[At top is the edited version of the interview published by S. L. Sanger in Working on the Bomb: An Oral History of WWII Hanford, Portland State University, 1995.
For the full transcript of part 1 of the interview that matches the audio of the interview, please scroll down.]
I started in running a lathe at the 300 Area, turning down the uranium fuel elements. The uranium billets ranged from 250 to maybe 325 pounds. They were round, and were not very big since uranium is heavier than lead. The uranium was extruded first into rods, through an extrusion press. These rods had to be turned down to a proper diameter and cut into proper lengths. Then they went to another lathe and they faced them, cut off the ends and put a slight radius on. From there, they were encapsulated in aluminumcladding, which was quite a process in itself. I had jobs in the tool crib, grinding and making cutting tools to be used in the lathes, and also at the Hanford test reactor. The test reactor was quite small, roughly 15 feet by 15 feet and about that high. It was dismantled eventually. The building is still there, and I understand is now being used for office space and storage.
I remember Leona Marshall. At the test reactor, we had a very small crew. Four of us. We communicated on a PA system from the control area to the work area floor back and forth. And the talk got rather bawdy, I'll have you know. Good Lord, I walked around the corner and there sat Mrs. Marshall counting some foil samples. And, you know, I felt just as guilty as if I had been saying those bad nasties. She never turned a hair.
I went out to the 100 Areas to the production reactors and I stayed there for 33 years. I went to F Reactor first, in early 1945. At F, I was a reactor operator. Now, what is a reactor operator? We didn't have the same type of classification you have now. Then, we did anything you were capable of doing. We had a lot of guidance, including from the world's most knowledgeable physicists. You didn't just go in there and run the darn thing up to full power. We followed procedures. We were told if you don't know what you're doing, DON'T do it.
The worst thing about the control room job was staying alert. As a super-visor said, it was no job for a bonehead. When you were working night shift, about four or five o'clock in the morning, it was awfully hard to sit there and stay alert. There were never less than three of us in a control room, and if it got too bad you asked someone to relieve you for a few minutes. We had a whole bank of instruments to watch, and each was pertinent. It required so much instrumentation that the guy at the board was limited, so you had other people monitoring other instruments. The control supervisor was there to insure that you stayed awake and that he stayed awake.
I remember one incident when I was a chief operator. We were having a little difficulty with heat distribution through the reactor. We had thermocouples inside the graphite moderator itself that you kept track of. I told the fellow to move one rod a tenth of an inch in and another one a tenth of an inch out. We had a hard-nosed character in there, with a belligerant attitude toward the world. He looked at me and said "My God, there isn't anyone who can move one of those a tenth of an inch." The operator at the board said "I won't argue about it," and he barely moved the rods. The belligerent fellow was monitoring the temperature and he couldn't believe the response from the slight movement. This could be done if you had the right touch, the right experience. You didn't want to shake the reactor up.
Originally they planned all of this to be automatic by instrumentation. The electrical rods would be run by instruments. But the response between the instruments and control rods was such that we didn't use the feature. It worked, but the rods were banging back and forth. The instruments were not delicate enough.
By monitoring the radioactivity of the exit water, you would know when you had a fuel element rupture. You got a nose for the thing, and could almost select an individual tube before it went down. You could smell it.
At unloading, the slugs were pushed through the fuel tubes and then fell into the storage basin pools behind the rear face. They were loaded into lead casks. Each cask was lowered into the basin, and arms extended out and removed the lids. The slugs were loaded with a long pair of tongs into buckets and then when the bucket was full it was dumped into a cask. The water was 20 feet deep. Everything was designed so that the slugs could not form a critical mass. The casks were raised, and loaded into a special rail car. All done remotely. The rail car was equipped with water-cooling also. These slugs were generating heat because of the radioactive decay. It did happen that the rail cars occasionally left the rails, but we had plenty of safeguards.
