The Manhattan Project

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Bill Ginkel's Interview

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Bill Ginkel's Interview

Bill Ginkel served as the Manager of the Idaho Operations Office for the Atomic Energy Commission. In this interview, he describes his experience working at the facility beginning in 1950. He recalls the pioneering work conducted at the laboratory and the occasional methodological divide between the scientists and engineers. He also explains the transformative effects the influx of nuclear scientists had upon the local community and the state, and why the area was referred to as “The Site.”
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
September 14, 2004
Location of the Interview: 
Idaho Falls
Transcript: 

Cindy Kelly: All right. We can start with something very simple. Tell us your name and spell it.

Bill Ginkel: I’m Bill Ginkel, G-i-n-k-e-l. I came to Idaho in 1950 out of the Manhattan Project and its successor agency. I was actually employed by the Atomic Energy Commission in Oak Ridge in connection with material accountability at the time, and the opportunity to come to Idaho emerged. I was a little skeptical to start with, but it seemed like an extraordinary challenge to get in at the beginning of an operation as potentially big as it was.

On my first trip to Idaho Falls, we had driven through there once coming from Yellowstone, but had not seen any extent of the site, for example, or the proposed site. It was a challenging experience, and kind of fun to come to a different area. I was hesitant at first, because my wife was from South Carolina and she was used to anything but the desert. But I took her some pictures of the nice, cultivated grounds around here, and convinced her to come.

We came in the fall and started work with the Commission in the Rogers Hotel, which was an unusual office accommodation in many respects. Each office had its own bathroom. The initial work was more planning than operation, of course, but they assembled a group of people that held the promise of more important things to come. It went along quite well for the initial year. Eventually, we moved to a new office on Second Street.

I was mostly associated with the chemical processing effort, the building of the ICPP [Idaho Chemical Processing Plant], which was to be designed and built at the site to recover the uranium from spent fuel elements. I stayed with that aspect of the operation through multiple changes in program, and gradually moved up into lower level management positions and eventually into senior management positions. Beginning in the fall of 1963, I was named manager of the AEC [Atomic Energy Commission] operation out here at the test station.

From there on, it was exciting, challenging, complicated. Going through multiple contractor changes, which was a new experience. Because Phillips Petroleum Company had operated the principle site responsibilities, principle site management responsibilities since I had arrived. For the first time in 1966, the matter of renewal of the contract, they decided to open it up for bidding and proposals. At that point, the Aerojet Nuclear Corporation in conjunction with Allied Chemical for the chem plant was the selected contractor. This put all of the people in a new framework of management, because many of the people had come from Phillips Petroleum and they were extremely loyal to that company. To have a new contractor was a bit disruptive, and certainly was a change. Because they’re moving from a standard energy company, Phillips Petroleum Company, but bringing in the space orientation of Aerojet. This was a big change, in many respects.

Then six years later, the contract was again opened and the Phillips Petroleum Company was no longer a bidder. The Allied Chemical was no longer involved. As a result, the normal operation of the contractor was again somewhat impacted, but less so because of the continuity of Aerojet Nuclear Corporation.

Kelly: We’re going to be going back and forth here in time. Let’s go back to 1951. Can you tell us what Idaho Falls was like? Was it a sleepy little agricultural community? You gave a sense of things, but elaborate.

Ginkel: It was a relatively small size western community. It had been heavily agricultural oriented, and very little industry or very little technical activity, except for the universities. It was a closely-knit community. At the time, there was a reaction to bringing in all of what they saw as the problems and confusion and disruption of a major government operation. It was not welcomed in many respects at the resident level. But at the community leadership level and the state level, they saw the opportunity for breaking into the growing technological framework of the country. They made strenuous efforts to accommodate the program in many, many respects.

The builders built housing, office space. Very little difficulty was encountered in introducing the structure and the personnel. Certainly, from a personal standpoint, I was made to feel at home and there was no—that kind of reaction to it. As the program grew, I think the reservations that many of the residents had were minimized or disappeared. I think that generally the people associated with the project were integrated into all of the aspects of the community: religious, cultural, social, and educational. I think certainly the influence of the influx of the level of personnel from a standpoint of technological and scientific background made a good impact on the educational system in the city, and eventually in the state.

I think it was a plus activity almost from the start. I think people like Dr. [Richard L.] Doan, who encouraged those people to get into activities, civic clubs and so forth, was a significant effort and a good support to the government’s effort in that regard. Certainly, at the time, I was in the management framework. I encouraged that all the way. As the time went on, that integration, I think, held up very well. I think most of the people feel it was a big plus for the community, for the state. Certainly at the governor’s office in Boise, we received support at full measure.

Kelly: It was a major employer, not just of this area, but if you look at the employees and employers in the state, the site employed huge numbers.

