Interview with Wanda Munn
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Robert Franklin: My name is Robert Franklin. I’m conducting an oral history interview with Wanda Munn on November 2nd, 2016. The interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. I’ll be talking with Wanda about her experiences working at the Hanford Site. And for the record, can you state and spell your name?
Wanda Munn: Wanda Iris Munn. W-A-N-D-A, last name M-U-N-N.
Franklin: Great. When and where were you born, Wanda?
Munn: I was born in Brownwood, Texas, which is 17 miles from the geographic center of the state on September 13th, 1931. I was a Depression baby. So I had all that background and the joy of being a native Texan.
Franklin: [LAUGHTER] How and why did you come to the area to—how and why did you come to work at Hanford?
Munn: Well, in technical terms, I’m a retread. I decided in midlife that I needed to finish a college degree, and I wanted to do it in some discipline that was really challenging and had great contribution capability for the planet and especially for my nearer community. When you make those decisions in your 40s, you have some knowledge of what you’re doing. And it was not an easy one for me to do, although I did an asset-liability framework in my mind of what I could do, what—I was a divorced mother of two children and had the responsibility for a declining mother and a dependent sister. So it was incumbent upon me to do this as quickly as possible. I only had about a year’s worth of actual college credit, most of it at the University of Texas, much earlier in life. When I decided that I was going to go for nuclear engineering, my friends and colleagues were actually horrified. They all could understand my going out to find myself somehow, but a technical degree like nuclear engineering was a real stunner to them. They were fond of saying to me, but Wanda, you’ll be over 40 by the time you get your degree! And my response was, I’m going to be over 40 anyhow. I’d rather have it with this degree than not have it with this degree. So because my prior material was not actually engineering, it had been medicine, I really had to start from scratch. I didn’t have any money and essentially sold everything but the children, and I couldn’t find a good buyer for them. [LAUGHTER] But I tried to do a four-year curriculum in three years and managed to do it. But it wasn’t easy, and I don’t recommend it. [LAUGHTER] Nevertheless, by the time I had finished my engineering degree at Oregon State University—I was living in Corvallis at the time—I had fallen in love with breeder reactors. This was in the mid-‘70s, and in the mid-‘70s, the big game in town as far as breeder technology was concerned was right here at Hanford. The Fast Flux Test Facility was in the process of construction at that time, and it was the most exciting technical thing on the horizon. I was delighted to be able to come here and interview for a position there. And that’s exactly what I did. I became a member of the Westinghouse Hanford team that was constructing that reactor. And never looked back. It was a wonderful choice for me. A very exciting time, building on the shoulders of the giants that we’d had here three decades earlier. And I have never regretted a day of it.
Franklin: Excellent. So, tell me what kinds of work did you do at FFTF?
Munn: I was—for the most part I was a cognizant engineer. Westinghouse had an excellent program at the time of rotational program where you had an opportunity, if you chose to do so, to work in three different aspects of the construction, design, startup process. I originally chose to go into plant operations. It seemed the most exciting to me and we were actually building the structure at that time. We—I did two other rotations which made it possible for me to go all over the site, actually. When I say the site, the site that I’m talking about right now is the FFTF site, what we refer to as the 400 Area. It did not include the old production reactors and the waste projects that were underway by Rockwell Hanford at that time. I had been the cognizant engineer for the reactor system for a variety of the other head compartment systems. For the longest period of time, my responsibility was the sodium systems, especially the sodium testing system and the gas sampling systems. During a long period of time, I also worked in nuclear safety, which, again, took me literally all over the plant. It was a very exciting time. The Fast Flux Test Facility was a flagship. There’s no question about it. It was the most advanced research and development reactor in the world. Not only at that time, but no one, to my knowledge, has exceeded the capability that we had, nor the type of long-term vision that we had at FFTF. It was a specialized group of men and women. More men than women, obviously. That, of course, was another aspect of the times. And if you want me to talk about that, I can a little bit. It may or may not be interesting to your audience.
Franklin: I would love for you to talk about that.
Munn: As anyone who lived through that era knows, a woman with a technical degree was not welcomed, nor did they actually have access to many portions of the engineering technology. There were a few. I was not what I think of as a first wave, but I was certainly the second wave. The first—whoa. Sorry about that. I didn’t mean to—
Emma Rice: Overload the circuit?
Franklin: Overload the circuit.
Munn: Cause—yeah, I didn’t mean to overload anything. We—
Franklin: Did we—yeah, I was going to say—so we--
Vargas: No, we’re fine on the camera.
Franklin: Oh, okay.
Vargas: It’s battery-powered.
Franklin: Oh, great.
