An interview with Leonard Gustafson

Dublin Core


An interview with Leonard Gustafson


Hanford Site (Wash.)
Richland (Wash.)
Radioactive substances
Nuclear fuels


Leonard Gustafson moved to Richland, Washington in 1950 to work on the Hanford Site.

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


Hanford Oral History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities




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



Date Modified

2017-04-12: Metadata v1 created – [A.H.]


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

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Robert Bauman


Leonard Gustafson


Washington State University Tri-Cities


Northwest Public Television | Gustafson_Leonard

Robert Bauman: We're ready to go. So if we could start by having you say your name and spell your last name for us.

Leonard Gustafson: Okay. You ready?

Bauman: Yep.

Gustafson: Okay. I'm Leonard Gustafson. Last name is spelled G-U-S-T-A-F-S-O-N.

Bauman: All right. And my name's Robert Bauman. And today's date is October 16th, as we clarified, 2013. And we're conducting this interview on the campus of Washington State University, Tri-Cities. So let's start, if we could, by having you tell us when you came to Hanford, what brought you here, how you heard about the place.

Gustafson: Okay.

Bauman: Why you came here.

Gustafson: Well, we do that almost any direction. I knew about the place so for a couple reasons, but the main reason was that some of my fellow chemical engineers from Montana State University had come over a year or two earlier. And so when I finished up at Bozeman and started looking for a job, it seemed like I might take at least a temporary assignment at this wartime installation until I found a real job. So I arrived on October 15th of 1950. It's been a little while ago isn't it? 63 years.

Bauman: Almost your anniversary, yeah.

Gustafson: Went through, I guess, the normal procedures. Found out about what was going on in the plant, and security, and a little bit about how to deal with radioactive materials. And then I was assigned to my first tasks. I was what they called a Supervisor-in-Training, and went into the operations part of the chemical processing department. My first building that I went to was T Plant. The T Plant, the bismuth phosphate separation plant. And about all I did there was so learn how to detect contamination and clean it up. I always tell the story that the operators really loved having these young supervisors-in-training come in, because they could hand them a bucket of acetone, or something like that, and bundle of rags, and a cutie pie—which was our instrument for detecting radiation—and send us out to scrub the deck. In the separation plants, and this was common after the crane operator removes the blocks from the cells, he always leaves a little bit of contamination on the deck. So that's a rather regular job. So I learned how to handle the cutie pie. And how to go through the—how to dress. Put us in our white coveralls and learn how to go through what we called at that time, the SWP, Special Work Permit. It's been called many different things. Anyhow, that started me out. After I believe it was about two months in T Plant, I was assigned to the startup of the REDOX operation. Now the REDOX was the first of the solvent extraction plants. So it was essentially near completion there at the end of 1950, the beginning of 1951. So we went through the final inspection processes and started up. And then I was assigned to one of the four operating shifts that operated that building. This was extremely interesting. It was like a great big pilot plant laboratory, and we chemical engineers essentially had the responsibility for operating. We moved into that plant without having much time for a lot of training and procedural preparation. So in order to at least establish some kind of order beyond simple procedures. The operation was strictly conducted by the engineers, by the supervisors. Each shift had eight shift supervisors and two senior supervisors. And initially all the operation was conducted by the supervisors. The operators were just learning at that stage. After, oh, year or so, the operators were ready to run the plant. We didn't need so many supervisors. So in late 1953, I went out on another rather interesting assignment. Engineering at that time was responsible for inspection. We didn't have anything like quality assurance organizations. So engineering inspectors took care of the required inspection of any materials or equipment that we were ordering from Hanford. I was assigned mostly out in the Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky area, New York. I spent a little over a year. It was a very active thing. Frequently I'd turn in an expense account for seven different locations in a week. So is this about--

Bauman: Yeah, this is great.

Gustafson: --where you want to go? I can cut things pretty short if you'd like.

Bauman: This is great. Keep going.

