Floyd Briston Oral History

Dublin Core

Title

Floyd Briston Oral History

Subject

Hanford Atomic Products Operation
B Reactor National Historic Landmark (Wash.)

Description

An audio oral history interview with Bill Putnam conducted by Tom Putnam for the B Reactor Museum Association. Hope was a "Pr Sr. Supervisor of C Shift" during WWII at the Hanford Site.

Creator

B Reactor Museum Association

Publisher

Hanford History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities

Date

3/15/1992

Rights

Those interested in reproducing part or all of this oral history should contact the Hanford History Project.

Language

English

Identifier

RG2D-4B

Oral History Item Type Metadata

Interviewer

Tom Putnam

Interviewee

Floyd Briston

Location

Home of Floyd Briston

Transcription

FLOYD BRITSON INTERVIEW Recorded 3/15/92

 

Tom Putnam: The first thing we’d like to know is if you could state your name and whatever position that you had here in the early days of Hanford. And then we’ll ask questions for answering.

Floyd Britson: Well, Floyd Britson is the name. And I was Senior Supervisor on C shift during the startup of B.

Putnam: How did you first hear about the Hanford Project, and how were you recruited to come here?

Britson: Oh, I was an area supervisor for DuPont at a TNT plant at Joliet, Illinois. And they turned the plant over to another company and moved about 1,200 of us out here from Joliet. This was in the summer of ’44, basically operating people. But I got on a side issue along with a chap by the name of Harry Miller. Developed the whiz-bang which resolved the canning problem of the slugs they used in B Reactor.

Putnam: How did you come here? Did you come by car, by train?

Britson: By train. Landed here April 12th. My car showed up somewhat later, by train. And then, I was assigned a house early in the—but I was told that my furniture would be two-three months away from getting out here. But, one day I got a call, come into town; there’s a truck full of furniture out in front of your house and they want to unload it. It seemed, according to my wife, that when they started to load the furniture back in Joliet to haul into Chicago for storage, the truck driver got a call on the telephone and he was told instead of bringing that furniture into Chicago, you just head out for Richland. So, I had a house full of furniture and no wife.

Putnam: What was it like when you arrived here? Where—did you live in Richland or in Hanford, or--?

Britson: I lived in Richland. The dormitories were in operation but full. And so I was put in a house out on the corner of Stevens and Van Giesen. That was made over into a dormitory. There was six or eight of us that were sleeping there. But a few days after I got there, as I say, I already had a house assigned to me, so they said they would loan me a bedroom full of furniture if I would sleep in my own house for free until my furniture got there, which would free up a dormitory room for somebody else. Because they were moving them in pretty fast at that time. Well, I don’t know how many, but several DuPont plants were shut down, in the east, or turned over to—well, it was our plant at Joliet was turned over to U.S. Rubber, to operate. And they moved everybody that could get clearance and they brought 1,200 of us out here. But Oklahoma, southern Indiana, various plants, many people were brought out here at that time. And so they were just running out of room.

Putnam: Was there a lot of construction?

Britson: Well, construction was in full force. Hanford was loaded. Reportedly 65,000 men out there. And so—but then, a good many houses were well along in Richland. The big problem was furniture. They couldn’t get it in fast enough, they couldn’t get freight cars and sometimes up to six months.

Greg Greger: You mentioned 65,000 construction workers. Do you have any idea of whether or not any of them were women? Not in construction, necessarily, but related jobs?

Britson: There were some women. I have no idea how many. They had women’s dorms and they had men’s dorms and they had quite a problem with that: married people split up. They had to do their lovemaking through fences and—oh, it was a lot of stories. [LAUGHTER]

Putnam: When you—do you recall first seeing B Reactor and the Area out there?  What level of construction was complete by then? Tell us about your first reactions.

Britson: Well, the buildings were all complete, at the time I got here in April, or virtually complete. But the equipment inside took until about September before they loaded up and started up. I don’t remember the date in September; it seems like the initial start was fairly early.

Putnam: and you came in April, April of ’44. So tell us the story then about—what was the problem that they had then at that point?

Britson: Well, the problem that I got onto was canning this uranium slugs with aluminum, they had to be leak-proof, no pinholes. And they had been working somewhere back east—Ohio I believe—for a year and had not been able to solve the problem. And, so a chap by the name of Harry Miller was assigned the job; he was a DuPont troubleshooter. And Harry grabbed me as a draftsman and I spent the next two months in developing what was later dubbed the whiz-bang. But from it, they found out what they were doing wrong with their old machines and they made the correction in between April and September. Had enough seven-inch slugs to load B Area.

Putnam: Can you describe the whiz-bang to us? What—how did it work?

Britson: No, I don’t think I dare. I was sworn to secrecy and I’ve never been taken off of it, so--

Putnam: Okay. So what did your work consist of? You built the whiz-bang, and then--?

Britson: Then I went back to B Area and was senior supervisor on C shift for power. We supplied the water and the steam for backup emergency. But our primary job was to pump through the filter plant—this meant water treatment, additions of various chemicals along the road, and then the final pumping station in the 190 Building, which brought it up to pressure. Also had the emergency steam pumps sitting there, in the event of electrical failure for the electric pumps.

Greger: On the treatment of water, was there anything new or was this pretty much standard procedures?

Britson: Well, it was fairly standard procedure. B Area did not have the refrigeration units as we talked a bit ago, although D and F area did have, but they were only used for one season, I think. But the standard filter plant was—see, there was first a river pump house. Pumped it up to a reservoir in the plant. And from that reservoir, then, water was pumped through the filter plant into clear wells. They had gone through the filter beds, given water treatment and pumped out of the clear wells through the 185 Building, which was a chemical addition building where addition chemicals were added. The 190 pumps then pumped out of the storage tanks in this 185 Building. Pumped it through the valve pit where again chemicals were added. And through the tubes that contained the uranium slugs that were being irritated. [LAUGHTER] Irradiated.

Greger: Do you recall how many degrees the refrigeration was able to get in the water?

