Interview with Robert Parr
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Robert Franklin: And do you like to go by Robert or by Bob?
Robert Parr: Bob.
Parr: If I get going too far, Robert is usually a buzzword that causes me to refocus.
Franklin: Okay. We will have to put out your full legal name when we introduce you.
Franklin: But then I’ll refer to you as Bob from then on.
Parr: Yeah, okay.
Franklin: Okay, you ready Victor?
Victor Vargas: Yeah.
Franklin: Okay. My name is Robert Franklin. I’m conducting an oral history interview with Robert James Parr on November 17th, 2016. The interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. I will be talking with Bob about his experiences working at the Hanford Site. And for the record, can you state and spell your name?
Parr: My last name is spelled Parr, P-A-R-R. My first name is Robert, R-O-B-E-R-T. My middle name is James, J-A-M-E-S.
Franklin: Great, thank you. Thanks, Bob. So tell me how and why you came to the area to work at Hanford.
Parr: I graduated from WSU itself in 1973 with a degree in police science and administration.
Franklin: In Pullman.
Parr: Pullman, the big campus. And after I graduated, I went into work into law enforcement. I ended up in the late ‘70s working for the State of Washington State Liquor Control Board, long before cannabis, as an enforcement officer. It was a good agency, both regulatory and criminal enforcement. So it was—no day was the same. But when I looked at it, the pay and benefits weren’t what I thought they would be. And then I noticed—I saw an ad in I believe it was either the Seattle Times or Seattle Post Intelligencer that Atlantic Richfield Hanford—ARCO—was looking for people to work for them in their uniformed security group called the Hanford Patrol. So I checked it out, and I found out that their pay was much better than I was working for the state. So I went and interviewed with them at a hotel—I think it was the Doubletree, or is the Doubletree now at Southcenter in Renton, Washington. So I did the interview, and I noticed that everyone else being interviewed, we were all ex-military or law enforcement. So I took the interview, and then they offered me a job. I had previously applied with ARCO, and of course at that time the transition occurred, so it was now Rockwell Hanford. So they offered me a job starting in—I interviewed, I think, sometime in the December timeframe, and then right after New Year’s they offered me a job starting to work in February 1980. So I was married at the time, so we moved over to Tri-Cities, got an apartment, and I had done my physical and all the screening before. And then I started to work for Rockwell Hanford in February of 1980. My initial employment—my initial job was with Hanford Patrol. So, they had their own—they called it an academy, and it was at what is the 1100 Area, which used to be—one of the activities we did at the 1100 Area was the bus lot. Because we had buses onsite. So at the office where the buses were dispatched from, about the back third of it was the Hanford Patrol Training Academy. It wasn’t much, but that’s where I went to work, and initial training was about seven weeks. While I was there, I received my—I already had had a clearance from the Department of Energy—security clearance. So my security clearance showed up, and since I had a security clearance—many of my peers in this class—there were about 20 or 30 of us—didn’t have clearances, so they were work approvals, what we called WAs. But I had my Q security clearance, so I went right to work. My first assignment was in 200-West, 200-East, and 100-N. So I worked out at the north end of the site for a couple months. And then I got reassigned to 300 Area, which was a composite area of—we did fuels production and research there. So it was the contractors—we had Rockwell providing security and fire services and transportation. United Nuclear was operating fuels production for the N Reactor at the north end of 300 Area. We also had Northwest National Labs, Battelle Memorial who was operating in there; they had several facilities. And then Westinghouse Hanford was doing fuel production and research for the Fast Flux Test Facility, which wasn’t online yet, but almost was nearing completion. So I did that for—I was there for quite some time. And then about less than six months after I showed up, I got promoted. The Hanford Project, the uniformed security and protection onsite hadn’t really adjusted to changing times in society there. They issued us revolvers, and that was when revolvers were starting to be phased out. Automatics, or a more modern sidearm, was being issued. So the big change in technology was their alarm systems. Westinghouse Hanford had led the way. They actually wrote the software. We were using computer-operated security system at 300 and 400 Areas, 400 being Fast Flux Test Facility. So I got to get in on the ground floor of that. I participated in the acceptance test process for both 300 and 400 Areas. We brought the system online. It was state of the art. Westinghouse had gone out and found the best equipment and the best systems, and then wrote their own software for the system. So it was much beyond the old analog systems we used to have onsite. Many of the alarm systems at that point, particularly ones at the Plutonium Finishing Plant were technology from the ‘50s and were probably installed in the ‘60s. And here it was the ‘80s—and the mid-‘80s by now. So we did that, and eventually Rockwell, they also put in a similar system at Plutonium Finishing Plant. But they had a problem: the people that they hired to write their software were two guys in a garage. And it didn’t go well. God bless them for trying, but it didn’t go well. So they ended up buying the Westinghouse software and then they had their software people come in and make some adjustments to it based on their equipment. So they were similar systems. So I got qualified to operate all of them, and shortly thereafter I got promoted again. So now, instead of being a supervisor in an alarm facility on a rotating basis, I was now the coordinator responsible for all four rotating shifts, first at 300 Area and eventually at Fast Flux Test Facility. So I did that until 1993. During that time, Department of Energy was also ramping up its efforts on security, trying to be a little more professional and coming into a more modern era. So they had developed a central training academy down at DOE Albuquerque, at that field office. So they came up to Hanford, and they had developed a training program to teach supervisors on security forces