Munn: Okay, very good, that’s fine. We just—I had as my mentors women, several of whom had had careers in the military. It was one of the few real engineering doors that were open to them at the time. And the woman who was the technical vice president for Westinghouse Hanford at the time was Lieutenant Colonel Arminta Harness, recently retired from the Air Force and NASA. She had worked on the Space Program and had known me as a result of our interaction in the Society of Women Engineers. We called her Minta. Minta was the last of the two-year-term national presidents for the Society of Women Engineers. And she and her colleagues had been among those who were not allowed to go into other forms of engineering in the public sector, because they had two routine answers that they heard from potential employers. One was, we don’t have a women’s restroom in our building. And the other, that I thought was probably closer to the truth for most of them was, we accept the fact that you could do this work—not can, but could do this work. However, if our clients knew that the work was done by a woman, it would never be accepted. Now, that probably had some ring of truth to it, but nevertheless, it was almost an insurmountable barrier for those women. But as anyone who knows anything about the social history of the United States knows, in the ’60s and early ‘70s, there was a real revolution in this regard. I think it’s a spin-off of what happened during World War II. It rather astonished people that women could take the jobs that men had left and had done such a fine job with them while the men were away from the country. But it was just assumed that when they returned, of course, they would return to their positions, whatever they were, and that the women would go back and put their aprons on. There’s nothing demeaning about that, except it was pretty infuriating for the women who had shown for five years that they could do these jobs and had done it very, very well, to be told now that—not that they—they would no longer accept that they couldn’t do it, but they were told that they should not do it. And therefore were not going to be allowed to. These were the women who had daughters who were not going to accept that as an answer. So as the social process began to move, and the legislative process began to bring itself to bear, more and more employers were finding it necessary to hire a certain number of women in order to fulfill the requirements of a government contract. This was both an enormous opportunity and a terrible detriment for those of us who were living in that time. That social action, as a matter of fact, was a part of the reason why I had decided to go into nuclear engineering. It was the first time the doors were really open to do that. But the two-edged sword was very easy to see if you stood back one step and looked at it. That is, these women were going into a milieu where the individuals who occupied those spaces had thousands of years of history behind them, of being world leaders, commanders of all they surveyed, and they had only two interactions, they—well, I take it back—three interactions they’d ever had with women throughout their entire lives from the time they were infants. The women with whom they had ever interacted had either been caretakers, sexual objects, or clerical employees. There were no other options. That was their interaction. Now, women had been doing reasonably well in small entrepreneurial businesses of their own for quite some time. But this was a different thing. This was high technology. The fact that people like Admiral Grace Hopper were making the beginnings of the Digital Age come to life were not seen by the general public. That was such an outlier; it wasn’t commonly known. But as those of us who came into this profession during this period of time learned very quickly, the people in power were all masculine, as one would expect. But they had no experience in how to deal with a female colleague. Females, yes. They had females around them and a basic part of their lives forever. But dealing with a woman on a level playing field in a technical way was not an experience that they even knew anyone who could relate to them. So the first thing they thought was, one: you’re only there because you got a leg-up; you’re being given a free ride because you happen to be female. And the other thing they thought is: and if the free ride gives you as much power as we’re afraid it’s going to, you’re going to take my job. So as we went in, we had to do two things. One, we had to prove we really were engineers; we really could do the work. And two, we had to prove to them that we were colleagues of theirs, not interlopers who—we all know the general story about how women got ahead in that time. We had to prove that wasn’t on the slate, and that we were not going to take their jobs. This ain’t easy. And I’m very, very glad that I was older at the time this occurred, because I’d been accustomed—you know, I’d grown up with these guys. I knew who they were. I knew what they were like, and I understood what their lives were. So, it wasn’t hard for me to understand the disturbance that was going on in their intellectual world. But younger women coming in at the time didn’t understand that. They saw this as being some kind of real repression of some sort—an attempt to keep them from fulfilling their potential. This, in my view, was not the case. I still see that quite often, that sometimes women in technical fields have a tendency to think that they’re playing the minority card. But that is, in my view, no longer true. The concerns that I had at that time have long since passed, and I’m glad that’s true.
Franklin: What was—I’d like to step back a bit, and thank you for that. I think that was a really illuminating aspect, and I might have you come lecture my US History class on women in the workplace at some point.
Munn: I’d be delighted to do that.
Franklin: What was—so, going—coming back to your motivation to go back to school, what was it—was there a moment, or when did you realize that you wanted to—when and why did you realize that you wanted to go back to school?
Munn: Okay, now this is really getting down in the weeds here, but that’s okay. The reason I left the University of Texas was to marry. [COUGH] Excuse me. As I think I mentioned. I was in pre-med. I had grown up with great ambitions. It had never occurred to me that there was much that I couldn’t do because I was female. It occurred to me that there were limits to what I could do because of my intellectual prowess, but I had always been drawn to medicine as a child, and had actually hoped to go into psychiatry. Which I’m glad I didn’t do. But that’s not the issue here. The issue is, I left the university to marry. I was 18. Because I had graduated from high school at 16. I had chosen pre-med because that’s what had been in my head for a long, long time. It was science, it was technical, it was beneficial: it was all the things that I wanted my life to be. But marriage interrupts that kind of thing. It takes you to a different kind of world, a different kind of setting. My then-husband was in the Air Force, and so I followed him in the Air Force. He was an enlisted man. He was from a working class blue collar family. No one in his family—a large family—no one in his family had ever gone to college. This made absolutely no sense to me—why one would not advance their education in a period and in a place where it was difficult, but it wasn’t all that difficult to find a way to pay tuition. You know, why not? There’s state schools all over the United States. Choose something and go there. So it was rather difficult on my then-husband, because he was not prepared for college work at all, and I was just fairly insistent that he was going to do that. So he had a great deal of remedial work to do, and this essentially meant that I had spent about seven years of my life trying to assist him in his studies, and essentially support the family in doing so. He did finish not only his bachelor’s degree but also his master’s degree and was in the education field. During all that period of time, I was essentially doing professional work of one sort or another for individuals who held authoritative positions, but whose shoes I could have filled easily. I did not have what I call my union card: I didn’t have a college degree. Further, I did not have the technical training to do the kinds of science and technology that really and truly interested me. So in the ‘70s, I found myself the divorced mother of two, as I said, and with considerable family responsibility. I knew that I could not continue to support what is now a rather large number of people on the salaries that I was able to get as a glorified administrative assistant. By the way, there’s been a change of terms. In that period, the term administrative assistant did not mean a secretary, although my secretarial and clerical skills were very high. That was not the real reason I had the post. I actually was an assistant to the person who held the title, whether it was physicians, accountants, insurance people, academics—that’s what I did. But there’s a factor of about two, sometimes three, in the monthly salary of those individuals and in mine. So you don’t have to be a follower of Dr. Einstein to be able to work out the math. You know, it doesn’t take very long. I needed a professional salary. And besides that, intellectually, I had been spinning my wheels for 20 years. And I was tired of it. I was absolutely tired of it. I wanted to be doing something that was challenging me, and in which my contribution was a contribution. Not a contribution to the person who was doing the contribution. It isn’t that I wanted to be recognized for that; I’ve always been of the school that it’s amazing what you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit for it. I didn’t care who got the credit for it. I just wanted to be on the ground floor. That’s all.
