Interview with Bill Rickard

Dublin Core


Interview with Bill Rickard


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


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


Hanford Oral History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities




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

Date Modified

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

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Bauman, Robert


Rickard, Bill


Washington State University - Tri Cities


Northwest Public Television | Rickard_Bill

Robert Bauman: Turn the microphone on here.

Man one: Yeah.

Bauman: Okay.

Man one: Go ahead and just get comfortable. And whenever you’re ready.

Bauman: Okay. All right. We're going to go ahead and get started. I need to put my glasses on so I can see what I’m doing here. So if we could start first by just having you say your name and then spell your name for us.

William Rickard: Okay. My name is William H. Rickard Jr. W-I-L-L-I-A-M H. R-I-C-K-A-R-D Junior, J-R period.

Bauman: Thank you. And my name's Robert Bauman. Today's date is December 4, 2013. And we are conducting this interview on the campus of Washington State University, Tri-Cities. So maybe we could start by just having you tell us a little bit about your background--where you're from, when you came to Hanford, what brought you here, that sort of thing.

Rickard: Okay. Well, the first time that I ever heard the words atomic bomb, I was rifleman in an infantry company for the Chinese combat command in a place in China called Chihkiang. Chihkiang was a dirt airstrip. There were about 100 soldiers there. Our main duty was to guard an ammunition dump at an airfield. In August, 1945, I'd been in the Army for 15 months. I was 19 years old. The captain called us together and said that United States Air Force had dropped a bomb in Japan. It was an atomic bomb. Of course, I was extremely glad that the war was over. It was a few days later, I stood on the same airstrip and a Japanese airplane flew in. Only I'd been in the Army in January, February, and March, and April along the Burma Road in China. During that stay in Burma, slept on the ground every night. Kept my M1 rifle with me all the time. When I got to China, I got a bed for the first time in four months. So Chihkiang duty was pretty soft compared to Burmese duty. And when they dropped the atomic bomb, I knew I would be going home. Well, they had a point system in the Army. I think you needed 65 points. And you got points for combat experience and so forth. Well, I was one point short. So guess what. I got assigned to a military police company in Shanghai, China. For six months, I was an MP in Shanghai, which is probably more dangerous than my stay at Chihkiang. But anyway, I finally got home. Like most veterans did, I used the GI Bill to get a degree. I graduated from the University of Colorado in 1950 with a degree in botany. And I got a job at the University of Colorado at that time installing weather stations in the Front Range. While I had a job, I decided to go to school some more, and I wanted to be a high school teacher so I could teach botany and biology. Well, I graduated from Colorado in 1950 and got a master's degree in 1953. And then I decided, well, maybe I ought to think of teaching in college. So I applied for a research assistant appointment at Pullman. So in 1953, Barbara, my wife, and I went to Pullman. And there I graduated in 1957 with a Ph.D. with Dr. Daubenmire. The first job I got was as assistant professor of biology at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico. But it was a part time teaching job. The other part was a field research job at the Nevada Test Site. And the purpose of my work at the Nevada Test Site was to study the impacts of atomic explosions on the botanical aspects of the Nevada Test Site—Yucca, Frenchman Flat and Jackass Flat. I worked there for four years and saw the last above ground explosion, which was during the operation of Project Hardtack and Plumbbob. While I was at the Test Site, I met Jared Davis, who was working at Hanford. He was in the biology department and he offered me a job at Hanford. So I moved to Richland in 1960 and was employed by the General Electric Company. At that time, most of the interest was on developing peaceful uses of atomic energy. And one of these was to use nuclear explosion to dig a harbor at Cape Thompson in Alaska. And part of our job there was to get baseline data on the biota of the Arctic, and also to measure how much radioactivity had already been deposited by the years of nuclear testing by the United States and Russia. So that was the start of that. And I worked up there for a couple of summers. And I worked with Jerry Davis there, and Wayne Hanson, Don Watson, and Roy Nakatani, and Leo Bustad, and Frank Hungate. Frank was my boss for a while. And Jared Davis was the boss. But my real interest at Hanford was, although I did the uptake of radioactivity from soil to plants, I was really interested in perhaps getting a part of the Hanford site set aside as a kind of a research park. Had lots of help from various people that thought this was a good idea, particularly Rexford Daubenmire at Pullman and Herb Parker, who was manager of the Hanford Laboratories. We conceived the idea perhaps establishing Rattlesnake Mountain as a research natural area. And with the help of other people, particularly Benton County Commissioner at that time, and the building of the Highway 240 from Richland to Vernita Bridge, that set Rattlesnake Mountain apart from the rest of the site and offers a good excuse to--since it was primarily a buffer zone, that this would be a good place to establish the reserve, which eventually turned out to be the Arid Land Ecology Reserve. Which in 2000, was turned over to the Fish and Wildlife Service as a part of the Hanford Reach National Monument. So most of my research activity was done on ALE Reserve after the work we'd done in Alaska.

