Interview with Bernal Femreite

Dublin Core


Interview with Bernal Femreite


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


Bernal Femreite came to the Hanford Site to work for Douglas United Nuclear. He worked in the 300 Area, and at many of the Hanford reactors.


Hanford Oral History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities


Hanford Oral History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities




Those interested in reproducing part or all of this oral history should contact the Hanford History Project, who can provide specific rights information for this item.






The Hanford Oral History Project operated under a sub-contract from Mission Support Alliance (MSA), who were the primary contractors for the US Department of Energy's curatorial services relating to the Hanford site. This oral history project became a part of the Hanford History Project in 2015, and continues to add to the US Department of Energy collection.

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Robert Franklin


Bernal Femreite


Washington State University Tri-Cities


Robert Franklin: My name is Robert Franklin. I am conducting an oral history interview with Bernal Femreite on June 12, 2017. The interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. I will be talking with Bernal about his experiences working at the Hanford Site. And for the record, can you state and spell your full name for us?

Bernal Femreite: Bernal Femreite, known as Bernie Femreite. The spelling is B-E-R-N-A-L. Last name is F-E-M-R-E-I-T-E.

Franklin: Great, thanks a lot Bernie. So, tell me how and why you came to the area to work for the Hanford Site.

Femreite: Well, during university, I was determining where to go to work and what kind of work I wanted to do. And the last—about in graduate school, I became very interested in nuclear energy. At that time, Hanford was still a very viable part of the weapons program. Most of the reactors were still running in the late ‘60s. They had a big program here and a lot of very interesting work for engineers. I was a metallurgical engineer, so everything about the Hanford fuel production was intriguing. And beyond that, I had read about everything I could about the Manhattan Project. The whole thing was fascinating to me. The fact that they went from a theory and some practical experiments to full-scale production in such a short time, under wartime conditions, obviously, that whole thing was very intriguing to me.

So, long story short, I had—at that time, engineers coming out of university had a lot of opportunities. So I had a lot of choices. But I was particularly taken with the choice to come here with Douglas United Nuclear at the time. So I took that position and began as what they called process engineer in the 300 Area, where we were producing fuel for the K Reactors, C Reactor, D, and N, N Reactor. We were using the standard process at the time, which was encapsulating the uranium for exposure in the reactors.

And we were—my job was, I was charged with developing a new, better and faster process for doing that. So I spent most of my time in what became known as the Small Pilot Plant in 300 Area. And we were producing a new method of encapsulating the uranium slugs that was faster and more reliable.

Franklin: How was the old—I wonder if you could walk me through the steps of the old process and how your new process was different.

Femreite: Well, the old process was what you might call a canning process. We had pre-formed aluminum jackets that came in, basically, the shape of a cylinder with a cap on one end. The uranium slugs came in milled to a certain diameter. They had a whole through the center for cooling, additional cooling. And then that was inserted inside this aluminum can, which we call cladding. And the whole thing was dunked under what we call a eutectic alloy of aluminum and silicon. That has a relatively low melting point. That would just flow in and form a bond between the uranium and aluminum. And they put a cap on the upper end, and then machine off the excess material. Then they would put on, ultrasonically, they’d weld on a small aluminum fin, which we called a leg, which gave the fuel slug some clearance between the tube that it would go into and the reactor, would allow the water to run past it.

Franklin: Right, so that water could go around the entire—

Femreite: Yeah.

Franklin: Yeah, I’ve seen those.

Femreite: And through the center.

Franklin: Yeah, there are kind of fins on all sides.

Femreite: Yeah, you’ve seen them, probably at the N Reactor—or the B Reactor Museum, if you’ve been out there.

Franklin: Yes.

Femreite: There are some examples of those. That was called the AlSi process, and it referred to the aluminum-silicon alloy that was used to bond—

Franklin: Is that spelled how it sounds, A-L, S-I?

