Interview with Gary Petersen

Dublin Core


Interview with Gary Petersen


Hanford (Wash.)
Hanford Site (Wash.)
Hanford Nuclear Site (Wash.)
Richland (Wash.)


An interview with Gary Petersen conducted as part of the Hanford Oral History Project. The Hanford Oral History Project was sponsored by the Mission Support Alliance and the United States Department of Energy.


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 at, who can provide specific rights information for this item.

Date Modified

2016-07-22: Metadata v1 created – [RG]

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Bauman, Robert


Petersen, Gary


Washington State University - Tri Cities


Northwest Public Television | Petersen_Gary

Gary Petersen: Sure. This is easy.

Robert Bauman: All right, let’s see.

Petersen: Hair's combed, eyebrows are trimmed.

Man One: Yeah, you sure do look pretty.

Petersen: Actually I'd rather watch her than—


Petersen: Is that--

Bauman: Unfortunately, you're supposed to look at me, actually.

Petersen: Oh. [LAUGHTER]

Bauman: Yeah, I’m sure. All right. Does that work there, on the mic?

Woman One: Mm-hmm.

Bauman: It’s okay?

Man Two: Mm-hmm.

Bauman: Okay.

Man One: We can start whenever you’re ready.

Bauman: All right. All set to go?

Woman one: All set.

Bauman: Excellent. All right. Well, Gary, I think we're ready to go.

Petersen: Fire away.

Bauman: All right. Well, let's start first by having you say your name and then spell it.

Petersen: Okay. It's Gary Peterson G-A-R-Y P-E-T-E-R-S-E-N. That's important, the E.

Bauman: Yes. You're right. My name's Robert Bauman and today's date is June 5th of 2014. And we are conducting this interview on the campus of Washington State University, Tri-Cities. So, Gary, let's start with the beginning of your time here. Can you tell us about when you came to Hanford and Tri-Cities, what brought you here?

Petersen: Well, that's a good question. [LAUGHTER] Okay. Actually, I came first in 1960, January, 1960, with the Nike Ajax Missile site at the top of Rattlesnake Mountain. And I was temporarily assigned up there--well I was assigned up there, but three times a day we'd get on the back of a two and a half ton truck and go down to the mess hall down below. And I knew I was going to die, so I asked be transferred to any place and I got sent to Korea. I said never come back to the Tri-Cities, but as you can see, I did. The second time, though, is probably the one you're after. I decided after the military that I needed to get an education, so I went to Washington State University and got a Communications degree with a minor in Electrical Engineering. I had a job with Ford Motor Company all lined up, but I wasn't too enthused about going to Detroit. That was January of 1965. And so my college professor, Chuck Cole said, gee, there's a new company opening up in Tri-Cities. Why don't you stop by? So I stopped by on a Friday, went to work on Monday with Battelle, which became Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. So there's how I got here.

Bauman: So, that first time, in 1960, why did you want to transfer? Was it the ride down the mountain?

Petersen: Three times a day with an 18-year-old driving, and you drop 2,000 feet, and at the bottom there's a 90 degree corner, 16 degree grade, and it was January. I knew that one of these was going to go off the road. So I said I've got to get out of here. So I put in request for transfer, and I transferred. Just like that. To Korea.

Bauman: Right. During the first time here in 1960, did you spend any time in town?

Petersen: We did, much different than--actually most of the servicemen, and there were quite a few of us at the four batteries, would go to--there was a bowling alley and a dance hall over in Kennewick, just off of Clearwater that was surrounded by fruit trees. Now all of that's gone and it's all businesses and so on. Clearwater's full, but at that time, it was all orchards. It was pretty nice.

Bauman: What were your impressions of the place, other than not liking that ride down the mountain?

Petersen: Well, you have to remember it was about like probably what the first military people saw when they came by here in December, January of 1943. I mean it was cold, it was brown. No trees. It was a barren place, even in 1959. So I can imagine what Colonel Mathias thought when first flew over this place. From the top of Rattlesnake, as you can imagine, you saw the entire Hanford site, so it was pretty barren and bleak.

Bauman: Going back a little farther, where had you lived before this? Where did you grow up?

Petersen: I graduated from Womack High School, which is up the Okanagan. I lived on an apple orchard. Again I was used to being around trees, and you come to the desert--I can imagine, any time between 1943 and 1959, ‘60, ‘61, ‘62, this was a pretty barren place.

Bauman: And so in 1965, you took the job up at Battelle.

Petersen: Yep.

Bauman: What was the job?

Petersen: The job to start with was a communications person. I became the manager of the news of service. The advantage I had was I got everywhere on the Hanford site, except the tank farms. I've stayed away from the tank farms successfully for a lot of years. But I spent a lot of time out on the hundred F reactor, which was the biology and aquatic biology site at the time. I got all over the site, including back up to the top of Rattlesnake Mountain a couple of times. So it was really pretty nice.

Bauman: When you came back then, in '65, where did you live?

Petersen: Lived originally in what were called the stilt apartments. They're on Jadwin. They've been fixed up since, so you would never know that they were stilt. Stilt, meaning that they actually had posts that held up the second floor. The posts were the garage for the people who lived there. But they're not far from the Chevron station, kind of in North Richland. Lived there for quite a while. And then the last of the homes that were built prior to 1958 went for sale. Those were called the Richland Village Homes. And there were two-bedroom and three-bedroom, either one-car garage attached or unattached. And they went up for sale for—I bought one—three-bedroom with a single car garage attached—for $6,200. Pretty good buy at the time, and I ended up paying less than I was for rent in the stilt apartments. I thought was pretty good deal.

Bauman: What was the community of Richland like at the time in the mid-1960s?