Bauman: And so what sorts of work were you doing at ALE Reserve?

Rickard: Well, the first project we started on was the impact of cattle grazing on shrub steppe. And we did that in conjunction with the International Biological Research Program--yeah, International Biological Research Program, which was divided up into various sections. One part was grasslands of North America. And the ALE Reserve is representative of sagebrush steppe vegetation in the Northwestern United States. There were other sites in New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, Montana, North and South Dakota. And that lasted for several years. Then as time went on, I got older. And most of the work that I did was then associated with environmental impact statements. Even did the first environmental impact statement from what was the WPPSS plant at that time--the Basalt Waste Isolation Program. And I finally retired sometime. I don't know. Can't remember. I was 65 years old. But while I worked for the General Electric Company, I also taught school at an Army barracks down where the bus lot is today. And I taught the first class in plant ecology. And among my students over the years was Lester Eberhardt, Dick Fitzner, and Dennis Dauble, and Brett Tiller, president of Environmental Assessment Services. So for 30 years, I've taught as an adjunct professor at Washington State University in the Tri-Cities.

Bauman: And where was that located again, when you first started teaching at the Army?

Rickard: It was an Army barracks. That was the building that was the beginning of the WSU campus. One of my first students was Les Eberhardt, Dick Fitzner, which later were killed in an airplane accident in the Yakima Firing Center. But over the years, many people that worked at Hanford had taken my classes.

Bauman: I want to go back, if we can, to when you were talking about your work in New Mexico, at the Nevada Test Site—it’s interesting. What sorts of things did you find in your research there?

Rickard: Well, one of the first things that--these were small explosions—ten to 40 kiloton range, maybe up to 100. And they fired them one a week. Of course, when you watch one of these things from ten miles away, from a shot that's on a tower, maybe 500 or 600 feet off the ground, first thing you'd see is just a flash of light and then as the ball forms, it's just a whole mess of colors--purple, orange. And then it disappears and a whole lot of activity, just a massive amount of activity. And then things catch on fire. There's creosote bush, yucca trees a mile away just ignite like kitchen matches. And then the cloud develops and the big stem and the mushroom cloud. But the vegetation just disappears. It's just cooked. But even after a few summers, the surviving vegetation comes back. And the physicists at the test site that made these things, people from Los Alamos and Livermore, about the only thing they noticed that after a year or two after the explosion, that the ground was bare and then it would get green. And that was a big surprise to the physicists. But was quite common to plant ecologists, because the plant was Russian thistle. It would blow across the landscape, scatter seeds, and the first invading plant was Russian thistle. Just like at Hanford, where you plow up a field and leave it, what do you get? Russian thistle, and then a whole lot of other plants come in. And in time, it would recover because most of the radioactivity wasn't at the site, it was gone. It went someplace else. [LAUGHTER]

Bauman: Hmm. Interesting. And then your work in Alaska--

Rickard: Yes.

Bauman: What sorts of things did you find in your research there?

