Interview with Charles Davis

Dublin Core


Interview with Charles Davis


An interview with Charles Davis 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

2017-29-11: Metadata v1 created – [A.H.]


The Hanford Oral History Project operates under a sub-contract from Mission Support Alliance (MSA), who are 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 this US Department of Energy collection.

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Robert Franklin


Charles Davis


Washington State University Tri-Cities


Robert Franklin: My name is Robert Franklin. I’m conducting an oral history interview with Charles Davis on December 19th, 2016. The interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. I will be talking with Charles about his experiences working at the Hanford Site. And for the record, can you state and spell your full name for us?

Charles Davis: It’s Charles Davis. C-H-A-R-L-E-S D-A-V-I-S.

Franklin: Great, thank you very much. So tell me how and why you came to the area to work for the Hanford Site.

Davis: Back in 1977, I got out of the Army and I was working at Fort Lewis as a civilian. And it was a just-barely-over-minimum-wage job with no benefits, and I was looking for employment. And one of the employment people suggested I try out for Hanford. And it was Rockwell at the time. I came over and interviewed for Hanford Patrol and was hired.

Franklin: Okay. And when did you start at Hanford Patrol?

Davis: Well, I started working for Rockwell in August of 1978. And I went through the training for Hanford Patrol starting in January of 1979.

Franklin: Okay. And what did you do for Hanford Patrol?

Davis: Well, I was a patrolman. I worked most of the time out of the 300 Area until the 400 Area got its own headquarters. And then I was one of the people that moved to the 400 Area. Later on in 1980, I believe, I became one of the first four AMS—Alarm Monitoring System—lieutenants.

Franklin: Okay. AMS stands for Alarm Monitoring System.

Davis: Monitoring System.

Franklin: And so that was the electronic system, then, that, like, was monitored at a central location?

Davis: Well, there were several of them. One of them was around 234-5Z in 200 Area. That was the first one. And then around the 324 complex in 300 Area. And around the protected area at the 400 Area, Fast Flux Test Facility.

Franklin: Okay. So we—a couple weeks ago I did an interview with Bob Parr.

Davis: Mm-hm.

Franklin: Do you know him?

Davis: Yes, I do.

Franklin: He also worked as—and he mentioned the development of this system and how it changed—or kind of changed some of the tasks of the patrolmen. Or how—I think he mentioned that before, Hanford Patrol was kind of antiquated in its security systems, and I was wondering if you could talk about that switch from the older system to this alarm monitoring system and how it changed your job.

Davis: Well, before the Alarm Monitoring System went in, everything was visual. You had to be onsite and looking to see something happening. After the AMS system came in, there were several different systems around each of the Areas. There were microwaves, motion detectors, there was the Israeli fence, which was a taut wire fence. If you stretched it this way or to crawl through it, it set off an alarm. If you cut it, it also set off an alarm.

Franklin: And it was called an Israeli fence?

Davis: Israeli fence, because the Israelis were the ones that developed that technology.

Franklin: Oh, okay. Interesting. Would that get triggered often by wild animals or tumbleweeds or anything, or was it pretty—

Davis: The microwaves did, yes.

Franklin: Yeah?

Davis: And there were also cameras surrounding the protected areas. And if you got an alarm, the camera would come on automatically. For that particular location. They also—the cameras rolled through the security screens, so you’d see everything in a—I can’t remember the timeframe—two or three minutes. But if an alarm went off, the cameras automatically focused in on that particular location.

Franklin: Interesting.

Davis: They also had cameras on the inside of Dash-5.

Franklin: Okay.

Davis: And in fact, the first time we were out there training on the system, they had a problem. They had a plutonium container break, and it crapped up quite a bit of the backside and main hallway in Dash-5.

Franklin: Oh, wow. Was there—were you near that area, or were you just in the building?

Davis: Well, the place where the alarm monitoring system was located, the control room was in a separate building.

Franklin: Oh, okay.

Davis: But it was within the protected area.

Franklin: Right. But you’re saying though, that—it’s interesting that when you were training on that system, in that building there was like a pretty serious accident—

Davis: Yes.

Franklin: --that occurred. Okay. And I guess you probably would have been pretty new on the job still, then, or--?

Davis: Well, I’d had two years on Hanford Patrol--

Franklin: Okay.

Davis: --but only a month or two as an AMS lieutenant.

Franklin: So kind of describe for me the—you know, your average workday, both as a patrolman and then later as an AMS lieutenant.

Davis: Well, the patrolmen were security for the Site. So most of the time, we were at a fixed location, at a gate or at a barricade like the Y barricade or the Yakima barricade, and we checked badges of people coming in.