Britson: No sir, I couldn’t. Not now anymore, but we just gave it all we had.

Greger: Mm-hmm. And you might mention, as you told me, why the decided not to--

Britson: But that was not in B Area.

Greger: I realize that, yeah.

Britson We did not have the refrigeration pumps in B Area.

Greger: But even with the older areas, since it was going on at the same time, you might mention what you told me.

Britson: Well, they only used it for, I think, one season. And decided that, rather than to waste all that electricity on those refrigeration units, they’d just pump additional water. Get the same results. And then later—oh, several years later, they put in bigger pumps in those 190 annexes they put in—[TELEPHONE RINGS]—some enormous pumps. [TELEPHONE RINGS]

[VIDEO CUTS]

Britson: Everything was secret back in those days. You just didn’t discuss off of the Plant anything that you knew about the place. Various people got into all kinds of trouble from spouting off. There was one story that was going around, a guy got into trouble and he was asked what they were doing out there he said, hell, I don’t know, they could be splitting atoms for all I know. And boy, he was in a lot of trouble. [LAUGHTER]

Putnam: He made a good guess! How much—were you aware of what was going on? Were you given information or simply given figures?

Britson: I was given only what information I needed to know to run my job. When water got to the valve pit, I didn’t have any idea what was going on beyond that.

Greger: How long was it before you finally understood or were told that it was a nuclear thing?

Britson: I don’t guess ever. Of course, my job, over time—I was on construction liaison for several years, the building of H Area unit, D and DR unit—DR unit. And some of the buildings, operations in the 200 Areas and, as I say, information that filtered down some way or other. I had no idea what was going on. How I acquired it, I don’t know. But as far as anybody sitting down and telling me what was going on, that never happened.

Greger: They probably thought that power needs to just treat the water.

Britson: Treat the water and that’s it. No, we never told our fellows anything. You see, I was two months behind on getting my shift together. And holding the training courses, because we were hiring anybody that was warm. And it turned out that construction was letting a lot of carpenters loose at about that time and we hired a lot of carpenters for power operators. It was a new business and so it didn’t make much difference how much experience a guy had, he didn’t have what was going on here. But I was permitted to hold some overtime classes in town here, during the summer of—well, say, July and August—I held classes right here in town for my crew on overtime basis because I was behind, having spent two months on the whiz-bang. And of course that never hurt my reputation any. From then on, I had a good job. Harry Miller got to be superintendent of a department. I never attained that, but I did wind up as manager of GDR Power, in the last few years.

Greger: One last question on the whiz-bang. Do you happen to know how they came up with that name?

Britson: No. No, that was all done in operations. In fact, I had trouble even finding anybody that would talk, to tell me that much on the whiz-bang. Because it had been a sore problem and when it got resolved, why, it was kept a secret. No, I ain’t kidding you.

Putnam: Were you at—you were here when startup occurred. Were you at the plant, or what was—was there awareness that the plant started up?

Britson: I was on C shift, actual startup.

Putnam: C Shift—what was C Shift?

Britson: We were on 4:00 to 12:00.

Putnam: 4:00 to 12:00. And so, were you working in the main building? Were you in the control room?

Britson: No, I was supervisor—senior supervisor of the shift. So I had a lot of buildings to—the 190 Building, the 185 Building, 183 Building, 182 Building, 181 Building, 108 Building—all under my supervision, plus the powerhouse.

Putnam: What did that entail, just telling people what to do?

Britson: Well, no, I had supervisors under me who did the telling. But when you’re the top supervisor on any shift, the responsibility lands in your lap for anything that happens.

Greger: Were there any preparations or announcements or anything else as you approached startup that would make it any different in the regular shift?

Britson: No, no. We had been working for days as though the place was in operation. As far as we were concerned in our water treatment plant, our pumping, all of our pumping facilities were just as—the crew really never knew what was going on, particularly.

Greger: Was there any announcement that they had made?

Britson: Not particularly. No, because as I say, nobody was told anything that they didn’t have to have it for use on their job. And these boys had some gauges and that’s all they had to watch.

Putnam: How many people were—I mean, was there a big crowd around at the time?

Britson: No, no, no. It was just standard shift. There may have been a few extra physicists during the startup period. Because—well, remember, that was the first one in the world and so the boys with their pencil were there, but not too many of them, that I was aware of.

Greger: How many people were in your power C Shift would you estimate?

Britson: Oh, gosh. I just don’t remember now how many I did have.

Putnam: I think I’d better—

Britson: We had about, at that time, total power, as I remember, about 600 people. But they were scattered over four shifts.

[TAPE CUTS]

Britson:  From F—or B to F, and continued then in operations, I was area supervisor for—well, the rest of ‘45, ‘46, when DuPont left and GE came in. And sometime in ‘47, or ’48, we started to build the DR Reactor because B was shut down and it looked like it was done.

Greger: What was your understanding of how they came into that problem at B?

Britson: Well, I was told that the material used was crawling and that the tubes were getting so crooked, that they were having trouble getting these seven-inch slugs pushed through. Were having some trouble with the control rods which had to be moved in and out to control the reaction. And what they were concerned with, particularly, was that the vertical control rods wouldn’t drop into place in case of emergency. But after B sat there for a while and they were able to watch D and F Area, which was still in operation, they realized that the creep had about reached its limit. And so they went to a four-inch slug instead of a seven and were able to load the tubes, and their control rods weren’t giving them any further trouble. But in addition to that, my understanding was that they hung a bunch of hoppers—buckets if you will—with boron balls—marbles—above the reactor and so in case any of the control rods failed all they’d do is dump those balls and they’d run like water into every crack and crevice in the place and shut the place down dead. And so with that behind them, then they started up B Area again and it continued to operate until it was shut down somewhere in the ‘60s.

Putnam: In terms of general atmosphere at Hanford and kind of in the country at the time, what was the climate--was there a time of fear and crisis, or--? What was it like to be in the United States of America in 1944 working on the Manhattan Project?

