Interview with Michael Lawrence

Dublin Core


Interview with Michael Lawrence


An interview with Michael Lawrence 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

2017-15-12: 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 Franklin


Michael Lawrence


Washington State University Tri-Cities


Robert Franklin: My name is Robert Franklin. I am conducting an oral history interview with Michael Lawrence on February 1st, 2016. The interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. I will be talking with Mike about his experiences working at the Hanford Site. And for the record, can you state and spell your full name for us?

Michael Lawrence: Michael J. Lawrence. L-A-W-R-E-N-C-E.

Franklin: Great. Thank you. So, how did you come to the Hanford Site?

Lawrence: I went—I grew up in Washington, DC. I was born and raised in Washington, DC, and I went to the University of Maryland and lived at home when I did so. And I was a physics major. Between my junior and senior year of college, I was fortunate enough to get one of five internships at the Atomic Energy Commission. That internship had me working in a division of the AEC, or Atomic Energy Commission, called the production division, which was responsible for, among other sites, the Hanford Site, because of its production of plutonium. During that summer, I actually shared an office with an individual who was responsible for the operations and missions of the N Reactor which was located here. So I had an opportunity to learn a little bit about Hanford at that particular point in time. When I graduated from Maryland with my degree in physics the next year, I had already been offered and had accepted a full-time job with the Atomic Energy Commission when I went back to the production division again to work. I was working on isotopes programs and other things when I was called into the director’s office one day. It just so happened that several years previously, in 1969 I believe, President Nixon had signed the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, and one of the provisions in NEPA called for something which, at that point in time, was not known at all. Something called an environmental impact statement. You had to do environmental impact statements for any major federal projects, and our division was responsible for two projects that were going to occur in the early ‘70s here. One was the design and building of the quite a bit. And also had a sense of what it was going to be involved dealing with the public on important and issues that were of concern to the public, like the Z-9 crib and plutonium production. Because one of our hearings for those environmental impact statements was held down in Portland. And I can recall going down there, and there were demonstrators in radiation contamination clothing protesting and all the rest. And you got a chance to see just how the public felt about it. But that was my first instance of dealing with Hanford. Then later in the mid-‘70s—again, I’m still back in Washington, DC; AEC had become the Department of Energy—and I was responsible for a program to manage and store commercial spent nuclear fuel. And that program, the contractor and site that was helping us out was the Savannah River site in South Carolina. But because of the heavy burden they had, I decided it would be best if we changed the management of that program, or the contractor working on the program from Savannah River to the Hanford Site and to the Pacific Northwest National Lab—at that time was Pacific Northwest Lab; it wasn’t a national lab, but PNL. And so I started coming out again and working with the people here. So I had a pretty good understanding of the community and what was out here, and I liked it. But in the early 1980s, in 1982 to be exact, after several years of very, very intense negotiation back in the halls of Congress, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was passed by Congress which set up a process and legal requirements for identifying, selecting, licensing, building, operating, and funding a geologic repository for commercial nuclear waste from commercial reactors and defense waste from the production of plutonium, primarily either at Hanford or at the Savannah River plant. I was one of several people called down from where I was working in Germantown, Maryland, down to Washington, DC to work on the direct implementation of that act. Obviously, that was a very—it was controversial, it was huge, and the new Secretary of Energy at that time—his name was Donald Hodel, who had formerly been the administrator of Bonneville out here in the Pacific Northwest—he was very familiar with the issues involved. And I got an opportunity to meet and work with him rather closely. And after several years of doing that, he asked me to come out here to be the manager of the Richland Operations Office.

Franklin: Wow. Thank you. That’s really fascinating, with all of your lengths between DC and to here. Did you—I want to ask—you mentioned a hearing in Portland where there were demonstrators. And that—I think it fits pretty well into what we hear a lot about how the west side and the east side of the state think about Hanford. Did you find a pretty supportive public here in Tri-Cities when you would come and hold meetings here in the area about, like, for example the Z-9 crib or other projects? Did you find a pretty supportive public?

Lawrence: I wouldn’t use the term supportive, I would use the term very informed and knowledgeable. They understood, to a greater degree, what the risks, what the concerns were, what the precautions were. Not universally, obviously. There were—and I have a good example of what a protestor would be. But basically, they seemed to be more informed, and certainly they were more knowledgeable of the situation. So the further away you went, the less direct knowledge people had of the situation. And so consequently—and it’s understandable, you know, they really didn’t have the same—they didn’t know people who worked at the Site. They didn’t—couldn’t appreciate the values that they had, their sensitivities. So that would be more the way I would describe it.

Franklin: Okay.

