Interview with David Chambers
An interview conducted as part of the Hanford Oral History Project. The Hanford Oral History Project was sponsored by Mission Support Alliance on behalf of the United States Department of Energy.
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Robert Franklin: My name is Robert Franklin. I am conducting an oral history interview with David Chambers on July 5, 2017. The interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. We will be talking with David about his experiences working on the Hanford Site. And for the record, can you state and spell your full name for us?
David Chambers: Is David H. Chambers. D-A-V-I-D. H. C-H-A-M-B-E-R-S.
Franklin: Great, thanks, David. And do you prefer David or Dave?
Chambers: David or Dave, either one. It’s immaterial to me. Whatever’s easiest for you.
Franklin: Okay, great. So, tell me, how and why did you come to the area to work for the Hanford Site?
Chambers: Well, when I first graduated from college, I taught school for a while. I taught school in Pasco. I went back to the University of Wisconsin – Stout branch, but I was from Wenatchee, Washington. And the Tri-Cities was kind of an up-and-coming community, so I ended up teaching school here. And then I quit teaching school and went to work in engineering for Boeing Aircraft Corporation. There were just too many people in Seattle, so I wanted to get back over here, and got an opportunity to go to work for Battelle Research Laboratories and so I took the job.
Franklin: Okay. And what did you do at Battelle? What was your job there?
Chambers: I was called a senior engineering technical person.
Franklin: Okay. And that sounds kind of vague, so I’m wondering if you could unpack kind of what your job duties were and what kinds of projects you worked on.
Chambers: Well, we did a little bit of everything. The first four or five years I worked for Battelle, it was out in the 200 West area. 221-T, head end. And we did what’s referred to as simulated reactor explosion tests.
Chambers: And what we did, we had a containment vessel and a little reactor core inside of it. And we vaporized high levels of uranium, plutonium, et cetera, different radioactive material, and put it in the reactor and looked at the metals that would withstand it and the coatings we would try to use to utilize to protect stuff, and the chemicals and washes to clean it up after an explosion. So that’s what I did for about four or five years.
Franklin: And what kind of work came out of that? Did that lead to changes in reactor design or things used to clean up?
Chambers: Well, I’m sure that it did, because stuff was utilized at Chernobyl and also at the Three Mile Island. Basically, sodium hydroxide, NaOH is the best thing we found to wash them down. And after it was washed down to the bottom of it, we collected samples, and run those samples through liquid nitrogen so we could cool it down and put it into little 500-mililiter bottles. And then we set it in the computer that was in a whole room at that time, with air conditioning, naturally, and analyzed it so we could see the drop in the radiation as the time went on.
Franklin: Wow. How did your previous work prepare you for this job of testing—reactor explosion tests?
Chambers: Well, it didn’t, really. We had a lot of high PhD people that were actually analyzing all the stuff, and there were several of us that basically just did the experiments and stuff. The computer analysis went to the PhD people that analyzed it and looked at it and wrote all the paperwork. At that time, you know, we were kind of bitter enemies with Russia, and yet they were able to get that information somehow and utilize it. And I don’t blame them. Battelle put it out and maybe charged people for it. It was a government-funded program, looking at ways to protect people. That’s what it was for. We didn’t have much protection at all; we had a pair of surgeon’s gloves we put on our hands. That was about it, you know. And a white lab coat. So that was basically what we used. Filled those little bottles with the white surgeon glove, set it over, so.
Franklin: Wow. How much shielding was between you and the simulated reactor in these reactor explosion tests?
Chambers: There was a lot of shielding there. There was concrete walls, plus the reactor core was steel and metal and stuff and what-have-you. And all the atmosphere was protected because all of the velocities of air went through all kinds of filters and stuff before it was ever released to the atmosphere. And the liquid went into those tanks that are out there now that everybody’s worried about. So any of the chemicals and stuff that we washed down, any of the cleanup that we did on the stuff that we utilized in it, all went into those tanks out there.