Gustafson: So anyhow, we got into some fabulous big plants and all this sort of thing. Learned a little more about how to build things. Because some of the time we were actually not only assigned for the final inspections, but we went right through all the manufacturing stages. I returned then to Richland in the beginning of 1955. By that time, the PUREX plant was nearing completion. That was the second of the big solvent extraction plants. So I was assigned for the startup and so on of that plant. My final assignment there was basically I was the operating supervisor for C shift. C shift was one of the four shifts that was responsible for operating the plant. By that time, the operators were pretty well trained, so I had about 18 or 19 operators and two chief operators. And there was one technical man also assigned to the shift. I'd have to look upon that assignment as probably the most responsible job I ever had, starting up and running that plant. The operating group was basically responsible for the main process. The shift crews have the responsibility to run it, unless there were some real serious problem or question, we have to find the answers and go ahead and do it. There were many experiences there, but I was--after a couple years, well, I'd been married in the process there at the end of ‘55. My wife was a teacher and it was getting to the point where shift work was not the most desirable. We'd touch base occasionally. So I moved into one of the engineering groups again in the separations department, process design and development. [UNKNOWN], just one who is still around, managed that group. A good friend. And so I spent a couple years in that work. We were basically responsible for new activities or problem activities that the engineering group was supposed to take care of to support the operations. So after two or three years there, I thought it was about time to see some more of the plant, so I moved on down to the 300 Area, and worked with the Plutonium Recycle Test Reactor. So I spent a couple three years there. So that had to be about 1960, 1961, somewhere in there. I didn't get the exact dates. So I went through the startup and operation of the Plutonium Recycle Test Reactor. Now this was not associated with plutonium production. This was really in support of the oncoming nuclear industry for power production, for electrical production. And the reason for the PRTR was to demonstrate that plutonium could be used as well as uranium-235 as the fissile fuel for commercial reactors. It was a successful project. And at that time, projects were completed on time and usually under budget. So it was a success as far as I'm concerned. After that plant is operating and they didn't have much need for me around anymore, I moved on out to the 100 Areas. And good friend of mine, Gene Astley, asked me one day what I was doing. I said, well, I guess I'm about ready to do something else. And so he said, well, come on out work for me for a while. So I went out to the 100 Areas, must've been ‘64 or ‘65, and worked largely with so water plant type problems and questions that were going on. Now we're getting into the area where we're getting about ready to--the Cold War was sort of winding up. So production wasn't the number one priority anymore. There were a lot of questions about what was the future of Hanford and so on at that time. So after working a couple three years out there, I guess not quite, I moved on down to the fuels department and worked with Charlie Mathis, the manager of fuels production at that time—this must've been about ‘65. And my main activity there was mostly planning, what are we going to do with the fuels manufacturing plants in the future? So very, very interesting and we worked along with—Roy Nielsen had a group that was overall Hanford planning at that time. So after a couple years there in the fuels department, I actually moved into Roy's group. And so this had to be ‘67, maybe ‘66, I'm not real sure. With that assignment, one of the things that was done at that time the AEC, countrywide, was studying and planning for what to do with the nuclear facilities and how they were going to support commercial electrical power generation. So they had a group down at Oak Ridge that was called the AEC Combined Operational Planning Group. And Hanford, as well as most of the sites, were responsible for providing two or three representatives. So I spent about a year and a half down there. That was in basically ‘68. Of course, that was quite fascinating, because we were looking at the overall AEC complex and what was the future for nuclear power, essentially. One of the things I got involved with were the nuclear power forecasts. I spend a lot of time at headquarters. Frank Baranowski was the head of the production division, essentially responsible for Hanford, Savannah River, Oak Ridge—all of the main production facilities. I spent some time with him every now and then. Very fine fellow. And so after year and half or so there, I felt it was about time to get back home. And we had actually moved the family there, so we moved completely and sold our house and rented in Oak Ridge. So we came back to Richland at I guess the end of ‘69. And one of the big activities at that time was the FFTF. So I again I went with the FFTF project. So I changed, I had been with Douglas United Nuclear, so at that time I went to Battelle who was responsible for the early FFTF bid. My good friends Astley and Condoda, who were the manager an engineering manager, they did not stay with the project. We Indians sort of stayed with it. That was when the AEC—the Milt Shaw years—decided that Battelle was not adequately competent to take on a project like that. They needed somebody with more, I guess, manufacturing and big project experience. So Westinghouse had been assigned to take over that responsibility by the AEC. So I then became a Westinghouse employee. Spent most of the next, I guess, ten years with the FFTF project until it was a complete and operating. By that time we're getting up to 1980 range. So those were interesting times. We had a lot particularly early conflict. The assigning of Westinghouse to take overlooked project didn't really satisfy what Milt Shaw was after. We had a rather severe conflict. Milt Shaw was finally ousted. I still don't know for sure who was the most influential in getting that because the project was floundering. We moved the AEC representatives from Washington, DC. The most closely associated came to Hanford and became essentially the FFTF project office on site. Most of the closely associated Westinghouse staff who had been in Pittsburgh moved to Hanford. And we were able to work over a local table rather than on the phone and at crazy meetings. And the FFTF came together quite well. I think it was very successful project. Perhaps we didn't finish it under budget, but we did well after it was reorganized. It started up and ran very successfully. Too bad that we couldn't find a better use for the plant. Of course, the liquid metal fast breeder program essentially fizzled. Let's see, from that—well, I'm getting pretty well along and I needed something maybe a little different. So I got into a rather, again, what I regard as an interesting assignment. Westinghouse there somewhere close to the period ‘78, ‘79, ‘80, had been assigned to run a nuclear quality assurance program office. And although Westinghouse Hanford was running that office, we were really a part of the AEC, or what became DoE. The work we did the next few years was largely to try and add something, coordinate the quality assurance programs around all of the sites. Lots of travel involved. Lots of lecturing. Lots of QA audits. I ran so many QA audits that I can't remember. Like I tell people, I got into more parts of Savannah River than most of the people who worked there. I think I was involved in at least 30 audits there over the years. This evolved into--that office—let’s see, it finally closed down in ’87, perhaps. And so I came back to a more conventional Hanford-type quality assurance and did that until I retired in ‘90. One of the last projects that I was on there was an SP-100. We were going to do a space reactor. And SP-100 was an interesting project, but it also never came to pass. Amazingly, ended up back in the PRTR building. Because we cleaned out some of the cells in the PRTR building and were going to put in a big vacuum tank there so we could simulate space for running this space reactor. Let's see, where'd I go from there? After I spent a little bit of time with a number of the waste program projects, including our own, and got into a little bit of the early vitrification plant. I retired in, what, December of ‘90. Spent the next three or four years doing part-time consulting. The main thing that I was associated with at that time was another interesting project. The only really commercial chemical reprocessing plant that was built was the West Valley plant, just south of Buffalo, New York. It was a small, but commercial, reprocessing plant. See, most of the reprocessing was shut down in 1970. And of course, that led to a lot of problems here at Hanford. Early '70s. I could go on about that for hours, but-- [LAUGHTER] Let's see. So I spent a lot of time at West Valley. And that was very separate. It didn't hit the newspapers. But that plant was completed. The waste that they had was vitrified into glass. And as far as I know, it's sitting there ready to go wherever. It could be up the mountain, but who knows. It's a good project in many ways.