Britson: Our only concern really was the balloon bombs that the Japs were floating this direction. We were told about them; that some several had landed in Oregon. None that I ever heard of had landed near here. But it wasn’t until just a few years ago that I learned that those rascals floated over 6,000 of those bombs in our direction, on the Jetstream. But that Jetstream, of course, changes course without notice and their bombs weren’t too effective, but the intent certainly was there. To float 6,000 of them in this direction. And that was several years after Pearl Harbor, which was in ’41, and so we’re talking about ‘44, ‘45. Of course, in ‘45 the bombs were dropped, first Nagasaki—or I mean Hiroshima and then Nagasaki a week later. Now, Nagasaki used materials from here. Hiroshima used material from Oak Ridge.

Putnam: When did you first hear about that? And was there an explanation? I mean, obviously it came in paper at that time.

Britson: Well, I was in Portland. We had a day off and so we’d gone to Portland, and I heard about it there.

Putnam: Do you remember hearing about it in the news?

Britson: Oh.

Putnam: Were you excited?

Britson: Well, for sure because we didn’t know what the results of that may be, but then on the other hand—Many of us had been passed over by the Army or the Navy. I had—back in TNT plant—I was in TNT before Pearl Harbor. I had gone to work for the contractor that was building the TNT plant there at Joliet in 1940. And, as construction ended, or was tapering off, I got permission to talk to DuPont who was coming in to operate the plant. I had been working with Stone & Webster. And I had been in charge of well drilling operations, so DuPont decided they needed me and so I hired over with DuPont. Stone & Webster already had a job for me at Oak Ridge but I talked them out of that. In fact the Stone & Webster manager said, I know a little bit about DuPont. He said, I’ll just bet you a dinner that you leave here before I do.

Putnam: What was your area of expertise? How was your training?

Britson: Well, I was a civil engineer to start with. I had gone to school at Iowa State, Ames. I never got a degree, but I had gotten into construction—some of the major companies.

Putnam: What, in your opinion, was the major importance? It was really a huge endeavor, the Manhattan Project. Why do you think we were able to do it and make it succeed?

Britson: Well, I guess you can say it just kind of happened, if you get the right people on the job. DuPont had some people on the job with their expertise. [TELEPHONE RINGS] Now we’ve talked—

Putnam: Oh.

Gregson: I’ll get ya.

Putnam: Okay, go ahead.

[TAPE CUTS]

Putnam: What I was getting at before was, did it take a lot of the industrial capacity of the United States to—I mean a lot of the expertise and industrial capacity of the United States was diverted to this project and it was pretty remarkable. Do you have any thoughts about that?

Britson: Well, I don’t know too much about the design effort, nor the early construction. See, these reactors, well, they’d been building on them for years by the time I got here.

[DOOR OPENS]

Putnam: Oops.

Britson: And so, I don’t guess I’m in position to answer your question that you’re—

Putnam: Yeah, sure, okay. Let’s see. We’re going to—

[TAPE CUTS]

Greger: --that you felt everybody was really tuned in to security, and I think that you commented that some people did get in trouble. Did you have anything else to say about that? One would think that people would always—or some people would discuss what they thought it might be. But have any thoughts comments?

Britson: Well, no, not particularly. There were a lot of little stories around about at the time. One story that they used to tell—a kid in school got up and said to a teacher, she knew what her father was doing out in the plant, because he brought home a roll of toilet paper in his lunch box every night. [LAUGHTER] ­Another of the cute stories at the time was that they just painted some glue on a piece of paper and held it up and made sandpaper out of it. Because of the sandstorms. We had a lot of wind at that time and of course everything in Richland, Hanford, and the areas was all dug up and just loose sand everywhere. And so, it was in the air. But, well, of the group of people that I associated with, were all like myself: they had a very limited knowledge of what was going on in the building. But I think most of us operated on the basis we had enough to learn about the equipment that we had under our charge to worry about what was going on the other side of the fence. And, of course, as I mentioned, the fact that at the time construction was laying off carpenters, and so we hired a bunch of carpenters for power operators. We had brand new equipment; nobody was used to it, and so it didn’t make much difference what their past profession was, they had to learn all over again. And we had plenty of time, with the exception of myself, because I’d spent two months on the whiz-bang. And so my shift got a bit behind, but they permitted me to set up some overtime sessions down here in the school, right across the street here, somewhere. Right here in this area. There was a church, or something, right over here on the corner, wasn’t there? And I set up some sessions there and paid the boys overtime to sit and listen to me yack at them.

Greger: You mentioned that you were on a day off in Portland when the bomb was dropped. Is there—I’d be curious as to what was the attitude of people when you got back to the shift and people you knew, now that the news was out?

Britson: Well, I don’t know, nobody seemed to be too surprised at anything. Is that the way you remembered it, Tom? 

“Tom”: That’s about right. I think--

Britson: Nobody seemed to be particularly surprised at anything. The fact that the second bomb came from material from here was welcome news and that was about it.

Putnam: Yeah. I want to backtrack and—you were describing me the startup procedure and some of the technical facts of the 1,600 versus the 2,000 tubes, can you give us just a little bit, kind of a thumbnail sketch, of the startup period and you know just what you heard about or what you know about it? Just as a description.

Britson: Well, as far as our operations concerned it didn’t make any difference. We just had to maintain certain water flow, water pressure. And once it hit the valve pit we didn’t pay any attention to what was going on the other side of the fence, because we had been told right from the start, it’s none of your damn business.  And so—[LAUGHTER]

Putnam: But, how did it work, where they did a dry criticality first, and then--?

Britson: We had been pumping for days. To make sure of our equipment. You see, the contractor only had to run equipment 24 hours satisfactorily. And then it was turned over to us, and we had to make sure that it was going to run continually. And if one piece of equipment wouldn’t run, then another piece would. And to back all of this up with tanks of water sitting here and there and high tanks and we had special pumps on the export system to pump water from one area to another.

“Tom”: Yup, they were some high tanks.

Britson: [LAUGHTER] Yeah, yeah. And so—but in my years of operation we never had to resort to those. We were able to take care of the situation with our electric and our steam pumps.

