The Manhattan Project

Charles Yulish's Interview

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Charles Yulish's Interview

Charles Yulish has devoted his career to nuclear and environmental science. From an early age, Yulish fell in love with nuclear energy and set up a lab that received radioisotopes from the Atomic Energy Commission—who did not initially realize their samples were being sent to a high school student and his classroom lab. In this interview, Yulish remembers his teacher, who instilled in him a curiosity towards all things nuclear. He talks about his career in nuclear research—both public and private—throughout his 50 year career. He worked for many years for the United States Enrichment Corporation and its “Megatons to Megawatts” program. He also consulted with the Mescalero Apache Tribe in New Mexico, who wanted to set up a nuclear storage waste site on its land in the 1990s when the US government was considering such a program.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
October 27, 2017
Location of the Interview: 
Washington
Transcript: 

Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly. It is October 27, 2017, in Washington, D.C., and I have with me Charles B. Yulish. I’m just going to start by asking him to say his name and spell it.

Charles Yulish: Okay. Charles. B. Yulish, Y as in yes, Y-U-L-I-S-H.

Kelly:  Great. Charles, you’ve had an amazingly interesting career. I want you to start at the beginning because I think your enthusiasm for all things atomic as a young man—as a boy, really—is a great story. Why don’t you tell us when you were born and where, and something about your school?

Yulish: October 14, 1936 in Cleveland, Ohio. I have almost no memories of Ohio and Cleveland, except that I knew I wanted to leave there, which ultimately I did and went to Miami Beach. My parents moved to Miami Beach, which was kind of desolate place, really. I swam a lot. It was wonderful in that respect.

I went to Beach High School. I was a very naughty boy, very naughty. I was always getting in trouble, always playing pranks with people. I won’t even say what we did in our chemistry class. I just hope I was like every other boy of my age at the time.

But then my biology teacher, who was about 5’9” and right out of a painting of what a classic woman growing up in the South would be like. Was well-educated, and had ideas about everything. Bertie McAlister is her name, and she would tell us in the class, in the midst of something, “Now, personal hygiene is very important. Don’t waste your money on any of those products like toothpaste. Baking soda is all you’ll need for your toothbrush. No underarm deodorants; just a little dab of cotton and some alcohol, and you’ll be just fine.”

Anyway, I have no idea why, but I really liked her terribly. So I paid attention to biology, and I got fascinated by it. I would even stay after class, and I would ask her questions. I said, “How do you know that the xylem and the phloem are taken up and go through a venous system? How can you see it?”

She said, “Well, you can see some of the things on the leaf itself.”

I said, “But, how do you know what goes on inside?” We developed a real friendship based on curiosity, and she responded to that very much. Instead of kids who just didn’t care about it.

Ultimately, that led to my interest in finding out what was done, and the answer to it was radioisotopes. That’s how they were already telling how systems worked and how they could be traced. They were called tracers in the early days.

I wrote to the Atomic Energy Commission. I got a very nice form letter back and not a box, but a package of information materials. I just found the letter recently, which was a form letter signed by George Glasheen. He and Maddie Panette, who worked in personnel, proved to be the people who started me on the track as an Atomic Energy Commission intern. But Bertie, ultimately—when I got all this stuff, I started traveling and meeting people.

I traveled to Oak Ridge, and I met Dr. Paul Aebersold. Aebersold was the head of radioisotopes for the Atomic Energy Commission, and he was a real showman. He thrilled at what he was doing, and wanted to find every way to elevate it to a high contribution. He was extremely kind to me, extremely kind, and later that would turn out to be my salvation.

I decided I wanted to have my own laboratory experiment to prove this. The ingredients that were necessary were safety equipment, radiation detectors and equipment, radioisotopes and the ability to handle it and store it safely. Methodically, I went through each of those. I realized that they’re not going to give it to just a high school and a kid.

I decided it has to sound important. I sat and doodled, doodled, doodled. Finally, I came up with “RELPAR.” RELPAR is a “Radioisotopes Experimental Laboratory for Plant and Animal Research.” I had a little letterhead made. Well, it resulted in Victoreen Instruments giving me several really very professional radiation detection instruments. Abbott Laboratory gave me all the assistance you could ask for.