Bauman: So you've had a long and varied career in many ways. A number of different assignments.

Gustafson: Yes, I think so. I think I was very lucky to see so much.

Bauman: I wanted to ask you a few questions about some of the things you worked on. So you said you worked at both REDOX and PUREX. Could you explain the solvent extraction, and what that means?

Gustafson: Yeah. Well, you know the purpose of our chemical processing, or chemical separation plants here at Hanford, is to take the fuel that has been irradiated in our reactors and extract from that the plutonium. And get the plutonium into a form so it can then go on down to Los Alamos for the bombs. So the chemical reprocessing plants essentially dissolve this uranium metal fuel that had been irradiated in the reactors, and a small amount of the uranium-238 has been converted into plutonium-239. And of course the atomic bombs can use either uranium-235 or plutonium-239 as their fissile source. So these plants are gigantic. They're 1,000 feet long, great big canyon buildings, as we called them. Basically just involve a lot of chemicals running from one end to the other. We start with the fuel and end up with--in the initial separation plants, they ended up with a waste stream that also included the uranium. Now we wanted to recover that uranium, so that early waste from the B and T Plants, as we refer it, these were the early bismuth phosphate separation plants. The waste from those reprocessed to recover the uranium. And the high level elements that we wanted to get rid of were put back into the waste tanks. But in both the REDOX and the PUREX processes, we actually extracted both the plutonium and uranium. So we ended up with two products. So the uranium could be immediately converted into UO-3 and then eventually back in the metal. And the plutonium could be converted into metal so it could be used for the bombs. So kind of an oversimplification there.

Bauman: And so your work there—your position there was operational management?

Gustafson: I was mostly associated with the direct operation. In the 200 Areas, except I said, after my PUREX assignment I was in just what we call the process design and development. [LAUGHTER]

Bauman: And then you talked about this AEC combined operational planning group that you were part of in the late '60s. And you said, one of questions you were looking at was, what's the future of nuclear power? Did the group come up with any conclusions about that at the time in the late '60s, what the future of nuclear power was?

