Interview with Jerry Yesberger
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Jerry Yesberger: I go by Jerry Yesberger, Jerry, J-E-R-R-Y, and then Yesberger, Y-E-S-B-E-R-G-E-R.
Robert Bauman: All right. Thank you. My name's Robert Bauman, and today's date is December 9th of 2013. And we're conducting this interview on the campus of Washington State University, Tri-Cities. So Jerry, let's start maybe by having you tell us when you first arrived in the area, what brought you to Hanford?
Yesberger: Okay. Well, I was born and raised in Colorado. Went to University of Denver, and I graduated with a BS degree in 1950. And let's see here. Then I worked for a short time in Colorado, mainly because I wanted to come back from the state of Washington—to the state of Washington. I was in the service from '43 to the end of '45. And I spent some time in the Seattle area and everything, and I really liked it. And so when I got back to Colorado, I applied for jobs with State of Washington and everybody. Then there was an opening at Hanford. And at that time, everything here was General Electric company, as you probably already know. There was no contractors other than GE, and they ran the community. And everything—there wasn't anything other than GE here. And my first job at Hanford, which lasted about five years, was in the public health department, which we had most of our activity concerned for the community here, rather than the site, although there were some activities during that that we were asked to perform, such as—oh, I can remember that I'd been out to the site for some things to do with health matters and so on that I was asked to do the work on, and I did. And after about four, four-and-a-half years, the city became a city away from General Electric company, and I wanted to stay with Hanford. So I applied—well, I don't remember how exactly I got there, but the radiation protection department in Hanford Laboratories at that time. And again, this was a time when everything was one site. There was no contractors other than General Electric—offered me a job in radiation protection. And my radiation protection time lasted an awful long time, because I retired in early--oh, gosh. Say, it was 19—but anyway, I had 36 years' service. [LAUGHTER] And my first job was out here in the 300 Area, and GE at that time gave new people an awful lot of training. And I was trained as a health physicist. And I spent, oh, gosh, the first few months training. And I spent, oh, gosh--they had a project here called 558 Project, and what it did was go through the old reactors, all of the old reactors and replaced the tubing in the reactors. And each one of these assignments lasted, oh, three to four months. So we started out in B Reactor and finished there. And my job was I had a crew of radiation monitors working for me, and we worked shift work, because there was a big, big construction job. And it took about three to four months in each of the old reactors out there to go through these, replace the tubing, and so on. So I followed those from B to C Reactor to 100-DR to 100-H to 100-F doing the same thing, essentially, because we went through there. And then following that time, I went back into 200 West Area, where I worked on projects and so on. And rather than work--I didn't have radiation monitors work for me then, but I had always assigned projects myself to work on. And I did that in the--I have worked in every area on the project out here, with the exception of FFTF. I did not work, and I did not have an office there. But every other area I had an office and these things. So it was kind of really a broad orientation program and so on. I want to back up just a little bit. In the service, I was in the Coast Guard. And this was from '43 to '46. And I was a pharmacist's mate, and again, the training was real, real good. And the last year or so, I was on a ship, USS Aquarius, and it was an attack cargo ship. And our job was to take troops. We had Marines that we had aboard, and we had training to have them land on something. And boy, they really trained us. To make a long story short, we got an assignment, and we knew we were going to move our ship. But we didn't know where or what for. But it turned out it was that they were preparing to invade Japan with troops. And I never saw so many ships in my life, where we all had troops, and we were ready to train. And we practiced getting on these landing barges, and, of course, I was a medic, so I had to go in with the troops. But I never had any real active duty due in that time, prior to that time, because I was always out doing these other things. But we were ready to go in, and so we had actually moved into where we would make our move, and guess what. The Nagasaki bomb was dropped. Well, of significance there is the plutonium on that bomb was made at Hanford. So that was really an interesting aspect of it, and I've always been so, so, so, so interested in that aspect of the thing. Well, shortly after that, the war was over, and everybody was discharged. And then that's when I came back and went from there, like I said, prior to this. But I thought that was an interesting aspect of this whole thing. So I worked for the General Electric Company for about five years in radiation protection doing