Ginkel: Yes. Certainly, the agricultural preeminence was suppressed to some extent, as a result of that. But there are still areas where the agriculture is still considered the prime focus for the state’s welfare.

Well, I think there was a lot of new thinking. We were in a new field. We were building things that had never been built before. I think that you brought in a lot of talent, who were energetic and were young, and who were innovative. In some cases, the only solution was one you had to dream up. Nobody had done the things that we were doing here before, no one elsewhere in the country or elsewhere in the world. I think that encouraged that sort of thing. Certainly in recent years, the outlook to turning into the private sector, developments that are being made at the site day-in and day-out has led to a lot of the patent and spinoff activities that emerged from the activities at the site.

I think that’s a fair comment, that this was a breeding ground for new ideas. It has intensified as the site’s focus has moved from nuclear and reactors into much broader aspects of environment, waste management, and things like that that were not part of the original charter for the test station. That’s reflected in the changing of the name of the test station. They felt that that was a constraint and a hamper on the opportunities here, and were successful in finally getting characterized as an engineering laboratory, and I think now for the future as a national laboratory.

Kelly:  Can you talk about the first couple of decades of the work that you did, and its significance?

Ginkel: During the time I was manager, several of the projects were emerging or had just begun, and some of them developed with projects. The plus was the Waste Calcining Facility, which had its first operation, as I remember, just a month after I became manager, and it was a monumental success. While all of the other sites, or most of the other sites, were having problems with the handling of highly radioactive liquid waste, that the bench scale work and the pilot plant work on the Waste Calcining Facility had been pursued and developed on a solid base. It emerged as an outstanding plus for the site and for, I think, the future of waste processing for other sites as well.

The Waste Calcining Facility turned by vaporizing the liquid waste that contained byproducts of the fission process, and converted it into essentially—it looks like detergent that you use in your washing machine. Because the other elements of the fuel elements were aluminum, it lent itself to spraying into a high heated chamber and causing those to convert to fine granules, which then could be moved by air through pipes and stored. You didn’t have to worry about the leakage from a liquid waste storage system.

The Advanced Test Reactor was also hampered for its final showdown and startup by some technical and engineering problems. But again, this was a new concept of how to test materials that were used in reactors, to test them under their high flux of a radioactive field. It was a unique design of the so-called serpentine core. But eventually the problems, which were largely quality assurance and other aspects of engineering performance, were surmounted. Its initial operation surpassed the hopes and expectations, and it has operated over a long period of time with outstanding results. Those are some of the things that took place during my tenure as the manager of the site.

The loft program, which was designed to test what happens when the reactor core loses the benefits of its cooling system, so that the loss of flow of the reactor cooling system was premised to cause a major excursion or a major disruption of the operation of the reactor. It took a long time to develop that concept, because all the time it was under design and development, and even construction, the technology of commercial power plants was moving so fast that it was difficult to develop proper bases for what was needed to be done for demonstrating that there was no great disruption disaster from the possible accidents resulting from loss of flow.

This raised, or this highlighted some of the problems of bringing the science and research into applications in a very dynamic field, where the scientists, in some cases, were not attuned to the problems of engineering and major construction of a project that had never been built before. This represented the conflict between science and engineering, and sometimes compromises had to be made in both areas. But this was a very sensitive time on the test site’s growth, because the compromises that had to be developed put a strain on technical people’s relations and upon administering the plans and specifications that had to take place.

Kelly: Can you elaborate on that a little bit? Was it the scientists didn’t feel a deadline, that they wanted to research things more? Or what were some of the sources of that tension?

Ginkel: It revolved around the strong influence—well, I don’t like to characterize it as a conflict, but diverging, in some cases, forces and philosophies of engineering and science played a part here, especially where—deadlines were important, because of the rapid growth of the potential of the nuclear power industry. Schedules, which aren’t always welcomed by research scientists, were necessary in some cases.

Also, a good portion of the engineering and technical talent—both in the contractor organization but more so in the Atomic Energy Commission—had derived from the naval reactors program, and that is highly engineered, highly quality assured. The experience there could not be discarded in terms of weighing any compromises between the desire of the research to go forward and to have relative freedom, versus the requirements of schedules and projects and budgets, and the orientation that in many cases was engineering and naval reactors oriented.

This played a big part, certainly in the loss-of-flow tests and the Advanced Test Reactor, and much less so, of course, in the chemical processing plant. But this was an ongoing matter of concern to management and a concern to the community when schedules were missed, and so forth.

But the important thing is that the programs went forward and delivered results that were needed and desired and of benefit to the commission as a whole, but also to the international community. Because all this time, many of the things, like in reactor accident concerns, were concerns throughout the world where the nuclear power program was going forward.