The biggest risk we had was during charge and discharge of the reactors. It would take two men to shove a column of fuel into the reactors, later we had a pneumatic charge machine. The fuel coming out was highly radioactive, so you wanted to make sure everybody was clear of the rear face. And you always wanted to make sure you had reduced water pressure at the front before you uncapped any tubes at the rear, so the irradiated water wouldn't get on you. That got a little hairy once or twice, because communications weren't always good between front and rear. I can remember being on the rear face, wearing coveralls, cloth boots, cloth gloves, rubber boots and rubber pants, rubber hat and jacket and rubber glove and an assault mask. It's difficult to talk into the communications mike when you're wearing an assault mask, which is like an Army gas mask. I was trying to raise the front face, "rear to front, rear to front," no response. Then I tried "rear to control," there's always somebody there. No response. I got so damned disgusted. I started to slam that mike down and noticed I only had a foot of cord on the mike, one of the pieces of machinery coming by had cut the cord. I got my hands contaminated a number of times, because of a leaky glove. We would wash off with soap and water.
In 1945, the Germans were getting well into their rocketry program and in my own opinion I thought we were making a solid rocket fuel competing with the Germans. So, I was way off base. But, obviously, I had to have some idea what we were working with, not being entirely stupid and I had a little physics, and the weight of the damn stuff alone was a clue. And all the radiation checks was another. I used the wrong word once. When they spoke of radiation during that time they referred to it as "activity." I made the mistakein the hearing of one of our managers, I used the word radioactive, because I knew what I was talking about. But, oh my, I was taken into an office and security people told me that word is a No-No, NEVER say that again.
We had frequent checks for radiation. We had hand and shoe counters. Before you smoked, you checked your hands. You checked your hands and feet before leaving work. We had medical inspections. Urinanalysis and blood counts. They also examined your skin closely. Nobody I knew of ever asked what these checks were for.
The idea of splitting the atom was not a new idea. I heard about that in high school, in the 30s. We would have untold sources of energy if we could and so on, and would be the greatest thing since motherhood, which turned out to be not entirely true. I was greatly surprised by the bombs, especially when I began to comprehend the damage that occurred. I did not have any guilt feelings, and don't have to this day. I'm sorry it had to make its announcement to the world as a big bang. I think that has hurt the nuclear program.
The general opinion was that ending the war was worthwhile. How you kill people, that is immaterial. It is just a matter of efficiency. That sounds very brutal. But if this saved a number of deaths and casualties, that of course relieves me of guilt. I do regret there is such a thing as an atomic bomb. I would much prefer that our wars be settled with clubs.
Jack Miller: I worked for Remington Arms, private company here [at Hanford]. I worked at the ordnance plant [in Denver].
Sanger: Okay. Did DuPont build that?
Miller: The government built it and DuPont operated it.
Sanger: Remington, it was for ammunition?
Miller: Yes, ammunition.
Sanger: A number of people came from Denver, didn’t they?
Miller: Oh, yes. A large number of people.
Sanger: So that would have been early ’44?
Sanger: How did you happen to come here?
Miller: They offered me a transfer here, paying just a little more money than I was making there [Denver]. They would move me up here under contract, and then they would move me back to Denver, because it was to be approximately two years of employment. The alternative was transfer to Orange, New Jersey, a plant there.
Sanger: What were they making there?
Miller: I don’t even remember. Dye works?
Sanger: What were you doing at Denver?
Miller: I was called an instructor in pierce and prime and manufactured ammunition.
Miller: Pierce and prime. That’s processing and making ammunition.
Sanger: Oh okay, pierce and prime. What does that mean?
Miller: It means that you are taking cartridges and priming them. Installing the primers and getting ready to finish loading.
Sanger: And you were instructing people in that?
Miller: Yes. When you get new employees, you teach them how to operate the machines and set up the machines. It was an interesting job. I liked it. It was a strictly production outfit. I had twenty-four machines, double row there. When the wheel stopped turning, you’d be there to see why it stopped turning.
Sanger: So did you have much trouble deciding whether to come here [Richland] or to Orange, New Jersey?
Miller: Not really, because some of the people that I was acquainted with at that time had taken a transfer to Orange, New Jersey. They found nothing objectionable about the work, but the living conditions were horrible. Worst trying to find a place to live. Some of them were commuting from many hours away.
Here, of course, they were going to provide housing. Matter of fact, in the sales pitch for this place they gave us full plans of the various houses that would be available, and you would make your selection. And I might also add that their housing was to be available within six weeks. Of course when I got here, the housing wasn’t available for several months, and your selection back home meant absolutely nothing. Whatever was available, you would take it or else.