Franklin: Okay. And then what about as an AMS lieutenant?

Davis: That was mostly sitting in the control room, monitoring the system. Although the systems weren’t fully operational for a while after the four of us were promoted to lieutenant. So we assisted the shift lieutenant and did whatever they needed.

Franklin: Hm. How come the systems were only installed in those select areas?

Davis: Because those were the protected areas.

Franklin: Protected areas, okay.

Davis: Right.

Franklin: So what designated a protected area from a non-protected area?

Davis: Mostly it was where plutonium was stored, and that had other classified information.

Franklin: Okay. And how long did you work on the AMS system?

Davis: Up until I got out of patrol in August of ’82.

Franklin: Oh, okay, so just for a couple years then?

Davis: Yeah.

Franklin: And then what did you do after leaving AMS?

Davis: I became a nuclear process operator.

Franklin: Okay.

Davis: And I worked at Dash-5. [LAUGHTER]

Franklin: Oh, okay. And what is a nuclear process operator?

Davis: Well, I was hired to do terminal clean-out. And there were two production lines at Dash-5: the A line, which was the original one, and then the C line. We were going to be doing terminal clean-out, or getting it ready to be destroyed, for the A line. And they figured there was somewhere around 3,000 grams of plutonium in the system, and we would get about half of it out. And that was based on a non-destructive assay. And it turned out we got over 5,000 grams out, and there was still about 1,500 left in it.

Franklin: Oh, okay, so there was kind of more than double the original estimate.

Davis: Right.

Franklin: Wow. And was that plutonium usable, or was it in a form that was not usable?

Davis: It was scrap—powder and mixed in with other chemicals. It was all collected, put in little plastic jars about this tall, and stored. It could have been sent through the Plutonium Reclamation Facility and reused. I can’t remember if any of it was or not.

Franklin: Okay. To give, I think maybe our future viewers and myself an idea—how much is 5,000 grams of plutonium? Like what size, what amount would that be? Can you compare it to something?

Davis: Well, a plutonium button usually runs around 2 kilograms or 2,000 grams, and it’s about the size of a hockey puck.

Franklin: Right, right. Which is why they’re sometimes called pucks.

Davis: Right. The scrap we were getting out was mixed with other stuff, so it was—the volume was a lot larger.

Franklin: Oh, okay, okay. So there were 5,000 grams of plutonium mixed in with a lot of other—

Davis: Right.

Franklin: Okay, I see. And how long did it take to do the terminal clean-out of the A line?

Davis: Well, we were also cleaning equipment out. And the whole thing lasted well over a year.

Franklin: Okay. And then what did you do after that?

Davis: Well, then we went on to removing a vacuum system. There was a vacuum system throughout the facility that people used for various processes. And one of the things they used for, at the beginning, was if you had some extra solution, they kind of sucked it up and so it disappeared. Well, it didn’t really disappear. It went into the piping and kind of sat there. And these were about six inch in diameter pipes. And in some locations, they were half-filled with various stuff. Chemicals mixed in with plutonium. Kind of like a salt cake.

Franklin: Okay. So kind of similar to the waste tank scenario, then.

Davis: Exactly.

Franklin: There’s stuff in there from the process and no one really knew the exact elements and concentrations of chemicals and things.

Davis: Correct.

Franklin: Wow.

Davis: And we took the piping out, pipefitters cut it, the operators bagged it and lowered it down, and then it went into storage boxes.

Franklin: And then I assume those were disposed of in like a solid waste landfill, or--?

Davis: I’m not sure where they ended up.

Franklin: Sure. This—what you’re describing sounds a lot—similar to what’s going on there today, in terms of the tear-down and demolitions of the buildings.

Davis: Right.

Franklin: I’m wondering if you could talk about kind of the protective measures that you and your coworkers worked in and the kinds of safety equipment that you used then. You don’t have to compare it to now if you don’t know the current—but I’m just kind of curious as to how—what the kind of precautions and kind of culture of safety was then.

Davis: Okay. Well, of course, whenever we were on the backside of the operations side of Dash-5, we were in SWPs. Which are canvas overalls.

Franklin: Okay.

Davis: And whenever we were working in a glovebox, we taped up with surgeon gloves. All the gloveboxes had lead-lined gloves in them. And if we were doing anything that might be—might cause a puncture in the gloves, we wore either canvas or leather gloves over them.

Franklin: Okay.

Davis: When we were taking the vacuum system out, we would build plastic greenhouses around the area that we were working in to control contamination, in case something happened. We went in usually with two pairs of coveralls, and respirators. Sometimes we only used air purifying respirators, and sometimes we used power air purifying respirators.