“Tom”: Steam backup.

Britson: Plus—one little factor in there—there were great big wheels between the motor and the pump—flywheels. What did those things weigh, six tons?

“Tom”: Yeah, at least that much. Yeah.

Britson: And they would continue to keep those pumps running for long enough for us to get our steam pumps in operation. And the power houses responded every time there was a need for it. We had ample capacity there and a well-trained crew. And we had those steam pumps at all the places: 182, 183, as well as 190. And reservoirs to back us up.

Putnam: Did you have any particular problems in that area in the days before start up, anything that was interesting problems to solve? Or was it just basically a well-designed beginning, not too many adjustments necessary?

Britson: Well, no, there wasn’t too much. We got the equipment. Oh, we had some problems, but they posed no problem for us, because we had alternate equipment to stick on. And backup equipment. From my own limited knowledge of what was going on—and I don’t remember now just where that took place—but it was some time after the initial startup was when they put those boron balls in those buckets above the reactors. That was a safety backup.

“Tom”: The VSRs.

Britson: Because we’d all been a little dubious about some of those horizontal rods and particularly those vertical control rods hanging up somewhere. But when they put those buckets of balls up there, why, I certainly rested a lot happier with it. But I don’t remember just where now, it was a year or two after—

“Tom”: After startup.

Britson: --after startup, wasn’t it?

“Tom”: I don’t remember the day really, the Ball-3X system. I started to work at DuPont down there around the same time that he did.

Britson: Oh, I see. Well, of course, I came from Kankakee Plant and there were a lot of boys from Kankakee Plant here.

“Tom”: Oh, yeah.

Britson: In fact, I think there was probably about 1,200 at one time considered for moving out here.

Putnam: Here, would you describe conditions as being difficult? And what was the morale like? Was there a sense of team spirit sort of, of everybody working on a big project?

Britson: Well, I don’t know if we had too much of a problem in operations, although there was several people unhappy with their housing, and I guess some were unhappy with their job. We were all here on travel contracts, and so some of the boys, as soon as they could, talked them into shipping them back to their old plant. But it wasn’t long we started getting letters from them, could they get their old job back? And one chap, Chet Smith, do you remember him?

“Tom”: I remember the name.

Britson: Well, Chet and his wife lived down around in here somewhere in F house and they didn’t like it. In fact, they didn’t like anything about this place much. And so, they were one of the very first to be shipped back. But they were also one of the very first to start writing letters, could they get their old job back, could they get any job back? Could they get their old housing back, could they get any housing back? They didn’t need housing, they would live in a trailer. [LAUGHTER] Anyway, to get back here. We did, we finally got him back, gave him his old job. You never heard a thing out of Chet Smith from then on. But there were a few pretty unhappy people here at one time.

Putnam: Was there enough—was the food good, was there a lot of groceries?

Britson: Well, sure. There was a cafeteria across from the 703 Building there on the corner, I don’t know what’s in there now.

“Tom”: The corner of Knight and Jadwin.

Britson: And a Coke machine at the Desert Inn, and that was it. If you wanted to get to a restaurant you had to go to Pasco or Kennewick, and they didn’t have too many. But the cafeteria food was pretty good, so I thought. There were a lot of stories that come out of Hanford of the construction group. In fact I heard one fella say, we had a pretty good week last week. We lost 3,000 because of the dumb sandstorms, but we hired 3,001. So we had a good week. The turnover was terrific, apparently, in construction. But, you see, when we started moving operation people in, the City of Richland, the housing that’s just here today, mostly, was available to us. Of course, there was some unhappiness. My wife, when she got here, boy, how she hated this place. We had an H house, right in the middle of a sand dune, across from the Mormon Church. It wasn’t there at the time, but was built later. But anyway, I think it was 1959, we had built a house over east of the shopping center and moved over east of the shopping center and moved over there, Kennewick address. Now we had been living here since ‘44 and this was in ‘58 or ‘59 when we moved over there. I remember a trip that we took back east, on vacation, and when we got back in the middle of the night I said, to heck with our baggage, we’ll come back in the morning and get it. I’m bushed, let’s get the car and get home and get a little sleep. Which we did. And the next morning, then, we went back for our suitcases and I can remember my wife settling back in the seat of the car and she said, I’m glad to be home. But it took a lot of years to get there. [LAUGHTER]

Putnam: In retrospect, in your own experience from all the—what’s your evaluation of that experience? Are you proud to have been a part of that, and was it gratifying to be here during those years?

Britson: Well, the part that I played into it and the responsibilities that I had, were probably a lot different than the average. Because I apparently made a name for myself on that first two months, on the whiz-bang. And from then on I had myself a good job. I was a construction liaison and startup of new areas. When we finally settled down on GE’s reorganization, I was a manager of an area and that’s where I retired from. So, I think my luck was a bit different than the average that just had a humdrum job and didn’t really gain anything much by it. There was a few promotions but not really too many, because in Operations we didn’t have too much of a turnover of people. Housing was cheap. Of course wages weren’t all that good at the time, but then, these houses that now sell for $100,000, we bought for $7,000 or $8,000.

Putnam: Anything—well, as part of the overall, do you have anything else to say about the experience and about kind of—we are undergoing a lot of nuclear power and nuclear generation has led to a lot of questioning and a lot of—we have to look to the future. Do you have anything that you can say from your experience to future generations?

Britson: Well all I can say is, I’ve been retired for 27 years and I’ve continued to live right here. That’s about the first thing my wife and I agreed on. That we were not moving back to Ohio or Illinois. If we were to leave here, we would go to Arizona. And then we decided that our six weeks of summer here was a heck of a lot better than that six to eight months of summer in Tucson. [LAUGHTER] So, we stayed right here. My wife and I were together 66 years before she passed away a year ago.

Putnam: Oh. Well, that’s wonderful. Okay. All right, thank you very much.

Britson: Well, you’ve milked me dry, have you?

Putnam: Well, anything you want to add? Anything you want to say in retrospect to—for posterity?