Femreite: Yup, mm-hmm. It’s capital-A, L and then capital-S, I. So it stands for—it’s aluminum-silicon. It’s the scientific nomenclature for aluminum and silicon. And that process was developed and used for a long time. It had some disadvantages in that it had some byproduct, or leftover product waste that had to be disposed of. So there was the—AlSi would become—well, it would become fairly radioactive from being exposed to the uranium in—small amounts of uranium would be dissolved in it. So that was kind of a hard thing to deal with.

Franklin: Can I ask how—what was the process for disposal of that spent product?

Femreite: Well, I don’t know that part. Our job was to get the job done, and other people dealt with the disposing of waste. We can tell from what we’re finding in the papers today about the disposal of waste here, was there was a variety of methods, including just plain old burial someplace.

Franklin: Yeah, the 300 Area, if I remember correctly, had some interesting waste footprints in the ground.

Femreite: It does. And the area surrounding it as well. North of there they had burial pits. They had a waste pit over to the, it’d be the west side, towards what now is the Areva plant. And there were different places.

Franklin: So this AlSi process, was this the original process used?

Femreite: As near as I can tell, that was the original process. Now, they, in the early years, I read a lot of the classified documents as a young engineer when I first got here to understand some of the history. And they had experimented with different alloys and different heat treatments and things like that over the years, and finally settled on what I was familiar with, as the new engineer on the block, so to speak. I was chartered with developing what was called the hot die sizing process, which was to take the uranium slugs and basically extrude a coating of aluminum onto the slug.

Franklin: Like using—

Femreite: We used—we put them through what was called an extrusion die. And we’d start off with a small can shape of aluminum. That would sit in the die, and then the uranium slug would come down on it, and we’d basically squeeze the slug through the die, almost like toothpaste—although it was solid. And that would bond the aluminum to the uranium slug. Once it was bonded that way, all we had left to do then was to put a cap on the end. And then that the cap had to be bonded as well, so in order to do that, we used specialized heating coil. And we put the end of that fuel into that heating coil under pressure. It was called induction heating. That would bond that cap to the slug and to the other aluminum.

So it was a much simpler process; it basically had no waste, except maybe some aluminum that would be machined, just to dress it up. And of course that aluminum was recycled, so. It was faster than the AlSi process. So my job, for most of the time I worked there, was to develop that, and also to solve any technical problems that came up in the existing AlSi process. So the AlSi process was still big, because that’s how the factory was set up. And we developed our hot die sizing process on a pilot scale. Then we moved the pilot line into big production facility and ran it in parallel with the big production facility and kept track of cycle times and quality. We were trying to prove that on an industrial scale, this was going to be an improvement to the AlSi process.

I should mention that that whole thing sounds quite simple. But in the end, it was complicated. Each one of these fuel elements went through a very tight quality control process, where every single one went through an ultrasonic defect device—detector for defects in the fuel. That was all done with ultrasonic sound.

Franklin: Huh. How did that work, exactly?

Femreite: Well, the sound was transmitted through the cladding onto the uranium, and you get a certain pattern if there’s a good bond there. If there’s a bad bond, you get a completely different pattern from the ultrasonic sound. And so you could detect any, what we call, unbonded areas. You had to have a good bond on every part of the surface, because if you didn’t, you’d get a hot spot in the reactor. And that would, basically, cause the fuel to melt at that point—the cladding to melt at that point, and it would leak. We didn’t want leakers in the reactors because then that led to contamination in the water that flowed through those.

Franklin: And you might have to shut the reactor down, too.

Femreite: Yeah, if you got enough—if there were enough leakers in there to where you were getting high radiation readings on the discharge side of the reactor, they would have to shut it down, discharge that fuel, put new fuel in. That was not very efficient, and it was time consuming and fairly expensive.

Franklin: Yeah.

Femreite: So the quality control part of the process was very stringent.

Franklin: So where was the uranium machined? Where was it formed into the—

Femreite: That came out of a plant in Ohio.

Franklin: Okay.