Rickard: Well, the main thing there was my colleague, Wayne Hanson, he was interested in the food chain of American Eskimos, and the fallout from nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific and Russia and various places. The northern hemisphere got most of the fallout, and in heavy fallout areas, with rain, like in Arctic Alaska. And the flora there was occupied--a great part of it was lichens and mosses, which were the food of caribou. Radioactive fallout comes down with rain and snow. And if you have a long lived plant, it keeps accumulating on the leaves until the leaves drop. And then they hit the ground and decompose, and cesium and strontium, which are about a half-life of 30 years, eventually get into the soil and then can recycle. In Alaska, the mosses and lichens, they don't die right away. And they keep accumulating radionuclides, and builds up so that it has very high levels of radionuclides as compared to trees that drop their leaves, grasses that die. And lichens are an important food of caribou in the wintertime. So they accumulated large burdens of radiocesium. And then the people, the diet of the American Indians and Eskimos of Alaska consisted of caribou meat. So the people had higher levels of radiocesium than people in the United States. That's a health physics concern, which is like Ron Kathren, that's their job.

Bauman: Yeah. So you talked ALE a little bit, and your involvement in that. And you mentioned Benton County Commissioner. Do you remember a Benton County Commissioner who was--

Rickard: I don't remember his name, but he loved wildflowers. And at that time, the county was interested in building a road from Prosser to Vernita Bridge. They wanted to go through Snively Canyon. But the Department of Energy didn't think that was a good idea. But we had to convince the county that it wasn't a good idea. And the county commissioner, he decided that he ought to side with the Department of Energy.

Bauman: So what was it about—why the desire to create ALE, I guess? What was it about the area that you thought was--

Rickard: Just the desire to create a natural area, probably dates back to the days of Theodore Roosevelt setting apart National Forests and National Parks. And we have nice National Parks in the country--Mount Rainier in Washington, and Olympic, all representing mostly forested areas. Rocky Mountain National Park, Yosemite. But nobody was interested in saving sagebrush, sagebrush grass habitats. This was primarily because sagebrush was not viewed as a useful resource. In fact, it was a pest. And rangeland managers thought it was a good idea to get rid of it. And when the first travelers crossed southern Idaho, they burned it because it provided fuel. But they hated it because it didn't provide any food for their cattle or sheep. So it was then regarded as a pest. And every Bureau of Land Management started campaigns to get rid of it. But before you got rid of it, we had to understand if it had any good. But this was a tough sell. You're not going to sell this, that keeping it has any benefits. But it's also wise if you have a resource that you can destroy it, or at least you ought to understand how it works. It's been here a long time, and learn the mechanics that has enabled it to stay this way. And the biggest threat to the shrub steppe was people. When Lewis and Clark came here, there was several resources in Washington State that people could use right away. One was the fish, one was the forest, the other was grass. So it's no surprise our first white people in Washington used the grass. They brought in cattle and sheep. Then came the magnificent discovery of the plow that now you plow up this stuff and raise crops. You could even raise more crops with irrigation. So it started to disappear. Half the sagebrush steppe in Washington disappeared by 1914. So this resource was getting smaller and smaller. So at least some of the people think that, well, maybe we ought not get rid of it all. And the Hanford site was an unusual opportunity to do this, because people who were farming were moved. This is the first time in history that a productive, cultivated land was converted to a lower use instead of a higher use. Higher uses are urban areas, places like Hanford, industry. Lower uses are cattle grazing. But the highest use of all is probably research and education. So here we have an opportunity where we had towns completely destroyed, abandoned productive fields that are now allowed to go revegetate by themselves. And they have. For the last 70 years it's been slowly changing back to what it would be, but it's been impeded by a lot of alien species that came with agriculture. Among these are cheatgrass, Russian thistle, and others. So it's important to have a place where you can just monitor the changes that take place over time.

Bauman: I want to also ask you about something that you're involved in, the National Environmental Research Park?

Rickard: Yes.

Bauman: Could you explain that, what that was?

Rickard: It was the national--all the DOE sites--not all, but most of them--belonged to the National Environmental Research Park. Oak Ridge, Savannah River, Hanford, Los Alamos. I think those are the--and Savannah River, yeah. And the purposes of the park was just to serve as places where we could do ecological research in different kinds of ecosystems.

Bauman: So there are scientists at each of those places and parks?

Rickard: There were scientists at each--it was never as popular at Hanford as it was with the other parks, partly because ALE Reserve had already been set aside acting as a National Environmental Research park before the other sites. Idaho is also a member. The Department of Energy, as far as I know, decided not to support that, but did support ALE.

