Interview with Bob Ferguson
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Robert Franklin: Okay. My name is Robert Franklin. I am conducting an oral history interview with Robert Ferguson on December 21st, 2016. The interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. I will be talking with Bob about his experiences working at the Hanford Site. And for the record, can you state and spell your full name for us?
Bob Ferguson: Yes. Robert, R-O-B-E-R-T. Louis, L-O-U-I-S. Ferguson, F-E-R-G-U-S-O-N.
Franklin: Great, thanks. So tell me how and why you came to the area to work at the Hanford Site.
Ferguson: Well, I was in the Army. I had spent three years in the Army and I was at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. And a friend of mine stopped by that was sort of at the end of my obligation, and his father had worked here. His name was Fred Boleros. And he told me about GE here at Hanford. So, it was my first job when I applied when I left the Army, was with GE at Hanford. They accepted my application, and that’s how I happened to come to Hanford.
Franklin: Okay. And what was the job that you applied for?
Ferguson: Well, I came under a program called the—[LAUGHTER]—bear with me.
Franklin: That’s okay.
Ferguson: Can you cut, can we cut, or you’ll cut?
Franklin: We can edit.
Ferguson: We’ll edit?
Franklin: After the fact, yes.
Emma Rice: Tech grad something?
Ferguson: Yeah. The tech grad program. It was the tech grad program. It was a program to—for GE to find out what your interest was as well as their interest in you. So, anyway, I signed up for that, and I had three assignments with that. One in operation, one in reactor physics, and one in radiation testing. My permanent job—my first permanent job with GE was as a reactor physicist at C Reactor. But we did physics work—at each of the reactors, there was an onsite physicist and an onsite engineer. We rotated to all of the different eight reactors in the course of our assignments during relief work. But I was permanently assigned to C Reactor—C Reactor Physicist.
Franklin: C Reactor?
Ferguson: C Reactor.
Franklin: Okay, and where is that located in relation to B, D and F?
Ferguson: Well, as you probably know, the first reactors were B, D and F. And then HDR and then H, and then C Reactor in K-East and K-West. So C Reactor was one of the newer reactors, before the K-East and K-West design. And it was collocated with B Reactor in what was called the BC Area. They were right next door to each other.
Franklin: Okay. And was that based off of the same design as the B Reactor?
Ferguson: It was a different design. Higher power level and a little different fuel design. And because it had a higher power level, it had also a higher flow rate.
Franklin: Of water?
Ferguson: Of water, right.
Franklin: Great. And how long did you work as a reactor operator?
Franklin: Reactor physicist, sorry.
Ferguson: Right. Well, actually I was asked—I guess because of my interest in operation—I was asked by GE management to go into their management program, which was an accelerated management program. And so that took me into operations. And so to accelerate the learning process, they had a school in the evening that they sent us to. But also, we had supplemental crews. For each of the shifts, there was a supplemental crew that went from each of the reactors, in the case of outages or in the case of startups, where they needed extra people. So you learned in the supplemental crews, all of the operation of all of the reactors in a very short period of time. So from there, then, I was assigned as a shift supervisor at B Reactor. So I was an operating supervisor at B Reactor. In fact, I was the youngest of shift supervisor that GE had at the time.
Franklin: Oh, wow. Where were the classes held for the management program?
Ferguson: Well, there were two kinds of classes. There were—WSU had—actually there were—WSU and some of the other western universities had a program here. But they were technical programs, and then GE in the same facilities, in what—the old barracks area, near where the DOE headquarters is now, the RL headquarters, in that area. But they no longer exist. They were in huts.
Franklin: Oh, okay, Quonset huts.
Ferguson: Quonset huts, yeah, yeah.
Franklin: World War II—
Franklin: Had you gone through any other—before you took the tech grad program with GE, had you had any training in nuclear physics or anything?
Ferguson: Well, I had a degree in physics, and I’d also spent a year at Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville, Alabama in guided missiles. So, there was a lot of related work in the guided missile field to the nuclear field as well.
Franklin: And were you in the Army because of the Korean War?
Ferguson: No, I went into the Army from—I was graduated. Went to Gonzaga University and graduated in ROTC, and had a commission. And because I signed up for the guided missile program, I had a three-year commitment then, rather than just two years of active duty.
Ferguson: But it was—we were on alert in my junior year of the Korean War. And then the Korean War, fortunately, was over in my last year. So, I was able to miss that.
Franklin: Yeah. Can you describe the B Reactor as a place to work?
Ferguson: Well, it was—actually, a fascinating facility. I don’t know, perhaps, if you’ve been there.
Franklin: I’ve been able to take the public tours.