how to train their employees. So I took it, and that worked good. But I was also—when I first moved to Tri-Cities I was on Coast Guard Reserve and I drilled at Station Kennewick, a small search and rescue. It’s the navigation station. So I drilled there, but the Coast Guard started downsizing in the Reagan administration. So I shifted over to the Army National Guard, and shortly after I joined the National Guard, they sent me to a school to learn how to be what the Army called an instructor. So all of the sudden I had two pieces of paper—one from the Department of Energy and one from the Army—saying I was an instructor. Well, in 1993 I was offered a job at Plutonium Finishing Plant with the training department. So in the fall of ’93, I left Safeguard and Security, the Hanford Patrol, and went to work at Plutonium Finishing Plant as a—you could call it instructor, but the official job title was Training Specialist. And then they went through several changes, so I think I’ve been a technical instructor, I’ve been a senior training specialist, and so four or five different job title changes; same job. At Plutonium Finishing Plant, they hadn’t quite—they had a vacancy, so they put me in it, and initially my manager’s idea was, well, you can assist someone on a key training project. So I got assigned as the second instructor on several training projects. And then one day, he walked in—the manager walked in, and he was looking for one of the employees that I was paired up with on one of the projects. And he said, well, where is he? And I said, I don’t know. He said, well, are you running that class today? And I go, what class? Because my peer and I hadn’t even talked about it. So next thing I know, I was now the person responsible or person-in-charge at Plutonium Finishing Plant. And it was a program we set up in response to a finding: when you have an event in those days, they would investigate it and then they would figure out what the corrective actions would be. So the finding, the corrective action, was that we would start a training program at Plutonium Finishing Plant for person-in-charge. So we mirrored it after a similar program at FFTF. And next thing I know, I’m running a training program, and we’re putting all the supervisors—the workforce supervisors in the plant are going through it so they can learn how to perform work at the plant. Almost all our work at the plant was done in either procedures or work package. Work packages were usually maintenance- or construction-related. So I got to be the—my title soon became the PIC-meister. Because not only did I have to coordinate their training, but I also had to develop their certification and qualification. So I did that much of the time I was there. And then other programs started going my way. I also ended up teaching Safety Basis. Because at a DOE facility, it’s somewhat similar to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission-regulated facility, an operating commercial reactor. But their idea is that the Safety Basis is those documents, those commitments that have been made on how the plant can be operated. In other words, to a non-commercial DOE facility, it’s your operating license. So every time we proposed an activity, we had to look—or sometimes even a construction or maintenance package, we had to ensure it was within the Safety Basis. So I ended up teaching that course. So pretty soon my work focus seemed to be emergent training. Anything we had an event or an incident, where training was needed the day before yesterday, it ended up on my plate. So that’s what I did. By that time I was in the Army National Guard, and then after 9/11 happened, the 27th of September that year, I got a phone call at work telling me to come in. So I cleared work as fast as I could, came home. My eldest daughter was living with me. She fixed a boxed lunch for me, and I got in the car and I started driving towards Fort Lewis. And that first time I was gone sixteen months. Then I was home and I left again for a year-and-a-half. Went to Iraq twice. And then I came back, and in between that, there was all kinds of little three- to four-week taskings from the Army. And then in 2008, I left for four months, and came back for three months, and then I left in—January 2010, I got a phone call, and the phone call was, Sergeant Major, are you going to be on the plane tomorrow? I go, what plane? Well, you’re flying to Afghanistan tomorrow. Well, thanks, could you send me a set of orders? So they faxed a set of orders, and I walked up to my manager and said, I’ve got to leave. And that was about 9:00 in the morning, and by—before 11:00 I was turning in all my keys, my security badge and everything, and I was leaving. And then I didn’t come home for two years. And I came back, and by that time, President Obama was President of the United States. He used stimulus money to many federal agencies. And the Department of Energy took it, but their approach was a little bit different. While in the Army, we used some of it, but we hired companies to come in to do work for the Department of Defense. Whereas DOE used the approach of having their contractors hire more employees. So I came back and the stimulus money was running out and they were overstaffed. So the next—they offered a voluntary reduction of force, a layoff, early retirement. So I asked my management what my retirement’s worth. And they—so I drove down to, I think it was Stevens Center, not far from WSU Tri-Cities. And I walked in and they went over my retirement with me, and god bless them, they gave me credit for time served. Not like a jail sentence, but my time on active duty with the National Guard. So I raised my right hand and said, I’ll take it. And I left, and my last day was the end of September in 2011. And I had four years of great veteran’s benefits through the VA bill. So I took my veterans benefits and came back to WSU Tri-Cities this time. No athletic eligibility so the university couldn’t screw with me much. And I got another degree.
Franklin: And what’s your degree, what was that degree in?
Parr: The second degree is a Bachelor of Arts in Social Science. So I got to take all those cool classes that—the first time around, I declared my major the first year. And in the early ‘70s, once you declared your major, your goose was cooked, you took what they told you. They offered you a very narrow pathway. So the second time around I got to take fun things like economics and lots of psychology and some English courses. A lot of history. So I think I developed into a better-educated, much broader person.