Petersen: The community was still just finding its way out of what I call the federal government ownership. In 1958, the city became an incorporated city again. And it was 1958 that the federal government to city back over to itself. And so between '58 and '65, it was a city that was still trying to find its way as a city, other than as a federal funded city. It was unique in that aspect. Battelle was well the first companies, too, to come in here—although it had a government contract, it was one of the few to come in here and be from the outside. Man, up until that point it was DuPont and then General Electric and then in 1965 is when the AEC decided to diversify the Hanford contract. They split it up into eight pieces, and so Battelle was one of those pieces. The others were HEHF and the operations and so on. There's been 35 contractors in here since 1965, and Battelle was one of the early ones.

Bauman: Now, before your first arrival here in the 1960, the Ajax site, were you familiar with Hanford? Did you know what sort of work that was going on in Hanford?

Petersen: Well, I did only because I spent some time up at Fairchild Air Force Base. They also had a Nike Ajax missile site. They were trying to transfer some people from Fairchild to Hanford. And so I learned a little bit about what Hanford was. The nice thing at the time is everybody--all the military guys said, oh, you're going to love the Tri-Cities because it's way warmer than Spokane. So I thought, sure, and then you come down in January and it was cold, at the top Rattlesnake you get winds up to a hundred miles an hour. It was not one of your pleasure spots at the time, but the view was great. View was great.

Bauman: So, you knew something about Hanford at that point.

Petersen: Knew that it was a military installation, federal installation. Knew that they made the material for the atomic bomb. Knew that there was a reason for the Nike Ajax missile site to be there, to protect the site. So, yes, that much we were pretty clear on, and the military took their job very seriously. There was a no fly zone over Hanford. No commercial flights, no flights of any kind other than military itself. It was pretty well protected. And on top of Rattlesnake, I might just add, that was the radar installation. It was at the highest point, so the radar reached a long way. You could see planes coming well, well in advance of them ever getting through to Hanford. What was interesting is sometimes we would notify Fairchild or McChord, and you'd actually have fighter jets intercept planes that wouldn't veer off. That was a unique feature of what you did on top of the mountain. The other sites, they had radar installations, but that one was pretty unique. That was pretty good.

Bauman: Yeah. So in 1965 when you came and were working in communications, what sort of responsibilities did you have there?

Petersen: Well, one of the assignments that was unique was to take tours to indoctrinate all new staff members, and that was for everywhere on the site. Over the years, I've taken literally thousands of people on tours over the site. At the time, it didn't seem like it was that great of a job to be able to take people around the site, explain what the reactors were, what the 100 Area, 200 Area, 300 Area, those kind of things. But as it turned out, the longer I did it the more I realized that the work that was going on here was critical. The Cold War, was still fairly active, so it became important to me to make sure that people understood what kinds of things went on here. It wasn't until later that I became interested in what happened pre-1943. As you keep tromping across the land, you start saying, oh, there were other things here too. But it was pretty good.

Bauman: Those site tours for new employees, were they able to go pretty much everywhere on site?

Petersen: We could go everywhere except into the area that had the plutonium, which is now known as the Plutonium Finishing Plant. Where there was restricted classified, the real concern was both tritium and plutonium. You couldn’t say the word tritium back in those days. You could plutonium, because they knew it was the material for the plutonium bomb, Fat Man, came from here. But tritium was something nobody talked about. And so those areas were restricted and that was mostly in the tank farm area. That was were chemical separations took place, so we stay away from those. It was okay by me.

Bauman: Well, that does raise—obviously, security, safety were very important at Hanford. In what ways did security at Hanford impact your job? That's obviously one way. There's certain areas you couldn't go, right?

Petersen: There were replaces you couldn't go. The badges--all of the badges at that time were designated to which areas you could or couldn't go. It was readily identifiable on your badge whether you were allowed into say, the 300 Area or the 100 Areas with reactors, or the 200 Area. And within them there were other exclusion zones, too. There were restrictions placed in each of those locations. Typically somebody that worked in 100 Area wouldn't ever be allowed into the 300 Area, or into the 200 Areas. The reactor areas were the 100 Area, the 300 Area was the research area, and the 200 Area was chemical separation. They were pretty segregated as to where you could go.

Bauman: In communications you mentioned that you couldn't say the word tritium. Were there other things you couldn't talk about or write about?

Petersen: You couldn't talk about quantities. As a matter of fact, there was a real restriction early on. One of the things that I found in the process of working in communication, there were nine production reactors around the Columbia River on the horn. In the summertime in particular there were periods where all nine reactors would be working. Sounds unique when you think about it today, but in the summertime June, July, August they actually measured the temperature of the Columbia River before the first reactor and after the last reactor. As I recall, if the Columbia River temperature was raised by close to ten degrees, then they would have to start shutting down the reactors, because the flow back into the Columbia River was that warm coming from reactor. In order to protect the fish and things in the river, then they really monitored the river very carefully. The reason I point that out is you also never talked about how much water went through those reactors because there was a fear that the Soviet Union could figure out the quantities of production simply by measuring the amount of water that went through those reactors, or the temperature increase from one point to another. It sounds odd today, but that was one of the strictures of what you could and couldn't talk about. It was a pretty quick--they were very careful about quantities.

Bauman: And I assume that you had to, when you were hired, had to go through security clearance process--?

Petersen: Q clearances were standard. There was one level above that that was called CRYPTO for a while. I don't know what happened on those, but that was for individuals who got around most of the site. They were a unique feature at that time.

Bauman: Where was your office located? Where did you work out of?