Franklin: So for all the degrees—the things you could have chosen in what we now call the STEM fields that would make a solid difference, why nuclear engineering?
Munn: Can you think of anything else that’s more challenging and more imaginative? I can’t. At the time, it took me a while to measure down to engineering. I started with thinking of medicine, still. But when I realized the amount of time and the amount of money that was going to be necessary for me to do that, not to mention the time—the concentrated daily schedule that’s necessary for that kind of thing, given the family duties that I had—it seemed like an impossibility. So I had to rule out medicine. Besides which, it would have taken me seven years to get to the point where I could actually get to hands-on anything. That—I didn’t have that much time. I had to do this in—and I had no money. As a result of that, I really had to do something in a much shorter time. And it seemed to me that three years was all I was going to be able to handle. Now, when you take that away and you start looking at the other science things, the biggie at the time also was computer technology. We were just getting out of the room full of server stages, and every college campus finally did have a computer center where you could go in the dead of night and run your deck which you had typed. [LAUGHTER] It was still unknown to the general public. I happened to own the first 35 that was sold at the Oregon State University bookstore—the first handheld computer. [LAUGHTER] It’s still on my desk, as a matter of fact. But that was—it was an exciting time then, but I—what little I knew about computer technology, I knew the detailed precision that was necessary to do this. I’d already known—had the experience of trying to make a computer do what I wanted it to do instead of what I had told it to do. And knowing that the misplacement of one character could demolish the efforts of a whole deck just did me in. I couldn’t handle that kind of concept. I knew I would not be a good computer engineer. Too much real detail oriented in that. Being a big picture kind of person makes a difference. So I set that aside. The other thing that really seizes the imagination is something that so many people don’t think about—that is the basic requirement for any life anywhere is not food, clothing and shelter. It’s even more basic than that. It’s energy. If you don’t have adequate energy, there is no way you can do any of the things that you have to do to survive. The energy picture right there right then was easily as muddled as it is now, and possibly even more. I had looked—thought about mining, too. It just really sounded dull to me. Just dull. I’d been raised in Texas. Petroleum engineering was a big thing at the time. Oh, for crying out loud, you look around in the dirt, you find oil, you think you might have oil, you drill for oil, you either have it or you don’t have it. Then you either have success or not and you move onto another well. That just—that didn’t sound like much of a thrill to me, either. So long as I couldn’t be there to watch the well come in, what’s the point? This gets—there was, of course, a great deal of hoo-ha about solar, wind, ocean current—all those things were very big in the human imagination at the time. I kept thinking, really? No. Not really. Excellent for specific purposes. Useful? Oh, my, yes. Pursue it by all means. But the biggie? No. I already knew that there were only two concentrations of energy that could possibly serve an industrial society. And I’m all for industrial societies. And I knew that that was carbon-based fuels and nuclear. Well, let’s see. Which is the most interesting of those? Gosh, it didn’t take me long to figure that out. So, to me, it was just a pyramid. You start at the bottom and you work up, and the star of the fleet as far as I was concerned was nuclear engineering. How fascinating can you get?! My word. Totally unknown until less than a few decades before. And now the most incredible amount of power. Energy that we’ve never even been able to imagine, we’ve got it, we know how to control it, we can do whatever we need to do with it. With breeder reactors—hey. The only place I know you can make enormous amounts of electricity and still be creating more fuel at the same time. Don’t know anything else that does that. Highly imaginative, and not getting good press at the time, either.
Franklin: I wanted—and I think you might have answered some of the question, my next question. But you mentioned that your friends and colleagues were terrified that you chose nuclear engineering.
Franklin: Why was that?
Munn: Too hard. Underwater basket weaving, popular psychology, you know, art, the many of the social sciences, the things that do good things for society but don’t require that much in the way of focused knowledge of some sort. That’s—you know, it takes a lot of work, but it takes a different kind of brainpower. We really live in two worlds, you know. C.P. Snow pointed that out in his books quite some time ago. We live in an enumerate world and an innumerate world. There’s nothing wrong with either of those worlds, it’s just that they don’t communicate well. And a significant number of people are math-phobic. Have been most of their lives and probably will be most of their lives. But the only way you can explain most things in science is numerically. So you either see that as a form of language, or you don’t. And I was able to see it as a form of language. Please don’t misinterpret me; I am not a good mathematician. But I do see the mathematic relationships in things. I see the mathematics in color spectra. I see the mathematics in music. I see the mathematics in what we’re doing here right now. And many people don’t see the relationship between these technologies and mathematics.
Franklin: You had mentioned earlier some of the challenges that women of your generation—or in the generation—the time at which you entered the workforce, you mentioned some of the challenges that women were facing. Did you—were there any of those challenges specifically at FFTF, or can you kind of describe how that was to be a woman at this newly—this brand new reactor?