Lawrence: What was interesting, and I just had alluded to, was after coming out here—this was in 1984; I came—arrived in July of 1984. And at the beginning of that year was when the PUREX Plant, which processed the fuel coming out of N Reactor and reprocessed it to recover the plutonium, had just gone back into operation after a number of years of being mothballed. This was all part of President Reagan’s buildup of our military strength and weapons complex to more or less challenge the Russians or the Soviet Union in their ability to do so. And so we were gearing back up, really, the plutonium production mission at the Hanford Site. It was obviously very controversial here in the Northwest. And it was just starting up, and there had actually been a leak from the PUREX Plant right after it started up. And what I found when I arrived here in July was that even though the people on the Site—the contractor and the officials here—were saying, no, this is what it was and this is what the effects were. There was very little credibility. People would not believe them. And there was a strong opposition to what they were doing. That was a challenging situation to walk into where you really don’t have any credibility. But the first week I was in town, first week as manager, down in my office in the Federal Building, which is up in the northeast corner of the Federal Building, seventh floor, looking out over John Dam Plaza and the park, and I looked out on the street, and there’s a person with a big sign and billboard saying, Mike Lawrence, carpetbagger, go home. And he’s just sitting on the park bench in front of the building. And I—you know, I’ve just arrived in town, and I’m looking at him. His name was Larry Caldwell. He was known to everybody in town; he liked to protest. And I’m looking down at him and I—I sort of like to engage. I don’t like to ignore things. So I said, you know, I think I’ll go out and talk to him. Well, that caused quite a stir. But I walked down and walked across the street, walked up to the park bench, introduced myself, sat down and we started talking. I wanted to find out, well, since you don’t know me, why do you call me a carpetbagger, why do you want me to go home? Let’s talk. And it was funny because in the midst of discussing this with him, I happened to glance back over. And if you’re familiar with the Federal Building, it’s just full of windows. Every window was filled with faces looking out. [LAUGHTER] They said, this is our new manager and he’s out there. Security was very concerned. But you know? It worked out fine. Larry told me what his problems were. He didn’t like the mission. I told him, I said, I understood that. I had a job to do; Congress had appropriated the money, and I’d been given a job to do, and I was going to do it the best I could. But I was going to do it trying to do it in keeping the public informed of what we were doing and being as upfront and—now the term is transparent. We didn’t use that term back then—but as transparent I could be in handling it. So that was my first direct encounter with a protestor, if you will. But I thought it turned out pretty well. But that gets to a broader topic that I’d like to address, and that is, as I said, the Department and its contractors, I found they didn’t have credibility. And I’m not saying it was anyone’s fault, but it’s my opinion that it’s very easy for organizations—Department of Energy, Richland, Hanford—to lose credibility. And the only way you regain that credibility is through individuals, by really engaging with people so they get a sense of who you are or who the people are doing the work. And so we tried from the very beginning back in 1984 to go out and to meet with the public, to engage the public, to be as open as we could to explain our perspective and what we were doing. Obviously, we didn’t expect everyone to agree with us; some people were just diametrically opposed to it. But you’d like them to at least sense that the people doing the work shared some of their values, shared their concerns, in doing their work. The best example I have of that is—I believe it was in 1985. Again, Hanford, because of our role going back into the nuclear weapons complex had been quite controversial. I received a call from the pastor of the Catholic church down in Kennewick, St. Joseph’s. And he said, Mike, I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but the three bishops—Catholic bishops—in Washington State are having prepared a letter—very, very critical of Hanford, its operations, and the people who work there. And he said, I just think that it’s being, I guess—a focal point was being headed up by a person in Yakima where the bishop was a Bishop William Skylstad. And I happened to have met and knew Bishop Skylstad from my own personal dealings with the church. And so I thanked the priest in Kennewick, and I called up Bishop Skylstad, and I said, I’d really like to come—I understand you’re having some work done on behalf of yourself and the other two bishops, and I’d like to really come and talk to you about it. And so I actually took the president of Rockwell Hanford, who operated PUREX, his name was Paul Lorenzini—very, very intelligent, smart guy—with me. And we went to meet with Bishop Skylstad and he had the individual who was writing this who happened also to be a member of the Hanford Education Action League in Spokane. And, you know, I read what they had prepared. It was talking about the Department of Energy is lying about this, and they’re poisoning, and they’re making these intentional releases. And in discussing that, after a while, Bishop Skylstad said to me, he said, Mike, Mike, calm down. He says, you’re taking this personally. And I looked at him and I said, Bishop, of course I’m taking it personally. When you say the Department of Energy is lying, who is that? Who is it that you’re saying is lying? And it was amazing, because he just stopped; all of a sudden, it dawned on him. He said, oh my goodness, I never thought of it that way. But you had to put a face in front of the organization. And that helped a lot. Now, the letter still came out and it was still very critical. But it wasn’t as accusatory as perhaps it was. It says, we’re opposed to the mission. That’s fine; that I understand. But when you get into the motives and the ill will of the people, that’s where it goes a little too far.

Franklin: Mm. Right. The difference between unintentional or passive action and then direct action.

Lawrence: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Franklin: I wonder if you could talk about what it was like in the early ‘70s to actually—to physically get to Hanford from Washington, DC. Was it still very—was travel still kind of tough to get to Hanford? Or was there easy air travel or car travel? Or did you find it to be a little still off the beaten path?

Lawrence: Well, it was a lengthy trip. Coming from Washington, DC, I would fly from Washington, DC to Chicago, Chicago to Seattle, then Seattle to Pasco. And usually that was like going United, and then I think there was—it was called Airwest—Hughes Airwest, owned by Howard Hughes. Then it did get significantly easier later on when Northwest Airlines had a direct flight from Dulles Airport in DC to Seattle, and then you’d fly back over here. I always used to enjoy those trips. I mean, air travel was a lot different then than it was now in that it wasn’t as—a chore and the like. It was a little bit more creature comforts in traveling as well.

Franklin: When you mentioned NEPA and the need for the EIS, Environmental Impact Statement, and digging at Z-9 and I’m sure probably a couple other facilities—did that also trigger any kind of cultural resources work, archaeological digs? Were there ever any—was there any cultural resources work or things found?

Lawrence: In the ‘70s, no. I mean, that work was right in the middle of the 200 Area. Which is—it still today is the most concentrated area. I believe, if I recall correctly, the EISs probably said—would address that. But not—I mean, EISs then were maybe 100 pages long. Now they’re—[LAUGHTER]—multiple volumes and many thousands of pages long. But I wasn’t aware of any. I think the first real instance of dealing with Native Americans and their concerns was with a project we had on the center of the Site called the Basalt Waste Isolation Project, or BWIP, which was on Gable--

Franklin: I was going to ask you about that next.

Lawrence: --which was on Gable Mountain. But I’ll let you ask about it.

Franklin: Well, no, I was going to ask if you—you talked about the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and finding a geological repository. And I was just going to ask, I assume that’s BWIP, then, that is the—

Lawrence: Yeah, and, actually there’s a slight difference there. But the whole idea of the geologic repository, especially since I had been responsible for that program before coming here, led people to suspect or conclude that it was a foregone conclusion that Hanford was going to be named the geologic repository for the United States. And actually, when I came here, that Nuclear Waste Policy Act had set out a process for narrowing down until you had three sites that you would thoroughly characterize. We had gone from nine sites to five, and when I came out here, there were five sites under consideration. Once I was here, it was narrowed down to the three finalists, if you will: Hanford for basalt, Nevada for tuffs—that’s the Yucca Mountain Site—and in Texas there was a salt formation called Deaf Smith County. And so that was being looked at. Now, BWIP itself was not the geologic repository site. It was a test facility built into Gable Mountain—and Gable Mountain, of course, rises up and the geologic repository was going to go down several thousand feet. But it allowed the scientists to put heaters into basalt rock to see how the rock responded to it—expansion, contraction, did it attract water, was it pushed away, and the like. It was actually a quite successful project. We learned quite a bit about how basalt rock would interact. However—getting back to the cultural resources—during that period, we also found out that the Native Americans—the Yakamas, I believe—used to use Gable Mountain for vision-quest-type activities and places to send people on a spiritual adventure. This didn’t happen right away, but we finally worked out—because I saw no reason why we couldn’t—with a day’s notice, we let the Yakamas—we said, we will let you come on and go up to the site, and do whatever ceremonies, to do whatever you want to do. We just need to know about it. Obviously there is physical security and there’s safety we had to provide for them. But I think we were able to work out and arrangement with the Yakamas where they would have access. Perhaps not as freely as they would like, but it did allow some compromise to be worked out so they could still perform some of their religious ceremonies there.

Franklin: Sure. So you came—you arrived in July 1984, you said. And that was kind of—that was under this Reagan era mandate of basically restarting production.

Lawrence: Right.

Franklin: Because it had just been N Reactor through most of the ‘70s, correct, and into the early ‘80s. So I’m wondering if you can just elaborate more on that mission and some of the activities needed and the push back—if there was any push back—and the whole thing.