Bauman: We're going to go back to when you first came to work at Hanford, 1960. Had you been here before?

Rickard: I was here--I went to Pullman in '53. And I'd been to Richland.

Bauman: What were your first impressions of Richland, have you thought--

Rickard: Well at the time, I thought it was kind of--a lot of other places in Washington I'd rather be. [LAUGHTER] I think it was in August when Barbara and I--we got here in September. No, in '53, Barbara and I drove down from Pullman to Celilo Falls because I wanted to see Celilo Falls before it got covered up by a dam. We stopped in Pasco, and it was 112. [LAUGHTER] 112 degrees in the shade. We decided this wasn't a real nice place. Of course, we'd been at Indian Springs, Nevada, too. [LAUGHTER]

Bauman: So what about when you came back in 1960 then, what did you think of the place?

Rickard: Well, I was impressed, really, mainly with the people. When I worked at the 100-F Area, the first couple of days I stood by the 100-F Reactor and thought that maybe in a few years that this reactor would be closed down and that there'd be Russian thistle growing around the edge of it. The N Reactor closed in 1965. So in the five years that I was here, the F Reactor wasn't working anymore. I thought that was probably a good thing.

Bauman: So you worked initially for General Electric?

Rickard: General Electric, yeah. Battelle came in '65. Then I joined Battelle, so I was one of the first people.

Bauman: So did you work essentially sort of in different places all over the site?

Rickard: I did. I was on the ALE reserve at the old Army camp. At the buildings there for ten years, perhaps. I was at 331 Building. When I retired I still worked as part time for Battelle—PNNL then. And in other years, I've worked with the--what was the—NORCUS program. It was a DOE-sponsored, program where faculty and students from the campus here, could be assigned to PNNL and work. And I did that for a number of years too. And many of the graduate students that we had came through the NORCUS program to PNNL. And we had students from all over the country that spent summers here at Hanford working on ALE. We had graduate students that worked on elk. The first studies of elk on the Hanford site were done by graduate students. They had people studying small mammals, bald eagles, deer, coyotes. I don't know how many graduate students from the University of Washington, Montana, Oregon State that over the years actually got master's and doctorate degrees through what was then NORCUS programs.

Bauman: So it was a teaching place as well?

Rickard: Teaching program too, yeah.

Bauman: Wanted to ask you--President Kennedy visited this site in 1963 to dedicate the N Reactor. Do you have any memories, or were you there when he was here?

Rickard: No. I remember when he was here, but I didn't go to the celebration. I think I was probably out of town or maybe assigned to someplace else in the '60s.

Bauman: I wonder, of the different kinds of work that you did at Hanford, the different projects you worked on, what was sort of the most challenging thing that you worked on, and maybe the most rewarding part of your work?

Rickard: Oh, I think probably the most rewarding part was the working with students, working with the actual people. And then I think the day that the Arid Land Reserve appeared on the map.

Bauman: Sure.

Rickard: That was probably the--

Bauman: And what about the most challenging aspect of your work--was anything that—

Rickard: Oh, I never found them particularly challenging. I just took heart--I think one of the professors at Washington State told me, research is about 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. So, it's work, but it's enjoyable. And there's always some satisfaction in learning something you didn't know before, no matter how small it is. I don't imagine it's nearly as important as somebody that discovers a cure for cancer or heart disease or something. But it's pleasant when you can just discover something that you didn't know before.

Bauman: So when you look back at your years working at Hanford, overall, how would you assess Hanford as a place to work?

Rickard: I think it's been a good ride. I liked teaching, but I enjoyed the research more. I'm more of a researcher rather than a teacher. But I think they belong together.

Bauman: Is there anything that--event or incident or something that happened when you were working at Hanford sort of stands out in your memory that--

Rickard: Oh, I think the thing that probably stands out, not in a good sense, but it was when Les Eberhardt--[EMOTIONAL]


Rickard: I'm sorry about that.

Bauman: That's fine. No problem at all. Okay. So I just have one or two more questions. One was, I wanted to ask you about--so you started in 1960.

Rickard: Yes.

Bauman: I wonder what sort of changes you saw take place at Hanford--either in technology or in what was being done.