Ferguson: But the operation of the reactors were fascinating. You can picture that there’s eight reactors operating 24/7, seven days a week. At that time, there was pressure for more plutonium for the Cold War. It was during that period of time when there was a lot of tension with Russia. It preceded, actually, the Cuban Missile Crisis by a few years. But anyway, there was intense pressure for production, so we were—GE was very sensitive about the time operating efficiency of the reactors and the power level of the reactors. B Reactor, when it was first designed was designed for 250 megawatts. And when I was last in the control room, we were operating over 2,000 megawatts. We used to—in order to get more power, we used to—Bonneville would lower water from under the dams so our inlet temperature was lower. The operation of the reactors—they went once through the reactors, and so they had to keep the outlet temperature below boiling. And so you wanted the maximum delta t across the reactor, you could get so the lower the inlet temperature, the higher the power level you could get, maintaining a safe margin in the outlet temperature. But also at that time, we were experimenting—I participated both in the physics side as well as the operations side—in the use of flattening of the pile. And by flattening, I mean flattening the flux so you could get more power level, or better distribution and more production, in any one cycle. And so we used—we experimented with splines, which were boron designed things that would go under the process tubes, and you could jack them in actually from the front face of the reactor in order to flatten the flux of the reactors. We also did poisoning at that time of the reactor. A temporary poisoning, so we could start the reactors up at a higher power level. Because the operation of the reactors was very complicated, because you had different temperature coefficients that affected the reactivity of the reactor. So you had a positive graphite temperature, but that was—the graphite would heat up over time. And so that would increase the reactivity, and you had a negative temperature coefficient—fast reactor coefficient. And then the coefficients would change as the amount of plutonium occurred in the reactor. And so the operation of the reactors were really dictated by the design coefficients, but, more importantly, by the discovery of xenon and iodine, which shut the reactors down when Fermi was here. That was—they didn’t even know about the xenon absorption of neutrons at that time. And so when the reactor was first started, it shut down. And they had originally—perhaps you’ve heard this story, that originally the reactor was designed for about 1,500 process tubes. But then DuPont doubled it to 2,004 in order to—for safety margins—and they needed all of that safety margins to override the xenon. But anyway, when you’re at steady state operation, and then you shut the reactor down, then the buildup of iodine that then decays into xenon, and xenon is a poison. So if you were operating at full power and the reactor scrammed, you had a very short period of time in order to bring the reactor up to power level. Otherwise, you were down for 30-hour outage. So that meant that you lost production during that period. So we basically devised what we called quickie plans. This was especially true—we were experiencing a lot of ruptures at that time because we were pushing the envelope of the design of the fuel. It would rupture, and then we’d have to get rid of that, because they’d been once through on the water, the radioactive material would go directly into the river. So anyway, when we had a rupture, we would need to get it out of the reactor. But you only had a few minutes. At that time because of the power levels we were operating at, we only had about 15 minutes to recover. And that meant planning a crew in the rear and the front, and alerting the people in the powerhouse, because you had to bring the water pressure down. But you had to keep plenty of water on the tubes, because otherwise the temperature—outlet temperature would be very high. So you had a very difficult time to valve on the front. So I would go—I would basically stay in the control room and have a supervisor in the front and rear. And then when we shut the reactor down, we would do all of this valving, kick the rupture out, and then restart. And you’d have to restart the reactors to about two-thirds of the power that you were at, otherwise you’d go sub-critical, and you’d be down. So it was a very delicate challenge to start it up to a power level that you could—without running out of rods, then, because also the higher power level, the more reactivity you had. So, it was a—it’s something that I learned in physics, because that’s what the physicist did. He calculated all these transients. So when I went into operations, it was sort of natural for me to be able to manage this kind of thing.
Franklin: Interesting. And so—that’s also, like, kind of real-world application of all of that physics that you had learned, right?
Franklin: How did—I think it’s hard for people who—especially younger people—to imagine doing all of that without digital technology. It’s always been something that’s really fascinated me. And I’m wondering if you could speak to that or if you’ve ever thought about that at all, that the kinds of—maybe you could talk a little bit about the kinds of equipment you had to work with, and the limitations of using the analog readouts in the control room.
Ferguson: Well, that’s a very good question. The reactors had to be operated when you started them up—what we called a blind startup, because we didn’t have instruments that told us how subcritical we were. So, you had to—the physicist would calculate the reactivity coefficients for the operation, and depending upon the precursor operation, would determine exactly what the startup conditions were. But because we couldn’t measure the subcritical condition of the reactor, we had—we pulled to about—well, it’s called 100n hours subcritical, then pulled into that. But we had people at a PC manually, if you can imagine, manually counting the count rate as we approached criticality. Because if you pull too many rods out, you can get into a fast period, which will shut you down. So we had to do all this manually. And you probably, having seen the control room—you had 2,004 process tubes. Each one of those tubes was monitored for pressure on the inlet and temperature on the outlet. But those gauges had to be manually moved and adjusted by a crew in the front of that panel—the panellette, that whole 2,004 panel in the control room, right to the right of the control panel. Anyway, you had a whole group of people on startup in ladder-like things that would roll those gauges, instrument man on the rear, but he had to keep the gauges within a range, or you’d trip. So as the water pressure came up, you had to roll all of those. But this was all done manually. And then we had ways of—we had devices that calculated the power level, but it was very deceptive. So those of us that had been trained in physics could basically do a lot of those calculations in our head on the power level. Because what I’ve experienced—I’m sure others did, too—that if an instrument failed, say a flow instrument failed on one side of the reactor, it would indicate you’re only at half of the power level that you’re actually at. So you needed to look at other instruments, and you learned to look—like there was an instrument called a Beckman instrument, which monitored the radioactivity on the rear face. So by walking the control room and looking at all these different instruments, you could check one against the other. But it was all very, very, very, manual. And we did our physics calculations on Marchant calculators, you know, the calculators you punch.
Franklin: Oh, yeah, yeah. [LAUGHTER]
Ferguson: We did all our physics calculations on those at that time. And they were just introducing the IBM 650. GE had a computing facility where we would punch the cards and get some central computing for some of the physics work that we did. And that’s also where they kept track of the production in the reactors. If you could imagine keeping track of eight reactors with 2,004 tubes—there were more than that in the K reactors—but the six older reactors. And keeping the production in each one of those tubes was a function of the flow through that tube and the reactivity and the temperature of each one of those tubes. So you had to keep track of how much plutonium was being produced, because if you leave the fuel in too long, the buildup of plutonium-240 builds up. And so weapons-grade plutonium is about 6% to 10%. So we were operating at getting really pure weapons-grade plutonium. Something below the—at least 10% of 240, because it was—in the early design of the bombs, they found that if plutonium-240 spontaneously fissions, it creates a background. And if it’s too high, it’ll get a premature detonation of the bomb beforehand. So that’s why we had to manage the production. And that’s why there were frequent shutdowns. Unlike commercial reactors, where you operate a long time. And that’s why people confuse—plutonium that’s produced in commercial reactors has a high 240 content which is not good for weapons.