all of these things I've been telling you all about. And again, I had very, very, very good assignments. Probably my most treasured assignment was I was the health physicist for biology, out in the 100-F Area. And I spent a year out there, and that was because of all the animals--the pigs and the dogs and everything, and my job was to write radiation procedures for them to do where the monitor and I had radiation monitors reporting to me out there during that time. Well, following that—I don't know how this developed, but the Atomic Energy Commission, which it was at that time, got my name, and they asked me if I would be interested in federal employment. So in the 1st of January, 1960, I switched jobs from the General Electric Company to the Atomic Energy Commission. And my job, there it turned out that I was a headquarters person, because we were doing what they call compliance inspection of people that are used in the state of Washington, Alaska, and Washington. Anybody that had a license for radioactive material, they had to be inspected. I was one of these inspectors. And it was a very, very interesting job. It involved a tremendous amount of travel, however. And we were always—when I went up to Alaska several times to inspect people, and there were only for us in this whole division, by the way. [LAUGHTER] So there was only two of us that made any inspections. And so I liked it. I like it, because I like people. But I worked at that, and it turned out that we were called Region 8 Division of Compliance, and it consolidated with Region 5 in California. So I didn't want to go to California. So I was offered a job with Atomic Energy Commission here in the Richland operations office, and I stayed there until I retired for my service. But I was with—most of this time, by the way, where I was transferred, I was in the health and safety division at RL. And at that time, there was no—we had one manager for this whole site at Hanford. We didn't have, like they do now, one on for the 300 Area, and all this kind of stuff. So we had our own health and safety division, so our entire--everything we did was associated with Hanford. And so that's where I finished my career in 19--with the federal government. I did work, however, two years after retirement for a company called MacTech, and they were a contractor to DoE to work on specific problems and so on. And I worked with them for a couple of years. And I also worked on the employee compensation program for about a year, and then finally retired. That's kind of it in a nutshell. I hope I didn't confuse you.
Bauman: No, no. I do want to go back and ask a couple of questions. So when you first came to Hanford in 1950, what was your first impression of the area?
Yesberger: Well it was a shock. Number one, I had never been in eastern Washington in my life. I got a job offer, and I thought it might look like Seattle, but it didn't! [LAUGHTER] So that's my impression. But I wouldn't trade this area for the whole state of Washington now. I love it. We raised our family here, and I'm a big booster of it.
Bauman: When you first arrived, where did you live?
Yesberger: Well, my first housing was a dorm for about three months, and then we moved into a B house, which was a duplex. And we lived right across from Lewis and Clark School here in Richland, and we lived in there for a year or two. Then they sold the houses here, and a fellow that I worked with down here, he didn't want to stay here, so he was living in a ranch house, which I bought. And I'm still there. [LAUGHTER] And we live on Torbett here in Richland, and we've been here ever since. We had one child that was born in Denver, and then our other three, and we finally had a girl, which I was so happy for. I love girls. [LAUGHTER] And she lives here, by the way. And she's the only one that lives here, and she's a special education teacher for the handicapped at Richland School. That's what she got her degree in. And she loves the work, but I couldn't do it.
Bauman: Do you remember how much you paid for that house?
Yesberger: We paid about $6,500. We sure did. And prior to that, they furnished the oil, the painters, everything that was here was done for us.
Bauman: Do you remember what your rent was on the B house?
Yesberger: Yeah, it was about $30 a month.
Bauman: $30 a month.
Bauman: Do you have any other memories of the community in the 1950s, what it was like at the time?
Yesberger: Well, yeah, somewhat. One of the things that mystified me was that we lived in Richland, but blacks could not live in Kennewick. They would not rent to--you couldn't buy a house in Kennewick if you were black. And that always, I thought, was unreasonable, because we had several blacks that worked with us in the AEC here that were wonderful. And I still don't have any--I love them all. I like everybody.
Bauman: So when you were AEC, they weren't doing the hiring of African Americans there?
Yesberger: No, they hired them. Oh, yeah, AEC, there was no question on that with the government, but boy, you couldn't live here. And we had several blacks in our division, and it worked out great. No, the community--do you live--I mean, do you folks live here? Well, when we got here, there was nothing north of Van Giesen. Nothing. And so boy, did we see that grow.
