant still operating so lets batch it through it through B Plant. Isolate it through 234-5 building. And when we get down to the weapons portion then we will evaluate each one of those parts and see which reaction it came from or correlate back to the reaction it came from. As a consequence we were able to set up the operating level for each one of the reactors such that we got a pretty good blend of the plutonium through the 234-5 building meeting specs that Los Alamos would permit. And so every reactor then had a certain exposure level that they pushed to.  Then when we went out to inspect on the weapons end of the business we will just throw it back to our melting operations along with some other materials and get the appropriate ratios back through inspections and on down to Rocky Flats. At that time we were shipping through Rocky Flats.

TERRI: I have to confess I got very little of all that. For non-technical types let me see if I got it. So you had to increase your output by 20%.

RAY: So that consequents higher levels of isotopes growing onto the plutonium which you could separate out through chemical methods.

TERRI: Did they have to separate them out or did they just leave them there?

RAY” No we just left them there. And when we were over the limits we would bring it back to our casting operations and melt it down with some other plutonium that had a lower level of the higher isotopes.

TERRI: I’m trying to come up with an analogy.

RAY: There isn’t one that I know of.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: They were talking production and I have a non-technical thing that I was there when it happened. In the 1950’s I was working in the 100 Areas. And well a little bit of the basics. The amount of power you can get is how much heat the water going from the front of the tube to the rear the bigger the difference you had a limit of what you could go over on the rear. But the colder it was going in the more production you could get. Well we heard technicalists tried to think of a way to lower the temperature of the Columbia River. Wow but you know they did.

TERRI: They lowered the temperature of the Columbia River?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: They got to dealing with the Corps of Engineers and they got Grand Coulee Dam to let the water out instead of over the dam from the bottom of the huge lake and it was several degrees cooler. It tasted pretty horrible because we also drank it. It had a different taste. Our drinking water was filtered of course.

RAY: At that time the east powerhouse hadn’t been completed and they had huge needle valves in the bottom of the dam that they would open. And when those needle valves were operating in there that air would just pulse in front of you. So if you smoked a cigarette that cloud of smoke would just sit there and pulse in front of you. When they put turbines in there they had to close off all of those needle valves. All of the water then went through the turbines instead. From the top down. So that was a kind of a limit to 1951 was the end of that cooling operation.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Did you know how much of a percentage increase it made? Did you ever hear that?

RAY: No. As you say it was delta t across the reactor. That is indicative of the power produced by the reactor and of the fission  that was taking place in the reactor.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’d like to mention another one. This was from a man who I got to know who was in Chicago working for Dupont with a chemical engineering background. He was there when the big first test was made. He was involved with the team that was doing the chemical work. This is the way his story went. When they had the reaction then they had this bit of uranium that had been gone through the process then it went to chemical processing. At one point they had gotten the plutonium that it had. And he said there it was the world’s supply of plutonium in one test tube. And somehow it fell to the floor and went down the drain. Well they recovered it. I thought it was quite a story. The world’s supply of plutonium in one test tube and somebody dropped it.

RAY: As a matter of fact Glenn T. Seaborg was developing the chemistry for the plutonium processing. And the plants U Plant, T Plant, and B Plant and C Plant was never built. Those plants were based on those micro-chemical tests of the first plutonium that was produced by Dr. Seaborg. And they scaled up from microchemistry to these full-scale plants. That had never been done before. I mean that’s a how shall I say it that’s a factor of probably several hundred thousand times scale up.

ROGER: That reminds me of a fear factor with Seaborg. In the early days he had real trouble trying to get enough plutonium to work with and then try to do something with it. He told his crew, “We really need a bunch of biologists.” And they thought old Seaborg’s cracking up under the strain. Biologists don’t work on that stuff. He said, “We’re working with stuff we can’t see and that’s what biologists do all the time.” He was joking but his crew didn’t particularly appreciate that.

RAY: Well it goes beyond that too because the mathematics associated with fission reactions are from biology. The original mathematics was based on biology mathematics. On the creation of cells.

TERRI: Almost like the splitting of cells and multiplying.

ROGER: That’s where the word fission came from.

RAY: Right.

TERRI: So is that why he wanted the biologists?

ROGER: No. That was supposed to be a joke.


TERRI: Oh you got me. You are just so good at that. Really!

AUDIENCE MEMBER: What temperature does plutonium melt at? You say you melt it down. What temperature does it melt?

RAY: I don’t know.