Munn: Yes. One of the things that was very frustrating about it was that we did have a number of women who, in their lexicon, were breaking barriers, and I was glad they were there. They were doing semi-technical jobs. Many of them non-professional jobs, but nevertheless requiring interaction with the hands-on people who were on the floor putting things together, and doing cool things, like being able to stand over the open reactor before it was filled and feel how far it was from one wall to the other. Those are the kinds of things people don’t get to do. I got to do those things. It was wonderful. But we had a couple of things. Women had never been taught anything but dress codes. And knowing how to dress in a true working engineering facility was not a common thing. We would, for example, one of our Society of Women Engineers sections when I was visiting had a woman come and talk—a popular topic of the day was dressing for work. Dressing for work essentially meant dressing like the woman who was speaking to us who was an attorney. Now, the toughest physical barriers that she faced in her workplace were the carpet in the courtroom, trying not to slip down on marble floors. This is not the challenge that we faced in the workplace that we were talking about. So clothing alone became a big item for many of our young women who were coming in. They had been taught to dress attractively and a little bit sexy, you know. Always that little bit of come-on. And it was a bit of a challenge to convince them, first of all, that if you were going to be working in a plant, you don’t even consider wearing a skirt. I’m sorry, you just don’t. You’re not going to be able to walk across the grids. You are not going to be able to climb ladders. You are not going to be able to go where your male colleagues have to go to do their job. If you’re going to do this job—you can’t do it while you’re worrying about your femininity. I’m sorry. You can do that if you want with color. We lucked out there, didn’t we? It’s okay for women to wear any kind of color they want to. So you can be very feminine in your clothing, in terms of color. But I’m sorry, the long tresses that are so popular today? You’re not going to go in a working plant with this lovely, flowing hair that looks so good in a commercial, but is rotten when you’re walking around operating machinery. You don’t want to get pulled into that headfirst. No kidding. So—and there’s the business of the shoes. Even after my plant—the plant that the FF team put together—even after that was completed, in order to get there, if I didn’t want to walk two-and-a-half miles around the plant on concrete, I was going to have to walk across crushed rock. This is an operating plant. You know, we’re not dressed up for Sunday best. We’re working here. So why do you have on those heels? You’re going to have to walk across crushed rock. Why would you do that? I know it looks nicer with this particular outfit—fluff, fluff. But I’m sorry; that’s not why you’re here. So I had—the woman that I mentioned earlier, one of my favorite mentors, Arminta Harness—had what she called the Ten Commandments for a Woman Engineer. Most of them were humorous, but none to me was more humorous than what I believe was number seven, which said, Thou shalt not be sexy at the office, even if thy cup runneth over. I thought that was extremely humorous, and it still remains my favorite commandment to young women going into engineering. Thou shalt not—that’s—wherever else you want to be sexy, you may, but please don’t bring that to the workplace. So I have had one or two confrontations with—in each case, they were a technician or a runner for some of the construction people—but young women who insisted on wearing provocative t-shirts, especially. I’ve made a couple of them rather angry by telling them that I spent a great deal of my life trying to teach the men who are working here that I am their colleague, I’m an engineer, we’re building something together here. What I may think of you or what you may think of me otherwise has no bearing on why we are here. We’re being paid to do this very important job, and it will be done right. Don’t distract these guys with something like this while I have to come along behind them and tell them that this has to be done in a different way. And they’re not listening to me. They’ve still got you hung up in their mind. Tsk. Don’t do that. Those are—they seem a little strange now, given what transpires in today’s workplace and given the clothing that we have now. Frankly, I’m a bit disappointed as an individual that we as women have finally been allowed by the males who occupied those positions to allow us to use the capabilities that we have to perform the same kinds of functions, and yet you have—it never occurred to me that dress, as we see it now, was going to devolve into this, and to me devolve is the appropriate word. Never occurred to me that we would get so far afield from keeping our eye on the ball and staying focused on the task at hand when we’re in professional positions. But, hey. The world moves on. Brave new world.
Franklin: Indeed. Were there any—did you face any kind of discrimination or attitude from your male colleagues at FFTF at first? Or was it—it sounds like you’ve described a pretty congenial relationship. Were there any instances that stand out?
Munn: Well, there were one or two. But they only happened once. When they happened, I felt it was my responsibility both as an older female worker and as a real professional person to clear the air and make it very plain—not try to send double messages ever. And I think—when you’re dealing with human—rational human beings, you don’t have to keep doing the same thing over and over again. All you have to do is clear the air, make the straight statement that needs to be made, and you’re fine. And I have had to tell a couple of my—of people in my management chain, look, the last thing I want to be is where you are. At the time, it was assumed that a woman with a technical degree and an MBA was a really hot ticket. So of course, naturally, what the idea was—came to work at FFTF, and a year later started working at the Joint Center for Graduate Study, which is the origin of the facility we’re in right now. It’s now morphed into Washington State University Tri-Cities. It’s wonderful. But at the time, there were four regional colleges that had been pulled together, interestingly, by one of the people that was very instrumental in that was a man named Leland Berger, who was just—we just lost Lee last week. He was one of the people who were instrumental in putting together the conglomerate of universities to make it possible for the people who were working on the Hanford Site at the time to be able to pursue graduate degrees. It was a difficult proposition for someone who came here, especially if they were going to be a long-term worker, individual leader, here on the Hanford Site. They’re very far removed from any campus. So doing master’s work was very difficult to do. The whole concept of the individuals at the time who put together this consortium of universities was so that people could live here and, sure, it takes longer because you’re working full-time, but evening classes that are taught by fully-accredited universities made it possible for us to do that. So my MBA’s from the University of Washington. Go Huskies! Sorry about that.
Franklin: It’s okay.
Munn: Nevertheless—I’m not forgiven. Nevertheless, it was a concerted—a really concerted program, and it was almost impossible to take more than six hours a term, because you’re working full time. And at the time, we were in acceptance, testing and startup at FFTF, which meant that my days were easily ten hours long, and I don’t mean four tens. [LAUGHTER] I mean, work days were easily more than ten hours—ten hours or more. And whenever we had actual tests running, when we had things that were going on 24/7, quite often through the holidays and through weekends, we worked. But that meant classes were relegated to evenings only, and you didn’t have any spare time to do a lot of off-campus work. So we did have a challenge in that regard, but I think most of the people who were trying to do all of those things at the same time recognized that the benefits outweighed the problems that we were having to face in doing it. Scheduler problems are very hard. I was a fortunate person in being able to get by with about five hours’ sleep a night. Did that for a long, long time without any real detriment. But you do burn out on that after a while. We’ve been fortunate in so many ways in this region. The academic opportunities that we’ve had, despite the major problems that we have—not the least of which was isolation, geographically. Not isolation, but harder to get from here to there than it is a lot of places.
Franklin: Mm-hm. Can you describe—
Munn: Did I answer your question? I’m sorry.
Munn: Good, all right.
Franklin: You did, and then you actually answered another one I was going to ask you.
Munn: Another eight or ten. Yeah, sorry.
