Interview with Philip "Rick" Riccobuono
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Northwest Public Television | Riccobuono_Philip_Rick
Robert Bauman: Okay. All right. We're ready to get going. So we'll get started. So first we could just have you say your name and spell it for us.
Philip Riccobuono: The last name is Riccobuono. R-I-C-C-O-B-U-O-N-O. And it's pronounced Riccobuono, but the "u" is really silent.
Bauman: Okay. And your first name is Phillip, but you go by Rick.
Riccobuono: Phillip, and I go by Rick.
Bauman: And my name is Bob Bauman.
Riccobuono: Is it Don?
Riccobuono: Bob, that’s right.
Bauman: And today's date is November 6 of 2013, and we're conducting the interview on the campus of Washington State University, Tri-cities. So let's start by just having you talk about what brought you to Hanford. When did you arrive? Why did you come here?
Riccobuono: Okay. I arrived here on March 9th, 1950. I was in an army convoy that brought me from Fort Lewis to here. And at that time the Pass was only two lanes. And I had no idea where the heck I was going. None. They said Richland, Washington. And we left from Fort Lewis. And it was a 24-hour trip by Army convoy. It was a cold, cold place. When we'd come by Benton City, and we could look off to the lights—and I was in the lead Jeep in the convoy with our captain. And he looked over there, and he says, see those lights? [INAUDIBLE] And I said, yeah. And he says, that's where we're going. And at that time I said to myself, oh God, why did you bring me here? And I've been so grateful for him for doing it and bringing me here. And that's when we arrived and we went into the barracks. And then they told us that the next day they would take us out to the forward area. And we had no idea where that was. We knew there were nuclear reactors out. That was about the only thing they said. So we went out there.
Bauman: So how long had you been at Fort Lewis?
Riccobuono: We spent Fort Lewis over Christmas. It was about three months. We arrived in--let's see--in about October, we left Fort Bliss, Texas by train. We had to load up our 120 millimeter guns that we used for the AAA battalion to guard this place at Hanford, which we didn't know anything about. And we took all our gun training there in Fort Bliss, Texas. And then when we got done, they said, well, we're going to go to the state of Washington to Fort Lewis. And we did that. Stayed there for three months over the holiday, Christmas holiday. And we were all homesick. Cold and snow. And then on March 9th--actually March 8th, they said we're going to go on a convoy, and we're going to go to Richland. And it's going to take us at least 20 to 24 hours because we had a convoy of trucks and a whole battalion of the 519 AAA Brigade was going there. And I was a radio man so I rode up front with the captain. And it was a cool trip. Very slow. Convoy speed is only 30 miles an hour.
Bauman: And how old were you at the time?
Riccobuono: At that time I was 19--18. I joined the service when I was 17 to get an education, because I had to go to work when I was 13. And I never went to high school.
Bauman: So when you went to Fort Lewis, was that the first time you had sort of been on the west coast?
Riccobuono: [LAUGHTER] When we just got out of New Jersey was the first time I had been out West. I spent all my life there and the Bronx, New York. And going over to Fort Dix was quite an experience. And they decided to send us to Fort Bliss, Texas for basic. I had no idea that they were going to put me in the artillery. And they did, after our basic training. And then they told us about—the 120 millimeter artillery gun is the first of its kind that we've ever had on the ground, the largest artillery gun that they made. It was never used in war, because it was made later. And to give you an idea of just how big it was, if you want to know that information.
Riccobuono: It takes a shell and a projectile. The projectile weighs 50 pounds, and the shell weighs 52 pounds. When we first seen them back in Fort Bliss, Texas, we're looking at this, and I said, I hate to see the noise this thing is going to make when it fires. And they explained to us it'll shoot out over 100 feet. It is real loud. And they taught us how to do that. But I got assigned to the communications. That's why I was in the Jeep, I told you, in the convoy because I had to operate the radio. And that's why we come here. We had our gun training and came out here, and our mission was to guard the reactors. And they would put us in strategic places. There was only four batteries of guns, each containing four guns. And I was in C of 518.
Bauman: And so where on the site was that then?
Riccobuono: The first site, if you're familiar with where the reactors are—
Riccobuono: D and DR Reactor. DR is the one that faces the river, which is still about, probably maybe a quarter of a mile. We were stationed between the reactor and the river. And there was a farmhouse from the original people, farmers that lived there. And we set up our command post there. Set up our four guns, that was our primary set up. And that took us a while. And that's where we were stationed in communication with the other three batteries that were out there.
Bauman: So how many men was that then at each of the--
Riccobuono: Well, to each battery it's approximately 115 to 118 if you're at full force.
Bauman: Okay. And so there was a--you used a farmhouse that--
Riccobuono: Yeah, it was the original house where the farmers lived that they had to evacuate. I felt sorry for those poor people. They had beautiful homes. This was a nice home, and it was still in good condition. And so our captain of the battery—we set up our communications, which they called the command post there in that building. And that's where we maintained the radio and switchboard. So at that time, we have to keep in communications by radio because we had no landlines.
Bauman: And did you use that the whole time that you were stationed out there, used the farmhouse?