Bauman: Yeah, I imagine you’ve seen a lot of change and growth.
Yesberger: The week we got here—well, let's see. It was about--I lived here for about, well, maybe three months in the dorm, until we got housing for my wife in that B house. And it was great, the idea of that housing.
Bauman: Yeah. What was the dorm like?
Yesberger: I didn't have any problem. Of course, I missed my family. We had a boy at that time living in Colorado, and he now lives in Snohomish. And again, we had the big army camp in North Richland, where we had just thousands of trailers and everything. And that was quite a sight to see.
Bauman: So you said you first job was working for the health department, or public health?
Yesberger: Well, it was the health and safety. Yes, it wasn't the health department at that time, but it included their functions.
Bauman: What sorts of things—that first job, what sorts of things did you do?
Yesberger: Well, we used to do all kinds of inspections, of course. But restaurants, schools, the water department in Richland, just broad health things that required health overviews. So that was the job.
Bauman: You were working for GE, right?
Bauman: How many people were working in the health at that time?
Yesberger: Oh, we probably had 20 or 25. We had a doctor that was in charge of us.
Bauman: And then you said you went into radiation protection, right?
Yesberger: Yes, from that function. And the main reason is because GE—went to a community, rather than being GE-managed. We had to elect a city councilman. It was a city.
Bauman: Do you remember what your thoughts were about that, about Richland becoming an independent city at the time?
Yesberger: No, I think we all accepted it. It was good. Obviously, when you work like that, you're interested in benefits. And I think that swayed a lot of it for me to stay with GE.
Bauman: Right. So when you moved to radiation protection then, you said you had to have a lot of training at that point?
Yesberger: Oh, yeah.
Bauman: And for the jobs you were doing, did you have to wear special protective clothing at all?
Yesberger: Oh, yes.
Bauman: Can you describe that? Sort of what sorts of things you had to wear.
Yesberger: Well, basically, they're just white coveralls as the one here, and they're still using the same white coveralls out there, just like we did.
Bauman: How about security at Hanford? What was that like when you first came?
Yesberger: Well, I think it was very tight. It was very tight. They really stressed security and safety. Safety was—in my estimation, my experience, General Electric was the most, the best contractor I ever worked for in my life, because they had emphasis on safety and health and really stressed it, you know. Much better than possibly they did in later years.
Bauman: So was there sort of ongoing training for safety?
Yesberger: Oh, yes. Very, very, very, very--GE was very safety-conscious, and they were so good to their employees. You never read anything about anything happening in the newspaper or anything like that. They got it to their employees right away, and it was a pleasure. And the rest was a pleasure too, but not like--I miss GE.
Bauman: And you talked about, was it the 558 project?
Bauman: With changing the tubing. So what was your job? I know you went to each different reactor as they did that. What sort of things were you doing for that?
Yesberger: My particular job was I was what they called the radiation supervisor. And so I had about eight radiation monitors with me all the time during each outage, and we went from one to the other. And their job was everything had to be monitored just like they do now, in and out of the areas, and move it, and take it to disposal areas, and everything.
Bauman: So was it monitoring the employees’ exposure rates?
Yesberger: Yes, monitoring the employees and the jobs that they're doing, because we had to develop the radiation work procedures, which they were working at. And this would vary during the whole outage. And they were very tight at first, and there was any grinding or anything or heat or anything, you had to have special requirements for that.
Bauman: So of the different jobs you had and the different parts of the site that you worked at, was there a job or something you did that you found the most challenging, and/or something that was the most rewarding of the things you did at Hanford?