Petersen: Well my office moved all over. Originally it was in the old army headquarters—and this is in 1965. Battelle, when they first came in here, moved into a building that was called 3201. Later they changed it to the old office building—OSB was what it was called, old office building. But that was before the Battelle buildings were built, which became known as the Sand Castle. We lived and worked from January of 1965 until probably the spring of '66 before we moved into the new Battelle-owned buildings, the Sand Castle, which are on Battelle Boulevard now. And then later I moved out into the 300 area. I was in and out of 100F area. Those kind of places. So, yeah. How we doing?

Bauman: You knew the site well.

Petersen: Well, except for the 200 Area. That was a real restricted area, and maintained that for quite a number of years.

Bauman: You talked about giving tours to new employees, sort of the indoctrination to the site. How about for dignitaries, government officials, did you do that? How about the general public?

Petersen: The general public rarely, if never, I don't think we ever did that, but government official Catherine May was the first congresswoman I took through. She was a congresswoman from 8th District. I took Senator Magnuson through. Later Tom Foley, so quite a number of those over the years. In later years we started getting some foreign visitors, as well. But early years congressional officers, congressional staff, the governor. Dan—Governor—the name just few out of my head. The governor of the State of Washington, Dan--?

Bauman: Evans.

Petersen: Evans. Thank you. He later became also a senator from the state. He was a first governor that I helped escort across the site. Most of those, it was unique to be able to take visitors like that around the area.

Bauman: Do any of those tours especially stand out? Were any officials particularly interested or excited about it? Are there any sort of strange stories from that?

Petersen: [LAUGHTER] Well, Senator Magnuson was a unique individual. He actually came out quite a number of times. And one of those times we were in the 300 Area, and I was working at the time for Westinghouse, Westinghouse Hanford Company. He came out to actually, quote, break the ground on FFTF. We were in a building at the time, a four story office building in the 300 Area, and I'll never forget, I was assigned to make sure he got up to the podium. His vehicle came in front the building, and then drove around to the back of the building, so I ran back and met Magnuson back there. I'd known him before. Frankly, honestly, he was drunk as a skunk. I didn't think he was going to be able to make it. He says, just get me to the podium and I'll be fine. I didn't think it was possible. But he got up, he gave an excellent speech. A little wobbly, but I don't think most people knew that he had been drinking. This was 4:00 in the afternoon or so, and then he left. I might point out, it was about a year later, 1971, that President Nixon came out. There was quite a scramble, because at that time there were no buildings for Westinghouse. Westinghouse was kind of spread all over, so when the advance team for Nixon came out, they decided that the proper place would be the Battelle buildings. This sounds odd, but there was a real infighting between, at that time, Atomic Energy Commission, Westinghouse Hanford Company, and Battelle over what signs would be displayed where. Because Westinghouse was interested in making sure—this was for FFTF, and that was a Westinghouse project. On the front of the podium, of course, was the President's seal. He spoke out in front of the buildings, but behind that—or around that, Westinghouse came in the night before and put up Westinghouse circle W signs around the site. Just an example of my boss at the time, who was one of the vice presidents, said I don't care how you do it, but I want to sign that says Battelle that they can't take down and will be located visibly for all the cameras. So we stole a door off of one of the rooms in the Battelle building. I don't know if you've been the buildings or not, but they're very tall doors. They're nine-foot-tall doors. So we actually, that night, took one of the doors off, put Battelle on it, and put it up on the front of the building up high so it was right behind the podium. Westinghouse--we had to do that after midnight. That door actually was at the entrance to Battelle for—I don’t know—the next 20 years. They finally took it down not long ago. But that was relative to President Nixon showing up. That was pretty good.

Bauman: Stealing and moving doors.

Petersen: Well, everybody wanted their name and with the President of the United States, and so that's what we did.

Bauman: Did you get the chance to meet him when he came?

Petersen: I did. One of the things I still—my family still values—is Pat Nixon was along with him. My oldest daughter was one year old, and because of what I was doing, we managed to get my wife and daughter into what was called the VIP area of the presentation and so on. She didn't get to shake hands with President Nixon, but Pat Nixon came by and actually held my daughter for a brief minute. We got a picture of it and it is still on the family someplace.

Bauman: How about foreign dignitaries were there any--

Petersen: Foreign dignitaries, those came later, too, after the SALT agreements. On the signing of the SALT agreements, there was real concern both on the part of Russia, Soviet Union, and the United States for how much materials were still being made or not made. There were a number of Russian visitors who came over to verify which reactors were still operating, which ones weren't, how much material was still going through the canyon facilities, those kind of things. We started for the first time, seeing some of the senior Russian officials come through. The one that still strikes me and my memory is Admiral Sarkisov. He was head of the Russian Navy, and he came out both to see at that point the start of the reactor vessels from the submarines. Today, we have about 124 submarine and cruiser missile reactor cores out on site, but at that point I want to say we probably only had eight or ten, maybe 11, 12, something like that. But he also wanted to see those and verify that the submarines had actually been decommissioned, cut up, and so on. We toured both the reactor areas and the submarine vessel area. Of course, that's where my story about FMEF comes from, too. There was a building out there that was built for FFTF called FMEF, Fuel Material Examination Facility. On the way out to the site, Admiral Sarkisov asked, what is in that building. I told him it was a shut down building. We went out and toured the site. We toured the top of Rattlesnake Mountain with him, too, which was pretty unique. But we toured the site and coming back in, he asked if he could see that building, inside the building. So I called security. It was a closed building—it was locked up. And so they met in they let us in. As we came out, Admiral Sarkisov says, well now I can move the satellite. I asked what he was talking about. And he said, well, we've been watching that building since it was completed, and we couldn't believe the United States would build a building of that size, that massive size, and then not use it. So we knew that was connected underground some other place, because we never saw any cars come. So the Russians actually thought that that building was so secret that they had an underground entrance that came from someplace else. But he saw it was simply not used. And it is unique building. It's a billion dollar building.