Gustafson: Well, I think we were quite optimistic about nuclear power at that time. Of course, also what was developing was resistance to nuclear power. So our forecasts were extremely optimistic. And although we did end up finally with about 120 operating power production plants in the United States, far short of what we expected. The government had assumed, basically, I guess, overall responsibility to see that the technology is okay. And in particular, to assure commercial operators that they will have enough enriched uranium to run their plants. Because we didn't need that weapons-type material anymore. But see at Oak Ridge they ended up the producing almost pure U-235 while we were producing pure—or near pure—plutonium-239. So either of those could be used for the bombs. But what happened with the commercial power, we had to use about 3% or 4% U-235. Only slightly enriched. But we still had to use enrichment plants, and the government had all the enrichment plants—basically, like Oak Ridge and the rest of them. And so as far as AEC combined operational planning, their goal was to make sure that nuclear power did what it was supposed to do. Provide us with lots of good economic electric energy. And to a large extent, it has.

Bauman: Hanford, obviously as a site, was a place that emphasized security, secrecy. Were you able to talk about the work you did? Was that something that was allowable given the security secrecy?

Gustafson: Yes, there wasn't a great deal of the security concern. It was mostly what are the resources and what can we do with this combination of government and industry to provide good electricity for the country. Economic.

Bauman: I want to go back to when you first arrived in 1950. What were your first impressions of the place here, of Richland, of the area?

Gustafson: Oh, I don't know. It was a temporary stop. [LAUGHTER] Never expected to spend the next 40 years or so working here. It was a great place, particularly for young single people. We moved into dormitories and there were a lot for fine single people, ambitious, and always wanting to do things. Those were good years. We certainly accepted the security. We were part of what we felt was a very necessary effort. We were in the Cold War. And we had to do a better job than the Russians.

Bauman: How long did you live in the dorms and where did you move to after that?

Gustafson: Well, I didn't actually live too long in the dorms. There were four of us, still good friends of mine, except one of them's gone. But we actually moved out to a small place in West Richland. So a number of the people in the dorms were looking for a little better living conditions. One of the problems with those early dorms—in theory we weren't even supposed to do any cooking in the dorms. So we strictly were going from the dorms to the local cafeteria, or a few commercial places that were opening up in Richland. It was a fascinating time, those early '50s. I got married the end of ‘55, so the first five years of single life and included my year plus when I was offsite, skiing, water skiing. Like my crowd, we were essentially the first water skiers in the Tri-Cities. At that time to find a boat, we had to go to Seattle to get one that we could use for water skiing. There wasn't any Mets Marina at that time. So we sort of started the water skiing in the area. Created the Desert Ski Club which was a snow skiing, but also got in the water skiing. Desert Ski Club still exists. So my close associates, we were sort of the instigators that. All went through our time as officers of the club. It was a big social group. Still is, I think.

Bauman: Richland was a federal town when you first arrived. How did you see that change over time from when you first arrived?

Gustafson: It's kind of hard. We certainly enjoyed our early years. We had a lot more individual responsibility on the jobs. I tell one of my stories, I came in at midnight to take over my shift at PUREX. I was the operating supervisor on C shift. And the operating supervisor on swing shift wasn't there. And I'd been met at the door with an assault mask, all of the crew were. And when I went in the building, the operating supervisor who I was to replace wasn't there, but my boss was. And I never saw him again. So, I guess I tell the story that they didn't really tell me I was captain of the ship. So anyhow, we restarted the plant. And it took us a couple months.

Bauman: And about when would this have been?

Gustafson: Pardon?

Bauman: What time period would this have been in?

Gustafson: When was that?

Bauman: Yeah, roughly.

Gustafson: Well, let's see, I guess that was, must have been early ‘57, right? I'm not exactly sure now. It was a different time. Individuals have a lot of responsibility. And we made a few mistakes, but in general, I think we did a damn good job of operating the plants. And safety and radiological exposure, these were major parts of our responsibility and our concern.

Bauman: Yeah, I was going to ask you about safety. Obviously, you said it was very—emphasized quite a bit. What sort of precautions did you have to take on your job? And were there ever any incidents when you were working of someone overexposure or anything along those lines?