TERRI: Hot! Very hot.

RAY: We had a certain process and procedure and I don’t know if that has been declassified or not. But we did have some problems in the metallurgical quality of the plutonium we produced. There was some information in the Tri-City Herald here not too long ago where the Russians found out that one of the phases of plutonium was metastabile. Well we knew that a long time ago. And we know how to stabilize it. They got our secrets and they learned how to do that too. But then we had another technique for insuring the stability over a longer period of time. We developed that out in 234-5 building. So we were able to meet the specifications according to what the design group at Los Alamos wanted.

TERRI: Now I heard a story a while ago and I don’t remember who told me it. So I’m going tell you guys this story and you can tell me if it sounds like something that may have been true or if it’s kind of like we start to get our own little brand of folklore. This story the day that B Reactor first came up and went critical that they had technicians walking around the building with Geiger counters and walking through the building and maybe sticking the Geiger counter wand around the corner to make sure it was safe to walk around the corner. To make sure nothing was going wrong.

ROGER: I haven’t heard that one.

TERRI: You haven’t heard that one. Well maybe we’re starting an urban legend. (Laughter) Let’s see what other rumors can I start. (Laughter)

MARY: There were lots rumors but we knew nothing really. When you worked at Hanford you only were told as much as you needed for your job and beyond that forget it. They did not tell you anything. A lot of people, outside people, had trouble with that. Not understanding why we did not understanding everything that was going on.

TERRI: Didn’t you just recently run into that attitude even now?

MARY: Yes I did. Roger was interviewed several years ago by a reporter from a paper on the west side. And after she talked to him she called me up and wanted to know what I knew about the plant. I said, “Well nothing really.” Because we weren’t told. We didn’t need to know for our job as med-techs. And she said, “Well didn’t you ask your husband?” I said, “No. He couldn’t say anything. He was not allowed to talk about it.” She said, “Didn’t you talk to your neighbors?” I said, “No.” “When you went out socially didn’t you talk?” I said, “No you don’t do that.” She just couldn’t understand that. Finally her parting shot was, “Well it wouldn’t be that way nowadays.” I said, “Yes but you’re not at war nowadays either. That’s a big difference.” The way she said it we were just a bunch of dummies here because we didn’t ask. She just didn’t know what it was like. I tried to tell her about the security and she didn’t get it.

TERRI: It was before Iraq.

ROGER: This is another one. There was no fear but it was just the opposite. I think this was the time when Glenn Seaborg came out for Battelle for some doings. 25 years of Battelle. Afterward a group got together and somebody said, “I’m so amazed so much stuff got done.” One was oh boy I forget his name he used to run the old HanfordMuseum and he finally went blind.


RAY: Yes. Elmer Fosgate said, “We were so dumb that when the boss said to do something we did it." And this other guy says, "What about approval?”…we didn’t need it …”What about QA?” …never heard of it. There was quite a bit of that. The only real restriction at least that I ran across in the 100 Area was the radiation monitoring people. A couple times I wanted to say, “Just take a reading. There’s paper on the floor. I’ll hold my breath.” The radiation monitor says, “Well Roger you don’t work for me and I can’t tell you what to do but if you go in without suiting up, as in putting on special covering, I’ll get your butt.” Except he used stronger language. They were I would say right up there with top management. You do what they say or you get in trouble.

TERRI: Then did that go through until later years too? They were pretty much able to.

RAY: They set the parameters. If there was an area that was contaminated you didn’t make the decision to go in there yourself. You had your monitor with you and escort you and keep you out of trouble.

TERRI: And that didn’t cause any queasy feelings?

RAY: No.


RAY: Why should it? You were safe. You were protected by your keeper.

TERRI: The radiation monitor told you…so as long as you were sure that they were reading their equipment right.