Then I had to get the radioisotopes. My contact at Abbott said, “You need to get a license from the Atomic Energy Commission. We have to have that,” and, showed me what that’s like. I filled out the application and everything like that, and sent it in. Sure enough, I get back a license for phosphorus-32. Then I thought, “Well, that’s easy. Let’s try some more.” Honest, it was as simple as that. I don’t remember how many were, but there were dozens, everything from zinc to—it just went on and on.

Then I met Dr. Bob Bryden at Oak Ridge, who was a head of the biology section there. He taught me how to use these things. I forget who exactly it was that taught me about radiography, and just explained radiography.

If I really wanted to know what was going on in the uptake system of a plant, you had to have the ability to put a stem of a plant or a leaf in a test tube or in a container that had the radioisotope that was appropriate. Then you’re going to leave it there for a day. Then you’re going to carefully take it out and put in on a large sheet of X-ray paper. Then you’re going to leave the X-ray paper for two or three days, and then you’re going to take it to a lab and have it developed.

It was absolutely fascinating. Bertie was thrilled. She said this is the proof she’s been looking for. It went on like that. It seemed so normal to me, and other kids really liked the fact that they were doing something that was out of the ordinary.

I would write up papers. I would send them to the Atomic Energy Commission, I would send them to Ralph Overman at Oak Ridge Associated Universities. He had a slight stammer and when he says, “Ch-Ch-Ch-Charles,” he said, “Yes,” he said, “Thank you for sending me-me that.” He said, “Very interesting that you could do that.” He said, “But you have to work on your grammar.” That was his comment. Obviously, I’ve always remembered that.

Well, the kids in our biology class and the other classes said, “What are you doing in there? You know, and yah-dah-dah-dah.”

I’m saying, “I’m having a great time. This is really interesting.”

They said, “You got room for us? Nobody else is doing this.” I don’t know even how I did it, but I selected four people. They were kind of what you might call nerds today. But they were very serious, and they wanted to do details and they appreciated it, and they knew that there was a process involved. That became the club and then more came, more kids came. The club was not the objective, the whole objective. But that it got people interested was very important to me.

Kelly:  Do you remember what you called it?

Yulish: Just the Atomic Energy Club, yeah.

It was interesting that somebody—I have no idea who it was—but somebody from one of the newspapers poked a head in and said, “What’s going on here?” He’s heard the kids talking about it and all that. I just explained in a matter of fact way what was going on and what we were doing. I don’t even know which article it is in there. But as soon as one article was printed, other newspapers became interested and wanted pictures, and wanted this and wanted that. Of course, that created more people who wanted to be in the club.

That resulted, ultimately, in coming to the attention of the Atomic Energy Commission, all of the publicity. I don’t know whether people wrote in concerned about this, that a high school student was doing all of this.

An inspector from the Atomic Energy Commission came to the school to see the principal and, said, “Radioisotopes licenses show that this is where experimentation is taking place, and this is where the isotopes are. We would like to see Dr. Yulish and really see what this is, see if the application is safe and everything.”

I was called down to the office and introduced myself. The shock on his face was very interesting to see. I just thought it was very normal. I said, “Would you like to see the lab?”

It really was like an anteroom off of the classroom, the biology laboratory. It had a sink, it had storage areas, had electricity, had all of the things that you would need for a very small workroom. I had made radiation-impeding blocks. I had built bricks of extremely dense material and used that for shielding. There was enough room for that.

Anyway, he looked through things like that and he said, “How did you get these licenses?”

I said, “I applied for them, and you approved them.”

He said, “I’ll get back.” Either he came from Washington or he reported to Washington, and it got up to Aebersold.

They said, “Look, this is a minor. You cannot have a minor signing licenses and getting licenses and is unsupervised in this, except by a biology teacher in Beach High School.”

Aebersold thought and thought and thought, and then he remembered me. He said, “Leave it alone. We’ll get his teacher to be responsible for the licenses and everything.” He did that. So Paul Aebersold was an enabler. I always will think of him that way for the rest of my career.