Sanger: Did they tell you what was going on out here at all?
Miller: Absolutely not.
Sanger: It was just a war plant?
Miller: Yes. It was contributing to the war effort. And when you got here, they didn’t tell you what you were doing. I was to come here about three months, as I recall, before I actually arrived. I had a bit of a problem and had to have some surgeries. I didn’t come up here at the time I was supposed to.
In the meantime, my security clearance had come here and had been returned to Denver. When I got up here, I had no security clearance. So I spent the first couple of weeks reporting to the 300 Area, which is the local town, and of course I couldn’t go work because my clearance had not arrived. There wasn’t any transportation back to town, so I had to walk back to the highway and thumb my way back to town. I came back on everything that had wheels. A lumber carrier—a funny thing that you’d walk up the stack of lumber, we called them “straddle bugs”—and I even came back to town in one of those.
You had certain advantages. Anything that passed by, if there was a place you could hang on or crawl on or get into, they would always give you a lift.
Sanger: How many times did you do that before your clearance finally showed up?
Miller: Two weeks.
Sanger: What would you do the rest of the day?
Miller: Just roam around the town. I had no automobile; it was still in Denver.
Sanger: So Richland was being built then?
Miller: Yes, it was. It was under construction. For the first week or so, I lived in what they called the Transient Quarters, where Hanford houses were situated. At the end of that time, I was assigned to a dormitory. That could be rather interesting, too.
I had a roommate, we had two in a room, and I never saw him except when he was sleeping. I worked day shift and he worked some oddball shift during the night. Very, very nice fellow whose name I don’t remember. The only contact we had was notes. A little note would appear on my dresser: “I borrowed one of your shirts and a necktie, will return the same.”
Sanger: That dormitory was where? Somewhere here in Richland?
Miller: What we would call the downtown Richland area.
Sanger: What did they tell you you would be doing out here?
Miller: Before I came, they told me nothing. Just that they had a job they were sure I would be able to handle and give them assistance with. Of course, I actually started working in what we called “Machine.” I was actually running a lathe.
Sanger: At the 300 Area?
Miller: The 300 Area. Turning down the uranium fuel elements.
Sanger: They came in a large what? A billet?
Miller: A billet.
Sanger: How big was it?
Miller: They ranged from 250, maybe 325 pounds. Just a round billet. They were not very big. You must understand that uranium is heavier than lead.
Sanger: Yeah. So that wouldn’t be very long, would it? And you use a lathe and machine that into the slugs, or what?
Miller: It had to be extruded first with a rod.
Sanger: How was that done then?
Miller: Through heating in a furnace, and then running it through a dye and extrusion press.
Sanger: That was happening during that period?
Miller: When I first arrived, we were receiving the rods from off plant, because our extrusion press had not been installed. Once we got the extrusion press installed, I would just receive the billets and went from there.
Sanger: And what would your job be? To trim them or what?
Miller: These rods had to be turned down to the proper diameter and cut into proper lengths. Then they went to yet another lathe and they faced them, cut off the ends to the proper dimensions, and put a slight radius on. From there, they were encapsulated and put into aluminum cladding, which was quite a process in itself.
Sanger: Were you working on that, or were you were sticking mostly to the lathe?
Miller: I was in Machine. I worked there for a short while, and then I had jobs in two different locations. I worked in the tool crib. What I was doing there was grinding and making cutting tools that were used in the lathes. And then several hours during the week, I worked in the Hanford Test Reactor.
Sanger: Oh, you did? How big was that about?
Miller: It was quite small. Physical dimensions, roughly it was fifteen feet by fifteen feet, a cube.
Sanger: That high, too? Is that gone now?
Miller: Yes. It was completely dismantled, taken away. The building is still there. It has been decontaminated, and I understand it is being used for office space now and some storage.
Sanger: What were they using that reactor for? To test materials that would go out to the production reactor?
Miller: Yes. Batch lots of the fuels that we were manufacturing were put in there and tested, as was the graphite that was used in the reactors themselves, checking and testing it for purity.
Sanger: So that means that reactor was built sometime before the others?
Miller: Before the production reactors, yes.
Sanger: When you were there, had they solved the slug canning problems?