RAY: Well you knew what…you had air monitors and things like that. One guy that got scared the most was a guy by the name of Ardal and he was operating in the hood. In the 234-5 building there was a recuplex operation where we recovered plutonium from the scrap and recycled the solutions. He was working there in the hood in the glove box hands extended in this hood. All of a sudden this criticality alarm went off. “Ahooga Ahooga.” He dropped his hands out of the hood as fast as he could. He ran through and broke the seal on the back door. He ran around the building as fast as he could. He got to the badge house he laid his arms down on the desk and he said, "I’ve had it. I saw the blue flash. I’m dead.” (Laughter) What had happened was there was too much concentrated plutonium nitrate solution that got sucked up into what at that time was called the K-9 Vessel which was a recycling vessel that was being used to slurp up all their spills and whatnot on the floor; but they put a lot of cadmium nitrate in there to absorb the neutrons from the plutonium solutions so it couldn’t go critical. But when they cleaned up the operations someone spilled a batch of concentrated plutonium solution on the floor and they had been sucking this stuff up with this K-9 Vessel. 18 inch in diameter it was not a critically safe vessel. So when they slurped it up into the tank it went critical. And according to my calculations from the year before it followed the form that would be expected for a solution of plutonium nitrate. It had a big spike of neutrons coming off and then all of a sudden it died down. The reaction stopped. But then when the solution collapsed upon itself then it started up again. So you get a 2-peak burst that tails off. What happens is when a plutonium solution goes critical like that the radiation is so high it separates the hydrogen oxygen into gasses they form bubbles and the bubbles rise. When bubbles rise the solution expands. What they call the buckling of the configuration then is diminished with respect to the K factor the K effect. The multiplication of the neutrons stops and goes sub-critical. And then as the solution collapses on itself as the bubbles clear that solution it goes critical again. But this time it doesn’t peak out as high. And as I say when I did the calculations the year before people wouldn’t believe me. So when that happened everybody of course cleared the building. I was downtown getting a haircut it was on a Saturday. So I called out and I said, "Has anybody thought about going out to the incinerator building?" In the incinerator building we took all the scraps from 234-5 building-coveralls, hood covers, and scrap out of the hoods that was combustible put it in boxes and take it over to the incinerator building and burn all of that. Well we didn’t want to get too much plutonium together in that facility so we had a neutron monitor there all the time that people watched to make sure that the neutron background level didn’t get too high. That would indicate that there was too much plutonium collecting in the facility. So this monitor was on. Well that was probably at least 100 yards away through a couple of concrete walls about 8” thick. And sure enough they got the charts at my request. I went out and picked them up and there was that trace of the neutrons as the neutrons increased went high and then they fell back and then picked up again. So then we could watch the neutron flux like you say from 100 yards away through some concrete walls. So those instruments were that sensitive. At that time W.E. Johnson was the manager here and Paul Ranker was the manager of the 200 Areas. So I was requested to explain to them why my model worked. Nobody else would support that concept when I developed that model the year before. And sure enough that’s the way it happens. Part of my calculations were based on work that Klaus Fuchs had done down at Los Alamos before he defected to the Russians. He was working on the boiling water reactor at Los Alamos and came up with the equations for that type of system and sure enough that’s how it works.

 AUDIENCE MEMBER: What was the timing of those sites. Do you recall?

RAY: Oh it was a very short period. I’ve got my charts at home. I kept a copy of my charts because I used unclassified information to develop the model.

ROGER: Is that what they call Rankers Reactor? We heard stories it was called that.

RAY: Yeah Rankers Reactor a boiling water reactor.

TERRI: Was that guy OK?

RAY: They did some checks on the sodium isotope ratio in his body. While he didn’t get a critical dose he was affected. He could never go back into a radiation zone. But he lived a normal life after that. But as an operator in a non-radioactive environment. There was another young guy in there with CD so they did a biopsy on his testicles because that was what affected. And he suffered more from that than he did from his exposure to the neutrons. (Laughter)

ROGER: Speaking of radiation that reminds me of a story. The first is true but I don’t know about the rest. Dupont and GE later if there was a particular job in a high radiation zone they usually used supervisors or engineers because most of the operators got their dose during the day. The story was that a fuel element, a slug, got stuck in the elevator in the rear of the reactor. And one of the 8” fuel elements would probably give you a lethal dose in about 20 or 30 seconds. Well Bill was to go out with I think it was an 8 foot pole and run out to the elevator and try to poke this fuel element loose. He was told to poke only twice. Whether you get it or not get back. The radiation monitor was standing right around the corner to see what the reading was. Bill ran out poked it. It dropped off the first time and he ran backwards so fast he knocked over the radiation monitor around the corner. (Laughter). He was one of the older guys when he came out he was 32 and they called him Pappy.

RAY: It was all young people.

MARY: Very young people with a high birth rate.

RAY: Our first son who is now a doctor here in town was born in the old barracks the old KadlecHospital.

MARY: Yes both of our children were born there.

TERRI: And did you come out here married or did you get married once you got here?

RAY: I got married the year before I graduated. So we were married and came out together.