Riccobuono: No, we moved to several sites. After we left there, we moved to the site of F Reactor. Now if you—say you're coming from the south where the reactors and river would be on your right side, it would be the first reactor that you come to. On the road there, we made a left there, in the area of F Reactor. Went about—200 yards is the railroad—we went over the railroad tracks and then set up camp in that area. And that's where we stayed pretty much the other half of the time. We spent over a year, year and a half at DR and then the next time we spent, until I got discharged, was at that communication area. In fact, since then a lot of times I've taken people to the original site in the DR area to show them where our site was. In fact, our baseball field is still there. Actually, we played softball. And the guys, they are just amazed. You mean, that was there 50 years ago? I said, it's still is there! And I showed it to them. But it was--that was our site. We lived in tents. It was always dirty. And as I was telling Dave when he first interviewed me. He asked me how long do we stay out and how we would set up. And the object was to keep you out there three months. The fourth month, the whole battery would get leave into town. So they always maintained three gun sites for protection. That was the plan. And I hated it. [LAUGHTER]
Bauman: You hated being out there for three months.
Riccobuono: Well, yeah. Because you don't have any facilities at all. I mean, to go to the bathroom, you dig a trench out there. To take a bath—you'd die laughing—we used wheelbarrows. Put water in wheelbarrows and take our bath. [LAUGHTER] One time, a friend of mine when we first got there, he was in the wheelbarrow. Now, you got to picture this maybe 250-pound guy sitting in the wheelbarrow. There was no room for water. We laughed. And this is how we bathed.
Bauman: What about food?
Riccobuono: Food, we had our own mess hall and everything, which was transferred out there. And this was all—we had a mess tent, plus our tents that we lived in and stayed in. And all we did was maintain the guns all day long, clean them. What else could you do? And it was real hot. In the first summer in the DR area, we craved ice water. We craved cold water. Now, the patrolmen used to always come by the sites and visit us and talk with us. And they knew what we needed. So they said, give us your canteens. And we gave them a bunch of canteens, and they would take it back to their post and fill it up with ice water. Just a good dose of ice, and brought us back the ice water. That was really a treat. But that's what we did. You did your own laundry out there. You washed your own clothes out there.
Bauman: How did you do your laundry?
Riccobuono: Well, the same thing. We'd take a bucket of water and just put soap and water and then washed them and hung them up and everything. They showed us how to do, and we did it. And it was all dirty and dusty. It was not the army I expected to be in. In fact, I was out in the service for three years, nine months. I think I only slept in a barracks three months of it. In Fort Lewis was the only time--that's the only time I ever had a barracks situation. But, you know.
Bauman: So, you said, it sounds like for the most part you were maintaining the guns. That was really the--
Riccobuono: Yeah, that was the main reason. That was our mission. At that time, they had a no-fly zone over the area. No one could fly over the area. What they did do was—if you're interested in it—is that they used to have practice run from bombing from the Air Force coming to Hanford. And our job was to detect them, because we were there 24/7—and that's a phrase they never used at that time. And when they flew here, they would fly here sometimes 2,000 miles or 1,000 miles, the long range bombers, without us knowing it. And we had to find out. We had to detect them. And I'm proud to say that we did most of the time with our radar and our outpost and everything. And they did a lot of that just to practice on to make sure we were on the ball.
Bauman: Were there ever any incidents where someone flew over who wasn't supposed to fly over?
Riccobuono: Oh, yes. I've heard about that. They were watching on radar from the army bases around. Yes. From Fort Lewis especially. We've never really had an incident where I can think of where somebody actually flew over the reactors. Even the jets, you would see the contrail north or south, but never directly over. It was just no-fly zone.
Bauman: So I would imagine a lot of the time you're doing, taking care of the guns, and there's probably some time where there's really not much going on. How did you pass the time, I guess? Would you stay entertained? Or playing softball, I guess?
Riccobuono: It was kind of fun what we did a lot of times. Sometimes—the worst times was Christmas to spend out there. And we had a ukulele. We would go out there and sing on the ukulele. Besides that. And playing baseball on our time off, even with the officers. I mean, they were just as bored as we were. And they entertained us that way in the day time. But we didn't have any telephones--there were no cell phones--where we could communicate with the people that we knew in Richland. So mainly what we did was maintained guns, did a lot of practice all the time to see that we were on the ball and doing the right thing. And being in communications, it was my job after I became Communications Sergeant to maintain communication by telephone. You had to use landlines between each gun with the radar section. And they did have a scope for an observer to make sure that we were on target. Now, radar was just introduced at that time. And if you're interested, I could tell you how they did it.
Riccobuono: Okay. What they did was--a 120 millimeter I think has a--it travels 3,300 feet a second. And it moves pretty fast. The object of it—the projectile was set to go off in mid-air. It doesn't hit a target. It explodes with a timer. It has the capacity to kill anything within 35 feet radius of that projectile. So the object was for the four guns to fire within a 70-foot radius. So anything in that zone was destroyed. But in order to accomplish this, they had to be synchronized to fire at the same millisecond, at the same time, and they did. And they would hit the target every time. The first time. They were really good. It was really interesting how they did it. They'd load the projectile in first in the top portion of a 120 millimeter. To accomplish this--that they fire at the same second and that are timed exactly alike on all four guns—they had to set the timer on the projectile. So in my time when they had training, I used to go out there on the gun and help load. Put the projectile in first. Now the gun--and I think there's about four or five people--four people there—had to set that projectile before we fired. So actually it would be in sequence with the other three that would go off. And to do this, they would get the command to set the timer, and all four guns had to set the timer at the same time, load it, and fire at his command. It was really something to see. I enjoyed watching it. I enjoyed helping loading it. But boy, oh boy. That's why I’m wearing hearing aids today is because of that. And the only time they ever fired them at Hanford was one time in almost three years that I was there, less than three years. Just for settling rounds so the guns would set inside.