Miller: Well, solved them? We were able to make fuels. Some of them of course were good enough that we could use them and some were not; there were quite a few rejects. As far as solving the problems, the problems existed from there on out.
Sanger: Oh, did they? And they would not be able to turn out a perfect one every time, or what?
Miller: There were always some rejects. The fuel failures were not too infrequent, let me put it that way.
Sanger: Would that be because there would be a leak?
Miller: Yeah. The integrity of the cladding was not intact because of the failures there; they would have leaks. You don’t run reactors with leaking fuels.
Sanger: About how long were those slugs?
Miller: Oh, I don’t think I could do any dimensions. They were not very long. You could pick them up with one hand.
Sanger: I haven’t seen any pictures of the actual ones, but I believe that I have I read they were six, seven, eight inches long.
Miller: You’re right in the ballpark.
Sanger: How long were you at the 300 Area? Did you move on to another level?
Miller: Maybe six or seven months. Then I went out to the 100 Areas, to the production reactors, and I stayed there for thirty-three years.
Sanger: Which one did you go to first?
Miller: The third one.
Sanger: By then it would have been 1945?
Miller: Yeah, that would be early ‘45.
Sanger: So how long did you work at that? For quite some time?
Miller: No, moved around quite a bit because in that period of time, I worked some time at each one of the nine different reactors.
Sanger: What did you go out to F to do?
Miller: Reactor operator. Now, what is a reactor operator? Well, we didn’t have the same type of classifications you have now. I am using this analogy very loosely, but you would do anything that you were capable of doing; that is about what it amounted to. So far as the reactor is concerned, you didn’t do any electrical repair, any mechanical repair.
As far as the reactor itself, you went through the whole bit: refueling, sitting at the operation console itself, issuing special work permits. Because you rotated through these jobs, you see, and that was before the days when you had certified reactor operators that actually controlled the reactor. I won’t say all, but most of us were involved in that. You just rotated through various assignments.
When the reactor was down for refueling or maintenance work, everybody got a chance to help refuel it. You handled discharge fuels. You loaded the fuels into special casks to ship to 200 Areas, the whole nine yards. In later years, you had it broken down into different responsibilities. You had the utility operators, and then you had the reactor control operators, chief operators, the whole ball of wax.
Sanger: During that period, you tended to do lots of different things? Everybody did?
Miller: About every function there is related to reactor operations.
Sanger: And that was kind of a learn on the job—?
Miller: Yes. We had a lot of guidance. For instance, I think we had perhaps the most knowledgeable physicists in the world, if you want to put it that way, because I felt they were. They were writing procedures, what we should do under certain circumstances. You didn’t just get in there and run that darn thing up at full power and away you went. Not by any means.
You started a reactor at a very low level, and as it responded then we became more familiar with it, then we began to increase the power level and productivity. So we followed procedures. If you don’t know what you are doing, don’t do it. That is just how it was.
Sanger: Was there a book to follow, or not?
Miller: A procedure book? Yeah.
Sanger: And the physicists wrote that?
Miller: And engineers.
Sanger: Do you remember any of those fellows you worked with, the physicists?
Miller: Oh it has been so long ago, I really don’t.
Sanger: I know there was a contingent of them. They called themselves “the babysitters,” and they stayed until everything seemed to be going all right, then they tended to move on.
Miller: That is exactly what they were.
Sanger: Went from one to the next on a twenty-four hour basis. I talked to some of them. They were young, very young guys. John Marshall was one of them and then David Hall was another.
Miller: John Marshall, that is a familiar name.
Sanger: Yeah, he was married to Leona Marshall. Do you remember her or not? She was about the only woman physicist who was out there.
Miller: Yes. I remember her and I have very good reason to. At the Hanford Test Reactor in the 300 Area, we had a very small crew there, four, in fact. We had communications from the control room to the work area floor and back and forth. It was getting rather bawdy, I’ll have you know. Good Lord, I walked around the corner to the reactor and there sat Mrs. Marshall, counting some foils samples. And you know, I felt just as guilty as if I had been saying those bad nasties that were coming over the PA system. Indeed, I remember her.
Sanger: I talked to her on this trip.
Miller: She never turned a hair.
Sanger: She didn’t?