Franklin: What’s the difference?

Davis: The powered ones had battery packs and it was forced air. So you always had a positive airflow through your mask, so if anything happened, the air went out, rather than when you were breathing in, it could get around the edges of your mask and be pulled in if you didn’t have a good enough seal.

Franklin: Oh, okay, okay, I see. And I assume you wore dosimetry equipment—the personal--

Davis: Yes, all the time.

Franklin: What kind do you remember? The badge kind, or--?

Davis: Every once in a while we used the pencils, but not very often during terminal clean-up. Later on, I worked on the RMC line when they were producing plutonium buttons, and then we wore the pencils also. We also had dosimetry on our ring finger.

Franklin: Oh, the finger dosimeters.

Davis: Right.

Franklin: Okay.

Davis: And those were changed out monthly, both the badge TLDs and the ring ones.

Franklin: Interesting. And—great, thank you. And so where—when you finished with the A line, and then you moved to the piping.

Davis: Right.

Franklin: How long did the piping take to—

Davis: Again, over a year.

Franklin: Oh, over a year, okay. And then—

Davis: And some of the piping was over the office side of Dash-5.

Franklin: Oh. So how did you handle that situation?

Davis: Again, we built big plastic greenhouses.

Franklin: Okay.

Davis: And fortunately we didn’t have a problem. We never lost containment or anything.

Franklin: So that building was still producing—or what was the purpose of the 245—sorry—it was the--

Davis: 234-5Z.

Franklin: 234, what was the purpose of that building?

Davis: It turned plutonium nitrate solution into plutonium buttons.

Franklin: Oh, okay. So it was like a plutonium processing—

Davis: Right.

Franklin: Okay. And was that still in active use when you were removing the piping and the A line?

Davis: No.

Franklin: Oh, okay.

Davis: However, after we stopped, they—because of the buildup during the Reagan years, they revamped the RMC line and started using it again.

Franklin: Okay, so you’d already taken out the A line, you’d taken out some of—

Davis: Well, the A line actually—when we finished with it, it sat there for another 25 or 30 years, and it just was removed within the last two or three years.

Franklin: So what did you do with it, if you didn’t—you were just cleaning it, instead of removing—

Davis: Right.

Franklin: Oh, okay, okay. Was it used again after you cleaned it?

Davis: No, because they took out all of the equipment.

Franklin: Right. But the C line was still in use.

Davis: Right.

Franklin: Okay, interesting. So you removed the piping over the offices, and then what happened? What did you move on to?

Davis: Then we moved on to revamping the RMC line.

Franklin: Okay. And what is the—do you remember what RMC stands for?

Davis: Remote Controlled and then C is just like A, B, C, D.

Franklin: Oh, okay. And what was the purpose of the RMC line?

Davis: To change plutonium nitrate into plutonium buttons.

Franklin: Okay. So you said you revamped it. So what—

Davis: Well, it was sort of mothballed.

Franklin: Okay.

Davis: So some of the equipment had to be replaced. Some of the leaded glass windows had to be replaced.

Franklin: And that’s that really thick glass.

Davis: Right. They were inch-and-a-half to two inches thick. And the reason they had to be replaced was you couldn’t see through them. Because of the radiation, they got fogged over. So it was the operators’ job to prepare the area for the boilermakers to go in and actually do the window change.

Franklin: Okay.

Davis: You know, union rules. Because it was a pressure vessel, the boilermakers had to do the work on that. That was a pretty dangerous job, because some of these hoods were powder hoods. And if you think of talcum powder, that’s what the plutonium powder was like, so it had a tendency to fly all over. Fortunately, we never had any skin contaminations on any of the window changes. A good pre-job planning, and everybody knew what they were doing.

Franklin: So, when you went in to those hoods, there would have just been powder from the processing in there.

Davis: Right.

Franklin: Okay. Wow, that’s—so then you were able to change the—or to prepare it—how would you—did you remove the powder, or--?

Davis: As much as we could. But you could never get all of it. And even though the hoods are negative pressure, when you’re disturbing them, there’s a chance for the powder to come out of the hoods.

Franklin: Sure. And how did you handle that exactly?

Davis: Well, we built greenhouses—plastic greenhouses—around them. The people that went in were on supplied air respirators, so it was even more than the powered air purifying. The supplied air, there were large tanks of air inside and hoses that went in, connecting to the mask. And they—people had escape packs, little five-minute emergency bottles, so in case something happened they could still get out. And when we were doing changing the powder hoods, we wore the two pair of coveralls plus a plastic suit. And these plastic suits were made by the plastic shop up on the third floor of the building. So it was a pair of trousers that went up about mid-waist—mid-chest. And then like a parka that went over the top. And then they got taped to the coveralls, and then gloves over them, so there was—you were completely encased in this plastic. Which made it awfully warm, too.