Franklin: Oh, interesting, okay. So you’re saying—I just want to paraphrase so that I can make sure I understand. So you’re saying that it was the nature of the weapons process that the fuel would only be in there for a short period of time in order to get—and it’s plutonium-240—which one is the--
Ferguson: Is low. 239 is the weapons grade.
Franklin: 239 is the weapons-grade.
Ferguson: And 240 is the low grade.
Franklin: Right, so that you wouldn’t build up too much 240. So—
Ferguson: And that required a frequent charge and discharge of the reactors.
Franklin: Right, so in some way, then, the energy reactors by nature are just not really meant for weapons.
Ferguson: They’re the opposite of that. You want them to run. The Energy Northwest reactor which I was responsible for building—it was called BNP2 at the time. But they recently set a record of running for over two years without a shutdown.
Franklin: Because you also want—when you’re producing energy, you want a reliable output of energy—
Ferguson: Right, fixed, right.
Franklin: You don’t want to be starting and stopping and have that kind of fluctuation in the grid.
Franklin: That’s really—I think that’s a good basic point to have established for anyone who’s doing research on that.
Ferguson: But an interesting subset of your question about instrumentation. Rickover, in the nuclear navy, who relied on analog instrumentation and ways of measuring things. Because he wanted people to really run the reactor all the time. He didn’t want any risk of that. So it was a transitional period in the nuclear business. And some of the instrumentation that was designed to detect neutrons was very new at the time. Even the badges that we wore, at that time, did not detect neutrons, both fast and slow. And so we had to do experiments on the front face of the reactors to be able to predict what dosage you’d get from neutrons, rather than alpha, beta, and gamma. Because it was not known then exactly the biological effect of neutrons on the human body.
Franklin: Given that the reactors ran, most of the time they had 24-hour shifts, I’m wondering if you can describe to me kind of an average day as a nuclear physicist operating the B Reactor.
Ferguson: Well, it depends—well, let me answer that by, when you—at that time, you couldn’t drive your car out to the Site. So you came to the 700 Area, and there was a—lights up there that indicated which reactors were running. And that told you, if you were a supplemental crew, which reactor to go to. But anyway, to answer your question, if the reactor is operating normally at full power, it’s very—typically, you’d go in and you had about a 15- to 20-minute transfer process from one crew to the other. We kept a detailed log of the activities during our shift. You’d do a—we would typically do a count of the uranium slugs that were stored in the front face so that we’d keep materials accountability. So we would make sure that from shift to shift, there was a transfer of accountability for the slugs that were there. There was a transfer of any ongoing activity that would be taking place. But during normal operation, we had two operators in the control room and then a chief operator. And then the other operators would be picking fuel up out of the basins. That was all done by hand. If you’ve seen the reactor, the fuel would come out, go down in chutes. But all of those fuel elements had to be picked up by hand through the water—through 20 feet of water, put in the buckets, and then those buckets would be transferred under water over to a station where the railcar would come in from the 200 Area, all underwater. And then that bucket that contained the radioactive slugs would be, then, taken by railcar over to the 200 Area where it would be reprocessed. So, that—typically, then, you’d do maintenance work that could be done when the reactor was running. And then you had a daily routine of walking through the whole reactor. It’s very interesting; you could—Robert, you could tell, after you’d been there for a while, by the sounds if things were okay. If there was a shrill sound where the water pressure coming through, the water flowing through the reactors, and all of the different fans had different sounds. So you walked the reactor—always walked, went to the rear—in the rear of the building is a little place with a lead glass shield that you could look through to see the rear face. So you’d check the rear face for any anomalies, for leakage, or anything like that. And then you’d have your—we always had a health physicist on each shift. He had his rounds to check on the radiation levels in different areas. And different areas were controlled depending on whether there was radioactive material or contamination in the area. We had step-off pads, where you’d go from one area to another. Dual step-off pads, if you had a highly contaminated area. And the people—some of the crew would sort laundry as well. Because we went through a lot of laundry, because you had to change into what we called SWPs, special material when you came on shift. So anyway that would be rather routine. Now, during an outage, or during a startup, then you have a beehive of activity. The place that we—the shift supervisor had total control and authority over the running of the reactor. So even the manager and other people that were there for startup, they would have to leave, because of the intensity of the operation during startup. So, if it were an outage, you went into—you were doing charge/discharge. So you have a front face crew and a rear face crew, and you’re doing a lot of physical work. The charging machines would—you’d have to load them up by hand—load the slugs by hand. So it was—it’s hard to explain the level of activity that was going on during an outage. Because we would have maintenance. We would have some maintenance on the process tubes that had to be removed because they were leaking. So we’d have to—the maintenance people would come in and remove those. So it was very, very, very—it’s like a huge manufacturing operation.
Ferguson: But a lot by hand. So the dichotomy between—you’ve got a very sophisticated—you get no sound from the reactor itself but a lot of sound from everything that runs the reactor.
Franklin: The water and the electronics and everything.
Ferguson: Right. And the reactors were cooled by—inerted by gas by helium and carbon dioxide. And so one of the auxiliary rooms was a place where you controlled mixture of the helium and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of the reactor. Because you could change the reactivity by changing the temperature of the graphite. You could heat it up with CO2 and cool it off with helium.
Franklin: Interesting. So how long did you work as a reactor physicist—nuclear physicist and shift operator?