Lawrence: Well, there was opposition, particularly on the west side and in Portland to restarting plutonium production facilities. While N Reactor had continued to operate, the fuel had not been processed and plutonium had not been recovered in many instances until PUREX started back up. So that was the process of really then getting back into plutonium production. That’s what was leading to opposition to what we were doing. We did the best we could to try to go around and to explain at least what we were doing, how we were doing it, how we would interact. I can recall going with my wife to a meeting up in Spokane. I just went up on a weekday night and the Hanford Education Action League had asked me to come up and talk to them. It was clear. It was clear then, that there was very, very strong opposition to what we were doing. A person I remember asked me the question, did I realize that I was acting just like Hitler? [LAUGHTER] I said, you know, I don’t think of it that way. I think about what I do very seriously, and I’m doing something that’s approved by and funded by the government of the United States of America, from the President and the Congress. I have to do it safely, and I have to do it in accordance with the law, but that’s what needs to be done. But, again, it was another effort to try to get out and at least be present, answer the questions; you may not make them happy, but at least you know you’re there trying to interact.

Franklin: And so how many facilities ended up being restarted or brought online from when you got here to when things were shut down? Maybe you could kind of walk me through that process.

Lawrence: Well, as I indicated, N Reactor had continued to operate, because N Reactor, unlike the other production reactors that were at Savannah River, was a dual purpose reactor. It not only produced plutonium in the fuel elements, but the water which passed through the reactors for cooling it was then sent over to a facility operated by the Washington Public Power Supply System to turn turbines and to produce electricity, on the order of a gigawatt of electricity a year. And because of that, we needed to—the cycle of the N Reactor was different than other production reactors: it was on a shorter cycle. That was for production reasons, the type of plutonium we were producing. So N Reactor went from producing what was fuel grade—it was called fuel grade plutonium—for reactor development programs like the Fast Flux Test Facility and ultimately would have been a breeder reactor. It went to making weapons grade, which meant much shorter irradiation periods. Also, prior to their restarting of PUREX, the fuel was just stored. With the starting of PUREX, you would then let the fuel cool in the basin at N Reactor then ship it in casks on rail cars to the center of the site at PUREX where it would be dissolved in PUREX. The waste would be sent to waste tanks, the plutonium concentrate in a liquid form would be sent to the Plutonium Finishing Plant over in the 200-West area, where it would then be converted into a plutonium metal button about the size of a tuna fish can. And that would be then sent to Colorado—Rocky Flats Plant—where it would actually be fashioned into the material used in a nuclear weapon. So it was the facilities associated with reprocessing at PUREX, handling waste from PUREX, and the facilities associated with the Plutonium Finishing Plant for converting the plutonium to metal that were the primary set of facilities that had to restart.

Franklin: And so then N Reactor was the only reactor that was operated during that time?

Lawrence: It was the only production reactor on the Hanford Site at that time. And the only reactor that was producing water that was—steam—that was then used to produce electricity. There was another very important reactor at Hanford that was operating then. It was called the Fast Flux Test Facility, which had just started operation a year or so before I got here. And that was to be a precursor of a commercial breeder reactor. The developmental—the reactor, the full-scale reactor that was going to demonstrate the breeder process was going to be built in Oak Ridge, Tennessee at the Clinch River Breeder Reactor. But they built the FFTF prior to that in order to get a feeling for how the sodium cooling worked, the fuel worked, the interactions. It was a prototype, if you will, to see just how that system was going to work. And quite frankly, the FFTF was a tremendously successful test reactor and developmental reactor for liquid sodium. It operated flawlessly, really. Unfortunately, though, it shut down because the breeder program was canceled and there really wasn’t a need for it. People tried diligently to find a mission, to find a need for it. But it was a—it just wasn’t in the cards, and it eventually—it took until the late 1990s for it to be permanently shut down. But that was the other reactor that was operating when I came out here.

Franklin: Okay. Yeah, I’ve interviewed several other people that worked at FFTF, and they’ve all—

Lawrence: Oh, and they’re very enthusiastic about the FFTF. And I can understand it. It was a great reactor.

Franklin: Right, and a reactor with kind of a different mission than any of Hanford’s other reactors.

Lawrence: Yes, yeah.

Franklin: Save maybe the N Reactor which had a dual—

Lawrence: No, it was very different. It didn’t have that plutonium production role.

Franklin: How long did the production go at Hanford—that ‘80s Reagan era production?

Lawrence: Well, in 1986, the reactor in Chernobyl blew up—April of 1986. That was in Ukraine, at Chernobyl. Of course, there was very little information coming out after the news of that explosion occurred. You couldn’t get in; the Soviets weren’t saying anything about it. But they couldn’t deny it, because you could detect the radiation coming. But people knew, generally, what type of reactor the Russians were operating there. It was graphite-moderated, water-cooled, and very quickly they came upon the fact that, wait a minute, there’s a graphite-moderated, water-cooled reactor operating in the US out of Hanford that’s called the N Reactor. So consequently, I believe it was in the first week of the Chernobyl accident, one afternoon—I guess it was a morning—in the lobby of the Federal Building, it was mayhem. There must have been 50 to 100 people, representatives from all of the television networks, the major newspapers and wire services—all there wanting to do a story on N Reactor, the Chernobyl of the United States. So I got on the phone to Washington, DC and I said, look, we’ve got a problem here. Because we had been told, do not talk to the press about this. This is one of the few times when I was manager here that we were ever given instructions from Washington about how to interact and how to manage the sites. The managers had much greater authority then than they do now. And there was only one manager here at that point in time, as opposed to three that they have now. So we had a lot of leeway, but we’d been told, don’t talk about it because it’s very sensitive; it’s international news and we’re concerned about it. So when I called and said we have this mob scene in the lobby all wanting to talk about and go see the N Reactor, they said, don’t talk to them. Don’t do anything. I got back on the phone and I said, look, there’s stories that are going to be coming out of here. They can either be based on fact or they can be based upon fiction. If they’re based upon fiction, it’s not going to be pretty. And it’s going to be inaccurate. And I said, look, I will not speculate at all on what happened at Chernobyl. I don’t know. I care, but I’m not going to say a thing about that. I just want to explain how N Reactor works and what its safety features are, so that they can see for themselves. So reluctantly but finally, they relented and said, okay, you can show them. Go take them out. So we got a big bus. We put everybody on the bus—it was multiple buses. And we went out to N Reactor. And as you know, that’s about an hour’s drive out. But they were chomping at the bit. And I can remember the look on their faces when they saw—I think they were expecting a little Quonset huts with steam rising out of vents and out of chimneys and all the rest. And when they see this massive building—and in fact we were able to open one of the doors, which was three feet thick of concrete and steel. They looked at that and they were kind of amazed. And I explained to them that although commercial reactors have a system called containment, which is a big steel dome, production reactors don’t. It’s called confinement. It’s different. So it leads to speculation. Well, you know, containment’s going to keep it in; confinement’s not going to do it. And I was pointing out how we had ways of safely venting steam and pressure so it wouldn’t build up, so it couldn’t explode. And we went through all the safety systems, showed them in the inside, the face of the reactor. And consequently, the next several days in USA Today—I mean, it was front page stuff. But at least it was based upon, well, you know, here are all these safety features. It still raised a lot of issues and concerns because nobody knew what caused Chernobyl, so how could we say it couldn’t happen here? We could only say, here are all the safety systems we have to prevent something like that from happening here. Now, ultimately, we found out over time, that what happened at Chernobyl was a physical characteristic called a positive void coefficient. But basically something that didn’t exist in the physics out at N Reactor. But the damage was done. We did need to do some safety upgrades at N Reactor, which we did. But ultimately, in 1988 I believe it was, the Secretary of Energy, John Harrington, in testifying before Congress announced that the US had now produced so much plutonium that we were in fact, quote, awash in plutonium and didn’t need to produce any more. And quite frankly, with that being the case, we no longer had a justification for operating N Reactor. And ultimately it was shut down. To this day, I applaud the hard work and dedication of all the people out at N Reactor. They worked on the safety upgrades and the operation of that reactor, they worked extremely hard and were very, very proud of the operation of that reactor. I think we all owe a debt of gratitude to those people. They did a great job.