Franklin: I would imagine—yeah, that was going to be my next question. How was it to work in that? I imagine your dexterity is somewhat compromised, and your vision is somewhat compromised. What is it like to work in that kind of suit? Like, I’m imagining you just—your body feels different.

Davis: Mostly hot.

Franklin: Mostly hot?

Davis: When you get out of there, you usually could wring sweat out of your underclothes.

Franklin: Really?

Davis: Yup.

Franklin: Wow. Were there any instances of people ever overheating in that? Like, having exertion and not—

Davis: Not that I recall.

Franklin: Oh, okay, but just very hot and humid.

Davis: Yeah.

Franklin: And then what about trying to manipulate tools with so many layers of gloves on, on the fingers?

Davis: Well, we wore surgeon gloves as the inner protecting. With the surgeon gloves, there’s not a problem.

Franklin: Sure.

Davis: At least not for me. I wore as tight of surgeon gloves as I could, rather than having really loose ones like some people did. With the canvas gloves, it was a little awkward.

Franklin: Interesting.

Davis: The people taking—like taking the bolts off of the powder hood and stuff, it wasn’t that much of a problem, because they were usually wearing gloves anyway. You know, boilermakers. So they’re used to it.

Franklin: Would the boilermakers also need—I imagine they would also need the same level of protective equipment.

Davis: Oh, yeah, everybody that went in it wore that.

Franklin: Oh, okay. So that was a basic level of training no matter—union job—because they had to have different groups of people, like pipefitters to deal with pipes, right, boilermakers to deal with—okay.

Davis: Right. And like on the A line when we were removing equipment, the operators didn’t remove the equipment. Didn’t disassemble the equipment. Millwrights disassembled the equipment. The operators would seal them out of the gloveboxes.

Franklin: Okay. And then would you move the equipment, or would teamsters be needed to move the equipment?

Davis: No, we could move the equipment. Because it was contaminated. I mean, it was obviously inside the hood, so it was contaminated.

Franklin: Right, right, right. Okay. So after the RMC line, where did you move to next?

Davis: I also—while we were working on that, I was also working up in the Plutonium—PFP—PRF, Reclamation Facility. Which is the six-story building that’s attached to 234-5.

Franklin: Okay, and that’s the one that’s coming down—no.

Davis: It’s, I think in the process right now.

Franklin: In the process of coming down right now, okay. And what did you do in the PRF?

Davis: That was also refurbishing it to be used.

Franklin: So this was during the Reagan—

Davis: Right.

Franklin: The Reagan buildup.

Davis: Right.

Franklin: And describe refurbishing.

Davis: Changing out piping that was old. It looked like when they shut it down people just walked off so there were tools left inside. The system used nitric acid, tributyl phosphate, in the process. And we would find things like pliers that had been left in nitric acid for a year or two and were sometimes almost as sharp as knives, because the acid would eat away.

Franklin: Wow.

Davis: And we’d seal that stuff out. We were replacing pumps and—

Franklin: So, like, literally, it looked like they had just walked off--

Davis: Yup.

Franklin: --the job one day in the middle of work.

Davis: Right, just—

Franklin: Did you ever figure out why that was? Is that actually what happened, or--?

Davis: I think it was, well, we were never going to use this again, so we’ll just leave it. Rather than taking time to clean it up and—

Franklin: Do you know how long it was from when they had stopped work to when you went into start refurbishing it?

Davis: No.

Franklin: Oh, okay. Do you have any guesses, based on—

Davis: Probably about ten years.

Franklin: Oh, okay. So it had been a fairly—

Davis: Yup.

Franklin: So there probably was dust everywhere, and—

Davis: Yeah. The PRF had six floors. The top two were just small areas where the top of the columns were. The other four floors had gloveboxes in them where the operations was conducted. And from the control room, which was up on the fourth floor, depending on what exactly they were doing at that particular moment, they’d get out their procedure and run through it. You needed an open valve, whatever number it was on the first floor, and closed valve on the second floor and so on and so forth.

Franklin: Okay. And so how long did you work refurbishing—how long did the refurbishing work take on PRF?

Davis: I can’t remember. Probably six to eight months.

Franklin: Oh, okay. To get it back ready for operation. And how many men would be working on a project like that?

Davis: [LAUGHTER] That’s a good question. There were quite a few.

Franklin: Oh, okay.

Davis: Not just men. Men and women.