Franklin: That’s really fascinating.
Franklin: Good to see someone come in the social sciences, too, as a historian. So I see here on some of the notes Emma had written up that your father worked at Hanford as well?
Parr: My father was an Army officer. Hanford started out as an Army project. Corps of Engineers and the DuPont Corporation, which was quite a corporation back in the day. It still is. But they did a lot of work for the government in the ordnance field. And the Navy used the approach—because the Navy was heavily involved—not heavily—but involved in the Manhattan Project, and they were doing some of the uranium research. So the Navy ran it through their Ordnance Corps. The Army ran it through the Corps of Engineers, but the Corps of Engineers didn’t have all the resources. So one of the things was, because at the time Hanford was believed to be a viable target in the event of total war. So initially we sided—my father was Coast Artillery which later became Antiaircraft Artillery. So my father was one of the officers that was detailed here temporarily to site the guns. And they did some site work, and eventually that siting work, when they put one of the Nike systems—the missiles, to ring the Hanford Site and I believe around Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane. Some of the siting work that they had done in the ‘40s was used to site the missiles when, I believe, they were being placed in the ‘50s. So my dad was here temporarily. He was one of a lot—a lot of Army personnel came and went. I think people get the—we even had MPs here. We of course had antiaircraft artillery which later became air defense. So for many years there was a heavy Army presence here. It wasn’t totally—it wasn’t like you’d see an Army uniform everywhere, but Colonel Matthias was the commanding officer. And a very unique approach, because his approach was that—and Dad told me about it—his approach was that he was the commanding officer, and he was responsible. Later, when I came back to work here, I didn’t see that same attitude with the Department of Energy. Because one of the things I noticed is—I worked for a lot of contractors. First started looking at ARCO, then it was—when I came here it was Rockwell Hanford, then it was Westinghouse Hanford, then it was Babcock & Wilcox, which a lot of people think of them as the maritime boiler company, but they’re also heavy into the nuclear business. A great company to work for. They were only here for a year. And then it was with Fluor. Then eventually when they broke up all the little contracts, I worked for a company called NREP, which was the training contractor—one of the training contractors onsite. And then eventually after I left, after I retired, NREP went away and they consolidated back. One of the things that I noticed about DOE is a contractor will be—of course they don’t screw with Battelle. It’s hard to screw with those guys because they do great work for a lot of different things, and they’re on the cutting edge of so many different technologies and they’re so important to our national wellbeing. But DOE would start beating up on the contractors. So you know that contractor’s probably going to be on its way out. And Department of Energy over the years—god bless them. They’re great Americans. But they can’t seem to make up their mind how they’re going to run. Sometimes it’s—when I first came here it was five or six principal contractors, and then they went to one big contractor, and then they broke it down again, and then they subcontracted out a lot of work, and then now they’re bringing it back.
Franklin: Do you think that has to do with the fact that DOE—higher-ups in DOE are subject to political appointments?
Parr: Not only the political appointments but also the budget process. But I don’t see that constant shifting—you see it in other federal agencies, cabinet-level agencies, but not the extent that DOE does it. It’s almost like, well, we can’t do it. And then oftentimes, I’ve known—I think one of the things that’s responsible for a lot of—for some of the problems—we didn’t have a lot of problems—but some of the events we had out at Hanford were directly related to the field office, Department of Energy Richland. They’re great people and everything, but sometimes I think the guidance they gave, and oftentimes the funding for the program was stopped at the end of the fiscal year, we were told, don’t spend any more money on it, leave it as-is, do something else. Well, that’s kind of what happened at the PRF explosion. But it wasn’t DOE—it wasn’t the field office’s fault? Strange.
Franklin: Can you talk a bit more about that event? That was in ’97?
Franklin: And you were working at PFP—
Parr: I was in a training group. It occurred on a weekend. So got to work, and you could actually see the—some of the—you had to know what to look for, but you could see the external damage to the facility. And of course, I had been involved in training the shift supervisor. I was at his oral board when he qualified as shift supervisor, because I supported oral—one of the things I got assigned with was supporting the oral boards. So I was at his oral board, and I’d known him for several years, and I thought he was probably one of our better shift supervisors at Plutonium Finishing Plant. But I had—I noticed, as we did it, and then they came looking for the training packages, well, we never—we did initial training on operating of PRF, but it got stopped, they withdrew the money from it. So I don’t even know where the training packages were. But they were concerned—and I noticed that our emergency response to the event was flawed. We didn’t respond well. We hadn’t trained on it, and we hadn’t really devoted a lot of time and effort to emergency preparedness. It hadn’t been a focus. So I got involved in the corrective action. I ended up teaching. We now instituted a drill program at the plant. So I got involved in the drill training program. In other words, how to train people that are working the drills. Many of us were ex-military, so we understood how to run a drill. No big thing. But we had a formal training program. I ended up adding some material to the PIC training program. So there were a lot of corrective actions, and eventually we demonstrated readiness to go back to work. But the issue still was we were told to stop working at PRF. So it just—and we didn’t really devote—we should have devoted time—we should have had the resources to look back at that and figure out what the hazards were that were still remaining in PRF. But we were told not to spend any more money on it. So when it’s the end of the fiscal year and you’ve got no Costco to charge activities to, you don’t work.