Ferguson: Well, nominally about two years as a physicist and about two years as an operating supervisor. So it was about 50/50 while I was here. I’ll tell you, interesting story. Probably we don’t want to put it on television, but—on September 27th, 1960, I was—it was a Tuesday, and I was starting the reactor up. And I got a call that my wife’s water had broken and she was on the way to the Kadlec Hospital to deliver our second girl. So it was the first time in history a reactor went critical the same time a woman went critical. [LAUGHTER] I could tell you exactly where I was standing in that reactor out there when that happened. I’ll always remember that. And Kadlec Hospital at that time was just Quonset huts, as well.
Franklin: Right, yeah, wow. Thanks for sharing. [LAUGHTER] Where did you—I’m assuming you guys lived in Richland while you worked out at Site, right?
Ferguson: Right, yeah.
Franklin: And so you lived in Richland during—so you would have lived in Richland, then, while it was a government town and then also during the transition.
Ferguson: When we first came here, the government owned the town, and we lived in a B—I was going to say B Reactor. [LAUGHTER] Okay. We lived on Kimball—1524 Kimball in a duplex.
Ferguson: And then the second home here was a ranch house. But then, while we were there they sold. And when we were first here, GE provided coal. We had coal for our heat and lightbulbs. Those were all provided. I think we paid $47 a month rent at that time. And then the town was sold off. And our neighbors had the right to buy the B house.
Franklin: Because they had been there longer than you?
Ferguson: They were one of the original occupants. And so then we rented from them. So we were here during that transition.
Franklin: Can you describe that transition? What you remember, or your thoughts on it?
Ferguson: Well, it was very interesting. When we first came here, there was—and one of the reasons that the road system is the way it is is because of the security in the town. There was only one road in at the time and one road out. And that’s the way—you had to be cleared in order to live and work in Richland during that time. And so we—you know, we had a bus system that picked us up. We had a—during that time as well, those of us that worked in radiation levels, every month we’d have our urine sampled. And so the people that worked there set their bottle out by the front door to be picked up and monitored. So then as the town—after the town was sold off, then, there was more interest in changing the—upgrading the buildings, painting, and more things like that. So you could see the evolution from a government-owned town to private ownership. More and more attention to yards and things like that. So we—my wife and I—my family experienced that transition. And we left—came here in 1957. I left here in ‘61 to go to Argonne. And then we came back in 1972, and the town had totally changed, then. When we came back, we looked at a couple of houses in Meadow Springs and the realtor told us it would be pretty iffy to buy there, because that may not go. And there was a dirt road at that time between that and Columbia Center. Columbia Center didn’t exist when we were first here. We came back, and here’s Columbia Center. So having left here and come back, we’ve seen this transformation of the Tri-Cities. Rather remarkable.
Franklin: Right. And how come you left Richland in ’61?
Ferguson: Well, actually I was in the control room of B Reactor when we heard about an accident in Idaho called the SL-1 accident.
Franklin: I’ve heard about that.
Ferguson: It was a military accident that killed three military people. Anyway, it’s kind of a long story, but I’ll make it pretty short. Part of the accident investigation indicated that there was no one AEC organization responsible. The reactor was designed at Argonne in Chicago at Argonne National Lab, but built and operated by the Army at Idaho. And they Idaho office wasn’t responsible; Chicago wasn’t responsible for making sure. So anyway, I was recruited by AEC to go to work up with the AEC to set up the safety program for what was then called the Second Round reactors. These were commercial reactors that were built to encourage the development—commercial development of nuclear power. But Argonne had a lot of reactors at the time, both at Idaho, as well as at Argonne. Both thermal reactors, research reactors and fast reactors. And so anyway, I was recruited because they were looking for people with actual physics and operations experience to work in safety. And so, shortly after I was there, I was sent to Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology for an accelerated program in state-of-the-art safety. But then we—anyway, then we did a review of all the reactors under Chicago. And those were reactors at Idaho, reactors at Santa Susana in California, Atomics International reactors. And then we had commercial reactors at Piqua, Ohio and Hallam, Nebraska. And—oh, there were two other ones, anyway, that were funded by the AEC, but privately owned. But the safety responsibility was the AEC. So anyway I went back there because of the emergence of the need for people with actual operating experience. There were only two places: that was Savannah River and here at Hanford.
Franklin: Right. And up until that time, you had not worked with commercial reactors; you’d only worked on production.
Ferguson: Yeah, there were no—no, that’s correct.
Franklin: So can you describe that transition? How was that for you? Even though you would have had operating experience, like we talked about earlier, the operation of the commercial reactor is almost opposite. The purposes are very different. And so I’m wondering if you can describe that transition.
Ferguson: Well, it’s also a cultural transition. And one of the difficulties in the development of commercial nuclear power was because of this cultural issue. Some of the utilities were oversold on the ease with which nuclear power could be used to produce electricity. And so they didn’t understand the need for the training and the quality assurance and the rigorous of operation. And that led to some accidents in the early days, because the utilities really were not sensitive to that. Admiral Rickover was even worried that the private sector, the commercial sector, was not able to manage nuclear. And he was afraid that they would have accidents. And that’s why he built and operated Shippingport, which was one of the first commercial reactors, but it was built by the Navy. But anyway, it was a cultural change. And after the SL-1 accident, it was really a wakeup call even within the AEC for the need for rigorous oversight, rigorous design review, design construction, and operation. The need for safety at all of those areas from the time you procure a piece of equipment, to its built, to its put in operation, and then maintained. All of that was new to the industry. So I actually lived through that transition, I guess, if you would call it that. Because GE was—and DuPont were very rigorous in their safety. Very rigorous. Because people didn’t really know much about nuclear power at that time, or nuclear energy.