Franklin: Sorry. People.

Davis: We had women nuclear process operators.

Franklin: Oh, okay. And when—were there women nuclear process operators when you started?

Davis: Yes.

Franklin: Okay. And so what happened after the PRF was refurbished?

Davis: I moved out to shipping and receiving at Dash-5.

Franklin: Seems like a pretty different job change. You know, a shift.

Davis: It was shipping and receiving radioactive material.

Franklin: Oh, okay. So still handling—but this time handling kind of the finished product instead of cleaning it up.

Davis: Right. Once they started making buttons in the RMC line, they had to go someplace.

Franklin: Right, okay.

Davis: And that’s what we were doing.

Franklin: And can you describe shipping and receiving? What was an average day like in shipping and receiving?

Davis: I don’t know if there was really an average day. When we had a shipment going out, the shipments were sent on SSTs, Safe Secure Transports, which are semi-trucks that are specially designed to transport nuclear material.

Franklin: And what does the special design consist of?

Davis: The tractors were armored. The trailers had anti-tampering devices, so to speak. If you look at a regular semi-truck trailer, walls are about this thick. Walls on these were this thick. And I don’t know all of the devices they had in those, but they—if somebody tried to hijack them, it would have been virtually impossible. Somebody said that they had a foam device that if the trailer was tipped over or if it was opened without keys, the foam would come in and solidify around the containers inside. And the trucks were driven by special couriers who were armed. They usually had one to two SUVs traveling with the truck, full of armed men. And I don’t remember ever seeing any women in that group.

Franklin: Okay. And how often would a delivery take place?

Davis: I can’t remember any frequencies.

Franklin: Now, what about receiving? Is that when you would intake the solution to make buttons?

Davis: Right.

Franklin: Okay. And describe that process.

Davis: The PUREX plant in East Area was operating at that time, and they separated the plutonium out of the fuel rods and turned it into plutonium nitrate solution. These were shipped over to Dash-5. Most of the time in 55-gallon drums that had inner containers that were about six inches in diameter and two-and-a-half to three feet tall. That’s because that’s a criticality safe configuration. And you certainly didn’t want a criticality to happen.

Franklin: Right, so that way you could put two drums next to each other—or near each other, and there would be enough space in between the—

Davis: Right, that and the shape of the container’s cylindrical, no more than six inches in diameter. So you wouldn’t want to just put it in the bottom of a 55-gallon drum, because that would not be a critically safe configuration, and you could get a criticality.

Franklin: Interesting. I wonder how they figured that out.

Davis: Hopefully not through trial and error. [LAUGHTER]

Franklin: Some things are better figured out not through trial and error. So how long did you work in shipping and receiving?

Davis: About two years and then I moved to the burial grounds and Central Waste Complex.

Franklin: Before we get to that, what was your job in shipping and receiving? Were you just like a clerk, or--?

Davis: No, I was an operator and we loaded the containers.

Franklin: Oh, okay. So you unloaded probably at the receiving end and then—

Davis: Right.

Franklin: I heard from somebody else—I interviewed somebody that worked there and they said the guards on the transport trucks were not a friendly bunch. Did you ever have any interactions with them?

Davis: No.

Franklin: Or was it just strictly business?

Davis: Strictly business.

Franklin: Okay.

Davis: The—never mind.

Franklin: No, no, no, no, no, go ahead.

Davis: It flew out of my mind. Oh, I know what I was going to say. Some of the SSTs were driven around completely empty. And some of them were full.

Franklin: Right, probably to—

Davis: So that just because there was an SST on the road, people wouldn’t know whether it was loaded or not. And even if it was loaded to the maximum that they could carry, compared to a regular semi-truck, they were light.

Franklin: Oh, right. Light in load.

Davis: Lightweight.

Franklin: Lightweight. Interesting. I could see how that is kind of a good counter-espionage tactic.

Davis: Mm-hm. And the other thing that we did in shipping and receiving was monitor the vaults where they had both plutonium buttons and plutonium powder in the vaults. And every once in a while, they would come in and take containers out to assay it, just to make sure nobody’s sneaking it out in their lunchbox, I guess. [LAUGHTER]

Franklin: And that’s where the can monitoring units were, right? In the vault? Is that where those were employed?

Davis: Yeah.

Franklin: Okay, we have a couple of those in our collection. And I’ve seen the—you go into the vault and they’re all kind of strategically-arranged around so you don’t have a criticality incident. So you monitored those as well?

Davis: Right.

Franklin: Did you ever perform any of the assays, or was it--?

Davis: Well, there were people that actually performed the assays. But operators including myself were the people that went into the vault, take the containers, and put them in the assay machines. Then they’d do the—and then we’d put them back.