Franklin: Our project’s grant funded.
Franklin: We’re a subcontractor, so I understand. Can you talk a bit about—so you would have been at Hanford during that—and I think on patrol during that transition period when the Cold War ended and when production wrapped up and we shifted into this new phase. I wonder if you could talk about that transition.
Parr: Well, the big transition initially was—and the one was much harder to discern—was the transition from the Carter administration to the Reagan administration. All of the sudden—it was much easier to see in the National Guard, because all of the sudden, new equipment started showing up and you started getting money to train with and send soldiers to schools. But here at Hanford we started getting new equipment. That’s when we—security had pretty much done—we’d upgraded all our alarm systems. But then we started getting money for communication systems, Hanford Patrol’s initial entry training started changing. And I noticed it elsewhere onsite, because we went from kind of a standby mode as far as defense work then, to actively producing material. Really significant change. And that went on for several years. As the Reagan administration ended and we went into President Bush’s administration, the level of effort kind of reached its maximum, as far as funding for defense work. And then I remember when the wall came down, we kind of backed off defense work. And then, okay, stop that, we’ve got enough plutonium. We closed down PUREX. FFTF was going away because they decided that that type of reactor wasn’t going to be it, even though we had received funding from the Japanese to do work. And they couldn’t find research work for FFTF, so they started shutting it down. Even though it was, at the time, it was probably the most modern reactor the Department of Energy had. But we had never, never gone to the idea of making a dual-purpose reactor and producing power. We’d done the engineering studies for it, we’d done some of the preliminary design work, but we never installed them.
Franklin: I thought N Reactor was.
Parr: N Reactor was, but we were going to do that to FFTF. So we’d actually—there was actually a piece of ground at the Fast Flux Test Facility where they were going to do that. And the engineering and preliminary design work had been done. So we kind of shifted from that, and it’s as if we were struggling for a national energy policy—where are we going to go?
Parr: So we kind of—and the N Reactor—when Chernobyl went, the N Reactor, I believe, was in a fueling outage—its annual outage. So then we began to look at the fact that the N Reactor was a unique reactor. Very effective, very economical to run. Washington Public Power Supply System had built their generation plant next to it. But the political—Chernobyl caused a lot of—well, obviously, it was a severe blow to the Soviet Union. And the Ukrainian people are still having to deal with it. But the ramifications and fallout from any event in an industry, and nuclear’s probably one of the more visible ones, causes a ripple effect elsewhere. And our ripple effect was we never—we did the engineering analysis, but I think the political outcry was a little bit too much to reopen—or resume production at the N Reactor. Then also we really didn’t need any more plutonium; we had sufficient for national defense. So it kind of became the issue. There’s a lot of politics. So let’s go into that for a minute. Let’s talk red and blue states. Red being the party—a red is a Republican state; a blue state being a Democratic state. We are a blue state. Both US Senators come from the other side of the mountains. In this area we have one voice in Congress that speaks for us, the local congressman. So when even Spokane, which is Republican, too, when it begins to turn against this industry and this area, then politically it becomes no longer viable. Then of course we had—the congressional delegation from Oregon was speaking out against it. So it becomes politically unviable.
Franklin: Right, right. It was kind of—Chernobyl kind of kicked off like a perfect storm to just kind of hurt the nuclear industry and Hanford.
Parr: And then—I believe it was 2000—there was an event in Japan, a criticality at a production facility. And that also caused a wave of consternation. Although it was interesting, because one of the subjects I instructed at PFP was criticality safety. And we were very diligent about it. We did refresher—everyone got a—you got your initial site training and then because you worked at PFP, we had a PFP specific class talking about the risks we had for criticality safety. And then we had an annual refresher course. So we looked at what was going on in the industry, using the lessons learned, and some of the changes in process we were doing to plan. It was usually a one- to two-hour refresher class every year. So we looked at all that. But when the Japanese had their event it was kind of interesting. Some of the experts—or the people I depended on to give me advice on what to put in the training event—were criticality safety experts from Northwest National Labs. And all of a sudden, I’m calling someone—well, he’s not here. Well, where is he? Well, he’s in Japan. Then I realized, okay. So, some of our top people in our industry from right here at Hanford went over to deal with the issue.
Franklin: Interesting. You worked for a lot of different contractors. That’s always kind of a—it’s interesting to me how, you know, because we say Hanford Site, but that really obscures the organization of the site and the work. I’m just wondering if you could talk a bit more about that—shifting between contractors like that, and how that affected the mission of the site, how that might have affected employee morale, and how it kind of affected you personally.