Franklin: So you’re saying some of that safety-consciousness kind of came over from the folks involved in production, who then went on to commercial.
Franklin: I’ve—when talking to people similar to yourself who’ve been in the industry, very familiar with nuclear production and power, I’ve often heard that the nuclear industry is one of the most tightly regulated and safe industries, or focused with safety. And I’m wondering how you feel about that statement, how you would respond to that.
Ferguson: Well, it is, because of the potential or the risk. Even though the commercial, there has been no deaths in the commercial nuclear industry in the United States, the potential is there as well. I can just give you a little feel for that. Three Mile Island was a very bad accident, but nobody was hurt. I was there. I was—fifth day of the accident, I was in the control room of Three Mile Island. It was really a bad accident, but nobody got hurt. On the other hand, I was at Chernobyl after that accident. That was a very, very bad accident. A lot of people were killed in that accident. People don’t really understand that—going back to your question about the rigorous safety requirements—Russia did not have a requirement for containment for their reactors. So, Chernobyl had no containment. You couldn’t build and operate that kind of a reactor in the United States. So, one of the issues that emerges from the rigorous safety criteria is the difficulty in transition to new instrumentation, for instance. Because you had very prescriptive regulatory requirements, it was more difficult, basically, to introduce new design, new equipment. And it’s one of the difficulties of the nuclear industry, unlike cars where you’re changing them often, it’s very expensive to build one. And then it’s hard, as innovation and changes take place, it’s hard to introduce those in the course of the licensing. So our licensing system has changed somewhat. You used to have to have two permits for commercial reactor. A permit to build it, and then another permit to operate it. Now those are combined into one, because you wouldn’t want to spend all the money to build a reactor and then not be able to run it. And for the antinuclear community, they used that as a way to stop the operation—or the startup of a lot of reactors. That caused a lot of expense, too. So anyway, it’s been a dynamic change, but not as rapid as your iPhone and changes like that, which can be made very quickly.
Franklin: Wow, thank you. Really illuminating. I really like that you mention that there was a cultural transition into the commercial reactor, and I assume, there, you’re talking about dealing with utility companies, but I’m also wondering, was there—did you also work with—because you mentioned fast reactors. Did you also work with scientists and people from the university side of operations when you moved into commercial power?
Ferguson: Oh, yes.
Franklin: And was that also part of the cultural shift?
Ferguson: Well, for instance, going into Argonne—Argonne was where the nuclear technology started. I mean, Argonne came from Fermi’s work in Chicago, basically. All of those scientists went to work at Argonne. And they didn’t like to be—scientists don’t like to be regulated or overseen. And so that’s the reason that the reactor—many of the reactors that Argonne worked with were put in Idaho, in a remote area, where you could do a lot of experimentation away from a big city. So that’s where the series of reactors called the BORAX Reactors, where you could actually explode them—pull into a fast period and cause a prompt critical. But you could do that in Idaho because it was so remote. But anyway, it was always a certain amount of tension between research. And one of the current issues right now, there is so much regulation in commercial reactors, it’s hard to introduce any new technology. For instance, Bill Gates is investing in a reactor being designed in China. And he would do that here, but he went to the NRC and it’d take him 24 years to get a permit just to build it here. So, the rigorous licensing process also inhibits development of new technologies. And we don’t really today have a good answer for that. We need to have an intermediate step where you can work on new reactor designs that are not ready for commercial operation yet but need to be run. Because unless you can do experimental work, you can’t develop anything new.
Franklin: But that experimental work is held up by the regulations—
Ferguson: Of the regulations, right.
Franklin: Do you think the public has an inadequate understanding of nuclear technology in general, and nuclear power specifically?
Ferguson: Well, there’s a lot of work has been done with respect to why people fear nuclear which is really very safe, statistically. The probability of being hurt by a nuclear accident is essentially zero. Yet, people will get in their car and they’ll drive their car. So there’s a lot of psychological fear. And a lot of that fear, we think, comes from the use of nuclear technology for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In other words, the notion of equating weapons with nuclear power. And that has continued to this day, because many people don’t understand here at Hanford the difference between commercial waste and waste from both the Second World War and the Cold War. It’s a very different issue, but people think of it all as one. And one of the problems is that with the evolution of the organization that manages that. I mean, I worked, when I was head of the FFTF project, I worked for the AEC, I worked for ERDA, and I worked for the Atomic Energy Commission in the same job. And so you can understand then. And that—the weapons program is still in the Department of Energy. I’m a big advocate of removing it, because—and removing the waste from the commercial—to create a separation. As long as they’re managed together, how do you expect the average person to believe that they’re not one in the same thing? Or that the issues are not one in the same thing. So that fear of nuclear is real. And there’s been a lot of work done about why people fear it when it is not really unsafe. And generally you find that the people that work with nuclear are very comfortable with it. And the farther away you get, the more fear there is. For instance, here at Hanford, people are very used to working with it. We have clean water. You go over to Seattle, they want to tell us how to—why to be afraid here at Hanford. Well, we live here. We drink the water, we eat the fish. We’re not fearful of it, because we’ve lived with it. We know it. So a lot of that is proximity.
Franklin: Yeah, thank you, I appreciate you expanding on that. It does give it a troubled reputation, doesn’t it? Since the birth of nuclear energy is related to death and bombings and then was a very visible part of our very large stockpile of nuclear weapons.
Ferguson: And it still is a threat with the proliferation. And it’s a huge threat.