Franklin: Was there—anyone ever sneak, that you know of—sneaked—seems like a very risky thing to do for a very small amount of material.

Davis: There were monitors on the exits, and you couldn’t have gotten through. In fact, the monitors would go off if somebody had, like, radiation, iodine, x-ray.

Franklin: Oh, okay.

Davis: You know, downtown. And they’d come out to work and the monitor—alarm would go off.

Franklin: Interesting. And so there’s a pretty tight level of security, then, at the Plutonium Finishing—

Davis: Yeah. There had to be at least two people whenever you went into the vault.

Franklin: Oh, okay. And then there was checks on entry and exit as well.

Davis: Right. And remember the AMS system?

Franklin: Yeah.

Davis: There were cameras in there so they could see what you were doing.

Franklin: Was that the same at the other places you worked at? At the 234-5Z and other places? Was the security system similar, was it pretty high—

Davis: Well, the shipping and receiving building was inside the 234-5Z compound. So it was part of that.

Franklin: Oh, okay. And then what about when you were working in kind of the refurbishing or cleanup? Was there also pretty tight security presence there as well?

Davis: Not as much.

Franklin: Okay. Probably because there’s no finished product there.

Davis: Right.

Franklin: So then you said you went out to the burial grounds.

Davis: Right, and Central Waste Complex.

Franklin: Central Waste Complex—and just describe that. What went into the burial grounds?

Davis: Anything they wanted to get rid of.

Franklin: Okay.

Davis: Low-level waste.

Franklin: Low-level. Solid?

Davis: Yes.

Franklin: Okay.

Davis: When they started back in the ‘40s, it was back your truck up to the edge of the burial ground and throw whatever was on it into the ditch. So you had drums and boxes every which way, you know, laying on top of each other. By the time I got there, they were stacking them neatly and doing recoverable storage—if anybody ever needed to get whatever they buried out again.

Franklin: Okay. So much more like—I don’t even know how to describe it. But not just like a dump anymore, but in case they accidentally sent something to the disposal that they needed back—

Davis: Right, or wanted to get back to reprocess it later.

Franklin: Oh. So what kind of system kept track of that? Like, how would you—how would somebody come and get something back?

Davis: There was paperwork on everything that we put in there. And the paperwork was saved, so if somebody was looking for something, we buried such-and-such item in 1987. They could look through and find out where it went and the position in the trench, how far from the front or the back.

Franklin: Oh okay, so it was still being buried in the ground.

Davis: Right.

Franklin: And so would you fill those when they got full?

Davis: Yeah.

Franklin: Okay.

Davis: They, in fact, every so often, they would—as we went from one end of the trench to the other, and when there was a certain number of feet of items that were being buried, they brought bulldozers in and covered the boxes and drums.

Franklin: Okay. Now, what would the process be if somebody needed to get something that was buried by bulldozer out? Would they have to excavate and then—

Davis: Yeah. It never happened while I was there. So I’m not sure how they would do it, exactly, but they’d say, well, it’s x number of feet from the beginning of the trench, and that would be right here, and I guess we’re going to have to dig a big hole and try to get it out. [LAUGHTER]

Franklin: And so how long did you work at the burial ground for?

Davis: Up until ’91.

Franklin: Okay.

Davis: So another couple of years.

Franklin: Okay.

Davis: And Central Waste Complex is a series of buildings that they stored radioactive waste in, rather than burying it.

Franklin: Oh, okay. So that’s different from the burial grounds, then?

Davis: Well, the people doing the operations were in the same group.

Franklin: Okay. But the burial—so the Waste Complex, was that—that’s not tank waste, or is that?

Davis: No.

Franklin: Okay, that’s just other types of waste.

Davis: Right. There were 13 buildings that were 4,000 square feet and they had just built those when I got into burial grounds. And there were four more buildings built after that. The biggest one was 56,000 square feet if I remember correctly.

Franklin: Wow.

Davis: 12 of the original 13 buildings, we received waste from 100-H Area.

Franklin: Okay.

Davis: And that was from one of the trenches out there that they sent water from the reactors out and let it settle. And they were—it was mixed waste. Radioactive and chemical waste.

Franklin: Oh. So how would that—so then that got into the soil, I—

Davis: Right, so then they were digging up the soil, putting it in 55-gallon drums and then sending it to Central Waste Complex with the idea that it would eventually be reprocessed to separate the radioactive material from the chemical material.

Franklin: Wow. Did that ever happen?

Davis: No, not to my knowledge.

Franklin: Oh, okay. So they just—oh, sorry, go ahead.