TERRI: So what did she think of coming out here to this part of the EvergreenState?

RAY: She was born and raised in Rochester which is south of Olympia about 20 miles fir trees all around. I was born in the desert down in Arizona and I like desert country. She thought it was pretty bleak. But we stayed.

TERRI: So did she know what your job was? Sort of?

RAY: Well not really because again we couldn’t talk about it. She got herself a job in the suggestion department. So she worked out in the old HanfordHigh School that was where her office was. She got to see a lot of stuff out there.

TERRI: I’ll bet she got to see some interesting suggestions. Some of which you may not want to talk about. (Laughter).

RAY: Walt Smizer was one of her bosses. Jack Perrard and Walt Smizer. But back to the production days another thing that was interesting. I was in process control and then followed the process into the 234-5 building. Me and another guy developed the process that is still used today isolating the plutonium from the nitrate solution converting it to metal. Following that I became in charge of the final plutonium shapes that were shipped down to Los Alamos and then Rocky Flats. So I got awful close to the parts. We handled them with our hands if you can believe. They were plated with a coating on them so we could walk around in the room literally with the pieces of plutonium.

TERRI: With gloves or no?

RAY: Well you could have like surgical gloves but that was just a precaution in case there was any plutonium smeared around and hopefully you wouldn’t smear any around you wouldn’t drop any. But when they shifted to the high production effort during the height of the cold war years we were kind of faced with a dilemma in identifying or measuring what we called the neutron “emacivity” rate. And of course that would depend on how much 240 was in the 239 plutonium. Well when we got into that aspect of it. Well when plutonium fissions by itself you know it’s a natural fission it’s a natural fission product that emits neutrons all the time. But depending upon the mass of plutonium there would be what you call self- multiplication. The more plutonium together then the more the plutonium would return the neutrons within itself and it would give off more neutrons because of this multiplying effect. Well when we got into this higher level of 240 we didn’t have the mathematics to make corrections for the self-multiplication. So what we did is we had cylinders of plutonium-right circular cylinders like a hockey puck or several hockey pucks. And so what we did is we went on weekends we would run our experiments and if you can imagine Robert Lewis Stevenson- Bob Stevenson was one of the new criticality analysts and I became one and then Dr. Dwayne Clayton ran the Critical Mass Laboratories. So the three of us and we had an instrument tech with replicate instruments and he called this operation Rubber Knee. So we would take these right circular cylinders of plutonium and then we would stack them up and then we would get a neutron count. And then we’d stack another one on and we’d get a neutron count. Well if you plot the reciprocal of the neutron count as the neutron increases then if you take the inverse of that the fraction becomes much smaller all the time. So you plot the reciprocal of the neutron count you know 1 over the neutron count as the neutron count gets bigger this number gets smaller. So you get a curve that comes down and as it comes down it tends to level off. And where the line crosses 0 that’s when the mass is critical. That’s when you have a self-sustaining nuclear reaction. And of course the process of that is disassembly is the rule of thumb. That’s what happened down in Los Alamos with the slope that was tickling the Dragons Tail when he was trying to find out what the critical mass was for an plutonium bomb. And of course he got an excess of radiation and he died from it. But we would never go up past 98% critical. We could identify that very readily. But as a consequence of that we were able to correct that self-multiplication as we had more of that 240 in these weapons parts.

TERRI: So that’s what they called Tickling the Dragons Tail? That’s what they called it?

RAY: That’s what Los Alamos called it. We called it critical mass analysis.

TERRI: What was that about Rubber Knees?

RAY: Oh that was the instrument technician you know because when you keep stacking stuff up and you get more and more neutron emissions well you know …when will it go critical? That’s why independently Dwayne (Dr. Clayton), Bob Stevenson, and myself all did triplicate analyses of where we were and we had to agree 100%. No disagreement between the three of us. And then we’d take it a next step but we would predict what the next step would be. Then we would go back to our calculations and see if our prediction was correct. So as a consequence of that we were able to determine what the self-multiplication was with this higher isotope concentration. The other fact was that we used an americium-beryllium source as our trigger in the weapons components to get our neutron readings. From our equations we could calculate the emacivity for these weapons parts. Well what happens is as your americium-beryllium ages americium decays and as a consequence you don’t get the same emission rate. And so what you have to do then is you have to correct your calculations for that. Well I got into an argument with the people at Los Alamos over this and they said you don’t have to worry about that. Well we were pushing the limits on our reactions out here to get maximum production and it did make a difference. So we finally got an allowance from them that would allow us to correct for the age of our americium-beryllium source.  So some more of the interesting aspects of working at the 234-5 building.