Franklin: And to have a peaceful arm of that, though, I think to some people maybe they confuse both heads of that same—
Ferguson: That’s not unnatural that they would do that. The other thing that’s happened, you know, we had—Three Mile Island happened right after Jane Fonda’s movie, The China Syndrome. And then we had Chernobyl. And then we had the accident in Japan. So these big accidents get a lot of publicity. And there’s a lot of fear that comes from the reporting of that, which isn’t always accurate. Because the nature of reporting is to make things dramatic. And so it gets dramatized in the public. So it probably will take generations to—people to address that.
Franklin: Right. Because certainly our current—where we get our current energy from is also a problematic source of energy, in terms of its political and human and environmental costs.
Ferguson: Right. The irony is that 20%, nominally, 20% of our electricity comes from nuclear. 70% of the carbon-free generation—70% comes from nuclear. And so there is no way the country can ever meet its goal of carbon emissions without a greater use of nuclear power. Because solar and wind are both intermittent. You can’t store them. For instance, if you had to rely on them during the cold weather we just had—we had no sun, it was cold. Where would you get your energy? Where would you get your energy? And the other thing that people really don’t understand is that both wind and solar are nuclear energy. Their source is nuclear energy from the sun. The sun—and the earth gets all of its energy from radiation from the sun. Yet people don’t think of that radiation as bad radiation. They think of that as good radiation. And other radiation, from nuclear power, is bad radiation.
Franklin: Interesting, I don’t think I ever thought of it quite like that before. But it’s very true.
Ferguson: All of the weather comes from absorption of energy from the sun in the oceans, creates the wind, picks up the moisture, delivers it. That’s where we get our hydro power. Solar power—all of that is nuclear energy from the sun. The sun is our source of nuclear energy.
Franklin: Well, even in a way then oil is also from the sun, because it’s decomposed carbon matter—
Ferguson: No, really, it preceded the sun in the sense that it was a part of matter when it was created at the Big Bang.
Franklin: True. So I’d like to go back—tell me about coming back to Richland to work on the FFTF. What brought you back from Argonne to Hanford?
Ferguson: Well, the people—the assistant manager at Argonne for the AEC I had worked with there—and he became the manager of the Richland Operations Office. And then another fellow I had worked with there, Alex Fremling, became his deputy. And so they asked me to come back. They were having a lot of difficulty with the management of the contracts here. And I’d had a lot of experience in project management at Argonne in both high energy physics and reactor projects, and a lot of experience in contracting. So anyway, I came back and I was originally head of contracts. And then shortly after that I was made technical director for the Site. That was at a period when—or at a time, in 1972, when 106-T leak occurred. That was the 105,000-gallon leak that really was the first major leak of radioactive material from the tanks. And it’s the first time the public then became aware of the real problem here at Hanford. And so I was on the investigating committee for that event. And we went back to—Dixy Lee Ray was Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and then subsequently our governor. But we asked for a supplemental appropriation--$20 million supplemental appropriation to start building double-shell tanks. So that’s when we started building the double-shell tanks, thinking that there would be a solution fairly soon. And I can take you all the way back to when I was with GE, I did some—one of my jobs there, I measured some—the radiation level in some of the tanks, because as early as that time, GE was concerned about leaking tanks. Because the radioactive material in the tanks stratifies. The radiation level is different and it creates a temperature stress in the tanks. So we were—as early as then, we were worried about tanks leaking. Now—that was 1958, ’59. Here we are in 2016 and we’ve got leaky tanks and no solution. [LAUGHTER] Not much progress.
Franklin: Sadly no.
Ferguson: Anyway then FFTF was in trouble from a cost and schedule standpoint. So I was asked to set up the FFTF Project Office. And the manager of Richland went back to Washington, and he became head of nuclear energy in Washington. His deputy became manager here—Alex Fremling became manager here and so they—we’d all worked together. And so they asked me to set up the FFTF Project Office.
Ferguson: And that’s when—in 1973—I stayed here until 1978 and then Jim Schlesinger, the chairman of—Secretary of Energy for DOE asked me to go back and take over the nuclear program in Washington.
Franklin: And what do you feel like you got accomplished from ’73 to ’78 on the FFTF Project Office?
Ferguson: We built the most remarkable fast reactor test facilities that’s ever been built. At the time that I was asked to take it over, there was a member of the—Bill Anders—who was the astronaut that went around the moon the first time. Anyway, he was a member of the AEC. But he helped me get the project office set up based on the way NASA set up their offices: decentralized. But he told me that the FFTF was far more difficult technical job than putting a man on the moon. So the development of the technology that we developed and demonstrated with FFTF was really incredible. And a lot of that technology’s now being given to Japan—to China—for their new development program. A lot of the sodium technology, the fast reactor technology. So we accomplished a lot. But it didn’t—and then it got killed. [LAUGHTER]
Franklin: Right, right, it did. I wonder if you could talk about that. What happened to the FFTF?
Ferguson: Well, at the time FFTF was built, the policy of the United States and the Atomic Energy Commission was to reprocess and have breeder reactors. And so that you would take the fuel from commercial reactors, reprocess it, take the plutonium out of it, use that plutonium for fuel for fast reactors. So essentially, by using fast reactors, you have basically an unlimited supply of energy. So that was the policy when FFTF was built. Clinch River was to be a commercial demonstration plant at Clinch River in Tennessee. Clinch River was killed when Carter came in. Carter killed the breeder program because he thought that—first of all, he didn’t think nuclear was going to be here to stay, and he didn’t want to—thought reprocessing would facilitate the spread of nuclear weapons around the world. Because when you do reprocess, you can use that same technology to extract plutonium for weapons. So it was killed for that reason. And Carter was pushing coal at the time, saying we had, essentially, an abundant supply of coal. And so he thought that nuclear really wasn’t going to—it was a last resort, as he put it. Because of our lack of reprocessing, we have influenced the design of Yucca Mountain for the deep geologic storage. Because at the time that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1982 was set up, there was a conflict between those that wanted to reprocess and those that didn’t want to reprocess. So Yucca Mountain is designed for retrievability. It’s designed for permanent storage of defense waste, but retrievability of commercial waste. So at some date in the future, it could be reprocessed. Because about 90% of the energy value is still in fuel once it’s discharged from a commercial reactor. So anyway, that decision has affected a lot of subsequent issues that the country has faced.