Franklin: There’s several things that strike me as really interesting that I want to return to in what you just said about Chernobyl and N. One was one of the last things, that John Harrington, awash with plutonium; the US had produced enough. Did you agree with that statement then? That we were—because that would be, I mean, your boss or boss’s boss.

Lawrence: Quite frankly, I didn’t know what the total plutonium numbers were for the country. I didn’t know what the total demand was. I do know that plutonium has a very long half-life and sooner or later, you’ve got to have more than you need. We had thousands and thousands of nuclear warheads then. So, I mean, I didn’t know for sure, but I knew at some point we were going to reach it, and quite frankly felt we probably had overshot. So I did not disagree with Secretary Harrington on that.

Franklin: Okay, because I mean, we had passed mutually assured destruction quite a long—

Lawrence: Yeah, yeah.

Franklin: And I guess, we know a lot more now about our stockpile then than we did then. But it’s a very interesting way to phrase that. We’re awash in—

Lawrence: Yeah, I mean, it conjures up an image that you really don’t want to have.

Franklin: Yeah. I wanted to return to the Chernobyl thing. It strikes me as interesting that this reaction of don’t talk to the press, which is—you can understand in some way, because you don’t want misinformation. But isn’t that the same kind of criticism that we would level at the Soviets? That they were clamming up and not saying anything, and we wished that they were saying something? So this reaction to not say anything on our side is—could have been seen as—you know—being too controlling maybe perhaps?

Lawrence: Well, I mean, it went against my instincts, but it’s understandable. The Soviets were the one who had the accident. Now, if we had had an accident and they said, don’t talk to them, I would have been incensed. But basically, we were just going along and people want to come in and try to write a story and say, you’re just like Chernobyl. Well, in a sense, we didn’t know what Chernobyl was, how could we have definitely refuted that? So I can understand their perspective, because, quite frankly, some people at other sites had been quoted by the press as saying, well, we think this is what happened at Chernobyl, or that happened at Chernobyl. And it was just—it was getting out of hand. So I understood that. That was—my point was, I’m not going to talk at all about Chernobyl, because I don’t know. I do know N Reactor. I do know how it works, and I do know its safety features; that’s all I’m going to talk about. And I was awfully glad they let me do it.

Franklin: That’s good, yeah. I’m wondering if you could talk about—being in charge of the Site here, I’m wondering if you could talk about the effect of Chernobyl on employee morale at Hanford. Did you notice a particular change—what changed as a result of—

Lawrence: I really don’t think I saw any change in the behavior of the people here. They were going about their work. They knew the systems and the procedures and the processes they worked by, the protections that they were given. I’ll tell you candidly one thing that always bothered me then and it bothers me today, is that sometimes people, they get off work and they act somewhat cavalier or bravado about the work they do. Whether it’s to impress somebody or what, I don’t know. But they say, oh yeah, we deal with this. You know, handling it not as seriously as it needs to be. I know on the job, they do and they have to. But then like a macho reaction at the Gaslight Tavern or something like that talking about what they’re doing. That bothers me because it leaves a wrong impression with the public. And it’s certainly not the way we act onsite.

Franklin: I guess I’d like to maybe rephrase that question. Did you see like maybe a level of—or rise of kind of the fatigue of workers, maybe thinking that anti-nuclear folks or that there was a new public perception that this was really unsafe or that there was really an imminent danger at Hanford? Do you think that weighed on—did that weigh on you, or did that weigh on anybody else?