TERRI: Sounds like an awful lot of math.

RAY: Oh yeah.

TERRI: It does to me it sounds like an awful lot of math. And you didn’t have calculators?

RAY: Oh yeah we did. We had Freeden-Marchant mechanical calculators. And of course we had our slide rules. And slide rules are good to 3 decimal points. Three significant figures I should say not 3 decimal points. And by interpolating you can stretch it to 4.

TERRI: Kind of like if you knew generally what it should be then it probably is going to be if you are out 3 figures already. If you can see patterns then you pretty much figure out what the next one was going to be.

RAY: Yeah you can interpolate yeah. I learned an awful lot about math.

TERRI: Well when we take kids through the museum one of the things that I have them do when they look at the exhibit of the office up there is I ask them …Where is the computer? Where is the calculator? And of course there isn’t one. But there is a slide rule there. And when I tell them that’s what they used they just look at me. And I just look back and think I don’t know how to do it either. (Laughter).

RAY: Well there are tricks you can use with a slide rule to extend it to 5 figures but that’s pushing it just a little bit too far.

TERRI: Just a little bit. Then did you find that when you were here working did the other women were they accepting of the fact that we’re just not going to talk about it?

Mary: Oh yes you didn’t talk about it because well one thing that happened was the first year we were here some man tried to crawl into the window of the women’s dorm. He was out of here out of town the next day. That was the end of that. Even though that wasn’t a security infraction. I mean as far as the plant was concerned. He was out.

TERRI: Well I’ll bet that may have scared some of the women and if they lost some of the women they would have to replace them. So in a way it’s a security concern.

MARY: Another thing that happened with Roger before he came out here. When he knew he was coming the FBI went to his parents in St. Paul. It scared the daylights out of them. They couldn’t imagine why the FBI was investigating him …what had he done? It was just so he could work here.

ROGER: That is the exact words my mother used … Roger what have you done? (Laughter).

MARY: Well he couldn’t tell her what he was doing and she was really upset about that having the FBI.

TERRI: Now back then did they wear the same suit that they wear now? You can spot an FBI guy by their suit.

MARY: I don’t know about that. Well I don’t think they dress that way now so much. We have a relative that’s an FBI agent. He’s pretty casual.

RAY: Well there was very tight security. As I say I got into some advanced clearances. But what really ticked me off was I went back east with GE and I became the manager of the new product development section of GE Wire and Cable. In that operation there we were working on some new systems for Phased Array Radar. Or super detection of highflying objects or things like that. Well I had to go back through and get another clearance check because in the military the Air Force in that area does not recognize the AEC  “Q” clearances or weapons clearances. So they had to go back through all my history again. I had to write down all my jobs when I was there what I did there and so forth. And when I moved, what my addresses were. Who I knew and things like that. Their list of questions was much tougher than the AEC  “Q” clearance.

TERRI: Now once it got out what Hanford did what they were doing over the years. Was there any problem with people not wanting to come here and work here? Did you notice any difference in like people wanting the jobs?

RAY: People follow money.

ROGER: There was a junior depression in the late 30’s I think that attracted a lot of the construction workers. This was a good deal.

RAY: Wages were high here.

TERRI: So even well I’m thinking now later on when people started to become more fearful of atomic things. It seems like for a while everything atomic was wonderful. It was the new coming age. And the in the media in comics and things you started getting a darker side. I’m wondering if there was any problem recruiting?

RAY: People trade on fears. People trade on fears.

MARY: Well especially the anti-nukes on the west side of the state. They are very anti Hanford. And they promote a lot of publicity that is anti-nuke and it scares people there. When Roger worked in the museum when it was still in the federal building, a man brought his mother in and she said, " Well is there any radiation in the museum?" And her son said, “ Well of course mother there is.” And she wasn’t going to walk in to the museum. She believed him. (Laughter) Well of course it wasn’t true. You wouldn’t have a museum with radiation in it.

RAY: You’d get cosmic bombardment.

TERRI: If you had a sunroof. Oh no radiation from the sun.

ROGER: We had Fiesta ware. Dangerously radioactive.

RAY: Yeah. This ceramicist well actually he was a stone carver. I forget his name now. But he was going to make a stone for B Reactor. A round block.

MARY: Jim Accord?