Yesberger: Well, probably the most rewarding job I ever had here was Hanford, was I was here with Richland operations office, and during the americium accident in 1955, I think it was, and my job, at that time, was--as a matter of fact, I got involved in that particular incident at about 5:00 in the morning after it happened at 4:00. And I went out with the doctor, a fellow by the name of Dr. Breitenstein, and he and I went out and met Mr. McCluskey out in the area, before they got me into the decontamination center. And my job was really I represented RL in the whole aspect of the care of that patient during the months and months that he was here. Because he was confined, couldn't leave, and everything. And my job was to--as a matter of fact, I came right out to see him every single morning that he was in there, and we became very, very, very, very good friends. And it turned out I was a pallbearer when he died. [LAUGHTER] And it was a rewarding experience, because to begin with, he was such a great guy, and he accepted all of this and was never down, but he couldn't hardly see. He was grossly contaminated. And my job was to keep people at RL down here, the Richland operations office informed of what the situation was with him, and to notify headquarters, keep them informed, because it was a real significant accident, the worst we've ever had at Hanford.
Bauman: So you mentioned that he had suffered probably with his vision. What other sort of injuries or--
Yesberger: Well, what happened, he had put his hand in this glovebox out in 234-5 Building, and it exploded, and came out and hit him in the face. So he was just so grossly contaminated, and he had to have a radiation monitor with him every hour that he was down there. And I became so familiar with that accident and everything, and I felt it was the most rewarding for me to have something like that to do.
Bauman: Do you remember about how long he had to stay hospitalized?
Yesberger: Well, yes. He was down there for probably a year. A year. We got hot food. It was provided to him by Kadlec Hospital down here, and he had a nurse with him down there at all times. And his wife was living down there with him also.
Bauman: And where was he then? Was he at the hospital, or was he-
Yesberger: Well, there was facility at the back of Kadlec Hospital, which is no longer there. And this facility was called Emergency Decontamination Center, and he was there. They had beds and everything in there, showers and everything. And it was a specific facility for that case, to tell you the truth. And it's since been torn down, which I think was a mistake, myself, because if you ever had another one, you couldn't have been a better facility for it.
Bauman: You mentioned you were in close with him, and were a pallbearer at his funeral. How long did he live?
Yesberger: He lived about, I think, about three years. And then he died of a heart attack. It wasn't radiation. But he certainly had radiation in him that would cause cancer if he had lived too much longer.
Bauman: Are there any other incidents or sort of unusual events that happened when you were working at Hanford that kind of stand out in your mind at all?
Yesberger: Well, I happened to be a trained accident investigator, and I had to go to school and learn all this kind of stuff. And I probably investigated more accidents than anybody ever has at Hanford. But we’ve had fatalities, and we had big spreads of contamination. We had several things that cause it, plus, we also responded to off-site accidents. And I had what we call a radiological assistant team that reported to me, and I went out on those where there were trucks that would spill radioactive material, where there was--this is kind of a little odd. I probably shouldn't even mention it, but you'll appreciate it. But we had a truck of uranium billets overturn on Lolo Pass, and these billets weigh 15, 20 pounds, but there's hundreds of them in this truck. Those things went all over the highway up here in Montana. I responded to that one. And one of the things that I was never trained on was guns. But, well, we were up there probably about a week recovering all of those billets that spilled over, because they all had to be accounted for. It was very strict on that. But we were out from town out on this pass someplace, and somebody had to sit in the truck with a gun at night to make sure nothing came, if anybody came from the highway or anything like that. Well, they gave me a big shotgun. I don't even remember what kind of gun. I couldn't have shot that damn thing if I'd had to! [LAUGHTER] And I still can't! [LAUGHTER] But that was kind of humorous. But we couldn't have the guy that could shoot be there all the time. So we all spent about three or four hours a night out there by ourselves.
Bauman: How long were you out there?
Yesberger: We were out there a couple of weeks. But I responded to lots of--the worst probably the most one that I responded to as the team captain was we had a spread of contamination at the University of Washington at the reactor. And I actually, again, there was some plutonium that came from Hanford that they were analyzing up there, and there was a spill. And the reactor at the University of Washington was greatly contaminated with plutonium. And I had a team. I had three or four people that went up with me to respond to that, and we were there two or three weeks there helping them get that all in, and we did. We got it all cleaned up, but there was some minor depositions. But boy, if that thing would happen now, the way it's anti-nuclear, it would be horrible. But this happened to be in spring break when all of the kids were away. So we lucked out on that on that thing, but we all had to wear protective clothing that two or three weeks while we were doing that. But I was the team leader on that particular accident.