Britson: Well, I don’t know. I listen or read about these guys over on the West Slope and all the troubles that they’re having from this plant and I worked in it for 20 years and have lived around here almost 50. And I don’t understand what they’re complaining about. [LAUGHTER]

Putnam: Good, all right.

 

FLOYD BRITSON INTERVIEW Recorded 3/15/92

 

Tom Putnam: The first thing we’d like to know is if you could state your name and whatever position that you had here in the early days of Hanford. And then we’ll ask questions for answering.

Floyd Britson: Well, Floyd Britson is the name. And I was Senior Supervisor on C shift during the startup of B.

Putnam: How did you first hear about the Hanford Project, and how were you recruited to come here?

Britson: Oh, I was an area supervisor for DuPont at a TNT plant at Joliet, Illinois. And they turned the plant over to another company and moved about 1,200 of us out here from Joliet. This was in the summer of ’44, basically operating people. But I got on a side issue along with a chap by the name of Harry Miller. Developed the whiz-bang which resolved the canning problem of the slugs they used in B Reactor.

Putnam: How did you come here? Did you come by car, by train?

Britson: By train. Landed here April 12th. My car showed up somewhat later, by train. And then, I was assigned a house early in the—but I was told that my furniture would be two-three months away from getting out here. But, one day I got a call, come into town; there’s a truck full of furniture out in front of your house and they want to unload it. It seemed, according to my wife, that when they started to load the furniture back in Joliet to haul into Chicago for storage, the truck driver got a call on the telephone and he was told instead of bringing that furniture into Chicago, you just head out for Richland. So, I had a house full of furniture and no wife.

Putnam: What was it like when you arrived here? Where—did you live in Richland or in Hanford, or--?

Britson: I lived in Richland. The dormitories were in operation but full. And so I was put in a house out on the corner of Stevens and Van Giesen. That was made over into a dormitory. There was six or eight of us that were sleeping there. But a few days after I got there, as I say, I already had a house assigned to me, so they said they would loan me a bedroom full of furniture if I would sleep in my own house for free until my furniture got there, which would free up a dormitory room for somebody else. Because they were moving them in pretty fast at that time. Well, I don’t know how many, but several DuPont plants were shut down, in the east, or turned over to—well, it was our plant at Joliet was turned over to U.S. Rubber, to operate. And they moved everybody that could get clearance and they brought 1,200 of us out here. But Oklahoma, southern Indiana, various plants, many people were brought out here at that time. And so they were just running out of room.

Putnam: Was there a lot of construction?

Britson: Well, construction was in full force. Hanford was loaded. Reportedly 65,000 men out there. And so—but then, a good many houses were well along in Richland. The big problem was furniture. They couldn’t get it in fast enough, they couldn’t get freight cars and sometimes up to six months.

Greg Greger: You mentioned 65,000 construction workers. Do you have any idea of whether or not any of them were women? Not in construction, necessarily, but related jobs?

Britson: There were some women. I have no idea how many. They had women’s dorms and they had men’s dorms and they had quite a problem with that: married people split up. They had to do their lovemaking through fences and—oh, it was a lot of stories. [LAUGHTER]

Putnam: When you—do you recall first seeing B Reactor and the Area out there?  What level of construction was complete by then? Tell us about your first reactions.

Britson: Well, the buildings were all complete, at the time I got here in April, or virtually complete. But the equipment inside took until about September before they loaded up and started up. I don’t remember the date in September; it seems like the initial start was fairly early.

Putnam: and you came in April, April of ’44. So tell us the story then about—what was the problem that they had then at that point?

Britson: Well, the problem that I got onto was canning this uranium slugs with aluminum, they had to be leak-proof, no pinholes. And they had been working somewhere back east—Ohio I believe—for a year and had not been able to solve the problem. And, so a chap by the name of Harry Miller was assigned the job; he was a DuPont troubleshooter. And Harry grabbed me as a draftsman and I spent the next two months in developing what was later dubbed the whiz-bang. But from it, they found out what they were doing wrong with their old machines and they made the correction in between April and September. Had enough seven-inch slugs to load B Area.

Putnam: Can you describe the whiz-bang to us? What—how did it work?

Britson: No, I don’t think I dare. I was sworn to secrecy and I’ve never been taken off of it, so--

Putnam: Okay. So what did your work consist of? You built the whiz-bang, and then--?

Britson: Then I went back to B Area and was senior supervisor on C shift for power. We supplied the water and the steam for backup emergency. But our primary job was to pump through the filter plant—this meant water treatment, additions of various chemicals along the road, and then the final pumping station in the 190 Building, which brought it up to pressure. Also had the emergency steam pumps sitting there, in the event of electrical failure for the electric pumps.

Greger: On the treatment of water, was there anything new or was this pretty much standard procedures?

Britson: Well, it was fairly standard procedure. B Area did not have the refrigeration units as we talked a bit ago, although D and F area did have, but they were only used for one season, I think. But the standard filter plant was—see, there was first a river pump house. Pumped it up to a reservoir in the plant. And from that reservoir, then, water was pumped through the filter plant into clear wells. They had gone through the filter beds, given water treatment and pumped out of the clear wells through the 185 Building, which was a chemical addition building where addition chemicals were added. The 190 pumps then pumped out of the storage tanks in this 185 Building. Pumped it through the valve pit where again chemicals were added. And through the tubes that contained the uranium slugs that were being irritated. [LAUGHTER] Irradiated.

Greger: Do you recall how many degrees the refrigeration was able to get in the water?

Britson: No sir, I couldn’t. Not now anymore, but we just gave it all we had.

Greger: Mm-hmm. And you might mention, as you told me, why the decided not to--

Britson: But that was not in B Area.

Greger: I realize that, yeah.

Britson We did not have the refrigeration pumps in B Area.

Greger: But even with the older areas, since it was going on at the same time, you might mention what you told me.