RAY: Yeah Jim Accord. And of course he collected all these Fiesta ware dishes and he pulverized them and took the glazing off them which has uranium in it. And he collected his uranium that way. Of course he’s got lots of stories about all the problems that he had because he had this uranium from the Fiesta ware that he had concentrated that he used as a radiation source. To listen to him and all the problems that he had the way that they treated him was just absolutely asinine. But that’s because of scare stories through the media.

ROGER: He did finally get a license.

RAY: He got a license.

ROGER: And he had it tattooed on the back of his neck. Maybe he had too much radiation. (Laughter).

RAY: Well then we had a chemist out here by the name of Gaylen Windsor. I don’t know if you have ever heard of him. But he worked out there. He had a house not too far from where Ralph lives. He used to give lectures and talks about the radioactivity and things like that and how these people were nuts about how dangerous uranium was. So he had a little sample of uranium oxide. It’s very green so he gave a lick on his tongue and shows that green tongue and thinks nothing of it because the amount of radiation active in uranium is very small. In reality it’s a very low level of radioactivity. And then there’s the guy who worked in the beryllium research back AmesIowa. They were working on uranium processing back there at the University of Ames, Iowa there. He always chewed snoose. So he always had these dregs on the sides of his mouth from this snoose.

TERRI: Was that like chewing a tobacco?

RAY: Yeah chewing tobacco. Anyway working in this area where they have lots of this dust uranium dust it was green. So they used to call him the Green Hornet. (Laughter). And then when he retired from that job or left that job they wanted to take a bone section to determine how much radioactivity he had in his system. He absolutely refused. He said you’re not going to cut me up.

MARY: One of the other places was on the buses in town. There were big signs … Silence Means Security. If you went to the movies that was flashed on the screen. It was everyplace. You got a big dose of security. You just didn’t talk about it unless you wanted to be out of a job and out of town. You just shut up.

TERRI: Now was that rumored or did you know that people had to end up having to leave in a hurry? Beside the one guy you tried to…

MARY: The one man is the only one we knew of for sure. But there were probably others. But you just did not do anything that would jeopardize security.

RAY: You just maintained your own integrity. If you screwed it up you weren’t of the quality to continue working here couldn’t be trusted.

TERRI: So it wasn’t a matter so much of government repression as it was a matter of integrity. That you were doing something to help win the war to help advance science.

RAY: And it was an attitude too.

TERRI: And if people didn’t maintain that they probably wouldn’t want to stay.

MARY: That’s right.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I knew a lady whose husband worked here he was no longer alive. He was hired in the very early days when they were just starting. She said the interviewer giving the interview said, " Do you talk in your sleep?" He said, “Why? Why has that anything to do with it?” “We can’t hire you because you are known to talk in your sleep.”

TERRI: Wow-wow!

AUDIENCE MEMBER: You might say something to your wife.

TERRI: And who knows what she might be ahhhh! So now the wives who didn’t work did they have to get security clearances too?


TERRI: So just the women that went to work.

MARY: But I didn’t. You were supposed to go to a security meeting when you started working at Hanford. I went to one the day before I quit. (Laughter) That was the first and only one I ever went to.

TERRI: How long did you work?

MARY: About 6 months- 7 months.

TERRI: So then they may have been very efficient in making all of this other stuff but they weren’t very efficient at keeping track of who had their meetings.


TERRI: Well they just took one look at you and they knew that you didn’t need this. (Laughter).

MARY: Oh sure. I don’t think so. I don’t think so. (More laughter). No they didn’t trust anybody, which is fine.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Well did you know anything? I mean you said you didn’t talk about anything. But did you actually know anything?

MARY: No because you were only told what you needed to know for your specific job.

TERRI: Do you think that’s why you really don’t feel much fear? Because you really didn’t know what was going on?

MARY: Exactly.

RAY: I would say no. It depends what job you were in. I wasn’t a nurse in that part of it. But I was out there in the middle of where we handled parts that went into the Atomic Bombs.

TERRI: But you didn’t know what was going on. Really.

RAY: Oh yes we did.

TERRI: Oh you did know.

RAY: Oh absolutely.

TERRI: Well she asked if you did know what was going on.

ROGER: Not in ’44 though.

RAY: No not in ’44.

TERRI: Ok. That’s what I think she was talking about the fear factor and I was wondering if that was because people only knew what they needed to know.

MARY: We didn’t have any fear about it.

ROGER: Well you didn’t know what to fear.