Davis: The original containers were 55-gallon drums. And they started getting pinhole leaks from the chemicals that were in there. So they repacked them in 110-gallon drums. And some of those started getting leaks. So they repacked them in plastic drums, bigger—even bigger.

Franklin: Any leaks on those?

Davis: Not by the time I left.

Franklin: Okay.


Franklin: But those were stored aboveground then, in these buildings.

Davis: Right.

Franklin: Probably, I guess, for easy—

Davis: Retrieval.

Franklin: Retrieval and—

Davis: And for monitoring also.

Franklin: Yeah, I was going to say, that’s—I mean, that’s obviously how they knew there were leaks in them, which is good. Someone was monitoring them. And so then the other buildings mostly just stored waste that needed to be monitored and retrieved at a—

Davis: Right.

Franklin: Okay. So what did you—where did you go after the burial grounds or the Central Waste Complex?

Davis: I actually stayed in burial grounds but I went exempt. I went into administration.

Franklin: Oh, okay.

Davis: And I was there until 1996 when I was asked to move to T Plant. And then I was the building administrator out at T Plant.

Franklin: And—

Davis: Building administrator is the guy that orders supplies, makes—coordinates moves of people into or out of the plant and things like that.

Franklin: And what was the T Plant doing at that time?

Davis: They were decontaminating equipment.

Franklin: Okay. And the T Plant was one of the canyons, right?

Davis: Right.

Franklin: And it was one of the canyons where things were remote controlled because of the radioactivity?

Davis: Right.

Franklin: Okay.

Davis: In fact, it was the original processing facility.

Franklin: Right. So that was undergoing cleanup at the time—or a form of cleanup.

Davis: Well, they were decontaminating equipment from other places, plus whatever was in there.

Franklin: Okay. And so what—so kind of describe—well, so—sorry. So, they’re bringing in equipment from other places in there to also decon—

Davis: Right.

Franklin: So that was kind of a decontaminating location?

Davis: Right.

Franklin: So how long did that work take?

Davis: As far as I know, they’re still doing it.

Franklin: And where did that take place? I imagine that the canyon itself—

Davis: In the canyon.

Franklin: Oh okay.

Davis: The cells where the processing took place was below deck.

Franklin: Mm-hm.

Davis: And each cell had a concrete cap on it that could be removed by a crane. And these were probably six feet thick.

Franklin: Wow.

Davis: And they were stair-step so you could make a good seal. And the processing—the decontamination stuff took place on the deck.

Franklin: On the top.

Davis: Right.

Franklin: Of the—okay. And so I imagine the people that were in there were in full—

Davis: Right. Supplied air respirators.

Franklin: I guess that makes sense, right, because if you’re decontaminating something and it gets crapped up, I mean, you’re already in a pretty hot place.

Davis: Right.

Franklin: As far as radioactivity goes, so you’re not going to wreck a place that has no or very little radioactivity.

Davis: If—

Franklin: what kinds of equipment would you be cleaning up?

Davis: All sorts.

Franklin: From what—from other canyons, or--?

Davis: Yeah, I’m not sure where it all came from.

Franklin: Oh, okay. But from other buildings onsite.

Davis: Right.

Franklin: Because at that point it was decontaminate—there was no processing anymore, right?

Davis: Correct.

Franklin: It was just decontamination.

Davis: There is a pool on the north end where, when I got there they had fuel elements in that came from offsite. I’m not—back east some place.

Franklin: Okay.

Davis: Sea-something? Seabrook? Someplace way back east, like on the coast. And while I was there, they built a new facility in East Area that they stored the reactor—irradiated reactor fuel from N area. They also took the stuff out of the T Plant pool and moved it over there, too.

Franklin: Oh, okay.

Davis: If you want to talk to somebody that had a really interesting job, talk to one of the crane operators that worked at T Plant.

Franklin: Yeah? Okay. Do you know anybody?

Davis: I’d have to think on their names. It’s been—[LAUGHTER]

Franklin: 20 years?

Davis: Not quite. About 15 since I got laid off.

Franklin: And so—how long did you work at—how long were you the building administrator at the T Plant?

Davis: Up until I got laid off in 2003.

Franklin: Okay, so you worked for about 25 years—

Davis: At Hanford, right.

Franklin: At Hanford, okay. And what did you—were they just drawing down operations then—

Davis: Yeah.

Franklin: Or were you just kind of a senior person and they were like, well—

Davis: There were 300 people laid off the same day I was.

Franklin: Oh, okay.

Davis: So it wasn’t like, just you.

Franklin: It wasn’t personal?

Davis: No.