Britson: Well, they only used it for, I think, one season. And decided that, rather than to waste all that electricity on those refrigeration units, they’d just pump additional water. Get the same results. And then later—oh, several years later, they put in bigger pumps in those 190 annexes they put in—[TELEPHONE RINGS]—some enormous pumps. [TELEPHONE RINGS]

[VIDEO CUTS]

Britson: Everything was secret back in those days. You just didn’t discuss off of the Plant anything that you knew about the place. Various people got into all kinds of trouble from spouting off. There was one story that was going around, a guy got into trouble and he was asked what they were doing out there he said, hell, I don’t know, they could be splitting atoms for all I know. And boy, he was in a lot of trouble. [LAUGHTER]

Putnam: He made a good guess! How much—were you aware of what was going on? Were you given information or simply given figures?

Britson: I was given only what information I needed to know to run my job. When water got to the valve pit, I didn’t have any idea what was going on beyond that.

Greger: How long was it before you finally understood or were told that it was a nuclear thing?

Britson: I don’t guess ever. Of course, my job, over time—I was on construction liaison for several years, the building of H Area unit, D and DR unit—DR unit. And some of the buildings, operations in the 200 Areas and, as I say, information that filtered down some way or other. I had no idea what was going on. How I acquired it, I don’t know. But as far as anybody sitting down and telling me what was going on, that never happened.

Greger: They probably thought that power needs to just treat the water.

Britson: Treat the water and that’s it. No, we never told our fellows anything. You see, I was two months behind on getting my shift together. And holding the training courses, because we were hiring anybody that was warm. And it turned out that construction was letting a lot of carpenters loose at about that time and we hired a lot of carpenters for power operators. It was a new business and so it didn’t make much difference how much experience a guy had, he didn’t have what was going on here. But I was permitted to hold some overtime classes in town here, during the summer of—well, say, July and August—I held classes right here in town for my crew on overtime basis because I was behind, having spent two months on the whiz-bang. And of course that never hurt my reputation any. From then on, I had a good job. Harry Miller got to be superintendent of a department. I never attained that, but I did wind up as manager of GDR Power, in the last few years.

Greger: One last question on the whiz-bang. Do you happen to know how they came up with that name?

Britson: No. No, that was all done in operations. In fact, I had trouble even finding anybody that would talk, to tell me that much on the whiz-bang. Because it had been a sore problem and when it got resolved, why, it was kept a secret. No, I ain’t kidding you.

Putnam: Were you at—you were here when startup occurred. Were you at the plant, or what was—was there awareness that the plant started up?

Britson: I was on C shift, actual startup.

Putnam: C Shift—what was C Shift?

Britson: We were on 4:00 to 12:00.

Putnam: 4:00 to 12:00. And so, were you working in the main building? Were you in the control room?

Britson: No, I was supervisor—senior supervisor of the shift. So I had a lot of buildings to—the 190 Building, the 185 Building, 183 Building, 182 Building, 181 Building, 108 Building—all under my supervision, plus the powerhouse.

Putnam: What did that entail, just telling people what to do?

Britson: Well, no, I had supervisors under me who did the telling. But when you’re the top supervisor on any shift, the responsibility lands in your lap for anything that happens.

Greger: Were there any preparations or announcements or anything else as you approached startup that would make it any different in the regular shift?

Britson: No, no. We had been working for days as though the place was in operation. As far as we were concerned in our water treatment plant, our pumping, all of our pumping facilities were just as—the crew really never knew what was going on, particularly.

Greger: Was there any announcement that they had made?

Britson: Not particularly. No, because as I say, nobody was told anything that they didn’t have to have it for use on their job. And these boys had some gauges and that’s all they had to watch.

Putnam: How many people were—I mean, was there a big crowd around at the time?

Britson: No, no, no. It was just standard shift. There may have been a few extra physicists during the startup period. Because—well, remember, that was the first one in the world and so the boys with their pencil were there, but not too many of them, that I was aware of.

Greger: How many people were in your power C Shift would you estimate?

Britson: Oh, gosh. I just don’t remember now how many I did have.

Putnam: I think I’d better—

Britson: We had about, at that time, total power, as I remember, about 600 people. But they were scattered over four shifts.

[TAPE CUTS]

Britson:  From F—or B to F, and continued then in operations, I was area supervisor for—well, the rest of ‘45, ‘46, when DuPont left and GE came in. And sometime in ‘47, or ’48, we started to build the DR Reactor because B was shut down and it looked like it was done.

Greger: What was your understanding of how they came into that problem at B?

Britson: Well, I was told that the material used was crawling and that the tubes were getting so crooked, that they were having trouble getting these seven-inch slugs pushed through. Were having some trouble with the control rods which had to be moved in and out to control the reaction. And what they were concerned with, particularly, was that the vertical control rods wouldn’t drop into place in case of emergency. But after B sat there for a while and they were able to watch D and F Area, which was still in operation, they realized that the creep had about reached its limit. And so they went to a four-inch slug instead of a seven and were able to load the tubes, and their control rods weren’t giving them any further trouble. But in addition to that, my understanding was that they hung a bunch of hoppers—buckets if you will—with boron balls—marbles—above the reactor and so in case any of the control rods failed all they’d do is dump those balls and they’d run like water into every crack and crevice in the place and shut the place down dead. And so with that behind them, then they started up B Area again and it continued to operate until it was shut down somewhere in the ‘60s.

Putnam: In terms of general atmosphere at Hanford and kind of in the country at the time, what was the climate--was there a time of fear and crisis, or--? What was it like to be in the United States of America in 1944 working on the Manhattan Project?

Britson: Our only concern really was the balloon bombs that the Japs were floating this direction. We were told about them; that some several had landed in Oregon. None that I ever heard of had landed near here. But it wasn’t until just a few years ago that I learned that those rascals floated over 6,000 of those bombs in our direction, on the Jetstream. But that Jetstream, of course, changes course without notice and their bombs weren’t too effective, but the intent certainly was there. To float 6,000 of them in this direction. And that was several years after Pearl Harbor, which was in ’41, and so we’re talking about ‘44, ‘45. Of course, in ‘45 the bombs were dropped, first Nagasaki—or I mean Hiroshima and then Nagasaki a week later. Now, Nagasaki used materials from here. Hiroshima used material from Oak Ridge.