RAY: Depending on what job you had- yes and no. Again back to when we were producing the plutonium parts for the thermonuclear devices it was a whole new world. Because now you were making in essence you were making a container for the Tritium Bombs. And of course that had to be some very tough specifications. Also it increased the inventory of plutonium that we had to deal with. And we had a very limited space in which to handle this stuff. So we had this so called  “Remote Mechanical A-Line” in part of our area where plutonium was being fabricated made into parts for the thermonuclear devices. And so I guess I can say they looked kind of like a hemispherical piece like a soup bowl or something. And so when it came down to … how much can you store in a given area? We used to have what we call mass limits. So many kilograms of plutonium would be in one type of area. But when we got into this area it was a more of a distributed shape rather than a compact shape. So now the question was how many of these things could you have in your storage array? Well we didn’t know. We didn’t know an awful lot about the mathematics of fast neutron systems. So Bob Stevenson and I and Dwayne Clayton got together again and said well the only way we can find out is to measure it. So again we stacked these things up in this storage array- an endless track kind of an oval. So when the operators wanted some … rotate around to get a piece that they wanted. Well again we did this on weekends. We went out there and we stacked these things up and we had a pretty good inventory of this stuff. So we would stack them up and we’d take our neutron count. Then make the calculations. Make our predictions. And that was the next step. And then when we got all done we had just short of a kiloton of plutonium in this one storage configuration. And we got up to a multiplication factor where we figured we were about 98% critical. But we went that far and we knew what we dealing with and how we were dealing with it and we had replicate instruments again to verify our neutron counts. And we had the three guys to verify the calculations and our predictions. And so we were able to come up with those kinds of controls. Today we couldn’t do that because of the fear mongering in the media that’s been creating fear and doubt in people’s minds. But if you knew what the heck you were doing. And if you monitored what you were doing. And you verified what you were doing. Without an error check going to lead. There was no limit to what you could do to get the kind of controls that you needed to meet the demand for weapons components to meet the insatiable appetite of the Cold War. It was just a kind of production frenzy… worldwide. So you knew what you were doing. You didn’t have to have someone telling you. You had to know what you were doing based on theory and physics based on the real world and control these things. You certainly wouldn’t want somebody in there that wouldn’t be responsible.

TERRI: Well in a weekend we get people from all over visiting the museum. We get all kinds of people with all kinds of fears. I’m going to tell you a couple of stories that are on the ridiculous end. But what I want you to maybe move us into reality. One was a group of school children who came by bus from the west side. And they were here for a full day. They were going through the museum. They were doing some other activities. And they were going to have lunch out by the Columbia River. And the teacher had gotten them so worked up they were afraid to sit by the river to eat their lunch. So now we’re on the ridiculous end of the scale right. Moving a little bit farther up the ridiculous scale. Remember in the paper not too long ago there was a guy that was swimming the Columbia? I understand that when he went by Hanford he put on a special suit. (Laughter) And he had people in boats going with him with radiation monitors to make sure he was ok. Now what I wanted to do was get into the collections and get into one of those suits and go out by the river with a Geiger counter and just point at it and go … OOOOOHHH! But my boss didn’t think that was such a great idea. (Laughter). So from your perspective from both of you having worked at Hanford a long time. And you from the medical viewpoint. Do you think that was a reasonable thing to see him in that suit or was it overkill?

RAY: It was stupidity.

TERRI: Pure stupidity ok. (Laughter).

RAY: I often think about giving up my little ion exchange water purifier to Ecology in Olympia so they could dismantle it. It’s been fully spent so I know there is a lot of residue in there. It may have some radionuclides in it of some kind. I offered to give that to them so they could dismantle it and check it … no strontium or cesium or whatever they might find. As it turns out that we have more uranium going down the river than we have from Hanford. Same way with thorium and of course radon. And tritium is in there from natural cosmic radiation quite a lot of it. As a matter of fact when we sampled deep water as part of the Basalt project that we working on many years back in the ‘70s. We had to take our deep-water samples and we had to bring them up into an argon atmosphere so there would no carbon dioxide from this atmosphere getting into this water because we felt that would taint it. As it turns out it didn’t. Atmospheric contamination of carbon-40 or something like that didn’t taint those water samples. So now you are looking for archaic water.  How old is the water underground here? There is more radioactivity in the environment and we can tolerate that. We did some studies on that.

TERRI: Roger you had a story come to mind.