Lawrence: Well, I think there was a sense on their part that there was an overreaction, that people were, in a way, paranoid and exaggerating the risk. They knew the risk. The people who work here know the risk. But they also know the precautions, so they can balance it out. And consequently, they felt like there was an overreaction. But even before Chernobyl occurred, there was an event that put the Site under somewhat of a microscope and an intense scrutiny, and that would have been, I believe it was September of 1985. Now, Chernobyl happened in April of ’86; this was September of 1985 on a Sunday, The Spokesman Review newspaper in Spokane came out with a multiday series on what they called the downwinders. Basically, they were interviewing and writing stories about an area across the Columbia River in Eltopia, Mesa, where farmers had experienced or felt they had experienced undue health effects—a number of health effects and cancers, and even some wildlife—some of their livestock being born with—there was reports of double heads and the like. And this was a major news piece done by a reporter called Karen Dorn Steele, and quite frankly she did an excellent job of researching this and writing it up. And I—you know, this is the first any of us had heard about this. That was on a Sunday-Monday. So, again, trying to engage on this topic, that Thursday, just several days after it had come out, we had a public meeting over at the Edwin Markham Middle School in Eltopia, across the river, with the public to say, we’re here. What are your concerns? This is—let us tell you what we’ve been able to measure and monitor, and you tell us what your concerns are. And I had some people from Battelle who—we put out an annual monitoring report saying, here are the releases, here are the quantities, here’s how they compare with standards and the like. It was somewhat emotional. You know, people are worried about their health and people dying of cancer and the like. But we also knew that we, in our numbers—we weren’t showing anything that should have resulted in something like that. During that meeting, one of the farmers who had been prominently noted in the article, his name was Tom Bailey, he actually got up and said, well, okay, we’re not saying that you’re doing that to us now, or that you’re intentionally doing anything now. But what happened in the past? What happened back in the ‘50s? When he said that, I realized that, although we had monitoring reports going back to the Manhattan Project—here’s what people were measuring and monitoring and releasing—most of those had been classified secret. And they had never been declassified. It wasn’t malicious; it’s just not a simple process to declassify a document. But I knew because of the extent of time involved, they could be. So, I then at that meeting said, you know, if you want to know, we can go back, we can review and declassify those documents and make them available so you can actually see what was being done. That seemed to both surprise but also satisfy. So we came back and started the process of declassifying monitoring reports going back to the mid-1940s. That is a time-consuming and expensive process. But we were doing it. And we were keeping the public—I used to have monthly press availabilities at the Federal Building and we’d talk about that. But we didn’t really have the first batch of documents, which was 19,000 pages deep, ready to release until February. Now, one thing I’d like to make very clear and to get on the record: we’re in the process of doing that—time-consuming and expensive—but in January, one month before we completed and released the documents, a Freedom of Information request was filed for those documents by an environmental group. I’m not certain of who it is, so I won’t say who it was. But it was an environmental group, filed a Freedom of Information request. And we said, wait a minute. We are releasing these; it’ll be ready next month—the first batch. The reason I raise that is because subsequently, to this day, I hear from time to time people say, you released those documents—they were forced out of you by the Freedom of Information request. And I say, that is just not true. We had—if you go and check the record, we had committed to doing that a long time before. Again, getting back to credibility—it was easy to make that charge. In fact, I had National Geographic call me about ten years ago checking a story and that specific point. Because they didn’t know if it was right or not and they were able to research it and confirm it. But anyway, we were able to release those documents. But when those documents came out—and this was a mistake on my part—there was a lot of information there, but where was the understanding? Where was the, if you want to call it, education of the public, so they could understand what they were reading? And very quickly, it was found that one of the monitoring reports from 1949 had talked about something called the Green Run, where fuel that had been cooled for shorter than normal, so there were radioactive elements in it, was dissolved and more radioactivity went up, intentionally, through the stack. Some of the background as to why that was done had to be deleted—because it was still classified. When this document—when that report was found and the Green Run was discussed, there was speculation that it was associated with human experimentation: let’s release it and see what happens to the public when it hits them. That was not the case at all. In fact, I knew from reading the documents, they had delayed the Green Run because unfavorable weather conditions that they thought might be harmful to the public. But nonetheless, since certain portions had to be deleted because of classification, we couldn’t really explain it to people. And that created quite an uproar. It’s normal and naturally you would expect people to think you’re trying to intentionally harm the public or experiment on the public. Ultimately, what we decided to do was that, even though we could not tell the public the intent of the Green Run, congressmen and senators from Washington and Oregon, by purpose of their position, have clearance and can be told. So I went back to Washington, DC with a person here from the lab and in a classified conference room in the rotunda of the US Capitol, we had the entire delegations from Washington and Oregon there, and we were able to explain to them the classified reason why the experiment was done and why it was still classified today. Tom Foley, who was later to become the Speaker of the House, from Spokane, more or less led the group. He appreciated it, but he pushed back. He says, I’ve got to have more to tell the public than that. I have to be able to tell them whether we know, but we can’t tell you. You’ve got to give me a little bit to tell them as to why it’s so classified. So I was able to get on the phone, again, back to the department, talk to them about it. And ultimately we were able to explain that the reason it was done was to allow the US government to improve their methods for determining and detecting what the Soviet Union was doing with their production program. Ultimately, it became known, if you measure the iodine and the cesium, you could cut back and see what they’re producing. And the reason it was still classified was that we were still, back in 1986, using that technique for nuclear non-proliferation detection around the world. So it’s since been declassified, but that was the reason. I felt that was a good use of our government and our representatives to represent the people and be able to explain to the people what was going on. But ultimately that whole—all those documents led us to create something called the Northwest Citizens Forum for Defense Waste, which was 25 individuals picked from a broad cross-section: academia, industry, church leaders—to be given the information and to be briefed on the information and ask and have answers provided for any questions they have. So they could act as the public’s representatives on what was being done. And that ultimately turned into all of the citizens’ groups that are formed at the DOE sites now. Where you have—here it’s called the HAB, the Hanford Advisory Board. But it was the first ever citizens’ group to oversee and look at what was going on at the DOE sites.

Franklin: Great. Thank you for that. That’s really illuminating. Wasn’t it still a calculated risk, though? Sorry, the Green Run, the actual action itself. Certainly there’s still, I think, in the mind of a lot of people—even though it may have been check the release to see how much the Soviets were releasing, there still is a real calculated risk, though. Or do you think that there’s still a calculated risk there—that there could have been some environmental or human population damage resulting from a higher-than-average—or kind of breaking protocol that was set to release that much contaminate?

Lawrence: Well, based on what I was able to look at and the rationale and how it was done, they were doing it at levels such that it would be a fraction of what the public was allowed to be exposed to. Even with that higher amount. It would just be a fraction. And that’s why when weather conditions weren’t right, and they felt it would rise above that, they didn’t do it. There are always risks. And were the standards that they were a fraction of, were they right, were they wrong, were they conservative, were they not strong enough? I mean, hindsight, you can go back and ask all those questions. But based upon the knowledge that they had at the time, they were being conservative. That also happened to be at the time when we were doing atmospheric testing at the Nevada Test Site. And you’re setting off nuclear bombs that people are going out and watching, you know, maybe 20 miles away. I’m not saying that’s right, and we know now it was wrong. But it was a fraction of the exposure that might have existed there.

Franklin: Right. I get—yes. That’s very true and that’s a good point. I guess it just—the only thing that still strikes, at least in my mind, as a difference is that they’re informing the public about the nuclear bombs so people can go and watch them. Whereas the Green Run was kind of this—I think that maybe—

Lawrence: Yeah, it was secret. No.

Franklin: It came out after the fact. And it was like, what else could these guys be hiding? Because, like you said, there was already that level of mistrust there.

Lawrence: Yeah.

Franklin: It just seems like that event can never really shake that level of mistrust in some ways with some people.

Lawrence: In hindsight, that’s true, but it was a very different time. A very different time.

Franklin: Of course. That’s just an interesting legacy. So, thank you for covering Chernobyl so much. I just have one more question. What role did Hanford play in assisting the Soviets—Hanford and Battelle play in assisting the Soviets with Chernobyl? Wasn’t there a team—

Lawrence: None at the time.

Franklin: --that went over?

Lawrence: None at the time. The Soviets didn’t ask for any. Ultimately, and actually when I came back to the Tri-Cities in 1999 and eventually started working for the Pacific Northwest National Lab, under my responsibility was the team we had at Chernobyl helping to build the new sarcophagus, the confinement structure, that now has been completed and rolled over the destroyed reactor. And I’ve been to Chernobyl a number of times and visited on that project. So we were involved in that. But I don’t recall us being asked to provide any assistance or having provided any assistance at that point in time.