Franklin: So, can you describe a typical work day at the FFTF?
Munn: Yes. Typical work day. Up at 5:30 or 6:00, something like that. Breakfast for the kid or kids still at home. Out the door before 7:00, because the traffic was terrible. The traffic was not just the work folks going out to Hanford; we also had three private sector commercial nuclear plants being built at the same time. So the construction traffic going out to the Hanford Site was pretty scary. You needed to take plenty of time, because heaven knows what was going to happen on the way. By 7:15, needed to be through security. Security is not often a time-consuming thing, because you do it every day and it’s routine. But you know that anything that you’re carrying has to go through the x-ray, and you know that you, yourself, have to go through x-ray. You are likely to need steel-toed shoes whether you take them on or off—whether you put them on at work or whether you put them on beforehand depends on whether you want to take off heavy boots and walk through barefoot or not. And it depends on whether or not there’s any real hang-up on the way in. Usually there isn’t. But, nevertheless, you have to take time to assure that you’re going through security or not. Then the place that you parked was never—it was impossible to park in a place that was near to the security gate that you had to go through. So, there’s a little bit of a walk to get to security, and then from security, there’s a little bit of a walk to where you’re going to be. You’re expected to be in your workplace and working at 7:30. Not just arriving at the facility at 7:30. So if you’re going to get coffee or if you’re going to have to wait a little bit for your computer to boot up, any of those things, you need to be in your office by 7:15, because at 7:30 you are truly expected to be ready to go. Much of the management in my part of the world was ex-Navy nuclear trained, and precision, as far as time was concerned, was important to them. So you learned fairly early that it became important. You didn’t have the enormous amount of flex hours that I observe people having now. That just didn’t exist. By 7:30, you had either documents that you were having to deal with on your desk, or you were dealing with the material that was being incoming by that time on your computer. If you had a computer on your desk, interestingly, it was—I had been onsite for probably five, six years before engineers actually had computers on their desks. That was—we’re so accustomed to that now, it’s interesting to think back, how—in my lifetime--comparatively recently, it’s been. And I was one of the few people who was ranting and raving about that, because most of the new engineers who were just coming out of school had just learned—they’d just been computer-trained. This first batch of computer engineers who were computer-trained at school. The others were completely on the ground for those. So there were very few literate people in terms of computers around in the mid-‘70s. There just weren’t a bunch. We had access to the computer facility down the hall, but you had to get computer time much the way you did in college. There was only one real server, and you had to go there to do what you needed to do. One of the first things I did in the circles that I moved in—the engineering circles I moved in—the first thing that we did at FFTF was the Plan of the Day. We called it the POD, and the Plan of the Day was usually at 8:00, which meant you had time to get your hardhat and walk from wherever you were to wherever the POD was being held. And I took—I had a hardbound journal about this size that I kept notes in. You had to keep notes, because too much was happening in too many different ways and it affected you in one way or another. You need to remember who said that and when it was going to be done. So you took your journal, you put on your hardhat. You had to have your hardhat everywhere you went. I’m sorry about the hairdo. That’s tough. You had hardhat hair if you were working onsite. POD could take anywhere from half hour to 45 minutes. They didn’t like to tie people up, because they wanted—the object was to try to get you to your workplace with your instructions for the day by 8:30. But that’s sometimes hard to do. Nevertheless, Plan of the Day, POD, was first thing. After the POD—not everybody attended. It was rare for me not to attend, for one reason or another, whatever position I was in, something was usually happening and I was required to be there. Certainly, after I went into nuclear safety it was a daily thing. I didn’t have a choice. I needed to be there, had to be there. And the plan of the day often—the individuals who were way up the management chain from those of who were there, quite often would appear to give specific instructions about some aspect of what we were doing at that time which was very crucial. We all were aware of what the timeline needed to be. Project management was key to how things were done in that particular facility. And they were done on time and in budget. There wasn’t any question about it. It didn’t matter what it took, you stayed and did it. And it was a team effort. I was never privy to any discussion about doing it any other way. This was an enormously devoted team. So, after the Plan of the Day, you had your marching orders for the day; you knew what you had to do. And you went to wherever the action was for you that day, and you did that. We took a half-hour for lunch. Depending on where you were, for a brief period of time, you had access to cafeteria food. We had a cafeteria in the 300 Area when most of the planning and engineering was going on there. We had a cafeteria for a short period of time in the 400 Area during construction. It didn’t continue. As many people brown bagged as not. Almost all of us had a lunch pail, and it was not uncommon for an entire group, an engineering group, to remain at their desks and working through the lunch hour—through the lunch half-hour. It was expected that you take a 15-minute break for coffee, twice during the day. Once in the morning and once in the afternoon. It was expected, otherwise, that you’d be at your desk, or if you were going to leave your workplace, in every engineering group I was in, we had a sign-in/sign-out board at the door of our group structure, wherever that was. And you always wrote where you were going. If you weren’t going to be obtainable at your desk, then you had to be reachable at wherever you were going. So you signed out at the time, and when you signed back in, you erased it. I got tired of writing Reactor Facility when I was going to the reactor, and started writing BRT. This was an enigma for about a week, until finally my immediate manager couldn’t stand it anymore, and he said, all right, Wanda, we know where you’re going but what does BRT mean? It meant Big Round Thing. But it became a common usage. We were going out to the big round thing. We were very fond of the big round thing. We were going to make sure it was built right and that it operated right.
Franklin: And what is the big round thing?
Munn: The big round thing is the containment dome in which the reactor—the Fast Flux Test Reactor itself was located. It’s quite a structure. Probably the safest place that I could find myself. I can’t think of a safer place to be, actually, than in that particular facility. I was—there was never any trepidation about going there, either in terms of construction or machine activity, or in terms of nuclear safety. Never concerned.
Franklin: How did you transition into nuclear safety?
Munn: How did I--?
Franklin: How did you trans—you mentioned that you had started during construction and that later on you started working in nuclear safety.