Parr: Well, I think that the big transition—because I got here after Rockwell had come in. So I’m working for Site Safeguard and Security. And I get my paycheck from Rockwell. But I work at 300 Area, which in those days—United Nuclear was about 10 to 15% of the puzzle. Because I knew—I saw what our funding was for security services coming from. But most of it came from Westinghouse Hanford, Northwest National Labs, Battelle Memorial. And I noticed that, working with their security staffs from all four companies, that they were very—Northwest National Labs was very, very different. The people they had working their security programs were security professionals. They were very much into assets protection. Not only people, but information and also property. So assets protection was very big for them. One of the things that I—the first thing that struck me was when I went to work at 300 Area, they’ve got a book—a three-ring binder—and it’s got every one of their facilities with a floorplan and a description of what’s there, is there any special nuclear material there, are there any classified document storage areas? You know, what is the security force protecting? Incredible. No one else had one. Westinghouse was pretty much on the same level. Very much an administrative security. Had great programs. If you needed—if something unusual happened and you needed their management’s approval on it to get it, you were talking on the phone with those people and usually within three to five minutes, they’d be calling you. Incredible. They had a different mindset. They were building FFTF at the time, and they were very much—their corporate and company philosophy was very much on operating reactors. Because they built reactors, they built reactor vessels themselves, so they were very much into that commercial power production. They were a large government contractor, not only for DOE but other agencies. They did a lot of defense work. They did a lot of work for other federal agencies: Department of Treasury, Department of the Interior, Department of Justice. So there was a big mindset of meeting the customer’s needs. Westinghouse was very employee oriented. Of course they were only about 1,500 employees, whereas Rockwell was several thousand more. So it was very interesting working for Rockwell but being in a Westinghouse Battelle UNC facility. So I kind of—we kind of felt like orphans. It’s like—no, I’m very serious. Each one of the contractors had their own company newspaper. So, Rockwell, we’d get it two or three days later. Westinghouse, the day it was published, it was brought by our building, too. Even though everyone that worked in that building except for the janitor—the custodial staff—was a Rockwell employee, Westinghouse delivered it. They reached out to us. And then when they ran the big—at that time, and that’s when DOE field office went to one big contractor—of course Battelle had their own thing. So that didn’t change. But all of the sudden, it’s like the management of my own group was very—they worked in a Rockwell facility at the north end of the site. They weren’t too happy. But we didn’t have any problems making the transition, but they did. There was a lot of turmoil—not a lot, but a significant amount of turmoil in the north end of the site, particularly in Safeguard and Security, because all of the sudden Westinghouse had a successful program and they went out there and they weren’t impressed by some of the programs they found.
Franklin: So that’s the reason, then, for some of that turmoil or hard feelings?
Parr: Oh, yeah. Westinghouse, you didn’t want to lose control of special nuclear material. That’s really a bad thing. And Westinghouse’s standard, how they did their administrative program and their controls, was much more developed, much more thorough. So when they moved in—so now they’re taking over Plutonium Finishing Plant, which had a large amount of plutonium back in the days. They weren’t—it was kind of a shock to Westinghouse. Oh, we’ve got all this—before it was just fuel components. Now they’ve got weapons grade material that’s designed for ultimate defense work—the end use being defense work. So there was a little turmoil there, but then in about six months it all kind of evaporated. And then employees were actually sad when Westinghouse left. Because Westinghouse was much more attuned to employee communication, employee benefits. Rockwell—it was kind of interesting. I remember one time I had to go to east. This is where Rockwell Hanford’s corporate office was. I go out there and I’m walking around and I look, and in all these offices—even in cubicles—because there was some offices, but there was also cubicle land. You’d walk out and you’d see pictures of the B-1 Bomber which was a Rockwell aircraft, when Rockwell still made aircraft. And I’m looking around, and down at Westinghouse, everyone was an ex-Navy nuke or ex-commercial power nuke. But out at Rockwell, they were all refugees from when the B-1 program got canceled, so Rockwell moved all these engineers out here. So it was a very different mindset: the aviation versus naval nuclear and the commercial nuclear industry.
Franklin: Interesting. So you said Rockwell was the aviation.
Parr: Yeah, North American Rockwell, the old aviation company. Probably the most famous aircraft that—I’m sure that they made other ones—but the one that comes to mind is the P-51 Mustang. That was their biggie.
Franklin: You’ve mentioned of the older security systems that were still in place in the 80s and you said analog. Can you give me an example of an analog security system?
Parr: Well, it was a system where the point of where the actual, shall we say, sensor, whether it’s a magnetic or whatever, when contact is broken it sends—you lose connectivity, so it would send a signal and it would—the little mechanical panel would go red and make an audible tone and go red. So kind of a dated technology, whereas--
Franklin: How would you track that from a central area?
Parr: Well, it’d be hardwired, usually to a facility that would be nearby.
Parr: At PFP, the alarm facility—the central alarm facility was a little wooden building—no, I’m serious—
Franklin: I believe you.
Parr: --that was near the main entry point into the plant.
Parr: But a more modern system would—you could actually, you’d get—the signal would—you could actually query the signal to see the strength of signal and is it because the system—there’s a power problem? In other words, is there a problem with the system, or is it an actual alarm? So you could query it back. And there were no microwaves, there were no—they were usually—their presence detectors were very limited in capability and obviously, no cameras—or very few cameras.
Franklin: So like CCTV would have been a big introduction.
Parr: So when they did install CCTV, there was—the fuels production facility was the first one to bring it online. They actually had—you could see the entry point into the secured area, you could see the hallways, you could see the primary rooms where the primary points of value were. And then on the perimeter, they normally had fixed cameras, pan-tilt zoom, but then they also had cameras with low-light capability, with flood lights on them. So it was much—and then there was actually a perimeter fence line and security system. Although at the 300 Area it was kind of dicey, because we were retrofitting a security system into an area where there’d been none. So there was some areas you couldn’t put a double fence line, so we ended up with a single fence line, supplanted with motion detectors—microwave motion detectors. And then they also had a fence that was monitored. They called it a taut wire system, because it was a weapon that if it ever were touched—and sometimes by small animals or tumbleweed—we seem to have some of that out here at Hanford—it would go off. So you’d take a look on the camera, see what it was.