Rickard: Oh, there's been lots of advances since I started. Certainly computers, GPS, DNA analysis. All these things advanced field research. DNA is very useful now in plant taxonomy. A recent case about the White Bluffs bladderpod. Perhaps you know about the White Bluffs bladderpod, an endangered species. Argument whether it's a real species in danger or whether it's just a variety of a more common species of bladderpod. So I think probably Endangered Species Act has a great deal to do with the desire of people to protect rare endangered species. And certainly, the Arid Land Ecology Reserve does that very well. It preserves samples of native vegetation, and the impacts that people have had on the natural environment. Particularly in Native American people and their view of the environment is much different than the people that want to use the environment. So all these technological advances have helped answer these questions.

Bauman: Obviously, at some point, the mission at Hanford shifted to cleanup from production. Did that start happening while you were working at Hanford? And if so, how did that impact what you were doing, or did it?

Rickard: Well, Hanford has a long history of recognizing that particularly the production reactors were releasing radionuclides into the river and to the ground. And there was a great deal of concern of whether these radionuclides and associated toxic metals really had an impact on the river and the biota that use the river. Over the years, the number of Canada geese that nest on the islands has been well documented. During the years the reactor operations, geese populations increased. Populations of bald eagles increased. Populations of deer decreased. Populations of quail increased. Even though with the closure of the reactors, some animals have not increased. When you got people work--there was no hunting. There was no grazing. There was no farming. But some of the animals continued to go down. Two of these--one was the sage grouse. Another one was the sage sparrow. These animals, the birds, depend upon sagebrush. Sage grouse eat sagebrush. Sage sparrows, they nest in sagebrush. Although you can destroy sagebrush by plowing or burning, burning has always been a part of the shrub steppe. It always takes out the shrubs. In time, the shrubs comes back. It burns, the shrubs disappear. And if the area is very large, the amount of fire is very small. So that there are substantial populations of sage sparrows and sage grouse that as the sagebrush returns by itself, they move back. Got down to the point where you have a small amount of sagebrush and if it burns, it takes years to come back. And even though at Hanford, it wasn't destroyed by farming anymore, fires have been a tremendous impact. So the number of acres of mature sagebrush today is very small. Not because it's been plowed, but simply because we had a lot of wildfires. And the sage grouse disappeared in 1960. The sage sparrow is nearly there now. So the sage grouse is now up for consideration to be an endangered species. It might be a good idea to restore sagebrush to Hanford, or sage grouse to Hanford by planting sagebrush.

Bauman: So I guess one last question then. In your years of studying the ecology of the area here, what was sort of the most significant impact of the Hanford site on the ecology of the area?

Rickard: Well, land use on the Hanford site, it's been different. It's different. There's no place else in Washington that ever supported plutonium production. It's the only place where productive land has ever been stopped agriculturally. I think it's important just for us to keep watching and monitoring and reporting this as time goes by. I think that's the future of it. It'll be cleaned up. But we've got to decide what to do next. And in my opinion, I think probably that if we were really interested in saving sage grouse, for example, on the Hanford site, that the best use would be a commercial nuclear power plant. Occupy a very small area. Develop the rest of the land back to habitat suitable for sage sparrows and sage grouse, and use it for recreational purposes. I don't think that the public is going to go for farming or things like that. So a combination of industrial facilities with wide areas of natural habitat would be the most likely use. That's my opinion.

Bauman: Well, is there anything that we haven't talked about that you would like to discuss, or anything I haven't asked you about?

Rickard: I think I'm pretty well exhausted. [LAUGHTER]

Bauman: Well I, want to thank you very much for coming in today and sharing your experiences.

Rickard: Well, I certainly appreciate your help here.

Bauman: Thank you very much.



Bit Rate/Frequency

194 kbps

Hanford Sites

100-F Area Reactor
N Reactor
F Reactor

Years in Tri-Cities Area


Years on Hanford Site


Names Mentioned

Davis, Jerry
Hanson, Wayne
Watson, Don
Nakatani, Roy
Bustad, Leo
Hungate, Frank
Parker, Herb
Kathren, Ron




Hanford Oral History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities, “Interview with Bill Rickard,” Hanford History Project, accessed July 15, 2024,