Bauman: Oh, okay.
Riccobuono: To give you an idea of what they did.
Bauman: So how many guns were at each of the sites?
Riccobuono: It was four guns at each side, and we had four sites. Then they brought in another battalion of the 518 and 519 were brought in together. So they wound up with eight sites. And they were all in communication with each other. And they had just one landline that we put in between each other and the command post in North Richland. And we never had radio contact with North Richland, our command post, which they ran the whole thing from downtown North Richland, out there.
Bauman: And you worked at the sites by DR--
Riccobuono: Our site was by D and DR. I do know where the other sites were. They had one at the Two East Area near PUREX and where the Vit plant is. And then you had one site behind there near 240. We had another site there by the river between K Area and that area. And when we go in town and left just a minimum crew, sometimes you worked there as a minimum crew. You would have to travel to the other sites with the few men that we had for our food. And that's how they did it while the rest of the 100 people went in town and had R & R for a week—for a month actually. And that was the procedure.
Bauman: So I was going to ask you about that part, too. You said--so you would be on for three months and then you'd sort of have a month leave. So, during that month you just go into Richland, and I mean, and what was Richland like at the time?
Riccobuono: Richland was very, very small at the time. And I could still remember my first time that I had time off. If you could figure where North Richland is now, very far on top of the hill there--yeah, go by the school, and you go up the hill here? Off to the left were dorms—which two people could live in in those times. It was about two blocks in. Those dorms went from here all the way to the highway. The Bypass Highway, the main, where they meet. But anyway, we walked here to George Washington Way, that two, three blocks to that corner up on top. We were wearing uniform--me and my best friend--and we stood there, and we were looking to hitchhike, but we didn't have to. The first car that came by stopped. And it was a husband and wife and they had their daughter with them. And they said, are you soldiers looking for a ride into town? I said, yes. So they gave us a ride into town where they live. And I still remember their names. Their names were McCormick. And until the day they passed away 30 years later, I still knew them. That's how friendly the people were. Not only Richland. All three towns. And they--what they would do, the people—would invite the GIs on holidays if they were in the area to their homes. They were very friendly. Very friendly. Because being 18 years old, we were more interested in the high school girls. [LAUGHTER] But the town of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco, they accepted us very, very well.
Bauman: And did most people know what you're doing at the Hanford site?
Riccobuono: Oh, they knew we were with the artillery, and they knew we were out their guarding the plants, but we had no idea how those plants worked, how they did it. The closest we was is by DR, the first time when I told you about the house. That was within stone's throw. That's about as close. And then later on, the one on top of the hill by PUREX, at that time—if you're familiar with the process, the fuel elements had to be dissolved. When they dissolve them, they would exhaust it through those big, high stacks that you see. And they would use nitric acid. We didn't know this at the time, but we would see that smoke. A lot of times was light white. But when they were dissolving, they would actually turned rusted color. And this is how they exhaust it. And that's about the only thing we knew. We never did know why it changed colors. Not until after I went to work there. But that's--they didn't tell us any of that.
Bauman: So as young men on leave, were there things to do in a small town--?
Riccobuono: Yeah, a lot of times. What we used to do, like if we had that week, but we still had to have a three-day pass to leave, and we still had a post there to stay in. And the mess hall was still on the main street there—that block that's still there. And we ate there, and we ran to a lot of training. They utilized that time in training and updating us on the training and what was going on. We’d go to classes. And then I--the Korean War broke out, if you want to know about that.
Riccobuono: When the Korean War broke out, I was scheduled to be discharged in January. My enlistment was up for three years. But I couldn't. I would--all leaves and furloughs and discharges were frozen because of the war. General Mark Clark was the leader of the West Coast. He's a pretty famous guy. And now we're under a different mode out here. We were worried about in case what would happen if they would have ever try and bomb the Hanford, we didn't know. And they didn't want to lose the personnel that were there that had the experience, like I did, from the beginning and a lot of us did. They kept us there. As the war progressed, a lot of us did volunteer. I was one to volunteer because I was tired of being out there for over two years and living in a tent. If I'm going to live there that way, why not help the country? So I volunteered to go to Korea. It was three of us that did. But we went to Fort Lewis, and they rejected us and sent us back. And we never knew why until years, many years later why they rejected us. We had a reunion, our 50th year reunion—it was that long before we found out! Our 50 year Hanford reunion, we invited our officers that had been here a time that had retired. And one general who was still in command of the west coast came to it. And he said the reason why--that was my question. Why were we turned down? Why was I turned down? I mean, I was healthy enough to go to combat. Because I was really stupid, too, for volunteering. [LAUGHTER] Not really. But anyway, he told us because if we ever got captured by the Koreans, they would torture us to the point that we would tell them the sites. We would know all the sites, and that's what they would want to know. So, and you would give them that information, because that's what they would do to you. And that's why we didn't go, and weren’t unable to go.