Franklin: Oh, okay, yeah I bet that would help you reduce a lot of false alarms.
Parr: One year after a fire—we seem to have fires out at—well, range fires at Hanford are not unknown. But we had one fire, and I can remember at FFTF that the debris from the fire kept plugging up our perimeter system for several days thereafter until we got a work crew in there to actually pick up the debris and partially burned pieces and the full tumbleweeds. Because the fire would generate a lot of heat in the air, so not only do you have debris from the fire itself, but you also have debris being moved by the air currents. And the way the wind was blowing off Rattlesnake Mountain.
Franklin: Did you—sorry, I’m just looking over some of my notes here, and I wanted to ask you about—oh, shoot. It says here that in the 1980s, you helped during an anti-nuclear protest at the Federal Building?
Parr: Oh, I remember that. No, I didn’t do it. I was on duty that day. And what we’d done is, in the ‘80s we had anti-nuclear protests. And we believed that one was going to be big. So Safeguard and Security and the Hanford Patrol being the uniformed service, they pulled a lot of us in to work that day, and then they took key people—and they actually had buses from Site Transportation, they were going to take care of the demonstrators. Because once they crossed onto the Federal Building property, that was DOE’s area of responsibility, no longer the city’s. So anyway, there’s about—there weren’t that many protestors, perhaps 20 or 40 at most downtown. So there were all these people, and we probably had 50 to 70 people staged and ready to go. Get the buses, put them on the buses, and take them to the federal magistrate. Then all of the sudden, there’s a call come out. There’s people without badges inside West Area at the north end of the site. And apparently—we’re down—I think I was at either—I can’t remember if I was at the 300 Area in the alarm facility or 400 Area—but I’m listening to this, and all of the sudden the frequency’s going crazy—patrol’s primary operating frequency—and then the second frequency, the tactical frequency, is getting busy too. You can hear the voices on the radio, a little bit of stress going on. And we’re all laughing like hell, because, you know, hey, that’s where the weapons-grade material is. Aren’t we protecting that? Of course, we were heretics. We’re giggling, you know. It’s funny because it’s not happening to us; it’s happening to someone else. Because we had additional staff at 300 Area and we had additional staff at FFTF because it’s an operating reactor at the time. So apparently what the demonstrators had done is they walked in from Highway 240, and West Area isn’t that far in. They’d walked in, hopped over the outer fence, a single fence line in West Area—hopped over the fence line in West Area and they’re marching towards—and of course, unless you know West Area, the big, tall, long buildings all look alike. They’ve all got stacks and water towers. You can’t tell the difference between one of the old canyon buildings—one of the old production facilities—and PFP. So, all of the sudden, they’ve got protestors in West Area, but all their resources, except for the bare minimum, are downtown. But then it gets even better. When they got the protestors, they put them on a bus, and they thought they’d just being going to the district court in Kennewick. No, took them to the federal magistrate, out of town.
Parr: Yeah. So, it was kind of funny. But we had gone and—the funny thing was, because of the—they actually, in those days, most of us wore tactical uniform, camouflage or whatever. But the people who were actually going to detain and transport the protestors all had to be in full uniform, you know, pants and shirt and badge. So it was one of the better events.
Franklin: I interviewed a gentleman a while back who worked at PFP who talked about when they would load the product up, and there would be very heavy security and people that almost looked like they were in black ops, or like very—I was wondering, were you ever involved in any of that or did you—
Parr: The Department of Energy had a courier program, and they were based, I think, at Albuquerque at the time. And they usually had a transport vehicle and escort vehicles. They were specially trained to protect the shipments. There’s other ways to move things, but usually once a weapon is produced, it’s turned over to the military, and their transport is their responsibility. But components—whether it’s plutonium or whatever—would usually be transported by the courier group. When they took all the material out—and that happened while I was—probably most of it was done while I was in Afghanistan. It was the same courier group. They had extremely good communications, so it’d always be known where they were, and there were contingency plans in case there was an event. And I don’t think they ever—other than a mechanical failure of a vehicle, I don’t think they ever had an event. And of course protestors were always fixated on, you know, the media was always fixated on the white train. Yeah, okay. [LAUGHTER] I’ve never seen one, but—[LAUGHTER]
Franklin: What were the most challenging and rewarding aspects of working at Hanford?