Bauman: That's a great story. When you were giving the tour with him, was there an interpreter present when he was--

Petersen: There was always an interpreter. As a matter of fact, one from both State Department for us, for the people who were the escorts, and then he had his interpreters, too, so there was both. The group was probably ten people or so: site manager, and then others of that--there was people from state--you didn't let them wander around by themselves. Pretty unique.

Bauman: Well, you said you've been connected to Hanford since 1965--

Petersen: Mm-hm.

Bauman: I'm sure you’ve--

Petersen: Almost 50 years.

Bauman: --been privy to a lot of interesting events and stories. So I’m going to ask you to tell me some of those, but there's one in particular I know, and that's the alligator story.

Petersen: Yeah, the alligator story is good.

Bauman: All right, you can talk about that.

Petersen: The alligator’s pretty unique. The aquatic biology was located in 100-F Area. That's the last reactor in the downstream flow of the Columbia. So they studied the impacts of the reactors on fish, miniature swine, beagle dogs, they had African pygmy goats, but one of them—Merc Gillis was a doctor of veterinary medicine—graduate of WSU, I might add. He said that he wanted to study the uptake of strontium-90 in a thick skinned animal, because strontium is bone seeker or thick skin. So he convinced the manager of the site, of biology site, that we ought to buy some alligators. The story varies depending on who you're talking to. Bill Bair will give you one side of the story, because he was one of the managers out there. I'll give you another one. But I know for a fact at least six alligators were purchased for the studio strontium-90 uptake. Bill Bair says there were more, but I still wonder about that because I was in and out of there a lot. But these alligators were about two and a half feet long and they put them in a retention pen in the Columbia River, but it was also where the effluent from the F Reactor came back. The water would pass through the reactor, put into retention basin for a short period, and then put back in the river, so it was warmer than the river. That's part of the point. It also was the first place where the water returned to the river, so that was where the strontium would be taken up by the alligators. That's the theory. Well, two months, three months after they put the alligators into this retention pond, there was a big storm. The pen came down and all six alligators got out. This was under the AEC at the time, too—they managed to catch five, but they missed one. It was months later that a fisherman over in Ringgold, downstream, fishing caught this last alligator. Of course, he was trying to tell friends about it, and on and on. But, he had to protect the proof, so he took to a taxidermist office in Pasco and had the thing stuffed. Well, one of the technicians from aquatic biology was walking by the taxidermist shop, saw this stuffed alligator. So he ran in, grabbed the alligator, and ran out, which now makes it more or less of a public story. This was in 1963, before I got here. But the story comes around. Anyway, AEC tried to bury that story. No, we've never had an alligator out there. We don't know anything about alligators. They actually, I think, had it classified for quite some time. But when I got here in '65, my boss was a guy named George Dalen and I had been here for about a year. He says, it's time to give the alligator back. I had no idea what he was talking about, but this is where I entered the story. So he pulls out this stuffed alligator about like this, and he said it was, I think the guy's name was Aaron, he said track him down, because he was the fisherman. He paid to have it stuffed, and we're going to give the alligator back. We'll just let the story go away. So I did. I found the man. Unfortunately, the Tri-City Herald ran a story about this big about the alligator, and once every eight or ten years, they use one of these clips when they do the previous in history. DOE came in and they claimed to know nothing about any alligators, ever, ever, ever. It was in the technical library that they finally found the documents that showed not only did they have alligators, but the other five, they moved from 100-F when they had a fire out there, down to the 300 Area where life sciences built a new building. So I know that there were six alligators, five, one stuffed, and Bill Bair says that there were a few more than that, but I don't know that. That's the alligator story. Better told over beer, I might add, but not bad.

Bauman: [LAUGHTER] Are there any other stories during your time at Hanford--incidents, events, things that you were involved in in your job [INAUDIBLE]?

Petersen: The biggest one is one that I think this community has forgotten completely, and that's Apollo 11. Apollo 11 was the first lunar landing. When Apollo 11 came back to the moon and splashed down in the Pacific, it turned out that in 329 Building, there was a room that was used for very low level radiation detection. It was a room made of pre-World War II battleship steel. It was used for a lot of reasons for measuring very small quantities of radiation. Battelle actually put in a bid with NASA to study some of the first lunar materials that came back. So they had splash down in the Pacific, and we had a man named Dr. Lou Rancitelli, who actually waited in Houston for those materials to be flown from the Pacific, off of the aircraft carrier, back to Houston. He had a briefcase—big briefcase—chained to his wrist, where he brought those back through Seattle and then to the Hanford site. He arrived here about one in the morning, I might add. There were only a few people--Doctor Perkins, myself, a couple of others, who were waiting. We kept this all secret, because we weren't supposed to tell news media or anybody else that this was going on. But Lou got the materials back, and the next day we started petitioning NASA to allow us to display those moon rocks here in this community. The second place in the whole world that moon rocks were displayed was the Federal Building here in Richland. We managed to display them for three days, and there were lines four abreast around the federal building to look at those rocks. They'd go by and ooh and aah because it came from the moon. But almost to a person, everybody says, looks just about exactly like what we see out here in the desert. You couldn't tell them apart. But the fact that we had those lunar materials, I mean that was--wherever you were, you watched TV of the landing on the moon in 1969. That was a huge event. It was after that that Nixon came to town, but hardly anybody recalls that at all. It's just a forgotten piece of history, but at the time, it was pretty big. It was almost--and I missed it—it was almost like when President Kennedy came out to dedicate the Hanford Generating Project attached to N reactor, and that happened in 1963, just before I got here. Big events.