Bauman: So you were sent back here?
Riccobuono: Sent me back here.
Bauman: Until when and how long were you still stationed here then?
Riccobuono: Yeah, I was stationed here. They extended me for nine months, from January to September. And President—at that time, it was Harry Truman. And he gave us an extension. But during that nine month period, I met my wife. So maybe it was meant to be. Remember I said, Oh, God, why did you send me here? Well, I think he knew what he was doing. I got to meet my wife. We decided to get married whenever that would be. Because I didn't want to get married while I was there. I made that decision to stay here and go to work here. But I did have a very big problem. In the beginning of the conversation I told you that I didn't even go to high school. Minimum education was a high school diploma. And I did not have one. So I didn't know what to do yet. To get a GED diploma you had to have--you had to be 21 for the state of New York. So I went to our recreational captain. His name was Reeves, I'll never forget. Bless that guy. I told him I had a problem and that I wanted to get married, but to go to work here, I had to have a high school diploma. He says, we'll fix you up on that. I says, okay. He says, when do you get discharged? I says, I don't know, but they keep telling us in the fall. He says, well, you're going to get one chance at a test because after that, if you fail the test you would have to wait another year. But you're going to get discharged. So we're going to get it right the first time. Consists of five tests and each takes about an hour. Wow. But he said, don't worry about it. He says, I'll get you to study all these things and everything and you'll be ready for the test. And I says, I got a problem with that, too. He was really perplexed. He says, why? I says, I don't know how to study. And he gave me the funniest look. He says, you don't? I said, no. I says, I never went to high school. He says, okay. He said, we'll take care of that part. I'll teach you how to study. And he did. He babysat me for the next two months, and I passed the test, got my GED, wound up going to work but that took a little time because I was uneducated. And we got married, and I had no job. My poor wife was working. And it was tough. I kept going to the employment office there for General Electric, which was running the plants at that time. They said, we have nothing for you. There's nothing going on. And I'd bug them. I’d go back every week or two. And finally, in the first part of December, I says, hey. You know, there's got to be something. I said, I'll take anything. He says, no, we don't have anything. And then he said, well, we do have one job, but you don't want that. I said, what is it? He says, washing clothes in the laundry. I says, I'll take it. He said, you will? I says, hey, I just got married. I can't find a job. I will do anything just to get to go to work at Hanford because then maybe once I get in I could transfer. And he says, okay. And I did. And that's how I got started. And I worked for a year, and I transferred out. That's another story. [LAUGHTER]
Bauman: So did your wife grow up here or was she just here working?
Riccobuono: She grew up in Prosser. She was born there in Prosser, went to school in Wapato and graduated from Wapato and became—went to secretarial school and became a secretary and went to work here. And that's how I met her. I met her in town. The only really, what they call a hang out in town was the old mart. It was kind of like a big coffee house, and everybody would gather there. And that's where I met her. They--the girls lived in dorms. They didn't have housing, and they worked out there.
Bauman: So you said you--so what was the frame here when you ended your service with the army and then you got the job with the laundry?
Riccobuono: How long did it take?
Bauman: Or what time—year are we talking about roughly?
Riccobuono: December, just two weeks before Christmas. I got hired in 1952. And then I worked there for 38 years and got September 22nd. And our anniversary was the 26th in September. I had a lot of things happening.
Bauman: So your first job was working in the laundry. Where was the laundry?
Riccobuono: The laundry was in Two West Area. Soon as you came in through the gate, it was off to the left. We still-I worked there a year and didn't know. I did see--I was wondering what this guy did. He came in to survey laundry bags that came in. And I asked him. I saw him with this thing. I didn't know what it was. Of course, it was a Geiger counter, but I didn't know that. And he was going over these bags. I said, what are you doing? He said, I'm surveying to see if they're contaminated. And I says, oh. I said, contaminated from what? And then he looked at me kind of funny. He says, well from radioactive contamination. That's waste. I says, oh. I says, and that's your job? Yeah. I said, how do I become one of those? What are you called? He said, radiation monitor. I said, wow. I said, that sounds like an interesting. He says, it is. And I never forgot what he did. I said, in other words, they can't do anything without you. He said, that's right. So I put in for it. And I got turned down. The answer was no. But I did go into engineering assistant in metallurgy, which was the fuel elements that they put in there. I did do that work. And then, finally, I met someone doing that work. It was the first time I ever went into a reactor. What we did in that job was to inspect the fuel prior to radiation and then underwater in the basin behind—in the big reactor building. We worked from 30 feet away, put it on a cradle, and inspected that same fuel element so that the engineers could see what the difference. Because when it ruptured it, the reactor would have to go down because uranium is canned to stop that from happening. And when that ruptures, it increased—it becomes contaminating, contaminates the cooling water. And, therefore, they had to divert it to a crib. When that happened and reactors go down. So they were assigned, the metallurgists, to do this to stop this, to find out why they were rupturing. And that's how I got a job as an assistant. It was a nothing really job, but it was kind of interesting. But it was done in the rear face of the reactor where the fuel element was discharged. There again, people would come by and ask us what we were doing. So I told them. I said, we are inspecting the fuel just like I just told you. And this one gentleman came by. And he says, could you explain to me what you're doing? I said, sure. Come on over here. I said, you got to put on a lab coat, the minimum protective clothing, and look down the periscope to see the element and see what it looks like after it's been irradiated. And he looked at that, and he says, oh, that's what they look like up close. And I said, yeah. And I write the description on it, what it looks like after irradiation, the same one that I inspected prior to irradiation. He says, wow. And I says, yeah, the engineers use that information to stop—see what causes ruptures, so they can make them better so they don't rupture and the reactors could run. He said, wow. So every day he came by. Then he asked me, he says, do you enjoy your work? I says, it's fine, but it's not really what I would like to do. He said, what would you like to do? And I said, you know those guys that go around with the Geiger counters and check for contamination of radiation. He said, you mean radiation monitoring? And I said, yeah. I said, I would like to become one of those. He said, you do? I said, yeah. He says, okay. That's all he said. This was the beginning of the week. He comes there again on Friday, and he said, Rick. He says, Monday I want you to report to this here place and gave me the address and where it was at. And I looked at him. I said, what for? He says, they're starting the training class for radiation monitors, and it would take a period of 18 months. He says, you want to become one. You are one, but you have to go to training. It takes 18 months, and if you don't pass, you're out. So you have to do it. I looked at him, and I said, how did you do that? He goes, well, I ought to. I'm the supervisor of it. I'm the director of the whole thing. [LAUGHTER] Needless to say, ‘til the time in my whole career, I had him to thank to where I progressed in the field of radiation. I found out so many things about it. I could keep you here for hours.