Parr: The most rewarding one was—I think the people. When I worked in training, I got to know everyone—almost everyone in the plant would come to one of our training events. Some groups needed—the higher-risk job, the more training you got. So it was working with the people. And then some people, it was just a paycheck. But the employees who took pride in their work and enjoyed their work, those were always the fun people to be with. Not that they were there for fun, but just, it was very rewarding to work with them. Now I’m retired and I still see some of them around the community. So it’s always fun to see someone that I spent—you know, worked with. I still see the vice president of the Steel Workers’ Local, because I worked—I got to work closely with him. So to see those people, and to see their successes and to do that. The difficult part, sometimes, was employees who were just there—or people who were just there for the paycheck. Or struggling through personal issues. Being able, trying to help them, or to get—a shift, a work crew doing a work package, they’re people. And the strength of any group is always at the level of the lowest performer. So the performers who were struggling, those were the tough—or the ones who were—sometimes you get cynical. People get emotional. And dealing with the cynicism. I think one of the toughest things I ever had was—I wasn’t involved in the project; I was training, but I wasn’t the trainer for that particular project, but I was doing some other training. They worked hard, they were staging the materials—I think it was the Pencil Tank Reduction at PFP. They were about to take the pencil tanks, clean them up, reduce them in size, and then shift them off to scrap. And they were making hard to get the materials to write the pre-procedures to do the job, get their training in order, and get ready to go. In the aftermath, when Department of Energy said, well, we’re not going to do that right now. But materials had already been—a considerable amount of resources had been pushed in that project to get it ready to go. But then Department of Energy said, well, no, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to take that money and we’re going to use it for something else. Planning at Hanford is always one of our toughest things. Has been for years. There’s so many things we did that—where it never came off, or things changed. Not too far from here are the bus lots at 1100 Area. And the parking lot’s at 300 Area. We spent a lot of money—or the government spent a lot of money improving those parking lots, making sure they had the good drainage and so on and so forth. Improving the bus lot and making it a much safer, much more efficient operation. And then we canceled bus service. A couple years later, I know that our local law enforcement—I think Richland Police Department—used it for a pursuit driving course, that piece of ground, and now it’s gone commercial. But all the things we do, and then all of a sudden—boom—we never realize the full value of what we had spent money on.
Franklin: You kind of—I’m sensing from that and the comment you made earlier about the lack of energy focus—maybe do you see kind of a lack of focus at Hanford or kind of surrounds some activities at Hanford?
Parr: I think when Congressman Foley—Tom Foley—was speaker of the House, and he was from—let’s see, we’re four, I think that’s 5th Congressional District, in Spokane. Speaker Foley—and this was probably about the time of the Chernobyl issue and all of that—Speaker Foley proposed, in a public statement, transitioning Hanford from Department of Energy back to Corps of Engineers. And knowing a lot of engineers, Army engineers, they’re great people and they do great things. And I looked at that, and I go, I don’t think that’s the right move. But now looking back on it, and having worked with the Corps of Engineers in both the reconstruction of Iraq, before we withdrew, and then a lot of the work—there’ve been some mistakes—a lot of mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq. But looking at some of the work they’ve done there, I hate to admit it, but I think Tom was right. We should have switched. Because I think the Corps of Engineers is a lot more focused and a lot more planning. Because they don’t look at—oh, we’re going to—I think the Corps looks at the long-term: five, ten, fifteen, twenty years. And looks for a strategy. Whereas I see Department of Energy, particularly—and I know the field offices are all different. What I saw in DOE Albuquerque was different than DOE RL, was different than DOE Rocky Flats. I think the Department of Energy field offices, particularly Richland, focused on the near-term, not the long-term. The near-term being this fiscal year and maybe next. But I see that in working with Northwest National Labs, I noticed they were always looking at where we’re going to be in four, five years. And I think—because with the Army I got to support a couple projects. Then I was in Afghanistan. We were doing something and I needed some reach-back capability. So unofficially I reached back to Northwest National Labs to give me help with something in Afghanistan that I was encountering. And it took me a couple days to find the right person and then get him up on a secure—I’m not Hillary. So I used a secure—all my emails were in a secure system—and to reach out and get that information, so how we could be more effective in Afghanistan. So I saw that kind of work, and I see—dealing with them and watching what they’re doing, they’re looking at the—they look at, they forecast out in the future. What’s it going to be like in ten, 15, 20 years? What’s the end state? I think RL has gotten, or particularly in my time, they were in the survival mode, reacting, rather than planning. I think one of the key losses we had—we had the DOE RL manager one time was a guy by the name of Mike Lawrence. And later he left, but I noticed when he left—I think Mr. Lawrence was—he planned, he looked at things. He tried to anticipate where the federal budget was going and what the program was going to be. And I think after that, it became a more reactive group. And now I continue to watch, and I watch them—we were spending money—apparently taxpayers were spending money on upgrading the Federal Building, because they’re the primary occupant there. And then they said, no, we’re going to move our office—move our staff out to the Stevens Center Complex, which is right off—between George Washington Way and Stevens. So we’re going to move out there. So you figure, oh, okay, that’s going to cost a little money. And then what’s going to happen to the contractor employees there? Well, they’re going to just—the taxpayer owns the Federal Building, but the Stevens Center is leased facilities. So I can’t—I can’t figure that one out. God bless them, but I can’t figure it out.
Franklin: Yeah, we exist in a similar thing here at WSU. Our project is in a leased facility and it seems to be the way that—I would agree with you that that is—there’s more focus recently on our near-term solutions, especially here in Richland, but ignoring the long-term solutions. Maybe because the long-terms are scary. I don’t know. But—
Parr: You’ve got to—what do they say in the Army? Oh. Embrace the suck.
Franklin: Yeah. Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you’d like to cover?