Munn: Oh, well, it’s seamless.
Franklin: Seamless, okay.
Munn: Absolutely seamless, yes. During the first years, we did not have an engineering building where the engineers themselves could work and stay. It was all constructing the facility itself. It’s a very exciting time, because just moving the huge vessels that had to go inside that containment building had to be barged up the river, offloaded here in North Richland, and taken by tractor across—directly across—the desert to FFTF. Because they weighed so much that it was impossible to do it in any other way. They were in a J sling, transported across. And the lamps and cranes were some of the largest and most spectacular in the world at the time. Those lifts were—placing those huge vessels was a sight to see if one has not been privy to that, then you’ve missed a very exciting—it’s slow. It’s like molasses. Nothing happens quickly. But it was done in a remarkably precise way. But it was entirely seamless. If you were in engineering at FFTF, then as the actual operation of the facility proceeded, your location and what your responsibility was likely changed as well.
Franklin: Okay. When did the FFTF shut down?
Munn: Shut down in the late ‘80s. Only operated for about a year. We went critical for the first time in early 1980. And we did our first power demonstration later that year. So 1980 was the key year for startup at FFTF. You bear in mind, we didn’t operate the way a commercial power plant operates, because we were a research facility. And what we had going on inside of the reactor was experimentation. We were proving that all of the materials and all of the equipment that were necessary to operate a fast reactor could be done safely and within the bounds of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s licensing agreements. So that this could move from a research and development technology to a commercial technology. That’s what we were doing at the time. So we started up and shut down according to what the tests were in the reactor at that time. It was very important that those materials have the length of exposure and the density of exposure that was necessary in order for us to show how that particular equipment or that particular material reacted under the worst possible conditions.
Franklin: Okay. And so how long did the facility operate for as a research facility?
Munn: It operated about a decade.
Franklin: About a decade.
Munn: Uh-huh, yes. And it was closed down in increments. There were a number of individuals and organizations that tried very hard to persuade the Department of Energy that the Fast Flux Test Facility should be continued to be operated as a producer of medical isotopes. It was one of the few facilities that could do that, because of the enormous range of flux that we were able to provide to the material inside. Although it had not been built specifically for that purpose, we were able to show that we could have produced a number of very unusual, very rare, very much needed isotopes. And could pay for about 70% to 80% for the operating costs of the FFTF. The response that we got back was, no, we won’t consider that unless the entire cost could be covered. This didn’t make any sense to me, because the many—there was no other facility in the DOE complex that paid its own way completely. You know, that just—that wasn’t why. The organization was funded by Congress. But we never quite understood the politics. There was general consensus among the folks that I knew that the shutdown was a political activity and not really and truly a technical one. Because we had fulfilled our mission. The original mission was to prove, as I said, that the materials and machinery that’s necessary to operate an advanced reactor could be—could meet NRC requirements. We’d proved that we could do that. And what we were attempting to do was to convince the establishment that there were other extremely beneficial uses for this machine and that we should continue to run it. But since the decision had been made not to pursue the advanced reactor concept in the US—I really shouldn’t get into that, because I get pretty rabid when I think about the terrible destruction that was done to the nuclear technology in the United States during that particular period. But that’s water under the bridge and can’t be undone. But because that advanced program had been shut down, and we had fulfilled the original purpose, then the position was, you’re toast.
Franklin: Was this work taken on in the private sector, then? Because you mentioned—
Munn: It would have been taken on in the private sector. Now, what we do in this country is a little odd. We have over 35,000 procedures a day in the United States that require manufactured isotope of some kind. We get over 90% of those isotopes from other reactors outside the United States. So, we in our medical profession and maintaining the health of the nation rely heavily on other nations’ ability to produce these and to transmit them to us in a period of time where they’re still useful. Because when you’re talking about medical isotopes, you’re talking about short-lived isotopes. They have to be—they have to give off their energy quickly in a precise way in order for it to be useful. If you’re going to keep them for long periods of time, the high density of energy that you need has dissipated because of the half-life of isotopes. Now, we could talk about that for a long time, too. But the sad thing is that we could have had that facility operating right up to this day, in my personal opinion, producing isotopes. And we opted not to do it.
Franklin: Can you—or are you willing to speculate on the political motivations for shutting the program down?
Munn: I think the political motivation is—was then, and still is—more fear than any other single thing. The most commonly misunderstood physical phenomenon in this world, of which I’m aware, is nuclear radiation. We have—we, being the technical community and the nuclear world—have allowed other people to define our terms and define our reality. It was a serious mistake. We spent the first 20 or 30 years of our existence telling people that this was an extremely technical science they shouldn’t worry their heads about; we’ll take care of it. And then when you’re dealing with an educated public—and we do have an educated public here—you’ve sold them short. And you’ve allowed them not to be learning on the same curve you’re learning on. That—to me, that should have happened. And we have technical people arguing about whether or not one additional millirem or gray or whatever unit you want to use is more dangerous than it actually is. And how one of anything can begin a huge cascade of cancer in anybody—this is all statistical garbage. It’s not true. It cannot be. But that aside, you know, we send people to policy-making positions—we elect people to policy-making positions who attempt to do a good job but who don’t know how things like radiation work. And when we have folks with concrete financial agenda going to them saying, these frightening things are happening to people and they’re happening because of this dreadful thing we call radiation, and it needs to be stopped. Then how can you expect a policy to allow an advanced technology to continue when the basic response to the word is fear? We’ve done it to ourselves to some degree. But we’ve allowed policy to continue when it just should not be—perhaps I’m overstating the case, but I don’t believe so. I truly believe fear of radiation is what has hamstrung humanity’s best hope for a continuation of adequate energy supply indefinitely.
Franklin: What about the linking between nuclear and weapons, that was strengthened—started in World War II and strengthened throughout the Cold War? Do you think that might have a role in people’s perceptions of nuclear power?