We also had canisters that we set around, positioned, in the containment vessel at different altitudes, different spaces. And they had little carbon filter systems in them, and we’d switch them on and pull the air through them, and then we’d check the little deals. So, again, over a period of time, we’d do like maybe 15 minutes after it happened, maybe 45 minutes, maybe an hour-and-a-half. Utilization time to see how it dropped off over the periods of time. And it was through—they had these little round canisters, if I remember right, I think they had thirteen of these, each one had like thirteen of them in it, and so we could turn them on individually. So pull air through them, and then look at the radiation content and see the slope that it went down over a period of time.
Chambers: And then we had another facet out there that we utilized. We had a separate building outside of 221-T head end that we had a reactor core in it and put waters in that and had two shields in it, metal shields, and used high pressure nitrogen stuff between the two of them, so that as they heated up the water and put it under tremendous pressure, it wouldn’t blow. When it released the pressure, then it would blow. And we did that along with the other—to see what damage, and what would happen when one blew.
One time, in fact the last time we utilized that, they made a little mistake and got the pressures and stuff a little bit too high, and the walls on the reactor, that simulated reactor were six inches thick, and when it blew it split it. And not only that, but it blew the frame back in the concrete and sucked the walls in on the building and lifted the roof off of it. We had a neutron generator sitting out to measure stuff. I don’t know where it went to. Nobody that I know of has ever been able to find it. And it was a tremendous thing—the steel—tremendously heavy. And that volume of water and steam and everything went out of that place, and I don’t know where that neutron generator—we looked and looked and looked for it. Never could find it. I don’t know they ever did find it.
Franklin: You mean, it—
Chambers: It just went somewhere.
Franklin: It flew away.
Chambers: It flew away or disintegrated, I don’t know. And that was—we weren’t supposed to talk about that for a long time, and so I never did tell anybody. Several years thereafter, I had a good friends that I fished and hunted with, Bob Cullowith[?], he was the head engineer on the FFTF, so he understood. We were hunting—this was, oh, 25 years after it happened—and I told him about it. So our manager, Gordon Rodgers was a skier and Bob Cullowith[?] would go up to Bluewood skiing. And one day he was sitting next to Gordon on the bus. He mentioned that to Gordon and Gordon said, well, I guess it’s time we can talk about it now. At the time it was supposed to be secret; nobody’s supposed to know it.
Franklin: [LAUGHTER] That’s a great story. So to your knowledge it was never found?
Chambers: No. We looked and looked and looked for it. We had an RM out there always onsite. Irving Winters was an RM, really a nice fellow. They call radiation monitors something different now, but at that time they were RMs. Went out with Geiger counters and everything. We looked all over that country for it; I don’t know where it went to.
Chambers: To this day, I don’t know whether anybody knows where it went to.
Franklin: Wow. That’s sure a good thing that no one was standing where that neutron monitor was.
Chambers: Oh, why, no, we wouldn’t let anyone out there, because it blew out with tremendous force and velocity. Well, as I say, it pulled the sides in the building and lifted the roof. A tremendous deal. And that reactor core is a pretty good size, and it was mounted in steel and stuff, six inches thick, as I say, and it split it and blew it clear back against—broke the mounting brackets and blew it back against the concrete. And our manager was really upset at that, and I don’t blame him. Because they just made some mistakes. A lot of people think you can’t compress water. But they found that you really can, and when it blows, it blows with tremendous force. In fact, they did a test somewhere, I think maybe Idaho or somewhere, where an engineer was doing that and then it got too much pressure and it blew and just disintegrated him.
Chambers: And that’s been several years ago, 40 years ago or so. So that—water compressed can end up being pretty dangerous.
Franklin: That sounds like some pretty—I mean, obviously this work would have really big impacts on safety and knowing how to construct better reactors. But this sounds like pretty dangerous—there’s definitely some hazards involved with this testing.
Chambers: Well, I don’t think there was really hazard that way. The hazard we were subjected to was the chemicals and the radiation back in the samples that we took, and taking the little air samplers apart. They were little stainless steel deals that we put charcoal in them and filters of a different kind in them. And again, we had a little deal we stuck in our pockets, a little dosimeter, they call them. But if you got too high on them, guys would leave them in their lockers, so that they wouldn’t send you home or whatever, you know? And if you thought you were getting too much of it. So that’s basically the exposure problem was what really was dangerous to us, as far as the reactor core and stuff—we were away from it, we were back in the building when it blew or standing off to the sides and back of it, and watching it when stuff like that happened, or in labs.