Bauman: What was his name? Who was that? Do you remember?
Riccobuono: I think his name was Preston. I'm not sure. Because then I didn't get to know him. I didn't get out very often to see him, to say thank you. But he got me in.
Bauman: So I wanted to ask you. So which reactors did you work at?
Riccobuono: All of them.
Riccobuono: I was in B Reactor. And we celebrated our--1962. We reached a milestone in the year 1962. And we held a—we had a little celebration of it. And safety. We had an excellent—zero, no safety accidents, no nothing. And we had a little party for that. In fact, the picture is still there that day that I--that was with me when we had a little scare. And that was in B Reactor, which is--you know what it is today? In fact, I finally got to take my wife out there and showed her what I did. She was just--you know, like you walk through the door and all of a sudden you see this reactor. You've seen B reactor. Okay. It is breathtaking. I wanted to take her around to my office and to the basements and tell her exactly what I was doing. But some of the monitors that were there had remembered me where I helped train some years ago. And they said, we know who you are. So B Reactor was one of them. We only had one that would be on swing shift and graveyard. There was only one assigned there to a crew in each reactor. See? So you are responsible--it's the reason why I enjoyed radiation monitoring—you're responsible for all the work that goes on for the safety of the people to go in there and not—you had to go with them, set the dose rates, airborne contamination, and all that. I loved my job. It was interesting. And this is what we did. And we had a small crew of about maybe 12. But I enjoyed the job because it had substance and responsibility. And you become like a family. Working together, swing, graveyard, and the different projects that come up that you had to do during shutdowns. And they would have crews to come in to help discharge the metal, which was called, what they call a supplemental crew. And so, essentially I worked on all the reactors where they needed. And I did have over ten years. It was very good.
Bauman: Did you have to wear special protective clothing at all when you guys would monitor?
Riccobuono: All the time. We set the standards. That was my job. Set the standards of you say you want to go into zone and do this, I have to ask you why. You had to have a reason when you go into the radiation zone. Well, we're going to do this, and we're going to do that. Okay. This is what you have to wear. You have to be trained in the uses of how to dress and undress in the zone. And we also would send them in to keep time if they've had higher readings and levels and how long you could stay there. Now, they also have changed the program where they trained all the people to do that. But it was my job, essentially, to take care of them. And it was very difficult at first because I was pretty young. I was in like my mid-20s, and then you have maintenance people and other people, that are 40, 50 years old. And you had to be very careful how you handled people. And I was told that that was my biggest asset, to be able to communicate with people. Because you're a service group. And we had to take them into the zone. And a lot of them don't like when a young kid does and tell them this. But you soon learn that, you know, we had to do it because that's your job, and they understood. Once they knew you, they were over the hump. It was interesting. I loved my job.
Bauman: And you said you did that for about ten years?
Riccobuono: Then we went to separate—they were shutting down the reactors. '65, that year, and when they shut down the reactors, I was going to be out of a job. And the plant manager, and his name was Roy Dunn, he came up to me and called me in the office. And he says, Rick. He says, you've got to get out of here. They're going to shut this down maybe in a year, two years. But we are a different plant. We want to go where you're going to have a job. And I said, where would that be? He said, separations. The tank farms, which you already know about. Without that there, you wouldn't have anybody out there. [LAUGHTER] And so I transferred over there. And when I did, it was a different world because of—in the reactors, you deal with gamma, beta, neutron radiation and beta contamination. But you also have alpha radiation, which is produced only after this fuel element has been irradiated and separated to get Pu-239 creating this alpha. And I had no experience with alpha. Piece of Kleenex. If you had, say, a spot of alpha contamination, as an example. If you put a piece of Kleenex over, it would cover and you couldn't detect it unless it was really high. Then it would emit gamma. Then you could detect it. But that was a rare case. Most of the time, you couldn't detect. And you had to use certain instruments for alpha. And that's what we had to learn in separation portion of that. And that's a whole new ball game from the reactor. It's amazing. Only a government could make plutonium. It was so complicated. So complicated.