The most important thing to me was that I gained my confidence in myself, and was no longer a bad boy. It’s amazing when you find something that so absorbs you and it’s endless, it’s endless. It’s not just the answer, it’s one piece, one piece.

Much later in life, I discovered what my motto was all those years. It’s when I worked with the Mescalero Apache Indians. The saying, though, was, “Pochemu net, pochemu net.” The saying really is in Russian, and it means, “Why not?” “Pochemu net, why not?” That’s what I was doing all this time. There are plenty of answers why not, but no one gave them to me.

I was extremely, extremely lucky how people responded to what was then my innocence, but my enthusiasm, and willingness to do whatever was necessary. It worked for me with people wherever I went. I thought, “I got to ask [J. Robert] Oppenheimer about some of the questions here that are just not addressed and have him clarify it.”

He said, “Come on up, and we’ll talk.”

I called [General Leslie R.] Groves and I said, “Is this really true, about so-and-so?”

He said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, no, no, no,” whatever it was.

It went on and on like that. [Glenn] Seaborg was taciturn, but very nice. Later, I got to interact with him several times. It was very funny how that worked, at the Atomic Energy Commission.

But it’s the ability, the interest to ask questions and never quite be satisfied, want to follow them all the way through, and to have a certain sense of innocence.

Everybody was saying at the time—a little later when I wanted to work for the AEC—they were talking about the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, which they said was the most important committee in Congress, because it controlled so much money on research, development, weapons, all of that.

I got in to see the executive director, and I started asking him questions. That was Jim Ramey. He started to answer and was very interesting, and I had a correspondence with him. By the time I joined the Atomic Energy Commission, Ramey was a commissioner. He would stop in the halls and we would start talking, and he was shaking hands. As an intern, everybody was looking, “How does that work?” Seaborg, the same thing. They started because of “Pochemu net.”

From the radioisotopes lab, I went to the University of Florida and then to Kent State University, where I graduated. I did become an intern in—I think ’61 was the class of the Atomic Energy Commission selection of I think it was twelve interns, and went to Washington. That was when I met Ramey. We had developed into an easy friendship, but not to achieve anything. He liked that. I didn’t want anything from him.

Later on, when I had my own consulting company—that was the Atomic Energy Commission, then the Atomic Industrial Forum, where I also met an incredible amount of people—and then I had my own consulting business for many, many years. I put on a large program called Nuclear Week in New York. It was to be an extravaganza of showing the people all the peaceful uses of atomic energy. The things I was able to do, it was all “Pochemu net.” “I want to bring a nuclear ship into New York City Harbor.”

“We hate nuclear, no matter what it is.” But I was able to bring the Savannah, which was our beautiful, beautiful cargo ship, which was nuclear-powered, in for that celebration. Thousands of people toured that. It was just a great thing.

I was holding a number of briefings for audiences that I thought we should capture and for the international press club, and reporters, and everything like that. I got the Army at Natick [US Army Soldier Systems Center] to irradiate foods that were part of the luncheon. They were eating radiation, radiation-protected foods.

Ramey was going to be a speaker. I said, “Jim, what can you do to punch this up, to get attention for what you’re really going to do here?”

He said, “Let me think of that.” What he had in his speech was an announcement that the Atomic Energy Commission, in cooperation with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, were going to launch an exploratory program for a water desalting plant at Bolsa Island, off of Los Angeles. He just put that together. I had great respect for Mr. Ramey.

It amazed me. It was a habit that I picked up. “Permit me to introduce myself.” That’s how it always went. I would always come up with stuff that was very off-the-wall, but made sense and I could follow through and get it done.

That picture of Oppenheimer told me more than I can begin to tell you, the jumping photo. You can have any metaphor that you want for it, but there’s one of the more thoughty men that Earth has produced, and yet, what is that jump saying?

I still can’t believe that I’ve had fifty years of experience in nuclear energy, starting really from the beginning, and then with using radioactive materials, getting to meet whoever it was, going all the way up through the Atomic Energy Commission. That was like getting the keys to the library, and all the librarians were instructed to give me whatever I wanted. Went through my entire career. I retired in 2005, and had the best ten years before that in nuclear non-proliferation activities that I could have ever dreamed I could have done. Life well-spent, as they say.