Putnam: When did you first hear about that? And was there an explanation? I mean, obviously it came in paper at that time.

Britson: Well, I was in Portland. We had a day off and so we’d gone to Portland, and I heard about it there.

Putnam: Do you remember hearing about it in the news?

Britson: Oh.

Putnam: Were you excited?

Britson: Well, for sure because we didn’t know what the results of that may be, but then on the other hand—Many of us had been passed over by the Army or the Navy. I had—back in TNT plant—I was in TNT before Pearl Harbor. I had gone to work for the contractor that was building the TNT plant there at Joliet in 1940. And, as construction ended, or was tapering off, I got permission to talk to DuPont who was coming in to operate the plant. I had been working with Stone & Webster. And I had been in charge of well drilling operations, so DuPont decided they needed me and so I hired over with DuPont. Stone & Webster already had a job for me at Oak Ridge but I talked them out of that. In fact the Stone & Webster manager said, I know a little bit about DuPont. He said, I’ll just bet you a dinner that you leave here before I do.

Putnam: What was your area of expertise? How was your training?

Britson: Well, I was a civil engineer to start with. I had gone to school at Iowa State, Ames. I never got a degree, but I had gotten into construction—some of the major companies.

Putnam: What, in your opinion, was the major importance? It was really a huge endeavor, the Manhattan Project. Why do you think we were able to do it and make it succeed?

Britson: Well, I guess you can say it just kind of happened, if you get the right people on the job. DuPont had some people on the job with their expertise. [TELEPHONE RINGS] Now we’ve talked—

Putnam: Oh.

Gregson: I’ll get ya.

Putnam: Okay, go ahead.

[TAPE CUTS]

Putnam: What I was getting at before was, did it take a lot of the industrial capacity of the United States to—I mean a lot of the expertise and industrial capacity of the United States was diverted to this project and it was pretty remarkable. Do you have any thoughts about that?

Britson: Well, I don’t know too much about the design effort, nor the early construction. See, these reactors, well, they’d been building on them for years by the time I got here.

[DOOR OPENS]

Putnam: Oops.

Britson: And so, I don’t guess I’m in position to answer your question that you’re—

Putnam: Yeah, sure, okay. Let’s see. We’re going to—

[TAPE CUTS]

Greger: --that you felt everybody was really tuned in to security, and I think that you commented that some people did get in trouble. Did you have anything else to say about that? One would think that people would always—or some people would discuss what they thought it might be. But have any thoughts comments?

Britson: Well, no, not particularly. There were a lot of little stories around about at the time. One story that they used to tell—a kid in school got up and said to a teacher, she knew what her father was doing out in the plant, because he brought home a roll of toilet paper in his lunch box every night. [LAUGHTER] ­Another of the cute stories at the time was that they just painted some glue on a piece of paper and held it up and made sandpaper out of it. Because of the sandstorms. We had a lot of wind at that time and of course everything in Richland, Hanford, and the areas was all dug up and just loose sand everywhere. And so, it was in the air. But, well, of the group of people that I associated with, were all like myself: they had a very limited knowledge of what was going on in the building. But I think most of us operated on the basis we had enough to learn about the equipment that we had under our charge to worry about what was going on the other side of the fence. And, of course, as I mentioned, the fact that at the time construction was laying off carpenters, and so we hired a bunch of carpenters for power operators. We had brand new equipment; nobody was used to it, and so it didn’t make much difference what their past profession was, they had to learn all over again. And we had plenty of time, with the exception of myself, because I’d spent two months on the whiz-bang. And so my shift got a bit behind, but they permitted me to set up some overtime sessions down here in the school, right across the street here, somewhere. Right here in this area. There was a church, or something, right over here on the corner, wasn’t there? And I set up some sessions there and paid the boys overtime to sit and listen to me yack at them.

Greger: You mentioned that you were on a day off in Portland when the bomb was dropped. Is there—I’d be curious as to what was the attitude of people when you got back to the shift and people you knew, now that the news was out?

Britson: Well, I don’t know, nobody seemed to be too surprised at anything. Is that the way you remembered it, Tom? 

“Tom”: That’s about right. I think--

Britson: Nobody seemed to be particularly surprised at anything. The fact that the second bomb came from material from here was welcome news and that was about it.

Putnam: Yeah. I want to backtrack and—you were describing me the startup procedure and some of the technical facts of the 1,600 versus the 2,000 tubes, can you give us just a little bit, kind of a thumbnail sketch, of the startup period and you know just what you heard about or what you know about it? Just as a description.

Britson: Well, as far as our operations concerned it didn’t make any difference. We just had to maintain certain water flow, water pressure. And once it hit the valve pit we didn’t pay any attention to what was going on the other side of the fence, because we had been told right from the start, it’s none of your damn business.  And so—[LAUGHTER]

Putnam: But, how did it work, where they did a dry criticality first, and then--?

Britson: We had been pumping for days. To make sure of our equipment. You see, the contractor only had to run equipment 24 hours satisfactorily. And then it was turned over to us, and we had to make sure that it was going to run continually. And if one piece of equipment wouldn’t run, then another piece would. And to back all of this up with tanks of water sitting here and there and high tanks and we had special pumps on the export system to pump water from one area to another.

“Tom”: Yup, they were some high tanks.

Britson: [LAUGHTER] Yeah, yeah. And so—but in my years of operation we never had to resort to those. We were able to take care of the situation with our electric and our steam pumps.

“Tom”: Steam backup.

Britson: Plus—one little factor in there—there were great big wheels between the motor and the pump—flywheels. What did those things weigh, six tons?

“Tom”: Yeah, at least that much. Yeah.

Britson: And they would continue to keep those pumps running for long enough for us to get our steam pumps in operation. And the power houses responded every time there was a need for it. We had ample capacity there and a well-trained crew. And we had those steam pumps at all the places: 182, 183, as well as 190. And reservoirs to back us up.