Franklin: How come the program didn’t come back under Reagan?
Ferguson: Well, in January of 1982, I was asked to participate in a—that’s when Reagan was president, and George Bush, Sr. was his vice president. And he called a meeting that I was invited to, to discuss what was going on in nuclear at that time. And at the time, I was head of WPPSS. And the cost estimate—this was post-Three-Mile Island. The cost estimate for plants was going up, they were having delays. And so Reagan called this meeting from executives to find out what could be done with nuclear. Well, as a result of that meeting, then, we were instrumental in getting the Nuclear Waste Policy Act started which he then proposed as a way of dealing with commercial nuclear fuel. Because up until that time, there was no solution to commercial nuclear fuel. So—and there still isn’t.
Franklin: Oh, okay.
Ferguson: There still isn’t. Because Obama killed—or tried to kill the Yucca Mountain project. But we stopped him from doing that. I was one of the principals—law suit that the courts ruled that he didn’t have the authority to do that. But he stopped it. So now there is no solution, yet, to what to do with commercial fuel. So commercial fuel is now stored all over the United States at all of the reactors.
Franklin: Right, right. How did you become involved with the WPPSS project?
Ferguson: Well, I was recruited out of Washington.
Franklin: So you’re just back and forth from here to Washington and then back.
Ferguson: Well, people that had known about my success in building FFTF and turning that around—and it turns out Senator Jackson was one of those. And so when I was recruited, I’d been in the government 20 years, and I was still pretty young. I didn’t want to leave the government, because I had no retirement. I wasn’t old enough to retire. Anyway, Senator Jackson told me that if I would come out and solve the WPPSS problem, he would make sure I got back in the government. Well, a long story short, I came out and I did solve, I think, the WPPSS problem. But I also had open heart surgery and ruined my health and then Senator Jackson died. So I never went back into the government. He died and I never had a pension. So—[LAUGHTER] so that’s what WPPSS did to me! But anyway, I was recruited—going back to your question—there was a national recruitment because of the difficulties WPPSS was having building the plants.
Franklin: And how long did you work at WPPSS for?
Ferguson: Three years, ’80 to ’83.
Franklin: Okay. And what did you do after that?
Ferguson: I started up a company, R.L. Ferguson and Associates, a consulting company. And we sold that to SAIC. And then I started up another company, Nouveau Tech. And we acquired a nuclear waste facility that’s out here, now it’s called PermaFix Northwest. We acquired that out of bankruptcy from ATG. And then in 2007, I sold that to PermaFix. And since then, I’ve been writing books and consulting.
Franklin: So you’re still not retired.
Ferguson: No. I’m still consulting.
Franklin: Still consulting. But still on—
Ferguson: And I’ve written two books on the nuclear waste issue, so—
Franklin: Okay, great. Well, which two books are those?
Ferguson: Nuclear Waste in Your Backyard: Who’s to Blame and What to Do About It. And the first one was called—I can’t remember the name of it. Something about Obama and Reid wasting money. [LAUGHTER]
Franklin: Ah. Tell me about your involvement with the Tri-Cities Nuclear Industrial Council, TRICNIC, which later became TRIDEC.
Ferguson: Well, after I left WPPSS, I was asked to be the chair of TRICNIC. Because I was kind of in a period when I was trying to recover for my health. And so Sam Volpentest was the executive vice president, and Glen Lee was publisher of the paper then, and Bob Philips was the president. And they would ask me to be the president of TRICNIC. And then because of the need to diversify the economy in the Tri-Cities, we merged TRICNIC with the Tri-City Chamber, and that became then TRIDEC. And so I was the first president and chair of TRIDEC, when it was formed. And Sam stayed on until his death. He worked up until he died. And then Gary Petersen took over his place to head up the Hanford part of TRICNIC.
Franklin: I wonder if you could talk about working with Sam Volpentest.
Ferguson: There’s been a whole book written about that. [LAUGHTER] Did you read it? The godfather?
Franklin: I have, yeah, The Community Godfather by C. Mark Smith.
Ferguson: Much of my life is in there.
Ferguson: [LAUGHTER] But anyway, no, yeah, he was one of those remarkable people that you know in your lifetime. He worked right up until he died. I told a story at his funeral—a eulogy—I said, you know, the clock was set right after 5:00 because he wanted to put in a final shift before he died. [LAUGHTER] So he died right after 5:00. [LAUGHTER] But Sam was very devoted to the Tri-Cities and the economic development of the Tri-Cities and spent his whole life on behalf. But he was probably largely responsible for my—or one of the reasons for taking over WPPSS, because he was close to Senator Jackson. I had worked with him in the community on FFTF as well. When I took over FFTF, we not only—the prior head of the nuclear in Washington had testified it would be completed for $187 million. But we didn’t—not only couldn’t you complete it, we ran out of money that year. And Sam was instrumental in TRIDEC—or TRICNIC was instrumental in getting a supplemental appropriation to keep FFTF. That’s one of its early, early almost-deaths. So I started working with Sam in the community at that time. So then when I left WPPSS, I was asked to get more involved.
Franklin: Great. I’m wondering if you can remember or can tell me about any kind of notable events or incidents that happened at Hanford while you were working out there. I think you would have been gone for the JFK visit, which was in ’63, but if there were any other—
Ferguson: Right, I was at Argonne then.