Kelly: Good. Well said. Could you help paint the picture for people who were born ten years ago? We have to tell them about World War II and the Cold War and the competition between the superpowers, and how that colored the work that was done at Argonne, done here at the site. How much did you feel, this need to kind of keep one step ahead of the Soviets in terms of science and technology?

Ginkel: Having come from the Manhattan District experience, where schedules and international concerns were preeminent, I sensed that the same sort of feeling, in many cases, existed at the site. Of course, many of the early managers came directly from the Manhattan District, and they had lived through the experience of achieving a remarkable accomplishment in an unbelievable short time, that had worldwide and certainly high national implications.

I think that from the very start, people out here had an orientation that was related to national defense, to broader aspects beyond just the reactor development program within the United States. I think that did pervade the activities out here throughout, and perhaps also, but maybe to a lesser extent, to the present time.

Enlarging the program, beyond reactors into the environment and environmental effects and waste management, I think brings the benefits and potential and the stake that the community has, that the state has, that the nation has, into a much broader perspective. From that standpoint, I think the people of the surrounding community today recognized the benefits of having this work here and of what it has done.

Because it’s not just a reactor that no one may ever see, but it’s a lot of benefits that—what happens to liquids in the environment, and how we track waste—not nuclear waste, but all kinds of waste—and how we track air pollution and so forth. Big contributions have been made and will be made from the activities here that are not necessarily nuclear reactor related. I think that will continue as the horizons of the site are expanded, and as the charter for the programs in the nuclear area is broadened, broadened, broadened.

One of the management concerns during my time was the effect that the site has on the surrounding area. In the early days, we weren’t producing any byproducts or anything that could impact the community. But as time went on and as operations increased, the question of gaseous pollution and water pollution grew in importance to the people here, in some cases to the point that the environmental orientation escalated rather rapidly.

Because in some cases, the flow from the site aquifer was used for agricultural purposes or other things. There were representations made that, in fact, we were disposing of radioactive material without appropriate care. This drew a lot of media attention and, of course, political attention. In every case, the difficulty of explaining parts per million, of contaminants and the exchange within the soil and so forth, to the average person and especially the agriculturally oriented community, was a sizable task. But in every effort, our procedures were validated.

In some cases, where there was any lack of rigor in developing the procedures and reporting the data—especially reporting the data so it made sense to the farmers down the line or to the community here, or to the environmentally oriented groups who took an increased interest in what was going on at the Site—that was all for a plus. It prompted us to do work beyond what may have been required, but in turn, helped to make the results more real to the average citizen, and certainly to the media and to the political influence, who had properly concern.

We had the difficulties of justifying and explaining our waste management practices, and so forth. We worked hard at that. But the development of new techniques for waste management and the development of instrumentation and so forth, most of that came after my time.

Kelly:  Okay. I’m going to jump to another area. [James] Schlesinger said that the first decade and a half of work on the reactors was like going from Kitty Hawk to a Boeing 747. Can you tell us what you think of that, or tell us in your own words how compressed this history was, and how much ypu were able to do, those working on the national reactor testing station, in such a short period of time?

Ginkel: During those twenty years, the steps forward were in many cases monumental, because they had not been tried before. They had not ever been thought of as a major effort that needed to be explored. To do multiple tests of what happens in an unusual accident in a reactor, no one else had ever done the experimental level and demonstration level of such programs. This really cleared the way for the nuclear power industry to go forward, and to go forward on a firm footing.

Because there were answers of, “What if, what if, what if?” And not only here, but again, remember that many other countries around the world have a higher percentage of nuclear power as a portion of their electric generation than the United States does. These benefits and these answers and these experiments had implications for more countries at higher percentage of nuclear power development in those countries. I think that those experiments, no one else was doing them.

The people who knew the most about these activities were residents here, and had been here for an extended period of time working and building up the organizations and the facilities. Fifty-two reactors is a lot of reactors, and no one else can come close to that. They spread the spectrum from different types of reactors and different sizes of reactors, different fuels and so forth. This really represents the focus and the foundation for what took place in nuclear power development throughout the world.

I think the cadre of the senior people and the scientific and engineering people out here and their imaginative efforts were a strong part of the continuity, in spite of contractor management changes, in spite of what some regarded as bureaucratic confusion. But in spite of that, they kept their eye on the goal and they worked tirelessly, in many cases, and over long periods of time to develop and contribute to something that they felt was important to them, was important to the country, and was important to the world, because of the promise of nuclear power and what it could bring and its byproducts that would evolve over a period of time.

Kelly:  That’s great.