Franklin: Would you be watching it through like shielded glass or CCTV or—?
Chambers: When we vaporized the radioactive material, we were watching it through lead glass. Very thick lead glass.
Franklin: So, when guys would get too much dose and get sent home, would they be sent home without pay? Is that why they would leave their dosimeter?
Chambers: No, I—
Franklin: Because you’re the first person I’ve heard that from, and I—
Chambers: I think they were all paid, as far as I know. I don’t think anybody lost any pay. They just sent them to do something else or sent them home or something, what-have-you, so they wouldn’t lose pay. If you got overdosed. Like McCluskey, out there, he was paid all that time.
Franklin: Sure. I guess I’m just struggling to understand why someone would intentionally leave their—overexpose themselves over the limit just to keep—there are other guys that could do that job, right?
Chambers: Well, you know, a lot of the knowledge at that time wasn’t where we are now. A lot of this stuff they didn’t know back then. You can’t blame them, because it was a job and it paid good. They didn’t know the dangers then that they do now. They know a lot more—like asbestos is a good example. Every pipe we had out there, everything was insulated with asbestos. Well, they didn’t know the ramifications of asbestos, you know, 70 or 80 years ago. World War II, every ship that was built had asbestos all through it. But they learned.
Franklin: It’s a great insulator.
Chambers: Yes. Fabulous. But very deadly if you—you know. Even to people at home, from the clothes that you take home. The women washed them and stuff, you know, they’d get the fibers and breathe it in their lungs, like coal dust, you know? 100 years ago they didn’t know what coal dust would do, and now they—so a lot of those, a lack of knowledge.
Franklin: Mm. You also alluded earlier that this had been a pretty high point in tensions with Russia during this part of the Cold War. Do you think that might have played into the attitude of just wanting to get the job done?
Chambers: I think so. I think that they were accept—very acceptable to utilizing our knowledge when it came to cleaning up the reactor and stuff. They had to when Chernobyl happened. I think, if you look back, a lot of our people went over there. A lot of Battelle people went over and helped them, because—that was actually in Ukraine. Chernobyl’s actually in Ukraine; it isn’t in Russia, you know. And lately I’ve been seeing some specials on TV showing the beautiful city that they had there and all the amusements and stuff, it’s just sitting there in ruin, because they can’t go to it now because it’s so highly radioactive. But their reactors, you know, were vertically cooled, which means that the cooling water’s all on the bottom. So they got a hot spot and bubbled the water, so the top of the reactor didn’t have any cooling water. Where ours are horizontally cooled. We got the cooling water up here as well as down there, so we don’t have that problem. Different philosophy of making a reactor.
Franklin: Sure, sure. So what did you—so after the reactor—you mentioned you worked at the 221-T head end doing reactor testing, and then you looked at different chemicals for cleaning up. What did you do after that project?
Chambers: I went down to the 300 Area and went to work in Robert Marshall’s—that was the manager. I worked directly for a PhD by the name of Gerald Kulcinski. And he actually, I told a young man later, the smartest individual that I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. And you see him on television every now and then on Discovery Channel, A&E and they’re talking about him. Because he left here and went to University of Wisconsin and he’s in charge of the fusion reactor—the old reactors are fission. What we’re trying to develop now is fusion, where you get 100,000-degree plasma and you can keep it going and contain it. Well, we can get to 100,000 but to keep it going and contain it is different, and that’s what they’re working on. He was kind of in charge of that. Went all over the world to do that kind of stuff, and he’s a professor at the University of Wisconsin. I think now retired, but he talks about now what’s energy on some planet out there and if we could get that energy from here we could run this world for a lot of years and stuff. They’re way out there in this stuff.
Franklin: So what was he doing when you went to work out in his lab?
Chambers: We were doing metallurgical research. We were taking various types of metal that we were trying to fiddle with or mend or develop or what-have-you, and putting them in reactors around the country, different levels of radiation and then bringing them back to the lab and seeing what kind of damage they sustained. And the way we would do that, we would thin them down with a variety of ways and then put them in electron microscope so we could magnify stuff and see stuff several thousand powers magnification and then look at the damage that the metal sustained.
Franklin: And what was the purpose of that work?