Femreite: I think—I forgot the exact name of the plant, but I think it was Fernald. They came in by train in big wooden, pretty strong wooden crates. And then the aluminum was purchased on the market from various suppliers. We had a tight specification on which alloy and dimensions and quality and all that. So the aluminum was pretty generic, but it had to meet all of our specifications. Then the uranium, of course, came from Fernald and that was a single source. Because that was all government-run.

Franklin: So was the hot die sizing process a success?

Femreite: It was, yeah. We produced, on that parallel line, we produced most of a reload for one of the K Reactors. At that time, K West and K East were twins. So you didn’t know which reactor your load was going to go into. They determined that out there. So that fuel did go into the K, one or both of the K Plants.

Franklin: Right.

Femreite: So yeah, it was an improvement. And they would have—I believe they would have continued on that path and retired the AlSi process, but about that time, they determined that they weren’t going to run the K Reactors anymore. C had already shut down, or was preparing to shut down. So there wasn’t going to be demand in the business reason to change their method. And if they had—at that time, I think they had just put the Ks on standby, in the event that they might need to get back into producing plutonium. But they were already getting plutonium out of N Reactor and it was still running. So the demand for plutonium dropped, and so they began to phase things out. If they had needed to ramp production back up, it would’ve been fairly simple to start everything back up, because it sat there, basically, on reserve for quite a little while.

Franklin: So, and what timeframe was that, when—

Femreite: Well, it was late in the history of Hanford. I began work here in 1967 after graduating university. And so that was basically about a three-year deal, before things started to ramp down. So about 1970, they were threatening layoffs and reduction of staff and that kind of thing, simply because they just weren’t going to produce that much fuel.

Franklin: Right. Where did you go to university; where did you get your bachelor’s?

Femreite: University of Idaho.

Franklin: Okay.

Femreite: Mm-hm.

Franklin: So are you from the area?

Femreite: I’m from north Idaho.

Franklin: Oh, okay.

Femreite: Yeah, mm-hm.

Franklin: So then in 1970, you transferred to Exxon, right? And went into commercial fuel production.

Femreite: Yes.

Franklin: And how—I wonder if you could talk about that transition and how that industry was different or similar, you know, how the work was related.

Femreite: Yeah. The work there was—first of all, it was all what you would call private enterprise. So Exxon was in business to produce fuel for big commercial power plants. At that time, there were—I don’t know the exact number, but some 20 to 30 nuclear power plants operating in the United States producing electrical power. Those were built mainly by General Electric and Westinghouse. And in Europe, craftwork union was doing the same thing, and there were a lot of power plants in Europe.

So Exxon decided they were going to get into this in a big way, even though they were an oil company, they knew that they were really an energy company. So they decided that they could build fuel and supply it to these power plants in the US and in Europe. So they began the business here, largely on the basis that there was a lot of technical know-how here. They knew that they could recruit from Hanford, which was basically winding down, and they had the access to Battelle. And Battelle had a huge amount of knowledge, collectively, about all things nuclear.

So Exxon came in and bought land inside the City of Richland city limits and got all the permits and built the plant. So when I started work, it was a piece of sand out here on Horn Rapids Road. And we had offices downtown, rented offices downtown. There were only just a handful of us. So I had the good fortune of coming in on what they call the ground floor. Exxon—by the way, Exxon was called the Standard Oil of New Jersey. It’s only in later years that they rebranded themselves. And so the plant—the business out here began as Jersey Nuclear, just an offtake of Standard Oil of New Jersey, and that’s how they began. I have a picture of their business sign here if you want to keep that. So that was, for us that had worked there for a long time, the sign was pretty significant, because it was the very beginning of a long-standing business.

At any rate, they were a taxpaying business in the City of Richland, and everything was commercial and they had to meet all of the standard safety regulations and all that that any industry does. So they began from, like I said, a flat piece of sand to building a plant out here that could produce this fuel for these power plants. That fuel, as a process engineer and as a metallurgist, that fuel was far more complicated in its design.