Bauman: Yeah. Yeah. Any other happenings or stories that stand out in your mind?

Petersen: I wasn't a part of what was called the Green Run. Others will have to tell you about the Green Run. But one of the stories I covered, and that's one of the only ones that I was out near the tank farms. Atmospheric sciences is out between the 200 East and 200 West. It has a 300-foot-tall atmospheric tower at that site. They've all been removed today, but going downwind from that 300-foot-tall tower were, number one, four or five 200-foot-tall towers and then five or six or seven 100-foot-tall towers. They would regularly release very small quantities of radioactive iodine, most usually put into colored smoke so they could track both the visual as well as radiation and see how long it took to go downwind and disperse. Just to show you how we were at the time, the photographer and I who were covering that piece as a story thought, well not only did we want to shoot it so you can see it go, but get underneath it so you could watch it as it--It's not a very smart thing to do today, but at the time it seemed like a pretty good idea to be able to watch that stuff as it drifted and deposited. So, we did the story. AEC never let us release it, but we kept the story internally for quite a number of years. I don't know what happened to it now, but those kind of things went on fairly often. You need to know where radiation goes, and that was a piece of it.

Bauman: Do you know roughly the time period that would have been?

Petersen: Well, it would have been probably '68 or '69, someplace in there. There has been more study on the Hanford site--atmospheric studies, geologic studies, temperature swings, those kind of things, than almost anywhere in the United States. They really tracked how the weather changed, how the wind moved, what the ground flow is from rain, those kind of things. It was--going to atmospheric physics lab in the 200 Area was an experience. At one point I managed to take a TV crew up, because if you climb a 300-foot-tall tower in the middle of Hanford, you could see just about everything. It turned out that we got the film crew up, they took the pictures, and then security looked at the pictures and said you have pictures of classified areas within those pictures, so they took a whole video. All of the climbing up and down was for naught. So, a pretty good place.

Bauman: You mentioned earlier that when you first came and started giving tours, you really didn't know much about pre-'43 events.

Petersen: True.

Bauman: When did you become more aware the communities that were out there and start learning more about that?

Petersen: I had the real fortunate opportunity to meet Bill Rickard, and I hope you've interviewed him. Bill is a gentleman of the first order, but Bill has probably walked that site more than any single person. One of the early things—I got acquainted with Bill. Bill ended up taking me on walks across parts of Hanford. The first time that he took me out was to Rattlesnake Springs, which is up a gully on the face of Rattlesnake Mountain. It's just an experience to go with Bill, and that was mostly on—we call a bugs and bunnies--but it was mostly what was all of nature that's out there: deer, elk, coyotes, even fish and so on. But Bill knows that site probably better than any other single person. So every chance I ever got to go out with Bill, anywhere, that's where you first got the sense that there was something here pre-1943. That's when I first saw the irrigation piping. That's where you first saw the home site--we've had two major fires across that site, and both of them ended up and taking out things and were still left. There was a home up by a Rattlesnake Springs that actually still had furniture in it. It was burned down in the first fire. So Bill knew all that stuff, and so the experience of going out with Bill was really unique. I wouldn't trade it for anything. That's where I started thinking, well—actually, Bill led me to a person named Annette--I can't think of it.

Bauman: Heriford?

Petersen: Heriford. Annette is the one who—she was in the class that would have graduated from Hanford High School out there on site. She worked for Battelle, PNL at the time. I got real acquainted with Annette, and then I helped Annette have the first reunion of her class out at that old Hanford School and that would have been, my gosh, maybe '78 or so. 1977, '78. And Annette could tell stories about what the old Hanford town was like and White Bluffs, and how rich and agricultural area it was. She was an amazing lady. It's too bad that she passed away quite some time ago. She was a real historian. You talk to those, and all of a sudden it becomes real. She's the first one that I talked to, not Bill Rickard, but Annette Heriford that that explained that some of the people had less than two weeks' notice to move off that site. You think about it and you say, that's just not possible. But it happened. Then you start feeling for the people who—there were roughly 2,000—the numbers change, depending again on who you talk to. The one on one side, the federal side, says there's only 1,500 people out there. But if you look at the historical records, you know that there were probably about 2,100—kids and the whole works. Some of the early census didn't include some of the children, or the sheep herders that moved back and forth across the site. In talking with Annette, you finally got the feeling that was something else here that happened before 1943. That's what got my attention. Good that you know her name, too.

Bauman: Yeah. Why did you think that was important, then, for people to know about?

Petersen: It was probably a little later than that that I also became acquainted with some of the Native Americans. I've got to know some of those over time, too. The relationship of the people who lived out there, both with Native Americans and the site—I’ll change directions for a minute, too. My family at that point lived in Wenatchee, so when I first came in 1965, in order to get to Wenatchee from here, you had two choices. You'd either go around through Pasco and up through Moses Lake and back, or you could go out to Vernita where there was a ferry, part time, and it didn't work at night. You'd ride the ferry and go across. That was prior to the bridge being built and so on. As you go out there, and see the ferry, you'd also see the structure that now I know is Bruggemann Warehouse, and you'd meet some of the people who were either former residents or Native Americans. Then you stopped and you waited for the ferry. You got a chance to talk to some of the people as you went back and forth. There was a lot of discussion about what was this site prior to. But growing from Vernita to Vantage that was pre-Mattawa days. Now I can visualize what Hanford must have been, because Hanford was an agricultural area, prior to—it looked like Mattawa today does. When I first started driving up there, there were no orchards between Vernita and Vantage. Now you look, there's orchards and vineyards and all kinds of stuff at Mattawa. Hanford was that, but it was that before 1943. You have to visualize what it was like, and it was amazing. Hanford really has a perfect weather pattern for early produce, and it was one of the first in the state to produce and all kinds of things--peaches and pears and cherries and walnuts, all kinds of stuff. How we doing? These guys need a break. [LAUGHTER]

Bauman: You started in '65. You're now at TRIDEC. At what point did you move to TRIDEC? I know you worked also at Westinghouse and [INAUDIBLE].