Franklin: I was wondering—I’d like to—Chernobyl made me think of another incident, maybe hop back in time real quick and get your perceptions on that. You weren’t here, but I know you were still working in the nuclear industry, and I’m wondering maybe if you’re going to guess what I’m going to ask about, but I’m wondering, in the late ‘70s, the Three Mile Island scare. I’m wondering if you—because you were not here at the time of Three Mile Island, right, you would have been back east. But I’m wondering if you could talk about the legacy of that incident and how that affected people’s perceptions of nuclear—

Lawrence: Oh, it affected everybody’s perceptions of nuclear because—everyone in the nuclear industry had gotten a little sloppy, implying an accident cannot happen, it will not happen. You know, we’ve got all these precautions; the risk is so small, they’re non-existent. Well, nothing is non-existent. Everything is a risk, and if enough things go wrong, yes, you can have a problem. And they certainly had it there. Much more serious than they ever expected it to be. But in hindsight, the fact of the matter is, the systems all worked to contain it. There were never any releases harmful to the public. There was never a single fatality or anything associated with the Three Mile Island accident. I can remember exactly where I was when I heard about it. I was getting ready to go take a run at lunchtime in the AEC—or it would have been a DOE at that time—building. And someone said, hey, did you hear they had some reactor incident going on up in Pennsylvania? You know, it started then and several days later I was getting calls from good friends who we were godparents of their child who lived in Hershey saying, should we evacuate? And I said, follow what the governor says. I really don’t have any firsthand knowledge, but it really did shake people’s fears, because it led people to say, you said it couldn’t happen and it did. And that’s always a problem.

Franklin: That’s such a tough issue of framing, though, right? Because you can either say, well, it could happen but we have really good safeguards so it probably won’t, which leaves open the door in people’s minds to something happening. Or you can say, well, it won’t, we’ve got this under control and it won’t happen. How do you frame—framing disaster seems to be a very tricky subject. Or framing the possibility of disaster.

Lawrence: Yeah. In part, because you can say, just looking at risk and probability, you can say you’re more likely to be hit by lightning than to die from this. And you’re willing to accept one but not the other. It’s what people are associated with. And if they think, I don’t have to deal with that, I don’t even want to deal with that minimal risk. I just don’t want to do it. That’s understandable; it’s part of human nature.

Franklin: It kind of comes to, we see this a lot in current day in dealing with—well, won’t go into that. But there seems to be a—there’s these fact-based arguments but they can’t always counter the emotion-based arguments. And a lot of the response to nuclear seems, in some cases to be emotionally-based and not fact—and immune, almost inoculated against the factual side of it. Which seems to bother many who have a lot of intimate knowledge, a lot of people who worked at Hanford who know the risks can’t ever seem to communicate that to the critics. I wonder if you could expand on that at all, being someone who would have been trying to communicate that to critics of Hanford. And how you’ve dealt with that fact-versus-emotion in your career.

Lawrence: Well you see it—you still see it today. Fukushima is an excellent example of that. Assist you with the nuclear accident first. That tidal wave hits, completely washes over, and the plant loses all power. Now, most importantly that was an avoidable accident. Even as hugely severe as a tsunami was, if they just had have had the secondary generators higher and separated more from the plant, they wouldn’t have lost power, and the reactors would have been fine. In this country, we have that requirement. They didn’t have it there. So that reactor accident, which was catastrophic, it was devastating, could have been prevented if rules that we have here had have been used there. But the other thing—and this is more to the point you made—18,000 people were killed by the tsunami, by the flood, by all of the devastation caused by the tsunami. None were caused by the nuclear accident. And yet all of the attention is on the nuclear accident. And it’s not like, oh, but there’ll be 18,000 in the future—there won’t. You know, looking at the numbers, it’s hard to say if there’ll be any. And people are evacuated now, when perhaps they don’t even need to be, but it’s out of the fear of whatever’s left there. And consequently, because of that, it’s causing stress that have led to heart attacks and have led to fatalities. Are they caused by the nuke—they’re not caused by radiation, but they’re caused by fear of radiation or caused by fear of the displacement. So how do you put that in perspective, where as a nuclear accident has gotten all the attention, but a tsunami that killed 18,000 people, it’s sort of like, well, that’s an act of nature? And so, I really don’t know how to balance that. I do know that on NOVA last month, they had a very good show about that. Because nuclear is a carbon-free source of baseload electricity, and if we’re going to deal with climate change, I know I believe and many people believe nuclear has to be part of the solution.

Franklin: Yeah, I would personally agree with you. I wondered—so, moving past Chernobyl then, you mentioned that as kind of a major—you know, it definitely is a major event in regards to people’s perceptions of Hanford. And you mentioned in ’88 this—awash in plutonium. How did it play out after that? What was the drawdown like? What happened in the community when that—when it was realized that Hanford was—the mission was going to change?

Lawrence: Well, you know, there was fear, because Hanford—the Tri-Cities over time, going back to the ‘50s and ‘60s had gone through booms and busts. And whenever Hanford production was up, the community was good; whenever it was down, homes were for sale, property values dropped and all the rest. So there was a feel, that was going to continue. And if N Reactor was shutting down, PUREX was down, it was going to happen to have a devastating effect on the economy again. Of course, what also happened at the same time was the commitment to the cleanup mission and the negotiation in signing the Tri-Party Agreement, which led to the cleanup mission here, which has continued and kept levels and funding levels right up to where they were and actually higher than in the production days. Maybe not employment necessarily, but it’s close. But also the Tri-Cities has significantly diversified from Hanford. Still very much—we get through $3 billion a year from the federal government between the Site and the national lab in this community, and that’s got huge benefits. But we’ve diversified quite a bit. But, getting to the Tri-Party Agreement, that was a direct result of a legal decision in Tennessee in 1985 that said that Department of Energy sites had to comply with national and state environmental rules. Up until that time, it had been assumed that the Atomic Energy Act, that the department operated under absolved us from that, or we did not have to do that. When that ruling came down, ultimately, it led to getting together with federal regulators in the form of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and state regulators in the form of the Department of Ecology, to find out, okay, where are we in violation, what do we need to change, and how do we do that? You don’t do it instantaneously. Which, obviously, is clear. And that led to the negotiation and the ultimate signing in May of—May 15th of 1989 of the Tri-Party Agreement. But that has provided a rather steady employment, funding, and—you know, I realize it’s taking longer than people thought, it’s costing more than people thought. And fortunately, it’s not an urgent—it’s not the type of crisis where something has to be done immediately or here’s the catastrophic result. It’s a problem in slow motion that the main thing you want to do is get the solution right the first time. You don’t want to go hot with the Vit Plant and then find out it doesn’t work. Because you’ll never—you won’t get around to it again. So let’s make sure we’ve got it right. It’s been an enduring process, and I’m very pleased and proud of the enduring capabilities of the Tri-Party Agreement.

Franklin: And what was your role in the negotiation and signing of the Tri-Party Agreement?

Lawrence: Well, we—the Richland Operations Office had the responsibility and role of negotiating with EPA Region 10 and the Department of Ecology for what the cleanup agreement would look like and what it would entail. And we kept Washington, DC informed of what we were doing and we’d get feedback from them. But it was our main responsibility to do that. Initially a person by the name of Jerry White and then ultimately Ron Izatt who worked for me as division directors had that responsibility of negotiating. And they would brief me every other day and we would get involved. From time to time, I would have discussions with the head of ecology who was Chris Gregoire, who subsequently became governor of the state, on issues that they would rise to our level. Or with Robie Russell, who was the head of EPA regionally, on issues that would come up. But we eventually worked out, basically, the agreement: this would be done and this was the timeframe for doing it. Then it came time to saying, okay, this is what we’ve got. It was in December of 1978 when we had pretty much wrapped everything up.