Franklin: And why was that?

Femreite: Well, the fuel for Hanford was, as I explained earlier, just a slug that was a uranium slug, we called them, that was encapsulated in a cladding and then tested and put in the power plant. But the fuel for commercial plants—and you’ve probably seen displays around the Tri-Cities and different places—are individual pellets about the size of a pencil eraser, more highly enriched than the fuel for the plutonium reactors. And it’s encapsulated in a pretty exotic alloy, zirconium alloy. So each tube, then, produces heat and a lot of it. So they have to be made to extreme precision and very high quality. You have to build them with a very robust process, and then you have to test them under very robust conditions to make sure that they’re going to produce and perform the way they’re supposed to.

So the whole thing was quite interesting. And over the years, what we called the nukes, the nuclear engineers, who were experts on how to load these power plants with different kinds of fuel, they came up with a lot of different designs. Basically all the same design in terms of outward appearance. They were tubes with uranium pellets in them. But they varied the sizes and the enrichments and all that kind of things to get better performance in the power plant. So that whole thing was pretty challenging for all of us.

Franklin: You had mentioned that Exxon, Jersey Nuclear, Standard Oil, New Jersey Nuclear, Exxon, had drawn—or one of the decisions to put it here was the availability of knowledge of the nuclear industry. Did a lot of former Hanford workers go to work for New Jersey Nuclear?

Femreite: They did.

Franklin: Okay.

Femreite: Yeah, there were quite a few. And there were a lot of—well, not a lot, but quite a few scientists from Battelle that were retained, you know, under contract. They helped us build the first reload, as an example. Our first reload went into a power plant by the name of Big Rock Point and Oyster Creek. So they kind of held our hands to get that first delivery made. To start from zero requires a whole lot of stuff, because you have to come up with all your procedures and all of your quality documents and methods and processes and you have to train your staff. So it’s really quite a complicated enterprise to bring something from zero to fully functional business.

Franklin: And how long did you stay with that company?

Femreite: Well, I retired there 30 years later.

Franklin: Oh, so in 2000?

Femreite: Yes. Mm-hmm.

Franklin: And did your job change at all during those 30 years?

Femreite: Yes, mm-hmm. Yeah, I started out as a process engineer, individual contributor. And the last five years I was the vice president of manufacturing and the Richland plant manager. So I managed to work my way through the organization.

Franklin: Yeah.

Femreite: But it was all very challenging and all very gratifying work. In that 30 years, we replicated the Richland plant in Germany. Mainly because—well, I should back up. We delivered a lot of fuel in the United States and quite a bit of fuel overseas. Overseas, there was a huge tariff on the fuel because it was imported. Germany kept saying, well, you know, if you guys want to beat this import deal, you should just build a plant over here. And we can facilitate that, and suggest a place that’s suitable for that kind of business. And they did.

They struck a deal with what, by then, was called Exxon. We duplicated—replicated this plant in a small village in northwest Germany, and began supplying Europe from that plant. We took all the best technology from the Richland plant that we had developed up to that point, and we had developed a lot of it, and then transferred it to Europe in that little—what I call a little—Lingen plant. It was actually a sizeable plant in what was a very friendly village there.

So that was quite remarkable, too, because we had to recruit people that didn’t know what nuclear even meant to come to work there. But they were all crafts of different kinds: welders, machinists, and other crafts that’d come through the trade schools or industry in Germany. So we put together a very successful operation over there. And so that, then, basically, put an end-run on the tariffs. And it was good for their economy and good for our business. So it turned out quite well.

Franklin: How did the fortunes of what is now Areva respond to kind of the ups and downs of the nuclear power industry, at least domestically? I know that—I feel like there’s been some downturn in that industry or has come under a lot of criticism in the past few decades.