Bauman: So how long were you over there then?
Riccobuono: From '65 to the time I became--until I retired. In my last five years. The building--are you familiar with the PFP plant?
Riccobuono: I've never worked there. And being in radiation monitoring that long, I got promoted into management. That was the building that they assigned me to, the most visible building in the world. And that was a lot of fun. You know, it was challenging. Because they're making the final product there. They’re taking a liquid and solidifying for transportation into the fuel element that they want, which is the ammunition for the atomic bomb. And that was my last five years in management there. We did fine. We had a lot of incidents. Like I said, I could talk to you for hours on that.
Bauman: Are there any that really stand out? Any incidents that--
Riccobuono: Oh, yes.
Bauman: Yeah, you want to share one of them?
Riccobuono: Two of them.
Bauman: Sure. Yeah.
Riccobuono: The one I want to share with you is in my last year in reactors, and it was in--they ran 24/7. Because we had to make plutonium. They never shut them down unless they had to. All of a sudden, we're going to shut this down for the weekend. My boss comes up to me. He says, I've got a job for you for the weekend. He said, you're going to be working with these personnel, and we're going to remove a fuel element from the side of the reactor. Picture the reactor as a big box. All the elements go out front-back. But this one came in through the side. He said, we're going to remove a fuel element. I want you to take care of that job. I says, okay. I didn't think much of it at the time, but it was the Navy that was doing it. So, I got to meet all these officers. And I says, what are you going to do? What's your plan? And they showed me, explained to me. They used a bowling ball type of a cask, which is about half of the size. It had to fit on an 18-wheel flatbed. But it was about 15 feet up and this one little whole that was only about six inches in diameter or less, sideways. The object was to go send a cable into the cast, into the reactor, hook onto the fuel element, bring it out. But it would be exposed to air about six to ten inches, and in that time, it would release a high level of radiation. And I was there to make sure that we were far enough and to an exposure level that we were able to work with this. We got it done. We were about approximately 100 feet away. And when that came out, it was--it couldn't be more than about 20 seconds to go through by that space and then into cask, then the readings would subside down. They would subside to less than about five, which is workable, so they can transport it. We did. We got done with the job. I think it was about three of them that we got to do. And it took us two ways to do it. We got invited down afterwards for a party at--it used to be called the Desert Inn, that big hotel here.
Bauman: Red Lion.
Riccobuono: The Red Lion. No. Is that the one in Richland?
Riccobuono: Yeah. The Red Lion. Right. So we went over there, and, he says you're always asking me. He said, what we're doing and what it's for. And he says, and I couldn't tell you. And I said, that's right. So during the party, you know, we had dinner and everything. He comes over to me. He hands me the telephone. He says, it's for you. I had no idea who the hell is on the other of that. I got the phone. I said, hello? He said, I'm Admiral Rickover. I said, Admiral Rickover? You mean, you're the godfather of the Navy--of nuclear ships. He said, that's me. He said, I just wanted to thank you. He said, you've done a great job with the men. They all told me what you did. And I just want to personally say hello to you. And he said, I know you had a question, but why. I said, yes, I do. He said, well, I can't tell you why. He says, but you’ll get the answer in about three months. I said, how? He said, just read the newspaper. And then he says, pat yourself on the back for something that you helped do. That was the end of the conversation. I had no idea why. No idea. And you listening to me are probably wondering what it was. I get up one morning, read the paper. The Nautilus submarine went under the North Pole for the first voyage ever. Because of nuclear power, it could stay underwater that long. Where was it the nuclear power fuel elements came from? Come from Hanford. So now I knew. I was real thrilled about that. And I hardly couldn't believe it. But that was one of the best. I've been on a lot of dirty ones there with contamination. But that was the number one.
Bauman: Any other stories you want—any incidents that really stand out?