Bauman: Do you remember what the time period was when that happened? What year that might've been?
Yesberger: Oh, gosh, I can't remember that. But I responded to probably 30 or 40 spills and so on that were all over the country in Oregon and Washington. And then we had spills in Oregon that we had to go down to, because at that time, the state didn't have people for that function to overlook at that. So we did their work for them. And I did that for, like I say, about four or five years.
Bauman: So did you usually respond if it was like material that had come from Hanford?
Yesberger: No, it could be anything.
Bauman: Could’ve been anything, okay.
Yesberger: Could be anything. I loved the job, and I loved the people, because I like people. But it was so much travel. I was always gone from Hanford.
Bauman: So that was probably one of the more challenging aspects for you is just all the travel.
Yesberger: Yeah, it was. We had young children, and it seemed like I couldn't go out and come back, there wasn't a million things broke. [LAUGHTER] So that's the way it went.
Bauman: I wanted to ask you about President Kennedy's visit in 1963, if you went to that that day. Do you have any memories about that?
Yesberger: Well, I got two memories. I got a call after that article was in the paper from the Seattle--no, she was from, I think, a public relations firm down here, one of them, that asked me about it. So I told them everything I knew. So I told them about this one friend of ours that happened to get up and shake Kennedy's hand. Well, of course, they were interested more in that than were what I had to say. [LAUGHTER] So the big article in the paper, he gives his report. He didn't even mention my name. [LAUGHTER] No, I didn't care. But my son-in-law was there when they called too, and they quoted him in the article and everything. But poor me. No, I wasn't looking. I wasn't really looking for my name to be any place. [LAUGHTER] Yes, I was out there. It was, of course, it was in the fall when he was here, not long before he was assassinated. But it was such a hot day, and I think all of Richland went out to it. There was just car after car going out to that area, and some of them boiling over from the heat and all this kind of stuff. But it was a very, very excellent program.
Bauman: So as you look back at your years working at Hanford—how many was it? Thirty--
Bauman: Something like that?
Yesberger: About 36. It was 36.
Bauman: Well, as you look back at those 36 years, overall, how would you assess Hanford as a place to work?
Yesberger: Well, I thought it was excellent and very safety-conscious. It couldn't have—in my aspect—been a safer place to live in my life than I did here at Hanford. And like I say, I worked in all the reactors. I worked in the separation plants and everything, and it was interesting. I think it was rewarding, the fact that you could clean up stuff. So it makes me real--we had such excellent facilities out here at that time. But all those buildings are gone and torn down, and they could've been used for so many things now. And I think that was a really big mistake. But they didn't ask me. [LAUGHTER]
Bauman: Well, is there anything I haven't asked you about that you think would be important to share or talk about?
Yesberger: Well, you know, I don't know. I think you might want to look at my submittal in the Parker Foundation on that thing and see what I said at that time and the answer to their questions and so on. It went well. And I just feel so fortunate to have been here all this time and be so lucky and still be here. I'm the luckiest guy in the world, and I'm very happy that I was at Hanford. I've got several awards while I was here for my work. One of them I do want to show you, because I'm really probably real pleased, but I was elected a fellow in the National Health Physics Society. I received awards, several from—I was president of our local chapter of the Health Physics Society. I received several awards from those people. I was really well thought of while I was here at Hanford. And I was real pleased.
Bauman: So were you involved in the Parker Foundation as well?
Yesberger: Yes, I've been on it since--I still am.
Bauman: Do you want to talk about that, like how you got involved with that?
Yesberger: I was asked to join it by Dr. Bair, who is still there. And I know you know about Ron Kathren. Everybody knows Ron Kathren. Well, I play cribbage with Ron Kathren every Wednesday at my house now. We play cribbage. I just think he's such a great person, and such a great health physicist, that I was so lucky to know him. And they asked me to join, and I've been real active, until this business with my wife, which I took a leave of absence. And I haven't been able to go there, because I can't leave my wife. But I still pay my dues and go there, and it's been a good organization.
Bauman: Well, I want to thank you for coming today in this cold weather and coming and letting us talk to you. And then maybe we could get a shot of your award that you brought in.
Yesberger: Oh, okay.