Femreite: Yeah, well, yeah, there is a lot of bad publicity, which is unfortunate because it’s a clean—it’s basically a clean energy. It doesn’t produce any greenhouse gases and all that kind of thing. But the bad publicity with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and all that puts it at a real disadvantage, and there’s a lot of public opinion against it. But as a business, we just carried on. Despite the publicity, there was still demand for electricity. And that didn’t go away. [LAUGHTER] So the utilities that ran the power plant just said, well, we’ll do everything we need to do to keep our plants safe. But we have to carry on, because people want their light to turn on when they go home. So it wasn’t quite as remarkable a result as some people might think, from a business standpoint.

But there are becoming fewer and fewer power plants because the ones that were built a long time ago are getting old or are so old they had to be closed down. So there are fewer. Although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission keeps saying that they’re prepared to license some new plants, improved plants—what they would call improved plants. But basically just from a business standpoint, it was fairly stable.

The hardest part of meeting the market was to meet the power plants’ schedules, because they have, as you might know, just like the plant up north here, Energy Northwest, they closed down about every two or three years to refuel. When they do that, they want their fuel then and then only. So you have to run your business to kind of match up with the refueling schedules of these various plants.

Franklin: Right. That makes sense. And so you went back to Hanford in 2001, right?

Femreite: Yes, after I retired, I was asked to participate in a, oh, I don’t know what the—you might call it a short study, about a month’s study, of industry experts that they assembled to figure out why they were having so much trouble in the K Plants, getting the fuel out of the basins and dried and stored. They developed a process to do that, and basically it took the old residual fuel in the basins out there, put them through a drying process and encapsulated them in a very strong container. And that’s stored out there in the 200 Areas.

Franklin: What is the drying process? What is that doing?

Femreite: It’s basically a vacuum. They put it in a big chamber and run a vacuum on it for a long time—a relatively long time.

Franklin: And why is that done?

Femreite: Well, they want the fuel to not corrode any further.

Franklin: So how is the fuel being stored?

Femreite: It was being stored in the water pools at K East and K West. So they were stored underwater in 30 feet of water, as a shield. It was spent fuel, so it was hot, radioactively hot. Well, thermally hot, too. And that was stored in those pools and had been for years by 2001. I was familiar with those plants because I worked out there when I began in 1967. Because I’d go out there a lot to consult with the engineers that were running my pilot—my new fuel through their plant.

Franklin: Right, well, you might’ve even have helped to make some of that fuel that was in the basin.

Femreite: Oh, absolutely, yeah, sure. I should digress a little bit. When I first came here in ’67, I was out at those plants and for my own pleasure I interviewed a lot of the old-timers that had worked there through the war. And I was always fascinated by the fact that they didn’t know what they were actually doing there, because it was secret. It was all compartmentalized. So you could talk to a person who worked on, like the front face of K Reactor, and he’d tell you that that’s all he knew at that time; he didn’t know what went on anywhere else. [LAUGHTER] And furthermore, they couldn’t talk about it. So that whole thing was very intriguing to me.

But, anyway, back to our topic, I was one of, I think, about 12 people, so-called industry experts, that were called in to understand why things weren’t going well out there, and they weren’t meeting anything close to their schedules that they were supposed to dry this fuel and store it. So they brought in experts in almost every field. A lot of them were safety experts, regulation experts, and things like that. I went there as a manufacturing expert. So we spent, I think, two weeks there. I determined very quickly that they were not running that as a what I call a manufacturing process, which it really was. They were running more as an engineering process. So I wrote a report about that at the end of my little short tour of duty there and left it with the management. Then I went on a trip, a vacation with the family after that. Well, I got back and my phone was ringing of the wall. They said, Bernie, you need to come out here and help us figure this out, because we think that we have all this advice from all these people, but this seems to be the real key to getting this straightened out.

So I then went to work under a contract, and basically taught them what’s called a constraint management manufacturing. Which we used in our own plant. And what that means is that any process—you can name almost any process: human process or manufacturing process, or almost any process—and you can find what’s called a bottleneck. You can put together any scheme of sequential operations. One point in there will be what’s called a bottleneck, or what I call a constraint. The real secret to making that all work is to zero in on the constraint and figure out if it can be made better or not. If not, manage the constraint and everything else pretty much takes care of itself. And so I called it constraint management. It’s called different things.