Riccobuono: Okay, we up one morning there. And this is after we went into separations away from the reactors, years later. I get up, and my wife says, they had an explosion at Hanford. I said, what? They said, that's all over the news. It's on national news. I says, they can't have an explosion with the--that's an atomic explosion. I said, that can't be done. They could have what they call a criticality. You're familiar with the criticality? They could have that, but they can't have an explosion as such. So watch the news. I got up and went, oh, sure. What had happened was that they had an explosion. This man got highly contaminated and operated. Very highly contaminated, and they were going to send him to the hospital. But they didn't know. But we didn't know. I called some of my fellow workers, and they were telling me. I was working on the swing shift, the 4:00 to 12:00 shift. So all that morning, I'm listening to that, and the news is going on. And I'm working at B Plant, which is a different separation plant. This happened in the 234-5 building, PFP plant, and I had not been there. So that's what I found out. What had happened was that this operator was working in there, and they had--it was a steam compressor of sorts that they got over pressurized, and the pipe did explode. And in doing so, it wasn't a big--it was just enough to break the windows of gloveboxes that they work in. And when it did that, he had the right protective clothing on, but it hit him in the face. See? And it went through, and he got all highly contaminated from the head down. So what they--I go to work at 4:00. Different area, East and West. I'm in the East Area. And here was my boss standing there. The plant manager standing there. And they says, we want to talk to you. So we talked. My boss said to me—and he is long gone, his name was Bernie Cyrusek. He was our big head honcho, what a wonderful man. He said, here's what I want you to do. He said, you're going to go downtown. They're going to use that new decontamination building. The operator that got contaminated, his name was McCluskey. We want to get that building cleaned up tonight, on the rest of the swing shift and during the night on graveyard by 8:00 in the morning so his family could visit him. You know, your grandfather, your husband. His family wanted to see them. And so I'm going to send you down there. I said, why me? He gave me the simple answer. Because I'm telling you to do it. They're not familiar with alpha contamination, now—remember what I was telling you about alpha? They were working in the 300 Area. They did not deal with alpha contamination, and they did not know what to do. So they had to have experienced people. The ones that went in there brought him in an ambulance and everything. And to make a long time short, we had to go down there. And they briefed us to take two operators with you to clean up the room. And the president of our company, he said, we want you to stay so far away from that building because it's going to have people from the press there. So we're going to wait 'til dark, and then you're going to come around the back of the building. And I said, whoa, whoa. Stop. And he looked at me, and he said, what? I said, you want us to do a job, right? Now you want to handcuff me. You take care of the press. But let us do our job. We're going to do it the way we have to do it. And you're back there. If you think you're too close, you move him back. But we're not going to wait 'til dark, a certain time. We're going to do it. Once we start, we have to go and do it. He looked at me, he said, okay. So they did. And we went in there. And the biggest problem we had: the nurses. They had to administer medicine to him. We got all dressed up, two layers of clothing and supplied air to go in the room. The room is about the size of this room. It's like a part--like watching a science fiction movie, the dark, the lights. Here's a man laying on a gurney. He's bare from the waist up to his head. He's just laying there. And he's got two white pieces of gauze covering his eyes. And the rest of him was bare. The problem was that he got contamination into his eyes. So they were administering water solution to kind of keep flushing his eyes out. That's, you know, the doctors have to be careful there. Of course, it would be puffed up. And he was laying on the gurney. And this nurse was sitting there. Two pairs of cover up. The temperature in there is 104 because they had to shut off—that's the first thing we did was shut off the air contamination. We could not expose airborne contamination to the atmosphere. So we had to shut the air conditioning off. That was the first thing we did. And I looked at that. Like I said, I thought there's a scene from a science fiction movie. Went over there, to the eyes. There's a table there. Some of the men in radiation monitoring were not familiar with how to work with alpha contamination. Okay. You cannot reuse a lot of the stuff, what the doctors were using. And they had all their instruments on the table. So we took the bag and put a box, emptied it out, and just cleaned it out and dumped it in there. And the guy said, what are you doing that for? I said, would you like a doctor to work on you with contaminated tools? No. He said, use new ones. And that's what we did. We got it cleaned up. So we're working back and forth. Every two hours, we take a break and go outside. So I asked them, I says, the nurses. Where are they, the ones that were here during the daytime? I said, are they still here? They said, no. We sent them home. You did? And I said, who surveyed them? He said, the guys did. And I said, were they naked when you surveyed them? They said, of course not. I said, well then you better bring them back, and you better go check the houses. Remember what I told you about that tissue? I said, they've got a bra on. They've got their panties on. I says, how do you know they didn't contaminated under their bra? Any of that. I said, that happens. It happens all the time out at work sometimes you get contaminated in your shorts. So you have to be very careful. It can come back and bite you [INAUDIBLE]. If they say that you got contaminated during incident because you didn't do your job right. He said, well, what would you do? I said, well, right now in the midst of training are some females, the first ones ever to do our job. I said, call them. They know have to survey. And take them with you to their homes and everything to make sure everything's clean. So that's what they did. They got them all checked out. By the grace of God, they did not get contaminated under their bra, to the skin, and we did it the right way. And they were very pleased. They had never thought about that. Well, you know, when you do it as often as I had, I knew what to do. And we did. And we got it done. 8:00, his family went in there. I was ready to go home. We got it cleaned up. We got him cleaned enough so his family could visit. They had to wear protective clothing, but we got it so that the air samples were down below limits so there was nothing exposed to the air. That was my second biggest incident.
Bauman: I wanted to ask you. You had at least a few different jobs working in different areas. Did you have a job that was the most challenging or one that was the sort of most rewarding in your years working at Hanford?
Riccobuono: That one there was very rewarding. Because the room was highly contaminated with alpha. It was bad. I mean everything that we had to throw away to be sure and go back and re-clean it and re-clean. We worked on it pretty close to 16 hours. And the two same operators in there. And then we had to bring in the other operators to help us to help them. But they had to do it certain ways because, like I said, they weren't familiar with alpha contamination. Radiation was not a factor, was not a factor at all. See, a lot of people don't know the difference between contamination and radiation. So it was not a factor. You could work there as long as you wanted. But contamination was terrible. And we got it done. And so it was very rewarding to get that and to know that his family got to visit him. And you know, I never got to see this guy or talk to him. But they were very grateful. That was rewarding.
Bauman: How about the most challenging work?