Kelly: That’s great. What do you want to talk about next? I would love to hear more about the uranium enrichment corporation, because a lot of people don’t understand what that is and what it did, because you were there ten years.

Yulish: I was working before that in Washington, in an environmental public relations firm. I had done a huge project for McDonald’s that was totally successful. The person who I worked with at the top management in McDonald’s called and said, “I want to have a meeting with you. This is very secret.”

Somebody had invented a substitute for Styrofoam. Styrofoam was their devil’s work. People were worried about the environment and how these things would never decay, and they were filling, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. They had something that they could make a faux Styrofoam, and it would be able to biologically decompose.

The company person was there, and showed me a cup. The McDonald’s man said—this was Shelby Yastrow—he said, “I’m not going to do anything with them unless you hire Yulish to shepherd your program going, because we trust him.”

They flew me out to Santa Barbara and I met with Adnan Khashoggi’s brother, the arms dealer’s brother, who is very, very wealthy, and he had the money and the company and all that. They said they would make me an offer. I got back and I said, “Well, this is just really exciting. This is just one of the top things you can do environmentally.”

Then I got a call, would I be available for lunch to meet somebody, somebody, somebody? I did, and it was Nick Timbers. The government is a big thing. Congress decided that it wanted to get out of the uranium enrichment business. It had these huge wartime production plants that would enrich uranium to 4 and 5%, and sell it to the electric utilities for all the nuclear power plants that were being built. There were plans for 250 nuclear power plants.

They had a study done by I think it was Smith Barney in New York, and Timbers headed that. When they submitted it and everything like that, they said, “Okay. We’re going to make a federal corporation. We’re going to appoint you as president for the government. You’re going to put all this together. You’re going to take over and run everything like it should be. Eventually, we’ll privatize, and the new board will decide if they want to keep you or not. That’s it.”

This automatically created tremendous hostility by the people in the Department of Energy. Because, “We’ve been doing this just fine. Why would these business people from New York want to take over?”

Anyway, we had lunch, and everything like that. He said, “I need to have a vice president of corporate communications. I’ve interviewed about thirty people so far, and you sound interesting.”

I was then confronted with two offers. One, nuclear. I was tired of nuclear at that point. But it was new, it was something completely different. The other was environmental and McDonald’s. It was like, “To be, or not to be: that is the question.” I chose the nuclear because Timbers was solid, and he had a good sense of what had to be done. I knew the gaseous diffusion plants and the history of that, and I knew AEC. I thought something good could really come from this. I said, “Okay,” and in February 1995, I joined.

I learned that there was something else that came along with it. It has one of the longest names that I’ve ever heard, and in twenty years, I’ve never had it right all the way through. I’ve written it down. It’s the U.S.-Russia HEU [Highly Enriched Uranium] to LEU [Low Enriched Uranium] Purchase Program. It was that long.

It was fantastic. The Russians couldn’t even safeguard their weapons. The United States was paying them billions to dismantle them. Basically what was happening was—try to imagine all of the missiles—not all, but the missiles that were aimed at Detroit, at Chicago, at Washington, at New York, at Atlanta, at Miami—all of those Russian missiles had multiple warheads. In the multiple warheads was HEU, highly enriched uranium, 95, 98, 99%. They were more dangerous off of the tips of the missiles and in a storeroom, where guards weren’t being paid. That was viewed as the most scary of all the elements, in terms of safeguards for nuclear warheads.

A deal was cut by President [George H. W.] Bush I, and then was succeeded to—rather was taken in tow by [Bill] Clinton when he was president. It was a multi, multi-billion-dollar deal, but it had to be implemented on a business basis.

You couldn’t buy the nuclear warheads, but you could buy having the nuclear warheads blended, reverse-blended down into 5% from 95%, and into a form which you could ship to us, which we could then sell to electric utilities as fuel for their nuclear power plants, which are producing electricity for the same cities. Ten, 15% of America’s electricity were coming from warheads that were formerly aimed at them. It was such a beautiful symmetry.

Timbers really understood. He had come from Wall Street, he understood the importance of simple communications. He really felt compressed to work with these technical people, scientists and all that. I gave him a one-page, and I had the full name of the deal, and I said, “You can’t live with this.” I said, “Let’s just call it ‘Megatons to Megawatts.’”