Franklin: But were operations kind of dwindling, then, at that point?

Davis: Yes.

Franklin: So a lot of the work scope had been accomplished. And then what did you do after you were laid off?

Davis: I worked for the Washington State Patrol.

Franklin: Oh, okay. So kind of back to patrol.

Davis: Right, as a—I was a commercial vehicle enforcement officer.

Franklin: Interesting. And that’s at the waystations?

Davis: That’s one of them, yeah. I worked down at the Plymouth waystation. And then I got promoted to CVE-02 and went into compliance review, which is investigating trucking companies. And then I went to be the lead worker at the interior detachment for our district, which is from Yakima to the Idaho border.

Franklin: Okay. How long did you do that for?

Davis: 11 years.

Franklin: Oh, okay, so you just retired from that as well?

Davis: Yup.

Franklin: And then how did you get involved with the B Reactor Museum Association?

Davis: Well, that was something that I was kicking around for a long time to get involved with. And last April I finally said, let’s do it. So my wife and I joined.

Franklin: And why? What was the interest there?

Davis: Preserving B Reactor. These buildings and processes out there just fascinate me.

Franklin: How so?

Davis: Just because of the at-the-time-cutting-edge technology that was being developed. I mean, obviously, you look at what we have today compared to what it was in 1944, but back then it was just amazing. And the facilities—just—I just find them amazing.

Franklin: What other buildings or processes do you wish could be saved or would have been saved on the Hanford Site?

Davis: I think they should save T Plant, because it was the first production facility.

Franklin: Right, because I mean, it’s also kind of groundbreaking in that way. And you can’t really tell the story of B Reactor without that other half.

Davis: Right.

Franklin: And what else—are there any others?

Davis: Let’s back up just a second on T Plant.

Franklin: Sure.

Davis: Back in the 1960s, after they shut down the processing there, they cleaned up the canyon enough so that they invited the families of workers to come out, and they had some sort of function in the canyon.

Franklin: Wow. That is really interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before. How did you hear about that?

Davis: Some of the operators, when I first went into operations, were at T Plant when that happened.

Franklin: Wow.

Davis: And if it could be cleaned up that much so people could actually get into the canyon, I think that would be fantastic.

Franklin: I think I agree—I agree with you. That would really—goes a long way into telling that story. Because otherwise, it—you know, what happens to the fuel after we irradiate it?

Davis: Right. And I think the 400 Area, the Fast Flux Test Facility would be a good addition, too.

Franklin: Why is that?

Davis: Because it was a sodium reactor. Sodium-cooled reactor.

Franklin: Yeah, it’s a fascinating piece of technology. A couple weeks ago we interviewed the guy who patented it, Eugene Astley. And it’s a very—a shame that that reactor didn’t get to kind of live up to its fullest potential, being shut down so quickly after it was created. Can you describe living in—your thoughts on living in Richland—I guess I should ask, did you live in Richland when you worked at Hanford?

Davis: Yes, most of the time.

Franklin: Most of the time. What was it like living in Richland during the Cold War and then the shift to not the Cold War and the rise of environmental consciousness?

Davis: I don’t think it was very different than anywhere else.

Franklin: Okay.

Davis: I wasn’t there when it was a company town where you had to be working at Hanford, before you could live in Richland.

Franklin: Sure.

Davis: Those type of questions, I’m sure you asked my wife.

Franklin: Yes. We usually do ask, you know, anybody who was there at the time. Did you ever feel an immediacy to the Cold War, kind of living and working in a site that was producing material for the US nuclear weapons arsenal? The fact that Hanford might have been a prime target—

Davis: Yeah.

Franklin: --for Russian bombing. Or knowing what the work was contributing to, do you have any feelings about that, good or bad?

Davis: Well, we realized that Hanford might be a target. But we—at least I thought it would probably be other places before Hanford, because anything we produced there, it would take so long to get into the system.

Franklin: Oh.

Davis: I was more worried about somebody trying to steal plutonium or technology than somebody dropping a bomb.

Franklin: Is there anything else that I haven’t asked you that you’d like to talk about?

Davis: Not that I can think of.

Franklin: Okay, well, Charles, thank you so much for coming in and interviewing with us today—participating in the interview. You’re not interviewing anything. But thank you. You gave a lot of great detail about some of the cleanup and refurbishment. And I really appreciate that; I think that was really interesting work, kind of working at this pivotal time between kind of the shutdown of the Carter administration and then the uptick in the Reagan administration is really interesting and not really—a story that hasn’t been told really well yet at Hanford. So I really appreciate you shining a lot of light on that.

Davis: Okay, thank you.

Franklin: Great.




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