Parr: Well, it was interesting being at Hanford Patrol initially and watching them come from a more security force that was designed just to check badges and check classified repositories and respond to alarms, become more a professional force. It was really exciting watching their training group. When I first came here, they’d get up and read a manual and that was your training. Their firearms training was superb. Best I ever had. Probably better than anything I’ve seen, even in—I would put their marksmen up against the best of the best. Whether it’s HRT and the Bureau. I definitely think they can out-shoot the Ranger, but—not criticizing the Army Rangers—but their people can out-shoot Army Rangers. And perhaps, Force Recon in the Marine Corps. I think they’re up there with the more elite organizations. And I think that firearms training was incredible. They took people who couldn’t shoot, and they teach them theory and technique and then work with them and find the faults and get them to correct it to that point. I’ve never seen anything like that in any law enforcement academy or any military training. It was incredible. But the rest of it, there was no lesson plans. Training is always analysis, design, development, implementation where you get up and teach it, and then evaluate it to see if the training took. I didn’t see that in Rockwell’s training program for the Safeguard and Security team force. But eventually to see them as, when Westinghouse took over, they started putting those standards in. And I think Department of Energy did it nationwide. So I think watching that change and transition was exciting. Was great stuff. It was an exciting place to work. And right now they’re tearing down the Plutonium Finishing Plant where I spent, what, 17, 18 years of my life—except for some trips elsewhere. But to see it come down, but then to realize what we achieved there. I was there the day a button caught fire, a plutonium button. That was exciting. Because we were testing out the security system, and—why do we have employees taking off their clothing on camera? What’s going on here? And then call up to building emergency, is something going on inside the plant you kind of should let us know about? And why is the fire department coming? And then watching it go through things, and then eventually watching the cleanup process, stabilizing plutonium, and seeing where that goes. So I’m glad I had the opportunity to come in today to talk a little bit about what it was like to work at Hanford. I remember when he had buses and then we didn’t have buses because they decided we didn’t need them anymore. And then watching the density of vehicles on the highways going up to work onsite. I can remember when they decided that—there’s a four-lane road; Stevens is a four-lane divided highway out to the Site. You know, when you’re doing remediation and you’re constructing the Vit Plant, there’s a lot of trucks and trailers with heavy loads that are in the right-hand lane. So then somebody came up with the bright idea of—and they’re slower-moving. So we’re going to have that traffic in the left-hand lane going northbound, and everyone going, they’re driving the speed limit or those going beyond the speed limit would drive in the right-hand lane. Excuse me? Really? Really. And then there was a thing where we decided to put—you know, how far it is from this place to this place. And we’re going to do it both in the English system and also in metric. Good idea, that makes sense, because a lot of the world is metric. Makes a lot of sense. So then they put the signs up, and they put—the letters are about that high in a 55-mile-and-hour zone. So how close do you have to be to read a sign that’s got letters that are about two inches high, going about 55 miles an hour? Excuse me? [LAUGHTER] And also that’s now—isn’t that kind of like a visual impediment to traffic safety?
Franklin: Yeah, seriously.
Parr: The other one is right up on Stevens in the 300 Area. You’ve got 300 Area—I can’t remember the name of the street. It comes out and goes onto Stevens—we used to have our own highway system out there, so that’s called Highway 4 South. So the traffic is going west onto a north-south—onto a road that’s in the right-hand side is going north. But you want to turn left and to head back into town. So they put a stop sign on a wooden post right at the stop line. Well, that’s right on the edge of the traffic—it’s right on the traffic lane. So about every week or so, low lights, not well lit, you get weather, so all of a sudden, about every, once a week, you’d see the stop sign about ten meters over with the pole broken off—the big four-by-four wooden post. So I remember one time, I go, jeez, that’s not very bright. So I put in a safety suggestion. So they thanked me for my safety suggestion. Rockwell Hanford gave me a little product worth 50, 60 cents. Thank you! Okay, but we’re not going to do that, and we’ve already considered it, and it’s safe. And I got that, and I was working shift work. So I’m going home about 7:00 in the morning. And there’s the stop sign over there, the sign sheared off again. So all of the sudden—it never get installed again. They painted a stop sign, they painted stop letters, they moved the sign back. [LAUGHTER] But my suggestion wasn’t going to—so that was kind of fun.
Franklin: Well, thank you so much, Bob.
Franklin: I really appreciate you coming in and giving us a slice of it.
Parr: You know, thank you for doing this, because the Manhattan Project was such an important piece in our history. And being—I’ve been taking a history course and being a former—retired National Guardsman, and the son of a World War II veteran from the Pacific Theater, and seeing the carnage that was Okinawa, and then realizing what the invasion of Japan would have been. I think that puts it all in perspective. And then the work we did—and for me, as a veteran, the big night was the night the wall came down in Berlin. Because that didn’t only put my weekend job in perspective, but it also put the work we’d done out at Hanford. So I think we—the work they do at the national labs, and when we had a criticality safety lab onsite, the work that they did at those facilities—just incredible. I just wish we could have kept FFTF and done power production there. Beautiful reactor. I mean, it had an availability rate of almost 100%. Oh. So. But it’s all about people.
Franklin: Yeah. Great. Well, thank you so much.
Parr: Well, thank you for having me.
Franklin: Yeah. Don’t forget your coffee there.
View interview on Youtube.
Years in Tri-Cities Area
Years on Hanford Site
Babcock & Wilcox