He said, “Do it.”

I was in charge of all communications having to do with the program, relationships with the Russians. We went over and I presented it. Mikhaylov, Viktor Mikhaylov, a nasty guy, who was the head of the Russian Atomic Energy Commission, came. I had a poster like that made, and he looked at it, and he said, “Megaton to Megawatt,” and at the bottom I had done it in Russian. He said, “Megatoniya, Megavati. Yeah, okay.” [Laughter]

It was in every way the most exciting—one of the most exciting things. I have to give my boss, Timbers, credit for being very conservative. He was very, very conservative. But he could see, he could transform an idea into a vision he could see that would be beneficial to the company, and that he could do. It gave me everything that I could ask for in terms of confidence. I was widely hated in the company for that reason.

Unfortunately, here we are. In the ten years that I was with the company—the company was privatized in 1998. It seemed like every major milestone that happened to the company was forced on the company by Congress, by special interests, and led to its disaster. It was always difficult for a company or for any spokesperson, but especially for Timbers, to explain: what were they created for, what are they supposed to do, and all that.

There were meetings for it, and they were going into this, that and the other, with a blackboard and all that. I said, “Look, we got to have it real simple, elevator style. Congress created the United States Enrichment Company. They said, ‘Take over the government’s uranium enrichment activities. It’s broken. Fix it, run it like a business, and sell it, privatize it.’” That’s the story. Everything can be told under that. That’s what they did.

It was like quicksand underneath the company. The further you got, the more it was harder to get your feet out of it, you know, and stay off of it. It basically went bankrupt, ultimately. You could point to a lot of reasons why. It’s metaphorically what’s happening to the entire nuclear enterprise today.

The ground just moved away from nuclear. All the things that were so important to retain—big nuclear plants, nobody wants them anymore. It’s billions, it’s only problems. It’s opposition, still, and it’s cheap natural gas, cheap natural gas, no end of natural gas. Nobody could put up against the economics of that. It really is the shifting times. It’s a story, I think, in every technology, every technology. Can it stand up against the chip, the chip, the chip, the more powerful chip, whatever is happening?

But that we did it, we ultimately destroyed by recreating it—transformed it, I should say. 500 metric tons of warhead material, HEU, highly-enriched uranium, into fuel successfully against attacks that were—you couldn’t believe, because it was a business. 20,000 warheads eliminated, and producing electricity in America. Part of the deal was that the dilution took place in Russia, using Russian workers that otherwise would have gone to other countries with their knowledge. It’s something really to be proud of.

I’ll tell you something, I couldn’t sell that story to the press, as good as I was. One of the reporters gave me the key insight to it. They said, “Look, it’s great. You’ve done 10,000 warheads now.” He said, “But, that’s not news.”

I said, “Why?”

He said, “Because you’re doing your job.”

I said, “Well, what would be news?”

He said, “If one warhead was missing, then it would be an important story.” If you think about that as a metaphorical statement, a little bit of that is true in almost everything that’s going on now.

Pochemu net was very good to me there. I retired in 2005, feeling very, very pleased and proud. Not long after that, actually, my son said, “I’ve seen all that, I’ve heard a lot of that stuff.” He said, “Dad, are you just going to throw all that away?”

I said, “What am I going to do? You’re interested in it?”

He said, “Well, put it together in a notebook, so I can just have it that way.”

I have two lives. I have this notebook, which is everything I’ve done in nuclear. Then I have another notebook, which is even larger, what I’ve done in environment and energy and non-nuclear things.

Kelly: You mentioned the Apache several times. Why don’t you talk about your work with the Apache Nation. That would be great.

Yulish: Okay. This was, I think, 1991. The Atomic Energy Commission was struggling to find a way to deal with spent nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear power plants. All kinds of ideas were put together, everything from putting it in a salt mine in Kansas, all the way up to store it in a mountain, and everything like that.