In order to—so you’d identify the constraint, and then you put in modifiers that support the constraint. You put in what’s called queues, upstream and downstream, which a queue is just simply a place to store things that you either going to process or that you have processed. And then everything else pretty much runs itself. And they had a serious constraint out there, but they weren’t managing it; they were trying to—a group of engineers that were making charts everyday, trying to schedule everybody for every hour of the next day, to get them to do what they were supposed to do. [LAUGHTER] And it wasn’t working out.

So I taught them how to do constraint management and what we call process control. Just in a short time, it just started working great. And in fact, the constraint turned out it wasn’t the constraint that they thought it was, because once we focused in on it, they got smart about how to run it, and it moved the constraint further downstream. So that became the new constraint down there, and then we started managing that as the constraint. So anyway, long story short, it put everything put together very well. Their production levels went, like, improved by three or four times. And I think they ended up actually beating their endpoint schedule before by implementing that method.

Franklin: Oh, wow.

Femreite: So it was pretty gratifying. And I got a lot of calls about how well that worked, and they were quite happy with it. So that was very successful for them and very gratifying for me.

Franklin: How long were you on that project?

Femreite: I was there for—that only took us about three months.

Franklin: Oh, okay.

Femreite: Yeah. They wanted me to stay on and work as a consultant there, but I told them, look, I’m retired. My job now is to stay retired. So I declined to do that.

Franklin: Was that the last time you worked out at Hanford?

Femreite: That was the last time I worked there, yeah, mm-hmm.

Franklin: Great. Well, we’ve got to most of my questions. I do have a couple more just quick ones. I’m wondering, was Richland—I know you came to Richland after the town had been turned into private ownership. But I’m wondering if Richland was still, at that point when you arrived, if there was anything remarkable or unique about it, or what your impressions were compared to where you had grown up?

Femreite: Oh, definitely. You could tell that it was still very much a government town. There wasn’t a lot of infrastructure here, compared to what we’re used to now. Columbia Center was just desert, for instance. There wasn’t anything out there. The government housing had just, as you said, turned back to civilian ownership, just a few years prior. The housing around town was still largely what had been built for the war effort or after the war.

Franklin: Did you live in an Alphabet House when you arrived here?

Femreite: I lived in what was called a Richland Village house, which was government construction. Richland Village was just north of Safeway, that whole area in there. Those were all mass-produced government houses. They weren’t really called an Alphabet House. I could’ve been in an Alphabet House very easily, but it just turned out that the Richland Village was a good choice for renting. I wanted to buy a home, but I didn’t want to do that immediately upon arrival here. I kind of wanted to get the lay of the land. So we rented what’s called a Richland Village home at the time. At that time, that whole place was run by one business. One business owned all those houses and rented them out, and were wanting to sell them to individual owners. So a lot of them are rented, and I’d say maybe half of them had maybe been sold to individuals at that time.

But as you drove around town, it was largely still the government-built houses that you saw. Very few new construction. And the furthest, the northern extent of Richland at that time was where the 7-Eleven is on G-W Way down here, on Saint. In fact, that area where the 7-Eleven is and Washington Square Apartments was a drive-in theater. [LAUGHTER] It was still operating. [LAUGHTER] And the houses on Harris—there were no houses between G-W Way and Harris Street. But at the time we came here, Harris was being developed as a new upscale development. So all those homes along Harris there that are along the river were upscale houses. To get there, there was one street over to Harris, I think it was the street that goes past the 7-Eleven now, and you went across the desert to this strip of land along the river where these homes were being built. I was explaining to your colleague a while ago, this campus was one building, and it was called the Graduate Center.

Franklin: Yes. Yeah, it’s what’s now the East Building of our campus.