Franklin: Sorry—’88?

Lawrence: I’m sorry. ’88, yes, I’m sorry. December of ’88. So I went over to Lacey near Olympia where Ecology is located, to meet with Chris Gregoire and her team, and I had Ron Izatt and a lawyer from our team, to talk about what we were going to do. And at that meeting—it was a Friday afternoon—they said, okay, what we want to do now is we want to take this to a court and have a judge bless it, make it law: this is what has to be done. And we couldn’t go along with that, and the reason was that the lawyer for the federal government is the Department of Justice. And anytime you go to court as a US government agency, the Department of Justice represents you. They do not believe in friendly settlements. They will fight everything. I don’t mean that to be critical; that’s just the approach they take. And I said to her, I said, Chris, if you insist on taking this to court, we, the Department of Energy and I, lose all ability to deal with this, and it goes into the hands of lawyers who get paid to fight it. And you’re going to win. You’ve got the law on your side. But it’s going to be two, three years from now at great expense. I said, why don’t we just sign it as an agreement, shake hands on it, and you wait for us to violate it, and then take us to court. And she—we went back and forth on that issue. EPA, by the way, had stepped back and said, if you two can reach agreement, we’ll go along with anything that you say. Because they knew we had the tough issues. And so finally, you know, she said, no, we need it in court. These were her instructions, or this is where the governor wanted to go. And I said, well, Chris, can we take this to the governor? And, fortunately, through my tenure here, I had wonderful relations, a great respect for Governor Booth Gardner, who was the governor at that time. And she said, sure, we can take it to him. Subsequently, the following Friday I went over by myself with her and we met with Governor Gardner in his office in Olympia in the state capitol. And I went through the message of, you know, I don’t have the authority to sign this in court. If it goes to court, Justice will fight it, you’ll win, but it will be two years from now or whatever. Didn’t sway the governor. You know, it was clear: no, we want this—we want the law behind it and make it in a court of law. I must have said the same thing three times. Always slightly different. Maybe I warmed him, I don’t know what. But finally the governor looked at Chris and said, well, Chris, could you live with it as an agreement until if and when they fail to live up to it and then go to court? And she said, you know, Governor, if you can, I can. And the governor says, okay, that’s what we’ll do. And so it was an act of faith and it worked for a long time before it ended up in court. But we would not have had the Tri-Party Agreement when we did in the manner in which we did without his willingness and her willingness to concede on that point and let us move on with it.

Franklin: And so when the Tri-Party Agreement was established, what did that lay out for the future of Hanford?

Lawrence: Basically, it took the entire Site and all the areas in which we were in non-compliance, whether it was currently operating sites—even though the plant wasn’t operating, there were still facilities that were operating that fell under the state, or old sites which fell under EPA. All of those things, and when they would be cleaned up, the schedule and process for doing it. And that’s what it laid out. It also laid out, like, the ability to modify the agreement as you went forward. Because the simple fact was, we were operating with nowhere near the degree of knowledge and specificity you would need to have hard-and-fast deadlines. And the other thing was, we didn’t know, and we still don’t know today, what the funding will be year to year. Okay, or problems that will come up. But there was a process in there to move with it and to let it happen. And that was, I think, one of the best features of the Tri-Party Agreement. And it required parties to act in good faith. And I’m pleased it did.

Franklin: Excellent. Was there anything in there about any of the history at Hanford or preserving any of the historic activity at Hanford, whether—keeping buildings there or documenting the history in some way, or saving equipment or anything used in the process?

Lawrence: Not really, no. I mean, this was all compliance. This was an enforcement order. But we did make sure that B Reactor was going to be one of the last things to be—actually, originally, they wanted all of the reactors out on the Site by the rivers to be decontaminated as best they could, and then they wanted to dig under the reactors, bring in the big crawlers they use at Cape Canaveral to move missiles, put it under there, lift up the block, and take it to the center of the Site. And I thought, oh, my good—and that was to be done early in the process. And we said, let’s move that ‘til about 25 years from now. Of course, subsequently they’ve learned how to cocoon and maybe that’ll be found to be good enough. But, I mean, that was—we didn’t have the level of specificity or knowledge or information that you need to do a good cleanup then as we do now.

Franklin: I know that the B Reactor Museum Association was founded in the early ‘90s, but were there whispers then when you were signing that agreement or afterwards about saving B Reactor or saving something onsite as kind of a testament to the production at Hanford?

Lawrence: There very well may have been. I just—I wasn’t cognizant of it.

Franklin: Sure. So when did you leave working at the Richland office?

Lawrence: I left in July of 1990.

Franklin: Oh, okay, so you were—and why did you leave? Where did you go after?

Lawrence: Well, in part, I went to work for a company in Colorado that was doing cleanup work. But I was only there less than a year when the state department offered me a diplomatic post in Vienna, Austria. Because that was right after the first Gulf War, when they discovered that the Iraqis had a clandestine nuclear program, and they wanted the International Atomic Energy Agency, who was supposed to monitor things like that, to become stronger and more efficient and effective. And the State Department decided that they wanted a person with technical knowledge and ability but who also had had some international experience, which I had in the ‘70s under a Carter program doing international negotiations. So they called me up and I went to Vienna, then, to do that. I left here, one, because the managers’ authorities had been greatly, greatly reduced.

Franklin: Was that a result of the Tri-Party Agreement, or just from the shift or production to cleanup?