Chambers: Well, again, to try to develop metals for different things and to try to develop metals that the reactor wouldn’t harm, and to make all kinds of stuff out of, I guess. Stainless steel now has become widely used in all kinds of cookware and knives. When I was a kid, you never thought of having a knife blade, a pocketknife blade, made out of stainless; they were carbon steel. Now they’re all stainless.
Franklin: Hmm. So was stainless steel one of the metals to come out of that work that had high applicability for all these different scenarios?
Chambers: Well, I’m sure it was. I’m sure Battelle had a lot of work, because they’re a very competent company in a whole lot of different areas. People don’t realize what kind of research they do and a tremendous amount of developments in everything come from Battelle. I think it’s a very, very good company, my personal opinion.
Franklin: Were there any tests of metals that stood out to you in that work?
Chambers: Not really anything; it was just a combination—and you’d put them in the reactor at this level. At University of Washington, I took some samples over to their reactor, put them in at their level, downtown Seattle and people didn’t realize in Seattle they had a reactor right downtown Seattle with Dixy Lee Ray running it. Very brilliant lady, you know? And we’d send them everywhere and then bring them back and, say, thin them down and just look at what happened.
Of course, one of the things that took place when we did that, our lab became very contaminated. Because some of the metal was thicker, so we had to thin it down to start with. Well, I bought a little milling machine with a magnetic base on it and then glued the samples to a piece of carbon steel with epoxy resin and superglue. And then planed them down with a horizontal milling machine. All of those particles and everything went into the atmosphere in our lab. And then, we’d put them in a little holding device and used high current and various acids to spray against it with the current and to thin them, etch them down, until you could finally see some light. And then we put them in the microscope. So all of that atmosphere was what we breathed. It was just in the room. So it became a very contaminated lab. You can understand why. But, again, we never thought anything about it. It was a job; we just did it, you know?
Franklin: Were you wearing respirators—
Franklin: --or anything? Any kind of protective--?
Chambers: We didn’t have anything on but our street clothes, like this. Or you could change into a pair of coveralls if you wanted to. Most of the time, we didn’t. But I think I’m probably the only one left alive. My compadre, Jack Humason, a great friend of mine, he and I both worked straight for Gerald. He died about a year ago. Had cancers through the bone marrow and all in his blood and stuff, and just fell over dead, went in the hospital. One of the guys I hunted with, Jones is his name, Maxwell Jones, I read in the paper here three or four months ago that he ended up back in Tennessee doing stuff. And he died. And he’s quite a few years younger than I was, and so was Jack. So I’m lucky. I don’t smoke and I’m not a drinker or anything. Unfortunately, I’ve got bad COPD from all that stuff.
Franklin: Wow. Yeah, it’s amazing, I can imagine that just a little—what you’d be inhaling would be a really effective—a cocktail of different—
Chambers: That’s correct.
Franklin: You know, because you’re getting all these samples in from all these different reactors and these different types of metals and milling them and everything.
Chambers: Well, yes, and of course the acids and stuff that we were utilizing basically to thin the metals down with the current, the fumes from that that you were breathing, that didn’t do your lungs any good either. Of course, that’s what’s, again, more of what’s in those tanks out there that they’ve got to find a way to drain those tanks and solidify that material. Unfortunately, our vitrification plant is a long way behind time.
Franklin: Yeah. Well, it seems like, just from what you just described and talking with other people, it seems like it’s that mix of things that are in the tanks that seems to be a lot of the problem. There’s all these different chemicals and all these different solids and, you know, it’s like a grab-bag.
Chambers: Yes, there’s everything under the sun in those tanks and what-have-you. Of course, the acid content and the strong NaOH, that’s what causes the tanks to etch away, leech away and stuff. And you know what an acid will do; pour it on metal, and it’ll eventually burn right through it, you know. Unless you got—if they’d have built the tanks out of stainless to start with, it’d been far better off. But, again, it was knowledge, lack of knowledge. They didn’t have any idea. We had a war to win. When they did this stuff, or when they started doing it. And then we had a cold war for years that we were worried about everything, so we had to do stuff. Now, you wonder if you could win a war now. With the attitude that’s in this country now, it makes you wonder if you could do the things that you did. You couldn’t do the things that they did back then.