Riccobuono: The challenging part of it was getting it done in the timeframe and teaching the others. And especially the--when I found out that the women went home. I was worried about that. Because nurses have to do their job when they're there. You know, help the doctors. And I wanted to be sure that they were clean and didn't take it home with them. We got that done so that they didn't. That was very challenging. We got that done. But there were other ones, too, but not on that level that is. Because they still talk about it. In fact, I met an engineer that I talked to who’s doing something of how they decontaminated that building. He says, I wish I would have known you before we did it. See, because the building has been brought down. But you have to throw it away. We buried the ambulance that he came in. The whole thing was buried.
Bauman: Where? Out on site somewhere? Where was it buried?
Riccobuono: I forget what area. But they had to cover it to move it. We did not want them to move it as such. So we had the seal it. The first rule of any contamination spread, the very first rule, you have to contain it. You don't do what the Japanese did in that island, I mean, after that tsunami. They forgot the first rule. You've got to contain the contamination. You cannot make it go airborne. That's dangerous to the population. That is what we always keep in mind. And that's why we went over there, and we did that to that ambulance. We wrapped it all up. And, of course, the monitors already had that done before I got there. But what they also had to do was the 30 miles of roadway had to be surveyed from PFP plant to the hospital. You know, you spend time, and you hear the phrase, there's no experience like experience. And in my case that was the case. As I became more experienced, the more I got picked on to do these dirty jobs—which I didn't mind because a lot of times I volunteered. I wanted to see what was going on. I should have been a woman. I was inquisitive.
Bauman: I was going to ask you, if you look back at your years working in Hanford, overall how would you assess Hanford as a place to work?
Riccobuono: That's a good question, and I have a very good answer to that. I really didn't know what the answer was until I visited other sites. I knew I was going to get to retire within the year. And then my boss—I mentioned his name, Bernie Cyrusek. I said, you know what I never did is visit another site? I know what we do here, but we don't know what the others do there. Rocky Flats, Los Alamos. I said, I would like to go to that site and visit my peers and see how they do their job compared to us. Well, he said, you're going to get, you know, a year. He said, in less than a year now you're going to get retired. He said, but I'm going to do it because you're in there. So he did. I even got to take my wife, but I had to pay her airfare. And the first place we visited was Rocky Flats, and they went over in to New Mexico and went to Los Alamos. Have you ever been to those sites?
Bauman: I've been to Los Alamos.
Riccobuono: Okay. You've never been to Rocky Flats? Rocky Flats had a lot of problems, maybe some I shouldn't--I can't talk to you about. But the one thing that I noticed that they did at Rocky Flats, which was a no-no—We have lunchrooms out at work, the reactor. You're got to have a place to have lunch, right? That's a sacred place for being clean. We don't want anybody eating food that has any possibility of having contamination around. Our lunchrooms were surveyed all the time at work. And I notice this. When we're out at lunch, I'm seeing people with lab coats going in to eat lunch in them. So I asked my fellow managers, I says, why are you allowing this? He said, what? I says, see those people? They have what we call SWP clothing, which is the acronym for them for protective clothing. And he said, well, there's nothing wrong with it. They're surveyed. I said, who surveyed them? He said, well, they do it themselves, surveying. And I said, and you trust them that they're clean, and you're going to go eat right next to them? I says, I wouldn't. I would do it with our own people. I said, why don't you have your own people do it? Well, they won't let us. Well, I says, then you tell them we're not going to eat there You're not going to eat there. Because it should be clean. They should not wear any protective clothing in the lunchroom. That's a no-no. Well, we can't do it. I said, don't give me that. You're the supervisor. You're the manager. You set the rules. The guy above you don't set the rules. He may override you, but you set the rules. It's your responsibility to keep the safety of the people. You've got to do your job, and you're not doing it. He says, I know you're right. And I said, well, then do it because when I report back there I'm going to tell my boss the one thing I didn't like about Rocky Flats. And I did. [LAUGHTER] Los Alamos. They were a lot better. They were a lot better. They didn't allow things like that to happen. They had one thing that they had there that I wish we had had. There were so many radiation zones that we needed to know the exact readings of the airborne contamination, like here in this room. We're breathing this air. Is it clean? What you have to do is go in there with the portable, take the air sample off of that in the room, locate it. Take that sample paper off, bring it in, count the sample, and then we decide what the limits are from what our readings are. But in Los Alamos they had a different system, which I liked. They had probes on the air sample, which this detector would tell you what the level was at a remote area. So wouldn't it be nice to have a room that you could tell anybody at any time what the level of airborne contamination is? Once that alarm goes off, you could shut it down right now. And this reduces the amount of people that might be in there to get airborne contaminated and ingested into their lungs. I said, that's our job to do this. And I think Los Alamos gets an A for that. There's other things, but I won’t talk about that. So when I came back, I found out how really safe Hanford was. When somebody would ask me, do you think it's safe to work out there? I said, do you think I'm a dummy? Am I going to work out there where I'm not safe? One thing at Hanford always did, and I'll emphasize this. Safety comes first. And they did it, and they meant it. And I thank them. Because they taught me that. They taught me that in everyday life. I am very proud of Hanford's safety record. They did a good job. And that's how I found out they were the best one. And it was just the other two. They weren't as good as we are. We're number one.
Bauman: Well, I want to thank you for coming in today and talking with us. I really appreciate it--and for sharing your stories and experiences. It's terrific. Thanks very much.
Riccobuono: You are quite welcome. I really enjoyed it. You just brought back some good memories of my life.
Bauman: Awesome. [LAUGHTER]