Lawrence: In part, it was due to the Tri-Party Agreement in that as we were negotiating the Tri-Party Agreement—we had the responsibility for doing that here, but kept Washington informed of our activities and getting their agreement as we went along. And right after those meetings that I told you about with Chris Gregoire and Governor Gardner, that was in December. In January of that year, a new Secretary of Energy was coming in. Admiral Watkins had been appointed to be the Secretary of Energy. So he was transitioning in, and there was an acting secretary. Her name was Donna Fitzpatrick, who was interacting with him as this transition occurred. Acting Secretary Fitzpatrick—they all knew what we were doing here. But as it happens, the agreement was formally signed in May 15th, 1989. But three months prior to that—what would that have been, February—is when—you have to give a three-month notice before you do something like that, for public comment and the like. As it turns out, everyone was so pleased with coming to agreement that the announcement of agreement was made in the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, DC. Governor Gardner was there, I was there, representatives of DC and the Department were there, EPA were there, and it was announced we had reached agreement and it would be signed in three months in May. You know, after the formal comment period and any changes that had to occur. Well, in the normal question-and-answer period that went on, with that announcement, the State said, this is going to be commit the government to be spending $25 billion for the cleanup of Hanford. Now, it just so happened that the very next day was Admiral Watkins’ first day as Secretary of Energy. During that first day, he was to meet with all of the site managers, including myself. That morning, when it appeared in the paper that Washington State says it’s committed to paying $25 billion—whatever that means—the Office of Management and Budget, which, evidently had been left in the dark—I don’t know. I had no responsibility to inform them. They called him up and said, what in the world’s going on over there? What are you doing committing us to $25 billion? We go into the meeting with the new secretary. And he proceeded to just chew me up and chew me down as to, this is the worst thing we’ve ever done, how could we be so bad and stupid, and all this other stuff. And I just sat there, and—you know, you can’t push back, really. You just think—and unfortunately, the former acting secretary, Donna Fitzpatrick was sitting next to him. She knew all about it, but she couldn’t do anything. And it really just set a very bad tone with the secretary. Subsequently, however, as the kudos started coming in about what a good agreement this was and how it showed good cooperation and compliance by the Department, Admiral Watkins was very happy to take the credit for the Tri-Party Agreement. But life was a little uncomfortable out here. And I decided then I was going to be leaving. But I didn’t want to leave in the first year, because I wanted to make sure the Tri-Party Agreement got off to a good start. So, subsequently when I did leave, a lot of it was about the fact that it just wasn’t the same job. And quite frankly, a very important tenet of any management job is never accept responsibility that you don’t have the authority to fulfill. If you don’t have the authority, but have the responsibility, it just doesn’t work. And I didn’t, and I left.

Franklin: Interesting. How did you come back to the area?

Lawrence: That’s an interesting story as well. After I left Vienna in 1985, I was hired by—

Franklin: Sorry, you mean 1995.

Lawrence: ’95, I’m sorry, yeah, I have my years mixed. 1995. I went to work for a company called BNFL, which stands for British Nuclear Fuels, Limited. And they had bought a company in Los Alamos, New Mexico and they asked me to be president of it. I was running the company, and then they subsequently asked me to move back to their Washington, DC headquarters for their US operations as the chief operating officer, which I did. But that was also the same time when BNFL had gotten the contract to design the Vitrification Plant for the Hanford Site. And they had brought in engineers and managers from the UK to head up that project here in the Tri-Cities. So, I’ve gone back to Washington, DC as the chief operating officer of BNFL, Inc., which is the US component. And shortly—not so long after it—I was there less than a year—the manager of the project in Richland came back. And they had signed an agreement of what they were going to do and the government was going along with it. It was basically, for $6.5 billion they would build and operate the plant and process the first so many million gallons of waste, for $6.5 billion. When that manager came back, he indicated—he said, you know—he’s British; I’m not going to do a British accent—but he said, you know, I really—I’m not fitting in well with the community. I just don’t understand those people out there. I don’t fit in well with the community. We need somebody out there who understands things. Well, I love this community. I know this community. They were very, very good to me and my family when we were here. So I raised my hand and said, I know those people. This was our biggest project by far for our company, I’d be willing to go out and head up the project. And so subsequently, I came out to head up the Vit Plant. Within a week of getting here, I had to go and report to the new Office of River Protection, which had responsibility for it, what the status was of our cost estimates. I had only been here a week, so they give me the numbers. And I asked the—are they aware of this? Yeah, they’re aware of this. So I went in and, oh, all hell broke loose. Because the number—it had risen. It was higher than 6.5. And Dick French, who was the head of the project, rightly so, says, I can’t—this is terrible. Your first report—and it’s over budget already. And I knew Dick, and I understood his position. And basically, I said, let me go back and find out what’s going on. I was told you were on board with this. You obviously are not. Let me find out. I subsequently found out that there had been an arbitrary 20% cut in their estimates, thinking they were just going to drive things harder and shave things off and make it cheaper. And I had a—obviously, I had a major problem with this. Because in the beginning, you don’t shave back. You have contingency that’s built in and you work off. It doesn’t work the other way. And so I’d moved back here, we bought a house, I’m running the—and this project is going downhill quick. What was worse was that I tried to tell BNFL, we need to go to the Department and say, this number, $6.5 billion, for the plant and operations of it is not going to work. We need to renegotiate. We need to do something different. And I got nothing but pushback. We would not do this. And I was even—I said, you know, if we don’t do something, we’re going to be fired. And they said, they can’t fire us. They’re not going to fire us. And I said, I’m sorry, I said, I can’t continue to operate like that. So I resigned. Resigned from the project. Didn’t have another job, but I figured, I’ll find something. But I can’t continue with this. And within two months, Secretary Richardson had fired BNFL. Fortunately, a couple months after that, Battelle and Pacific Northwest National Lab hired me to run their nuclear programs. That’s how I came back, and that’s how I spent my first two years back. As managing a dying project and then transitioning to a new job.

Franklin: And how long did you work at PNNL?

Lawrence: Well, I worked from 2000 up until 2008. And during that period, I had responsibility—I was the associate lab director for energy. But in the latter part of that timeframe, I was also deputy lab director for facilities and was responsible for the putting together and funding and getting approved the new—they called it a consolidated lab—facilities that are just north of Horn Rapids Road and two private facilities that are on the campus. And then Battelle asked if I’d be willing to lead a team to manage the national nuclear lab in the United Kingdom. They had put together a team with two other companies to do that. And I said I’d be willing to do that. I had spent time in Europe already. And I went over and subsequently we won the contract in the early 2009. So in 2009 and ’10, I was the director of the national nuclear lab in the UK. And then I retired and came back and retired here in West Richland.

Franklin: Wow, great. Well, thank you so much, Mike. Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you’d like to talk about?

Lawrence: Well, I’d like to get on record that I’ve been very, very fortunate in my life to hold some very interesting positions and to work for some phenomenal people. But the job that I enjoyed the most was as manager of the Richland Operations Office. There was a spirit, a camaraderie, a support, a community spirit that I felt there that I’ve just—as much as I’ve enjoyed my other jobs, nothing quite as good as that. It was really, really enjoyable, and aside from my wife and family, probably there was nothing better that had ever happened to us than to move to this area and be involved in these activities. I’ve really enjoyed it.

Franklin: Great. Well, thank you so much. Thank you for coming in today.

Lawrence: Okay, very good. Thank you.

Franklin: All right, yeah.

Lawrence: Thanks.

Franklin: Yeah. That was a great--

View interview on Youtube.



Bit Rate/Frequency

317 kbps

Hanford Sites

200 Area
B Reactor
Fast Flux Test Facility
N Reactor
Vitrification Plant

Years in Tri-Cities Area


Years on Hanford Site


Names Mentioned

Donald Hodel
William Skylstad
Paul Lorenzini
Howard Hughes
John Harrington
Karen Dorn Steele
Jerry White
Ron Izatt
Chris Gregoire
Robie Russell
Governor Gardner
Donna Fitzpatrick
Admiral Watkins
Dick French




Hanford Oral History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities, “Interview with Michael Lawrence,” Hanford History Project, accessed May 25, 2024,