Munn: Oh, of course it does. One of my favorite comments is the one made by someone much more observant than I that if the electric chair had been invented before the electric light, we would have no electricity today. And I think that may be an apt comparison. We also have a tendency to believe that the effects of that—of nuclear weapons—are much more long-lasting than they actually have been shown to be. But that’s not a good headline, you know? Why bother with that? That doesn’t raise anybody’s ire and doesn’t even start a good argument.
Franklin: It’s not quite as bad as you thought, but it’s still pretty terrible.
Munn: It’s pretty terrible, yeah, there’s no question. So are wars of all kinds. I wouldn’t want to be in Syria right now, either.
Franklin: Yeah. When did you retire from the Hanford Site?
Munn: I left with Westinghouse. I always said that I would. The political and managerial aspect of what transpired changed rather radically when Westinghouse took over the large responsibility for the full site in 1986. Prior to that time, Westinghouse Hanford had been a rather small organization. We only had—what—3,000 or 4,000 employees, and we concentrated in the 400 Area. We were research and development. When the bid was made for the larger contract that covered all of the Site and took in the waste sites, the old production reactors, took on all of the legacy of the World War II—of the original Manhattan Project, a great deal changed in how things were operating. Then, later, in that period when we—when the decision was made to go back to having multiple contractors rather than just one or two, then it became very uncertain in my mind what one was likely to be able to expect to do to fulfill their job requirements. And I had said, always, I came here for research and development on advanced reactors. I have been a part of that throughout our ability to do it. That’s now gone; Westinghouse is leaving the area, so am I. So that means that the end of 1995, I retired and ran for city council.
Franklin: And did you win? Did you make it to city council? Were you city council?
Munn: Yes. Yeah, I was. The next four years, which was a very interesting period in Richland city planning, as well. That’s another whole program. [LAUGHTER]
Franklin: Can you tell me about some of your professional service? I see that you are a member of Health Physics chapter and a member of the American Nuclear Engineers and a member of the Society of Women Engineers.
Munn: Yes, I’m a fellow of SWE—of the Society of Women Engineers. In 1976, when I became a senior in the department at Oregon State University, I was carrying an incredible load, trying to get through that last third year. But we had been, for a couple of years, we’d had a group of females—female engineering students—on campus that we had wanted to morph into a student section of the Society of Women Engineers. I was elected chair of that group, and that year we did become a full-fledged student member—full-fledged student section. So I was the initiating chair of that student section. The same year, the fellow who had chaired the American Nuclear Society’s already very well-established student section just made the announcement, oh, Wanda will take this for me next year, because we’re having a regional conference and there’s a whole lot that needs to be done. So Wanda can do that. Oh, good. So I was chair of both student sections on the Oregon State campus during the ’76-’77 year. And we did, as I said, we chartered the SWE section and we held the regional meeting for the ANS section. And somehow I managed to survive that. I’m not sure how. But when I came to—I came here—the Joint Center for Graduate Study had an interesting program that allowed an internship during summer for students. And so, as an, actually, still as a sophomore in the summer of ’76, I was here as an intern working in the FFTF offices at the time. And that was the year that this professional section, the Eastern Washington section of SWE was chartered as well. So I happened to be here during that charter. So for all intents and purposes, I’m a charter member of the current section. The Health Physics Society—in both organizations, I have been active throughout my life, both locally, regionally, and at the national level. I was inducted as a fellow of the Society of Women Engineers a few years ago. And I’ve served as—on the nominating committee and a couple of the other national committees for that organization. The American Nuclear Society—I’ve held all of the local offices and still remain in the position of—I’m called the historian. It’s kind of an honorific sort of thing. But I’m still very active in the local ANS section. I’ve chaired the National Environmental Sciences division for ANS. And I’ve received the national award for public information from ANS, along with a couple of other accolades of one type or another. The Health Physics Society, I’ve never belonged to the national organization, but stay closely connected to the membership and to the local Columbia chapter of Health Physics. The two—the American Nuclear Society and Health Physics Society overlap each other in interests so strongly that it’s almost impossible to be busy in one and not busy in another. So those three organizations have been a constant in my life since the mid-‘70s.
Franklin: Okay. Can you talk a bit about—I understand that you were invited to—that you’ve had your hands in both helping with the NIOSH and the EEOICPA.
Munn: Oh, yes.
Franklin: And so I was wondering if you could both tell us what those are and then kind of talk about your involvement. And I guess we’ll start with the NIOSH.
Munn: Okay, NIOSH I think is an acronym that I think is familiar to most people in the technical world. It’s actually the National Institute for Safety and Health that applies to everybody who works—has a workplace—in the United States. NIOSH was chosen to be the governing agency—I should say the administrative agency for a bill that was signed into law during the very latest days of the Clinton Administration. It was put together as a legislation to compensate workers in all aspects of the Department of Energy’s weapons sites during the entire period from the 1943 early activities here to the present. One thinks of the weapons complex as being the three major DOE sites: Hanford, Los Alamos, and Oak Ridge. The truth of the matter is there are over 230 sites that are covered by this particular act, because there were institutions that ranged from just over a mom-and-pop shop to Bethlehem Steel that were involved in one way or another in what we term the weapons complex. PANTEX in Amarillo is a huge facility as well. The Portsmouth facility. There are—you know, it—as I said, it goes on more than 230 sites. The concept here was that there were people who had been seriously—whose health had been adversely affected by their work in these communities. And of course, there is some of that that’s true. But the real impetus of this bill was to compensate people who had cancer as a result of radiation exposures that they had suffered. Now, one needs to begin, from my perspective, by understanding that there is no evidence of a statistically significant increase in cancers in any of these populations. And yet our Congress says—states that they believe folks have been dying like flies as a result of having been exposed to the radiation that they worked in. This organization was then, in accordance with the law, put together during the first years—first two years of this century. And President George Bush was charged with the responsibility of putting together an advisory board for this group as required by law. So, that was done in 2001. Our first meeting—I was requested by the White House to be a member of that group. I accepted, and became one of the original members of the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health. This is supposed to be the citizens’ advisory portion of the energy employees act with the long name to which you referred.