ROGER: Oh a fear story this is a story presumably true after the word got out about what Hanford was doing. Pasco was concerned about drinking water. So the lab sent a scientist down there to explain it all to them. Then after about a half hour nobody caught on to what he was saying. They couldn’t quite understand this complicated theories of stuff. So somebody said from the audience, "Should we drink the water or shouldn’t we?" He thought about it for a second and he said, “ I’ll give you the rule of 85. If you drank 85 gallons a day for 85 years you would get the maximum permissible dose for a civilian. So drink it.” (Laughter). Well Richland and Kennewick drink the stuff. It does take care of your hair though. (Laughter).

TERRI: Nice and soft I can see that. (More laughter).

MARY: Well we did have trouble with people in Pasco and Kennewick. When we came there were almost no stores in Richland. C C Anderson’s was in that building where Ariel's is. And that was a nice store. But we didn’t have dime stores and drug stores and all that good stuff and so we’d go to Pasco and Kennewick. Well when they found out that we worked and lived in Richland…Forget it we’re not selling it to you. I had one woman refuse to sell me more than one spool of thread because we lived here.

TERRI: Well why?

MARY: Because well they were so suspicious of everyone who lived in Richland because they didn’t know what was going on. They didn’t know we didn’t know either. (Laughter). They just didn’t…there was the Fear Factor there on their part. They didn’t understand what was going on and they didn’t want anything to do with Richland people.

RAY: In the ‘40s and early ‘50s the political parties the rest of the counties would not accept like the Republican Party would not accept the Republicans from Richland as part of their leadership. When I worked on the Eisenhower campaign in 1951 I was absolutely surprised that Pasco and Kennewick had that kind of mentality with respect to the people in Richland. We were a foreign nation for all practical purposes.

MARY: That’s the way we were treated.

TERRI: That’s amazing.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: With all the emphasis this weekend about B Reactor- 60th Anniversary of Startup I think it would be really interesting to hear you both describe the changes. Now it was designed for 250 megawatts and before it was shut down it was over 2000. Would you run through a sequence of events that let happen.

RAY: Well I never followed reactor technology very closely except as it related to the production quality coming out of Hanford.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Well part of it was a change of fuel.

RAY: Change of fuel. Also a reconfiguration of the fuel distribution in the reactor. I know that much about it. They flattened the flex. This gets into some rather complicated physics.

TERRI: You know I think we will wrap up in a couple of minutes then if you guys want to talk complicated physics.

MARY: I have one thing to say…B Reactor is not the only one celebrating their 60th anniversary. In two weeks we’ll have our 60th anniversary.

TERRI: Oh! (Applause).

ROGER: Seems like it was just yesterday.

MARY: I have another story about the early days.

ROGER: As a matter of fact there’s nothing that isn’t a story about the early days. (Laughter).

MARY: I was just going to say…When the Villager came out and said that the Bomb had been dropped and the war was over. Everybody was out celebrating. The people next door to us were standing out there drinking a cocktail and the park was full of people celebrating and it was just really an exciting time. Finally we knew what was going on. That was the first knew. We never knew a thing until then.

TERRI: That must have been exciting.

MARY: It was exciting.

TERRI: Ok last story Roger.

ROGER: Alright. This is Greger’s…I think there was a lot of contingency in the early reactors. And of course they weren’t sure what to expect. So they did a lot things just to make sure that everything worked right. One of the things that they did they even had a de-aerator to take the air out of the water because any nitrogen or argon with the water would absorb neutrons and slow down the reaction. And they talked about getting colder water. One plant even had a giant air conditioner, which was never used. And there were other factors like Ray mentioned they increased the uranium-238 to get more neutrons. And there were small steps along the way that just got snowballed.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: When I was out there they changed the diameter and the configuration of the fuel elements by having a hole there right in the center.

RAY: That was N Reactor.

ROGER: Even the old reactors.

TERRI: Well I would like to thank you guys very much for coming. You know what I think? I’m relieved that there wasn’t a whole lot of fear. I really am. I’m glad there were confidant people that were working on these things that knew what they were doing and I don’t worry about living here. In upstate New York some of my relatives were a little concerned when I moved here. We moved here during the time of the burping tank and made national news and they were all a little bit worried but having met people like you guys and people who have worked here since the beginning I know I have a lot of confidence in science and the scientists and I am very optimistic about the future of the area. 






Bit Rate/Frequency




CREHST Museum, “The Fear Factor,” Hanford History Project, accessed April 21, 2024,