I told the director of the reactor development at the Atomic Energy Commission. I said, “Why are you guys screwing around with all these programs and everything? What you’ve done, you just spent some money on a big neon sign. Go out to Frenchman’s Flat, where you’ve been setting off nuclear weapons. It’s a nuclear waste storage ground. Open and bzzz, bzzz, bzzz. Who’s going to oppose you when you’ve detonated over 400 weapons in that area? What are they going to say, that they’re worried about contamination from spent nuclear fuel?”

They had a program and it was asking for volunteers, geographical volunteers, who would want to host a retrievable storage facility. In other words, spent nuclear fuel would be delivered. It would be in huge casks, and they would be stored on that property until the permanent waste disposal facility was available. Then, they would be transported to there. They’re not disposing of it forever.

I got a call from a guy that I had known named Miller Hudson. Miller said, “I think you would be interested in this. We’re looking for good public relations program for the Mescalero Apache Indians [for their proposed nuclear waste storage site].”

I said, “Well, who are they?”

He said, “Well, they’re right down at Alamogordo.” I flew out there. They explained what they wanted to do.

I said, “Look, this is going to be a fight,” and I said, “If you like a fight, you have to play by the rules on how this has to be fought.”

They explained what they wanted to do.

I said, “Look, this is going to be a fight,” and I said, “If you like a fight, you have to play by the rules on how this has to be fought.”

I think that you and I lived through an age when in a few years the threat that we all shared, we all shared—it didn’t care our religion, it didn’t care our view on politics, it didn’t care on whether we were rich, we were poor. It was, is earth going to survive? Are we going to survive in the Second World War? The experiences of the Depression before that for people who came from that time, and the question is that we had to marshal the resources in order to do that.

Now, I know the simple fact is, that within a period of just a few years after writing a letter to [President Franklin] Roosevelt and following up and a committee being formed to review it and this and that. Basically, being able to unlock the power of the universe, of the stars, of just what’s locked up in atoms of uranium. You can’t fathom in a realistic way that amount of energy and Einstein’s little formula could be manifested in that way. Yet in a matter of years, just a few years, invented all of the technologies that had to be developed.

We didn’t care what it cost. “Build every way you can possibly enrich uranium, and we’ll see which one wins.” It was the age of the functional government. “Anything you need, anything we need in order to protect the people and win the war.” It was just an amazing time of innovation and all of that.

Today it is an age of dysfunction, a really dysfunctional government. You can’t take a great idea to the government. You would take it to Silicon Valley, or wherever it’s going to be. It’s very difficult to put a finger on any particular problem or fault.

I can’t stop myself from Pochemu net-ing. My view of the demise of nuclear is, you’ve been ruined by your obsession with bigness. You want kilowatt factories. The bigger they are, the more kilowatts, and that’s the more that you can sell over a lifetime.

My idea in the past few years is that the future of America depends on small modular reactors, in a strategic way that would take a massive cooperation of the government and expenditure of funds. One aspect of it is so simple, I hope everybody can understand it. The new real estate in America are server farms for the cloud. Farmers are alive and well and making a fortune in buildings that you never see anybody coming in or out of. There are server farms everywhere. The reports on the business report last night was how Amazon, Microsoft, Intel are leading, and everyone’s competing for their server farms.

Guess what? The second thing that they’re reporting in the news, that the Russians are hacking into, the Koreans are hacking into: they’re going for the electric transmission system. Everything, everything, everything depends on electricity. Everything. What happens to the cloud when the electricity goes out? Your generators go out, because you don’t have any more of the fuel for it or they don’t work. You have the Fukushima equivalent of intellectual property.

My idea is, in a sense, to recreate what they did in the 1960s, to build small modular reactors for the Army, which is a massive program. I would want to have the government look at, “What are the critical spots from coast-to-coast in terms of infrastructure, communications and electricity?” And to take, take the grid and have each element of the grid available with a 200-megawatt farm, a farm of small modular reactors that are replaceable, and thus protect your long-term interests.

The same with server farms. It is important to all of us to make sure that they remain alive and well. It’s simple. You can’t do it with solar, you can’t do it with windmills. It’s national security, that’s what it really is. It’s national security. Who will win a war if you don’t have to kill anybody? You just have to cut off their food supply, their electricity, whatever it is.

I see that as the next possible wave, but I don’t know how to achieve it, not in the dysfunction that exists today.