Gustafson: Well, I think we operated with a lot of what you would probably expect military officers to have as a responsibility. And you know, you were responsible for your job and you--As an operating supervisor of my C shift at PUREX, there wasn't any other group that was responsible for the training of my operators. They were my responsibility. And if we had to send them to some special training, we'd do that. But the basic training was conducted by the supervisor. They assured whether they were qualified and whether they were able to do their job. I guess that's why when my counterpart was ejected, it was a military type operation, I guess. But I think we did a really good job. Safety was a number one concern. Radiological exposure was also a number one concern. And as far as I'm concerned, from everything I've seen, very, very few people suffered from working in our plants.

Bauman: I was going to ask you about President Kennedy came to the site in 1963 to visit. There was a story in the paper, a while back because it was the 50th anniversary of that. I wondered if you have any memories of that?

Gustafson: Oh yeah. Half the plant was out there. And I was there to welcome him as he came in on his helicopter. We were all out there.

Bauman: Anything in particular stand out to you about that day at all?

Gustafson: Well, I don't know. It's what we all expected at that time. There wasn't anything really unusual about this. Although I came out in 1950 saying, this is going to be a very temporary thing, I think we became--[CRYING] We became Hanford. [CRYING] Didn't expect to get emotional.

Bauman: Well, you built a sense of community, it seems like.

Gustafson: Really did. Those were good years. Really good years.

Bauman: Yeah, I was going to ask you, you talked about a number of different places on site that you worked. Different assignments. Was there one of those that was the most challenging? Or the most difficult? Or maybe one that was the most rewarding?

Gustafson: Well for me, it had to be those first few years with the PUREX plant. I've had a lot of other—what I think—good work assignments over the years. I know of no one who had the variety that I had. Certainly projects likely FFTF, I felt I had a very important role in that. I was one of these so-called cognizant engineers and my system was the main heat transport system. And it included basically the primary and secondary cooling systems. Everything from the reactor on. And the operating conditions for the plant, all of the design events and so on were channeled into that system. So that was a rewarding job, too. And I think we did a good job. As I said, we had a lot of early trouble getting that project going, but finally. So I enjoyed those years. I didn't feel the same individual responsibility that I had with the early time at PUREX.

Bauman: Obviously, Hanford also had the shift from production to a reduced production that you talked about, and then a shift to clean up. I wonder if those sort of mission changes impacted your work and in what ways?

Gustafson: Well, they certainly did. I've been involved in many parts of that. Even during my last few years with generally this overall quality assurance type bit, getting into working with the Washington, DC folks and that sort of thing.

Bauman: And you mentioned when you first came here, you thought it would be a short term.

Gustafson: Oh, yeah.

Bauman: And so for some people was. Some people did come for a short time and left. So why did you stay? I know you had some assigned that took you way to a bunch of other places, but--

Gustafson: Yeah. I don't know. We stayed for lots of reasons. We established a lot of close friendships. And sort of had our crowd of social as well as work relations. And we just became Hanford.

Bauman: Is there anything I haven't asked you about yet in terms of your work at Hanford? Or your experiences that you'd like to talk about that you haven't had a chance to talk about yet? Any stories or things that stand out in your mind?

Gustafson: I have so many stories about Hanford that it's kind of hard to come. Of course, many. My operational years, the most direct part of the operations, were the early years. I have a lot of individual things that happened. Some of them were good, some of them weren't. I remember particularly one incident. I don't want to be called a hero, but it was rather exciting. My operator was unloading a caustic car. And he was properly dressed with his shield and so on, but the hose from the railroad car came loose and it ended up spraying up underneath his protective clothing. And I felt that I was sure glad I was there, only about ten feet away. Because he was just kind of yelling with--You know, caustic getting sprayed into your face is not really good. Grabbed a hold of him and we both got under the safety shower was there. And at least he retained most of his sight. So, that was a situation where—just sort of individual kind of exciting happening, certainly was. I had a lot of other things go on. I feel that I had a lot of important tasks at Hanford. As I said, probably my most responsible thing was when I was still pretty young there, and operating the early couple, three years of PUREX as one of the operating supervisors. Had many chances to do so many different things over the years. Let's see, what would be of--It's kind of hard to come up with individual things that you might be interested in.

Bauman: Well, you've already talked about a number. That's been great. So I want to thank you very much for coming in today and sharing your experiences with us. We appreciate it.

Gustafson: Okay. Thank you.



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Hanford Sites

T Plant
PRTR (Plutonium Recycle Test Reactor)
100 Areas
Westinghouse Hanford
200 Area
B Plant

Years in Tri-Cities Area


Years on Hanford Site





“An interview with Leonard Gustafson,” Hanford History Project, accessed June 24, 2024,