Munn: Yes. Energy Employees Occupational Illness and—
Munn: Compensation Act, right?
Franklin: Something like that, yeah. We missed the P, but—
Munn: Yeah, that’s—I’m not sure. That activity has gone on now from that time to the present. I’ve been a member of it during that entire time. It has now distributed more than 13 billion, with a B, dollars to people across the United States who have a situation where they both have cancer and they also have worked at one of the complexes for more than 250 days. And this is not the appropriate place for me to state my real concerns about that. But I do not believe that this is a reasonable approach. The local newspapers are—I shouldn’t say newspapers—the local newspaper is a member of a national newspaper chain. And that newspaper chain just last year or the year before ran a series of articles about this particular action with a great deal of really, really heartrending material about people’s lives that have been ravaged by cancer. And there’s no way one can shortchange that. But I take issue with the assertion that those things are a result of workplace when there’s no evidence to show that’s the case. Nevertheless, that’s a continuing concern, and one of the frightening things that people continue to say over and over again with respect to our technology.
Franklin: Mm-hm. What would you like future generations to know about working at Hanford and/or living in Richland during the Cold War and afterwards?
Munn: It was, I like to remind people, a cold war. The purpose of all that was the assumption that if you work from a position of absolute strength, that you can deter the use of the weapons that we don’t want to use by someone else. And that if we’re assured, ourselves, we’re not going to be first strikers, then it gives us a feeling of protecting ourselves by being strong. That is a reality of the time in which we live. It can be changed in a number of ways. And politically, probably will morph into other things continually throughout human history for as long as human history continues. But being here during that time, was—would seem frightening to many people. It was never frightening to me; quite to the contrary, it was interesting in the extreme. But you must bear in mind that I actually was not involved in the nuclear proliferation issues. Quite to the contrary, the technology that I was dealing with was utilizing plutonium—we used mixed oxide fuels—was utilizing plutonium as a fuel to create electricity and to make nuclear isotopes—medical isotopes. And it used the plutonium and the other weapons materials as a fuel to create energy that we needed domestically and at the same time generate more fuel that can be used to continue to generate electricity ad infinitum. That seems like pie in the sky to so many people, but it is not pie in the sky. It’s a technology over which we have control, and we can do it. So, the way the weapons program is viewed is not something I can truly address appropriately, simply because that wasn’t a part of my life. I didn’t—I wasn’t horrified by it. I felt that it was a necessary part of the historic time in which we were living. I agree that we’ve done a good job of ramping that down in terms of nuclear arsenals. But the concept of not maintaining strength in that regard is extremely unwise to me. Being in Richland is living in a cocoon. It’s very much like living in an advanced university community. The people with whom you interact and the things about which you talk, the way your lives are lived is connected to, but not the same as, what transpires outside the cocoon. Because it is so densely populated with people and with ideas that are concentrated on a limited number of activities. So I’ve never felt anything but extremely safe in Richland. I have a hard time getting my mind around the fears that we—in my efforts to provide information to folks, I’m continually running across people like educators and physicians, especially in the Seattle area and in the heavy-population corridor on the west side of the state who are fearful of driving down Highway 240, for absolutely no reason except that they think there’s a mysterious ray of some kind that reaches us all. And they can’t understand what I’m talking about when I say, hey, the heaviest radiation you’re getting is—you’re absolutely right, it’s from the biggest reactor. We can’t control it; it’s completely out of our hands. You call it the Sun; I just call it a great big reactor. Yeah, that’s where you’re getting your radiation. Whether you’re driving down the highway that surrounds the Site, or whether you’re on the beach in Waikiki. It doesn’t really and truly matter. You’re being irradiated.
Franklin: Or if you fly on a plane, right, you’re exposed to higher background—
Munn: Oh, absolutely, absolutely.
Munn: If you live in Denver, hey. Or I can move from Richland to Spokane and almost double my external exposure. Because we have very low exposure here in Richland, contrary to popular belief. But the sad thing about this entire time, from my perspective, is the facts don’t matter. What people feel in their gut matters. That’s what’s driving us as human beings; apparently, it always has. Living here is a true experience. I’ve enjoyed it. I’m always surprised when people say there’s nothing to do in Richland. My problem is—probably because I’m continually invested in technical activities of some sort—my problem is, I don’t have enough time on my calendar. But it’s true. It’s an interesting, interesting place to live for a technical person, and I’ve enjoyed it immensely. It’s been a fascinating period of life. I’m very fortunate to have lived to be an ancient old lady. Very long in the tooth. And unfortunate that so many of my colleagues have already gone to their reward. Many of us feel highly rewarded, however, for having been here, having been a part of history. I have no feel for how much of this history is going to be written and how much of it’s going to be accurate. We all know, history’s written by the people who write history. And that’s very rarely the technical folks. So, what you’re doing with these oral histories, in my mind, is exceedingly important, not just to the technical community, but I think it’s very important for us now and in the future to hear the actual words of the people who were there. Remember the old—you may be too young to remember the You Are There little snippets of history that we used to get in the movie houses from time to time, and later on television. It’s nice, I think, to see the folks who were there, hear their words, and get some feel of the perception they had of their reality. It’s been a great ride, all the way from Model As to joint activities and the space crafts.
Franklin: Well, Wanda, thank you so much for such an enlightening and well-delivered interview. I really appreciate it.
Munn: Thank you. It’s been a wonderful, wonderful time to be here. Appreciate you, appreciate what Washington State University, and the national system are doing. It’s been a delight. And thank you to the long-gone Westinghouse Hanford Company. That was—and the Fast Flux Test Facility was and will always be an outstanding member of the research and development community. A facility like no other. We were very honored to be a part of it.
Franklin: Great. Well, thank you so much.
Munn: Thank you.
View interview on Youtube.
Years in Tri-Cities Area
Years on Hanford Site
Admiral Grace Hopper