Franklin: Yeah. So how long did you work at the metallurgical research lab?
Chambers: Well, that was over five, about six years there. I had about eleven years in at Battelle.
Franklin: Okay, and then you left Battelle?
Franklin: Okay, and why did you leave Battelle?
Chambers: Well, I had a business going. I had the last year or two, couple of years I was with Battelle, and then I finally went to that full-time.
Franklin: Ah, and what business was that?
Chambers: I owned Water World Marina, Incorporated at Pasco Boat Basin.
Franklin: Oh, okay. So you retired at Battelle to go full-time with your boat business.
Chambers: That’s correct. And then I ended up having, oh, about, oh, I don’t know, at the most probably ten or twelve people working for me for—I was in that for 25 years.
Franklin: Oh, wow. And so then you sold that as well?
Chambers: Yes, that’s correct.
Franklin: So you’ve been retired for a while.
Chambers: Yeah. Well, I retired and my buddy bought me out, and then not long after that, why, he called me up and said, Dave, would you please come down and go to work for me, you know? Help me out? I need some help, you know. So I said, okay, I’ll do that, I’ll help you out.
Franklin: Yeah, it’s hard to stay retired, I’ve noticed. I interview a lot of retired people. Hard to stay retired. When you worked for Battelle, did you live in Pasco the whole time, or did you ever live in Richland?
Chambers: No, I lived in Kennewick.
Franklin: Oh, Kennewick.
Chambers: At the time. I live in Pasco now, but all the years that I worked for Battelle Research Laboratories, I lived in Kennewick.
Franklin: Oh, okay. And so you would do the commute every day out to the—
Chambers; Yes, that’s correct. And to start with, another thing I don’t understand, we’d drive to the bus lot in North Richland, right off of, basically a continuation of George Washington Way and a couple other streets went together, and had a big parking lot there. And then you get on the buses and ride out to 2-West. And I never could understand why in the world they got rid of those buses, because it kept a lot of cars off the road, and a lot of—one bus carrying 50 or 60 people is a whole lot more economical than a bunch of cars driving out there.
Franklin: Yes, yes, it is.
Chambers: I couldn’t understand why they got rid of them. It was something you could relax, both going and coming from work.
Franklin: Sure. Yeah, I’ve heard that from a lot of people who rode the buses how much they like them. It sure does seem to make a lot of sense to have them.
Chambers: No, it didn’t make a lot of sense to get rid of them.
Franklin: I think I just have a couple other questions. Yeah, I have two more questions. I’m wondering if you could describe the ways in which the security and/or secrecy at Hanford impacted your work.
Chambers: Well, I don’t really think that the secrecy or the security impacted it, except that you didn’t take the stuff home with you. You didn’t advertise to everybody what you were doing, and we were beyond a war, in the Cold War. During World War II, people didn’t even really know what they were doing out there, most of them. There were people in the know that did, but the vast majority of them didn’t know. Well, when I went to work there, everybody knew what you were doing. People downtown didn’t know a lot of the stuff and weren’t privy to the writings and stuff that were going on out there. That went strictly to the government or to some organization.
And Battelle does a lot of private company research. And that’s probably more secretive than government research, because if you’re doing research for a company and they paid you a lot of money, they most certainly don’t want a competitor to get that knowledge. So that’s probably more secretive than the government work was when I was out there. And then I can understand why.
So I don’t think it impacted what we did at all, except that you were limited on what you could take out there and what you could bring home. You couldn’t bring anything home unless you had clearance to do it. And you most certainly couldn’t take any kind of weapons out there. And dope was prohibited. People maybe tried to take it in and stuff, but I didn’t see any of that in our groups at all.
And a lot of our groups, not many of them even smoked. I don’t smoke, and Jack Humason didn’t smoke, and Gerald Kulcinski didn’t, and Homer, our manager didn’t smoke. Very few people. Some of them smoked pipe, and some of them smoked cigarettes. But there were more people that didn’t smoke, even back then, than did. So.
Franklin: Interesting. Well, that’s—I mean, good for them.