Petersen: My wife kids around and says I can't hold a job. That's the point. I typically work for a company for about seven years and then move companies. So I worked for Battelle for a while, then Westinghouse for a while, then what was called WPPSS, Washington Public Power Supply System for a while. But I retired from Battelle in 2002, and the Hanford manager for the site was Sam Volpentest. Sam was 99 years old at the time, and his doctor, who's also my doctor ended up saying, Sam you can't fly to Washington, DC anymore and go after money. I'd known Sam since '65, I met him in '65, and Sam called and said, Gary, I know you retired, but would you come back to work part time, ten hours a week, easy job go to Washington, DC for me and that's it. He had the nerve to die at 101. He lived for about a year after he hired me to do those trips. And when he passed on, as a result TRIDEC at the time said, well, we need somebody full time to do this. I wasn't real interested, so they said we'll make it part time job. You only have to work 25, 30 hours a week. It hasn't been that since. Away we go. It's nice because if they want to fire me, I'd love it. I'll go and play golf. It's a good deal.

Bauman: Can you talk about Sam Volpentest a little bit? Obviously, a very important figure through most of the Tri-Cities. Can you talk about his significance a little bit?

Petersen: Would be happy to. Sam was an incredible politician. He never ran for office that I know of, but he knew politics from the top to the bottom. He was friends with everybody from Governor Rosellini to Senator Magnuson, Senator Jackson, Speaker of the House, Tom Foley. He knew politics. If you read the book so that was just written about Sam, it has a lot of facts, but until you knew Sam--and I was fortunate. Another part of my assignment, when I first got here in '65, TRIDEC was called TRICNIC. So it had a different name. It was Tri-City Nuclear Industrial Council. And Sam was not a writer. As a matter of fact, everything he did was longhand, very pretty penmanship, but he couldn't put things down on a typewriter for taking to Washington, DC and so on. Battelle, one of their offers to the community was to provide somebody who could write to Sam to write their newsletters, to write their congressional letters, to write things. I got to know Sam when he was in a little office on the Parkway. Later he moved into the Hanford house. Sam was a mover. Most of the ideas that Sam accomplished didn't start with Sam, but he would hear an idea and he'd say, that sounds good. We're going to do that. For example, he started TRICNIC/TRIDEC in 1963. In 1963—you've got to go back in time—every road in and out of the community was two lanes. There was one airline only at the time, and Sam knew that in 1963 the government, AEC, was starting to shut down the reactors. Sam and Glen Lee and Bob Philip formed TRICNIC and they did that to try and offset, with federal dollars, the coming shut down of the production mission at Hanford. In the process, they also determined that in order to develop a community long range, you had to have transportation. Even though most people think that Sam concentrated on Hanford, he actually--and Glen Lee and Bob Philip—all really focused on how do we make the Tri-Cities bigger and better than it is? Four-lane highway was first, but airlines were second, and the third one that really was not well-known at all was education. And they went after a Center for Graduate Study for this community, which became WSU Tri-Cities. They decided that you had all of this intellectual property at the laboratory at Hanford, but you needed something for their families. I don't think it was a sit down and let's do a vision and do all these things. I think it came in pieces, where they actually decided they wanted certain things. Sometimes the fallout was better than what they expected. As an example, the breeder reactor program, which started in 1968, '69, was going to be a major, major new AEC mission. Sam went after the breeder reactor program, and he didn't get it. Savannah River did, what was called Clinch River Breeder Reactor. But he got the secondary issue, which was FFTF, which is a small test reactor that led to. As it turns out, over time the administration killed the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, but they kept FFTF going. Or, another example is we lost out on a mission that Sam really wanted that I think was called SMEVs—and maybe I'll explain it, but maybe not. And we lost that one, too, and so Sam went to Magnuson and said, we need something. Give us something. A couple days later, the story goes, Magnuson called up and said well we had a federal building planned for Montana or Wyoming or something, but they really don't want it. How about we put a federal building in the Tri-Cities. That's how this Federal Building came about. That was Sam. Sam was tenacious. He either liked you, or he didn't like you. There were people he wouldn't let in his office, period, but others-- Phenomenal memory. He could pick up a phone and call congressmen or senators from other states without ever looking the number up. He would pick up the phone--he never believed in talking to staff. He would talk to Senator Magnuson. He would talk to Chet Holifield. He would call them up personally and say I need this or I need that. He was incredible.

Bauman: That's a great story. How was he able to have such persuasive powers with Magnuson, Scoop Jackson, a senator also, Tom Foley, right, these US Senators? Tri-Cities is still fairly small, population-wise. Was it his tenacity?