Femreite: Yeah. So, yeah, it was still kind of a frontier town in my opinion at the time. It was quickly changing. We saw a whole lot of changes in the time we’ve lived here, that’s for sure.

Franklin: And where did you end up—I’m assuming you ended up buying a house. Did you end up living in Richland?

Femreite: I did. Our first home was what I’d call a starter home, just off of the boundary of the Richland Village. There was a string of little, three-bedroom two-bath places that had been built and we bought one of those. Later on, there was a new development further north. I don’t recall if it even had a name, it just—a lot of nicer homes, bigger homes. Split-level and that kind of thing. So we ended up going there, moving there later on. And then I was asked to go to Germany, so we sold that and went to Germany. And came back and lived in a similar house in that area. Then Exxon asked me to go to Idaho Falls. We went down there and ran a secret weapons project that I never talked to you about earlier. But Exxon was asked to go down there and run what was then a secret project, military project. Then when we came back, we moved to a home on Harris Avenue and lived there until I retired.

Franklin: Oh, okay. I’m wondering if you could describe the ways in which security of secrecy at Hanford impacted your work while you were there?

Femreite: Well it made—you had to be very, very conscious of it. I had proper clearance to where I could get almost any kind of classified document that I wanted, and I needed to, because there was a lot of science developed there that was Top Secret. So as a practical matter, every engineer there had a fairly sizeable safe. And we kept all of our documents in that safe. Including documents that we had checked out to use or to read or whatever. And then our own writings, our own documents, were sent to a classification officer before they were published and he gave them their appropriate classification level. So at the end of the day, you made sure that everything that was classified was in the safe. And then patrol would come around in the evenings and odd hours, just to see if there was anything left that shouldn’t be. Or unattended. You could not leave a classified document unattended; you had to have it with you. If you left it on your desk and walked out, that was a no-no. If you were going to go somewhere, you locked it back up.

Franklin: Did you ever run afoul of—

Femreite: No, I never did get a security infraction. I knew people that did.

Franklin: That’s good. Did you ever have something that you had authored become classified to where you couldn’t use it again?

Femreite: Well, I could use it, but others couldn’t. Uh-huh. Yeah, I had several things that were classified. Mm-hmm.

Franklin: My last question is, I’d like to ask you what you would like future generations to know about working at Hanford and living in Richland during the Cold War?

Femreite: Well, the Cold War for people of my age was very concerning. I was raised in the period where they were teaching students to duck under their desks. [LAUGHTER] As a civil defense exercise. There was a lot of information and publicity, or maybe even propaganda, about the threat of nuclear war. A lot of films got shown in the schools about what nuclear war was about, and what atomic bombs were like, and what you might be able to do to protect yourself, or might not be able to do to protect yourself. And then there was, of course, the headlines about tensions between Russia and the United States. Cuban missile crisis and all that. So it was very disconcerting.

As a child, or an adolescent, I was worried about it, as were my colleagues about the same age. And then as a young engineer, working here, it became clear that there was a lot of very high technology being developed and that was important to our health and safety as a nation. It was guarded very well. People were quite dedicated to their work here. That was always very gratifying to me, that people weren’t taking it lightly; they knew what their responsibilities were and how important it was.

So for anybody looking back on it, I think they can just be grateful that there were a lot of folks that had a very high principles and very high expectations and were very capable. And, you know, now, in retrospect, there are quite a few workers who were essentially overexposed. At the time they didn’t know it, and neither did management, but in retrospect you see reports of people, a lot, that have lasting diseases and that kind of thing, from the exposures they took here. So, those folks are heroes. They laid their life on the line for the rest of us. They’re every bit as much a hero as the people that were fighting the war, I think.

Franklin: Great, well, thank you, Bernie, for coming in and talking to us about your career.

Femreite: Yes, it was my pleasure. Thank you.

Franklin: Okay. Awesome.



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Hanford Oral History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities, “Interview with Bernal Femreite,” Hanford History Project, accessed September 23, 2021,