Chambers: Yes, yes. Good thing I don’t, as bad as my COPD is. When I went through the impairment evaluation—started on the deal against the DOL in October of 2012. So it’s been almost five years. And had my impairment evaluation last August. They put you in a little room, and put all connected up stuff, and then they put you on a bicycle with stuff on you. And I had, my lungs got an 86% impairment with my lungs with all that stuff and what-have-you. So I have to breathe inhalers all the time. And then I have a heart that beats fast, because of the oxygen transfer, there are no blood vessels shut down or anything for the oxygen transfer. So I have to take medicine for that, so.
Franklin: Oh, wow.
Chambers: So it catches up to you after a time. But fortunately, I’ve lived for 82 years, you know. And to say, I don’t know of anybody—there may be one or two still alive that worked out there, but I don’t know, most of them are gone.
Franklin: Yeah, well, it seems like you were really in contact—close contact with a lot of different types of material and different ingestion pathways for chemical and radiological materials.
Chambers: Yes, we were. Both places. In the 2-West area, doing the experiments there, and then the metallurgical stuff. Yes. And especially—the chemicals are probably the worst things. Radioactive material does damage to you; it cooks you from the inside out. But the acids get into you, and we used sulfuric acid and nitric acid and picric acid. Picric you have to be very careful of. It’ll get in here, and it doesn’t burn immediate—it gets down and then burns from the inside out. It’s a very dangerous thing. And then we used some ether and stuff and what-have-you. And you have to be careful with ether, because if it crystallizes and then you twist the cap off, it’ll explode. So you have to be very careful with ether.
Chambers: Ether, highly explosive. And we used some of that. In fact I found some of it down in the lab in 221-T, heading downstairs, and it was setting up there, in the bottom been sitting there for a long time with crystallization on them. So I called them and they took it out in a container somewhere and blew it up, I guess.
Franklin: That’s really scary.
Chambers: But you don’t mess with it, you know. You just leave it alone, you know? As long as you leave it alone, you’re okay, and get people in there that know how to handle it.
Franklin: Wow. So, David, my last question is kind of a reflective question, and that’s, what would you like future generations to know about working at Hanford during the Cold War?
Chambers: Well, I think, the thing is to know that we had a job to do, because the world was, at that time, was in a very dangerous situation with China and Russia both. Plus, North Korea. And the bugaboo now, again, is North Korea. And we had things we had to learn and stuff we had to do. And it’s hard to realize, for young people to visualize what the world was like then with Russia developing all kinds of stuff. Shot France’s powers down. When we really—to start with, had a plane that would fly above their missiles. But then they developed a missile that’d shoot them down. So we had to do some utilization there to free him and trade him, you know, to get him back. And Russia was developing stuff. And they had weapons that would blow us to pieces, and we had weapons that would blow them to pieces. And it was just a dangerous situation that we were trying to de-escalate, cool down, and so we just kept doing stuff. It was a job to do, and you had to understand that the world was a different situation then than it is now, and it’s becoming that situation again now. With North Korea and Iran and now Putin in Russia again, and China’s trying to build up islands in the South China Sea. So it looks like we’re heading down that same road again. So.
Franklin: Great, well, David, thank you so much for your really great stories and interesting—you had a very interesting jobs out there.
Chambers: Well, I think I did.
Franklin: Yeah, you did, and I appreciate you taking the time to tell us about them today.
Chambers: Well, then, as I say, you know, Battelle was the main instrumentation in this. And you read in the paper what they’re doing all the time now, so I think that’s a wonderful company to have here, and they do a lot of very fine things, I think. Maybe some people don’t like them, but I think they do a wonderful job, and I’m glad we’ve got them here.
Franklin: Oh, good. Yeah, they have their hands in a lot of different—
Chambers: That’s correct.
Franklin: A lot of different stuff.
Chambers: And even security, going into airports and stuff. A lot of people don’t realize where that came from; that came from Battelle.
Franklin: Yeah, yes, it did.
Chambers: You know? And we looked at some IUDs that were put in women in different parts of the world. Intrauterine devices to stop pregnancies. And then analyzed them. And you find that women in different parts of the world destroy those IUDs at different rates. Maybe it’s from their diet, diet and food or what they eat or what-have-you. But just interesting things. Very interesting things.
Franklin: Yeah, that is very interesting. Well, thank you.
Chambers: You’re welcome.