Petersen: Well. It was his tenacity, but it all started with Governor Rosellini. And the fact that Sam, for a period before he came here, was in the Italian something club in Seattle, which was Rosellini, Magnuson was an honorary member. He, Sam, belonged to the Seattle club, which is still there, downtown Seattle. He made politically--he recognized that you needed political connections no matter what. When he came here and then he had the backing of Glen Lee, Tri-City Herald, the combination of those two—Sam took every advantage he could find. His advantage with the Tri-City Herald was, if he thought we needed something, then Glen Lee would support it editorially, and they would go after the politicians collectively and get it. Sam liked to take credit and he did many, many things, but it was really the combination that he put together that was pretty unique—partnerships. It took him a long time to play what I call both sides of the aisle. Typically he was a Democrat. He was a solid, solid Democrat. But he started realizing that there were Republicans that you had to deal with as well, and he needed to work with them over time, and he did. He built friendships across the whole gamut. And active, I mean, he was amazing. If you ever got a chance to go—Sam was small, but if you ever got a chance to go to Washington, DC with Sam, it was an experience. It was unbelievable. He knew where he was going. He didn't have to look at a map. He walked everywhere. I'll say he was a cheapskate, but he was a penny pincher. If a hotel cost $110 a night, he'd find one where you’d get it for $109. Sam was that kind of an individual. But he knew The Hill like nobody else I've ever seen. He knew the underground parts of The Hill, too. He didn't like to get out in the weather, so there's a whole both subway system and hallways between the House side the Capitol and the Senate side. Sam knew all of those underground links, and he'd just take off through those tunnels and go from one side of The Hill to the other side of The Hill. Amazing.

Bauman: And he lived a long life, so he had--

Petersen: 101.

Bauman: --connections with those politicians--

Petersen: Long period of time. He recognized, too, that he was outliving his supporters. He outlived Magnuson, he outlived Jackson. The one that was constant was Rosellini and Rosellini and he were the same age. And so Rosellini lived to 100, as well. Pretty good.

Bauman: What about Glen Lee? What sort of role--what was he like?

Petersen: Glen Lee was a bulldog. He's a big, imposing man. The thing that I think the Tri-City Herald should have done was kept his office as a mausoleum. His office was a piece of history by itself. He had pictures with Presidents, he had pictures with governors, he had memorabilia from all over the place. If you asked Sam and Glen the same question, you'd get two similar, but different answers. Who caused something to happen? I'll give you one story that is really unique. How did Battelle get here? Sam had a vision of how Battelle came; Glen Lee had a vision of how Battelle came. Fred Albaugh, one of the lab directors had a story about how Battelle came to be here. And Sherwood Fawcett, who became the first director of the lab, had a different story. I believe they're all correct, but they're different. Each one takes credit in a different way, and so Sam claims full credit for bringing Battelle here. He was at a meeting in New York and he knew that the lab was going to be bid out. He ran into Burke Thomas, who was the president of Battelle, and Sherwood Fawcett, and sold them on the idea coming. That's Sam's story. If you listened to Sherwood Fawcett, Sherwood Fawcett said that the president of the company actually was a graduate of the University of Washington. He wanted to open the lab somewhere in the state of Washington. Burke Thomas found out that this lab was going to be bids, so Burke told Sherwood go and bid on that and win it. Two different sides of the same story. I don't know which one is right.

Bauman: You've been connected in Hanford for quite a few years now, and seen a lot changes take place. Obviously, one of the key changes was the mission of the place itself, from production to clean up. I'm wondering if you can talk about that a little bit in terms of how you saw that and the impact that had on the area of Hanford itself?

Petersen: I'm happy to. I'm going to connect it back to Sam a little bit. One of the changes that was major was going from AEC, Atomic Energy Commission, to an organization for a short period called ERDA, which I forget now what that stands for. They were only and operation for a year and a half or so, and now to DOE. Most of the new missions for the Hanford site didn't come from within the federal government, they came from the community. As the production reactors were being shut down, Sam and Glen in particular saw that we needed to find new missions for Hanford. One of the first ones was a Hanford Generating Plant, which was operated by Washington Public Power Supply System, but attached to N Reactor. N Reactor was the first dual purpose reactor in the United States, and the vision was it was going to last a long time because it was the newest one and it produced 800 megawatts of power. Sam and Glen said, let's get the HGP here, because the United States wouldn't dare shut down a reactor that's producing 800 megawatts of power, so that was one the early ones. But as you started to see the reactors come down, they looked for other missions. One of the first ones was a thing called BWIP, which is--everything has an acronym, but a Basalt Waste Isolation Project, which was actually in competition with both Nevada and Texas to become the nation's repository. BWIP, that's a misnomer, what I just said. BWIP was actually the study of the geology of basalt for a repository, but it wasn't going to be the repository. It was a study site. If it worked, if it showed that it could work, then there would have been some other place on the Hanford site they would have dug deep down into the basalt and made a repository. Deaf Smith, Nevada, Yucca Mountain, and here were one of the visions of Sam and Glen and wanted to become the repository for the nation. All of a sudden there was a move in Congress that said we're going to select one and it's going to be Yucca Mountain. And so shut the other two down. And actually BWIP, the Basalt Waste Isolation Project, was shut down within a period of two to four weeks. There were hundreds of people who worked out there. When that shut down, Sam then went after that Clinch River Breeder Reactor program. The breeder reactor program ended up getting FFTF so there was certain things that happened in a sequence that he was always looking for that new mission, whatever it was. One example, the one that Sam loved to do, and I stumble on every time, is Sam also heard that MIT and some others were going after this deep space exploration project. There were two sides to that, at the time. One was SNAP, which is the Space Nuclear Application Program and the second side was what became LIGO, the Laser Interferometry Gravitational-Wave Observatory. I can only do that once. But Sam loved that one because he could spit it out. He had that one memorized and he loved to go into a congressional office and say—rather than LIGO. So Sam is the one that really pushed for that project as well. Always, they had a vision of trying to capture new missions for Hanford, and it was never really—the push never came from DOE or ERDA or AEC after the original mission. They all came from the community. And we’re in competition with Oak Ridge, Idaho Falls, Savannah River, for those kind of things.

Bauman: Another one of the changes that's taken place at Hanford since I've been here is there are a lot fewer buildings on site now than there were. I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit, and what that means, you think, in terms of the history.