Jeffrey Nalezny: I’ve always been curious about the term, “The Site.” Everybody knows the national laboratory as “The Site.” Do you know why that is? Is that true for a lot of the different facilities around the country, or was that coined by people working at the site or coined by local people? Do you know where that term came from for referring to the national laboratory as “The Site?

Ginkel: I think the term “Site” is peculiar to Idaho and perhaps to Nevada, because in both cases, they represent a large expanse, much more so than Argonne National Laboratory or any of the other “sites.” Because it was developed from a site selection process that was highly visible to everyone, and I think it just got to be, “That’s the Site.” The laboratory was not considered a laboratory, it was the National Reactor Testing Station. “Site” was a short terminology for “National Reactor Testing Station.”

I don’t think any of the other facilities have that, but it was the easy thing. It started that way and ever since, it’s been “The Site.” It has not been “The Laboratory.”

Now, when you moved a lot of the scientific and laboratory work into town, that may have confused it somewhat. But most of the activities that were large and visible were still out at “The Site.” That’s what it has been, and that’s what it’ll probably stay in spite of being the national laboratory, hopefully down the line.

Kelly: Could you talk about what the Manhattan District was, or something like that?

Ginkel: The Manhattan District was the Corps of Engineers’ terminology for the group that started to develop the atomic bomb. At that time, there were major sites in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Los Alamos, and also in California.

All of these were brought together under General [Leslie R.] Groves. The engineering orientation of nuclear began right there. That was the beginning of nuclear work oriented toward a bomb, but it was the Manhattan District of the Corps of Engineers.

The result was that the early managers of the National Reactor Testing Station were former major officers of the Manhattan District. That’s why engineering and some aspects of the work here were more engineering oriented than they were research oriented. But the research was necessary to provide the foundation for the facilities that were deemed to be advisable to build here.

Kelly: It’s interesting, in looking at the EBR-1 [Experimental Breeder Reactor I], I think there were 600 people at the University of Chicago, now the Argonne National Laboratory, and twelve in Walter Zinn’s first team. In terms of the support that the Site got from researchers, Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago played a major factor. Is that right? Can you explain how this all worked?

Ginkel: As manager of the test station site, I did not have administrative nor management responsibility for Argonne. That and the Navy facilities were apart, so that I probably shouldn’t comment much on that.

The Idaho operations office of the AEC contracted to build the EBR-1, and saw that it was built. But the design and the budgeting and so forth was all handled outside of the Idaho operations office. The same was true of the Navy. I had nothing to do with the Navy. Well, that’s not entirely true, but this was administered differently.

Nalezny: Yes. Can you tell me what you thought the first time you drove down the main street of Idaho Falls? What did you see? How would you describe it?

Ginkel: It was a small town, and it did not have many of the characteristics of the cities I had grown up and lived in. I think coming from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where there were no paved sidewalks and things like that, this still looked like a city, in many respects. It was a relaxed community. When we drove through here, coming from Yellowstone Park several years before I moved out here, it was not unlike many small western towns. There were no big malls, no big streets, no distinctive community aspects, except maybe the LDS [Latter-Day Saints] Temple. That was something I had never seen before.

Nalezny: It didn’t have a built-in entertainment atmosphere and you had all these people coming in, a lot of them from cities that had a lot faster pace and everything.  

Ginkel: That’s right.

Nalezny: As a manager, did you feel a need to help people with what some might have considered the boredom that was inherent to a little place like this?

Ginkel: Yes, and I had strong encouragement from Washington concerning that. “Don’t be a separate group within this community. If it’s going to go, it’s going to have to be part of the community.” As I indicated earlier, Dr. [Richard L.] Doan of Phillips Petroleum Company was oriented to that type of administration. He wanted to be sure we participated in the civic groups, Rotary Club and all that, and made a strenuous effort in that regard.

A lot of the people came here with golfing interests and so forth, and they tried to encourage that by participation in those activities right from the start. I think the community people will say that that was handled about as smoothly as possible considering the orientation—recognizing that hardly any of the people who moved in here from the east had been religious orientation comparable to the LDS preeminence here. This was a change, but I think generally it was handled well, not without some bumps in the road.

Nalezny: One other thing: you mentioned and a couple of people have referred to the fact that when you’re doing something from scratch, you have to be creative along the way, and you have to do things that have never been done before and make them up as you go. Were there any innovations or inventions that you observed? People’s creative solutions to problems that really struck you as, “Wow, that was very neat, the way they did that?”

Ginkel: The instrumentation on radiation detection here was a huge step forward, and was done on the back of an envelope, in many cases. People just had a problem, and knew they had to do something about it. Nowhere else was there going to be an answer. I think they rose to the occasion. That was one area.

Instrumentation for reactors was another area that was developed here. People who were heads of international technical societies emerged here from the work they did, because it was new and different.