Franklin: But if there were any other notable events or incidents that happened at Hanford while you worked there.
Ferguson: Oh. Other than the leak? 106-T leak?
Franklin: Pretty notable. Or maybe in general in Tri-Cities history, or any—did you ever go to any of the Atomic Frontier Days parades or anything like that?
Ferguson: No, I didn’t, no. I’m trying to think of—well, 10,000 people marched in support of keeping WNP-1 alive. Have you ever seen that picture?
Ferguson: 10,000 people, can you imagine that?
Franklin: Yes, yeah, that’s—
Ferguson: Supporting nuclear power? Where else in the country could you do that?
Franklin: Not too many places.
Ferguson: Well, I’m trying to think, what--?
Franklin: It’s okay if you don’t.
Ferguson: I really—I can’t.
Franklin: It’s one of my stock questions.
Ferguson: Oh, okay.
Franklin: You know, in case something pops up.
Franklin: So, I guess—let me look over this.
Ferguson: Probably told you more than you want to know!
Franklin: Yeah, we’ve covered quite a bit. And I just have kind of one last question that’s kind of a wrap-up question. But I’m wondering what you would like future generations to know about working at Hanford and living in Richland in the Cold War.
Ferguson: Well, I think it would be very important, and I think it’s even important for this generation to understand the circumstances under which people operated the reactors. There’s been a lot of public criticism about the fact that we discharged waste into the ground. And people just, I think, don’t understand the pressures and the circumstances. The major thing people should understand is that Hanford was very carefully chosen because of the potential risk of an accident or even discharge of radioactive material. The selection of Hanford is unique in the location. The 200 Area, it’s unique in the sense that under the site is a layer of caliche, it’s like cement. Overlaying on that is sand. And they looked up on this as basically a way to hold up the radioactive material and they put it in the ground. And so it wasn’t just people being careless or anything like that. There were the pressures and unknowns. People didn’t know a lot about nuclear, but there was an incredible safety record in spite of all of that. So anyway, I think the big disappointment I have is that the waste hasn’t been take care of, and it’s mostly a political issue than a technical issue. It could have been taken care of a long time ago, but it’s terrible. It’s an issue that has become politicized.
Franklin: Right. Because sites with smaller amounts of waste have been able to encapsulate—begin or even in some cases finish encapsulation programs like West Valley, Savannah River—have been able to deal.
Ferguson: And most of our waste out here doesn’t really have to be vitrified, either. It’s high activity, because of where it came from, by law. It came from reprocessing. But it’s high-level waste, but it’s low-activity waste. And so if you remove the cesium from it, you could basically secure the waste in a cementaceous form and send it to Texas. About 80% of the waste could be done and we wouldn’t even have to build a vit plant. So it’s been—the design of the Vit Plant was wrong from the beginning. The Hanford waste is unique from a lot of different wastes, in that it’s such a mixture of so many different kinds—it’s not homogeneous. So the design of the Vit Plant, rather than have multiple facilities to treat separate kinds of waste, they basically have a pre-treatment plant where they want to treat all of the waste to make it in a consistent form to feed into the melter. Well, the pre-treatment plant is what’s stopping everything. So there’s been a lot of—you know, I’ve lived through about three or four different starts of the Vit Plant. So, I’ve seen it, and it’s very frustrating to see how political it has become, and a lack of science-based decisions that are made.
Franklin: Yeah, I’ve seen some of the bumper stickers, I forget exactly what they say, but I’ll paraphrase here: Vitrification in 2007, or Hanford Vit Plant. You know, 2007 or 2004. And then we’re—it’s 2016 and we’re still waiting.
Ferguson: Still waiting. Still no—
Franklin: Perhaps—as you said, perhaps for a plant that is not the best approach—
Franklin: --to the problem. Well—
Ferguson: Sam Volpentest predicted before he died that the Vit Plant would never be built because of the cost. And now you’re seeing it being questioned because of the cost. People are saying, why do we have to spend this kind of money? Because it’s—about $3 billion comes here every year for Hanford, including Battelle. But it’s a huge amount of money. It’s like the WPPSS plants. People used to say, well, we have to build them no matter what. Well, they got too expensive and the need for power went away, and so they didn’t get built. So there comes a price when things are not affordable. And there’s not really a risk to the river. The waste needs to be treated and cleaned up, but there’s no risk, really. There’s no health risk. The flow of the river is so great, any material gets in there is so diluted you can’t even detect it. But that’s not a solution. Right after 106-T, Battelle did some studies for us, just what-if studies. And we said, what if all the waste went in the Columbia River? Well, downstream, it wouldn’t be a problem. It’s so dilute. Not that that’s—I’m not advocating that at all. But it just shows you that the risk to the health and safety of the public is not—does not demand what we’re doing with the waste out there. It doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taken care of. I’m just—because at one time Sam and I faced some members of Congress who wanted to put a fence around Hanford and not do anything with it. Just leave it there. [LAUGHTER] So, anyway. I’ve been there, done it.
Franklin: So at least we’re away from that solution.
Ferguson: Well, I hope we’re not going back there. But when the price gets so high, people away from here and the demand for money in the budget gets so tremendous, it’s—strange things can happen.
Franklin: They sure can.
Franklin: Well, Bob, thank you so much for coming in and interviewing with us today.
Ferguson: Okay, Robert.
Franklin: I really appreciated it.
Ferguson: I hope I didn’t cover too much for you.
Franklin: You did a great job; we touched on a lot of really great things. So thank you.
Franklin: All right.
Years in Tri-Cities Area
Years on Hanford Site