Petersen: I'll start lightly and say it's a conspiracy. The conspiracy is every building that I've ever worked in out there, with the exception of FFTF, has been torn down. [LAUGHTER] So I think they're out to get me. At the top of Rattlesnake Mountain were the Nike Ajax building, they've been torn down, and buildings and then the 300 Areas that I had offices in. What we're seeing today, though, is the success of cleanup, particularly along the river corridor. I will say that the Department of Energy and the contractors have done an amazing job of cleaning up this site. When you look at the changes, particularly in the 300 Area or the reactors themselves, the change is phenomenal. I forget, I think there's something like 280 buildings have been taken off the site, and the landscape has changed. The big, tall smokestacks are gone. The water tanks that were out there are gone. The skyline has changed drastically. And they've done it, too, with an intent to try and return it to original habitat. Most of it is what's called brownfields, but they have done a tremendous job of actually recovering a lot of the vegetation the original look of the land, with the exception that this was agricultural area, so it's different. But that's a huge, huge change. And most of that's been in the last five years. It's a different thing today than it was, 1965. You just see it all over the place.

Bauman: You've been giving tours for years. I can't imagine how many tours you've led.

Petersen: I don't know. A lot.

Bauman: [LAUGHTER] Do you have a favorite place on the site of the different places you stopped for tours or maybe when you went out with Bill Rickard? Is there a place that you really--?

Petersen: The B Reactor is unique, unique, unique. There is no place like B Reactor. When you go in to B Reactor and you realize that 50,000 people were brought from all over the United States, and some foreign countries, they didn't know what they were building. They didn't have computers. They didn't have portable radios. They didn't have portable phones. And they, start to finish, built B Reactor in 11 months. That's just plain incredible. When you look at the craftsmanship of doing that, the best analogy is still from Jim Albaugh, who was the head of the Boeing program for 787s. We took him on a tour of B Reactor and he came out and he said, this would be like trying to bring in 50,000 people, have them build their own community first, because they had to have a place to live and eat and so on, and then tell them build a 787, but you've got no computers to do it with. And you've got to buy all the materials and manufacture them. So B Reactor is unique, unique. I can't say enough about B Reactor. But there's a flip side, too, and that is I've also become enamored with pre-1943. When what I think about that, it's really the city of White Bluffs, and the fact that there's still a ferry landing out there, there's a bank building out there, there's sidewalks out there. You go out and when you're alone, you go out by yourself, you can just visualize this community that used to exist. Then all of a sudden, they're moved away and 50,000 people come in in a period of weeks, just a very short period of time. They have to build a town, and then they start building things like B Reactor. And to know is all done, really, under the direction of a 36-year-old individual and a Corps of Engineers, it's unbelievable. I know a lot of cocky 36-year-olds, but I don't know anybody like Franklin Matthias to do the things he did with 50,000 people. Unbelievable. My favorite place is B Reactor. It's got to be right there.

Bauman: Well, I think you and I could just go on talking for hours, probably.

Petersen: [LAUGHTER] I think we're close.

Bauman: But I do wonder, is there anything that we haven't talked about yet that you want to talk about, maybe that I haven't asked you about. Any stories, or anything that's really important that you want to mention?

Petersen: There's a piece that has yet to be done, Bob, and that piece I've talked to several people about. That piece is trying to capture either the individuals or the families of the people who were here prior to 1943. I think it is extremely important for us as a community to find those people, identify them, bring them together, allow them back out on the site for the first time. I took the Bruggemann family back out. That was the first time--did this about three years ago. That was the first time they had been back since 1943, and to go--it's like anybody's heritage. If you have a chance to go back and see where your parents or your grandparents--or you, as a child, grew up--the vision is different. Things are smaller, but—the feel of the place. We need to find those people and give them credibility and standing so that they have the opportunity to see their heritage. It turns out that exactly the same time as people were being moved off Hanford, the Japanese were being moved off of Bainbridge Island. Exactly the same time. And they all had to be off by August of 1943. In the case of the Japanese, the federal government has actually done some very nice things. They helped some of the families regain their land. They put up displays of all kinds to say this is what happened. But here at Hanford, of those families still are scattered around the United States, and they have very little to remember the site that they knew by. When you think about--and I'll use the Bruggemanns because I know them the best--you think about Bruggemanns who had 1,400--they had 640 acres, but they leased more—and they had sheep, they had cattle, they had a working staff of something like ten to 20 people on and off, up and down. They were given two weeks to get rid of all that stuff and move. We've got to get that. We've got to capture that. We've got to help them. That's the piece. How’d we do? Did you guys go to sleep back there?

Man two: Huh?


Bauman: Well thanks very much, Gary, for sharing your stories. Like I said, I'm sure you and I could go on talking for quite a while.

Petersen: I recognize, too, you're really after the people who were here from pre-'63, but '63 to '65 or so. But I'm a Johnny-come-lately, so I look at it different.

Bauman: You know a lot of the history of the place, the stories.

Petersen: There's pieces that are really pretty fun. There's some of the stories, honestly, that you probably will never hear, because they have different twists to them. Some point, not with an audience, I will tell you there's another side to the Apollo 11 moon rocks that got here. It's a very unique story that only a couple people know, how they actually came to the site. And it was tough.

Bauman: Thanks so much, Gary.

Petersen: Yeah.



Bit Rate/Frequency

260 kbps

Hanford Sites

B Reactor
100 Area
200 Area
300 Area
N Reactor
200 East Area
200 West Area

Years in Tri-Cities Area


Years on Hanford Site


Names Mentioned

May, Catherine
Foley, Tom
Nixon, Pat
Bair, William (Bill)
Rickard, Bill
Volpentest, Sam




Hanford Oral History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities, “Interview with Gary Petersen,” Hanford History Project, accessed June 24, 2024,