Putnam: Did you have any particular problems in that area in the days before start up, anything that was interesting problems to solve? Or was it just basically a well-designed beginning, not too many adjustments necessary?

Britson: Well, no, there wasn’t too much. We got the equipment. Oh, we had some problems, but they posed no problem for us, because we had alternate equipment to stick on. And backup equipment. From my own limited knowledge of what was going on—and I don’t remember now just where that took place—but it was some time after the initial startup was when they put those boron balls in those buckets above the reactors. That was a safety backup.

“Tom”: The VSRs.

Britson: Because we’d all been a little dubious about some of those horizontal rods and particularly those vertical control rods hanging up somewhere. But when they put those buckets of balls up there, why, I certainly rested a lot happier with it. But I don’t remember just where now, it was a year or two after—

“Tom”: After startup.

Britson: --after startup, wasn’t it?

“Tom”: I don’t remember the day really, the Ball-3X system. I started to work at DuPont down there around the same time that he did.

Britson: Oh, I see. Well, of course, I came from Kankakee Plant and there were a lot of boys from Kankakee Plant here.

“Tom”: Oh, yeah.

Britson: In fact, I think there was probably about 1,200 at one time considered for moving out here.

Putnam: Here, would you describe conditions as being difficult? And what was the morale like? Was there a sense of team spirit sort of, of everybody working on a big project?

Britson: Well, I don’t know if we had too much of a problem in operations, although there was several people unhappy with their housing, and I guess some were unhappy with their job. We were all here on travel contracts, and so some of the boys, as soon as they could, talked them into shipping them back to their old plant. But it wasn’t long we started getting letters from them, could they get their old job back? And one chap, Chet Smith, do you remember him?

“Tom”: I remember the name.

Britson: Well, Chet and his wife lived down around in here somewhere in F house and they didn’t like it. In fact, they didn’t like anything about this place much. And so, they were one of the very first to be shipped back. But they were also one of the very first to start writing letters, could they get their old job back, could they get any job back? Could they get their old housing back, could they get any housing back? They didn’t need housing, they would live in a trailer. [LAUGHTER] Anyway, to get back here. We did, we finally got him back, gave him his old job. You never heard a thing out of Chet Smith from then on. But there were a few pretty unhappy people here at one time.

Putnam: Was there enough—was the food good, was there a lot of groceries?

Britson: Well, sure. There was a cafeteria across from the 703 Building there on the corner, I don’t know what’s in there now.

“Tom”: The corner of Knight and Jadwin.

Britson: And a Coke machine at the Desert Inn, and that was it. If you wanted to get to a restaurant you had to go to Pasco or Kennewick, and they didn’t have too many. But the cafeteria food was pretty good, so I thought. There were a lot of stories that come out of Hanford of the construction group. In fact I heard one fella say, we had a pretty good week last week. We lost 3,000 because of the dumb sandstorms, but we hired 3,001. So we had a good week. The turnover was terrific, apparently, in construction. But, you see, when we started moving operation people in, the City of Richland, the housing that’s just here today, mostly, was available to us. Of course, there was some unhappiness. My wife, when she got here, boy, how she hated this place. We had an H house, right in the middle of a sand dune, across from the Mormon Church. It wasn’t there at the time, but was built later. But anyway, I think it was 1959, we had built a house over east of the shopping center and moved over east of the shopping center and moved over there, Kennewick address. Now we had been living here since ‘44 and this was in ‘58 or ‘59 when we moved over there. I remember a trip that we took back east, on vacation, and when we got back in the middle of the night I said, to heck with our baggage, we’ll come back in the morning and get it. I’m bushed, let’s get the car and get home and get a little sleep. Which we did. And the next morning, then, we went back for our suitcases and I can remember my wife settling back in the seat of the car and she said, I’m glad to be home. But it took a lot of years to get there. [LAUGHTER]

Putnam: In retrospect, in your own experience from all the—what’s your evaluation of that experience? Are you proud to have been a part of that, and was it gratifying to be here during those years?

Britson: Well, the part that I played into it and the responsibilities that I had, were probably a lot different than the average. Because I apparently made a name for myself on that first two months, on the whiz-bang. And from then on I had myself a good job. I was a construction liaison and startup of new areas. When we finally settled down on GE’s reorganization, I was a manager of an area and that’s where I retired from. So, I think my luck was a bit different than the average that just had a humdrum job and didn’t really gain anything much by it. There was a few promotions but not really too many, because in Operations we didn’t have too much of a turnover of people. Housing was cheap. Of course wages weren’t all that good at the time, but then, these houses that now sell for $100,000, we bought for $7,000 or $8,000.

Putnam: Anything—well, as part of the overall, do you have anything else to say about the experience and about kind of—we are undergoing a lot of nuclear power and nuclear generation has led to a lot of questioning and a lot of—we have to look to the future. Do you have anything that you can say from your experience to future generations?

Britson: Well all I can say is, I’ve been retired for 27 years and I’ve continued to live right here. That’s about the first thing my wife and I agreed on. That we were not moving back to Ohio or Illinois. If we were to leave here, we would go to Arizona. And then we decided that our six weeks of summer here was a heck of a lot better than that six to eight months of summer in Tucson. [LAUGHTER] So, we stayed right here. My wife and I were together 66 years before she passed away a year ago.

Putnam: Oh. Well, that’s wonderful. Okay. All right, thank you very much.

Britson: Well, you’ve milked me dry, have you?

Putnam: Well, anything you want to add? Anything you want to say in retrospect to—for posterity?

Britson: Well, I don’t know. I listen or read about these guys over on the West Slope and all the troubles that they’re having from this plant and I worked in it for 20 years and have lived around here almost 50. And I don’t understand what they’re complaining about. [LAUGHTER]

Putnam: Good, all right.

 

Duration

00:50:11

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224kbps

Files

Citation

B Reactor Museum Association, “Floyd Briston Oral History,” Hanford History Project, accessed October 28, 2021, http://hanfordhistory.com/items/show/4670.