Miller: They used to run around in cutoff jeans and all that stuff, John especially. I had no real contact with Mrs. Marshall, other than a few embarrassing incidents. He was a regular guy.
Sanger: I talked with him. He is in Los Alamos and he is retired, lives there now. They are divorced. She married a Nobel Prize winner.
Miller: She was very intelligent.
Sanger:Was it a hard job to sit at the console and keep the power steady on one of those?
Miller: I will say no. The worst thing about it was staying alert, and you need to be. That is no job—I’ll quote one of my ex-managers—it’s no job for a bonehead. But when you were working night shift, about four or five o’clock in the morning, it was awfully hard. You sit there and stay alert. There were never less than three of us in a control room, and if it got too bad, you just asked someone to relieve you, get up, walk around and get a drink and get your blood circulating again. Oh, I hated that very much.
Sanger: What were you watching for?
Miller: Oh, we had a whole bank of instruments to watch, and each of them were pertinent and you would be moving control rods as indicated by your instrumentation. It required so much instrumentation that the guy at the board was pretty much limited, so you had other people that were monitoring other instrumentation around through the room. Of course, you also had a control room supervisor who stayed there to make sure you stayed awake and you made sure he stayed awake. That is about what it amounted it to.
Sanger: What did you actually use to adjust the power? Some kind of a lever, or what?
Miller: You had switches to run control rods in and out. And being the first reactors, the very early ones, you had two electrically-controlled control rods, driven by electric motors, and you had a selective switch where you can run other rods by means of hydraulic power.
Sanger: Was it a matter of getting experience, to know how much you had to withdraw something to make it do—
Miller: Oh, yes. And as time went on, I began to be promoted, so I’m learning more, I was worth more than the company. And this deciding how much you should and should not do with a control rod—
I have not forgotten an incident. By that time, I was a so-called chief operator, and we were having a little difficulty with heat distributions through the reactors. And we had numerous besides each tube being monitored. We had thermocouples inside the graphite moderator itself that you kept track of.
So I told the fellow sitting at the control board that we would move one rod two-tenths of an inch in and one-tenth of an inch out. And we had a rather hardnosed character in there. I don’t mean to be knocking him, but I am trying to describe the guy; he had a belligerent attitude towards the world. He looked at me and said, “My God, there isn’t anybody that can move one of those at a tenth of an inch!”
“That’s what those meters you’re reading are?”
He said, “I know that, but just a touch on it.”
The guy at the board said, “I won’t argue about it,” and he moved it.
I had this guy monitoring some temperatures, this belligerent character, and he couldn’t believe that the response was that much movement. Unusual case. Normally that would be a little bit much, asking for a great deal. It could be done if you had the right touch. If you had enough experience you could do this, and under certain circumstances that is what you wanted to do. You didn’t want to shake the thing up, you just wanted to nudge it a little bit.
Sanger: So it was pretty delicate work, basically?
Miller: Originally, they planned to have all of this automatic through instrumentation. The electrical rods, they would be run by instrumentation. The other rods, the hydraulically operated ones, were being used as a [inaudible], more or less. But shifting response between the instruments and the actual control rods were such that we didn’t use that feature.
Sanger: It just didn’t work?
Miller: It would work, but it was so delicate, the first thing you’d know, you’d have the things banging back and forth. Over controlling.
Sanger: Were you checking the fuel tubes all the time, when there was a large bank?
Miller: All of the time. We had a constant monitor on the water pressure to each individual process tube that contained fuels. The temperature on each one of the tubes—originally, you had to either plug them in with a [inaudible] to check individual temperatures, or you could run a bank of automatically stepping switches that would give you a complete map, if you so desired. That was on a strip chart.
You were required to periodically check the temperatures and make a permanent record. Our conditions were such you could be monitoring individual process tubes, individual sections, and keep a pretty close watch on them. That is why you had these outside people, the guys on the floor, watching these other instruments, pressures, temperatures. Later, of course, we got a point where we had computers that would do that for us.
Sanger: What would be some possibilities or examples on why you would have to shut the reactor down? Would you do that if there was a rupture in one of the fuel elements?
Miller: Oh, yes. We didn’t run with a fuel failure.
Sanger: Would it take quite a while to bring it back?
Miller: Well, it all depended. If you shut the reactor down, you just have a short period of time in which you can get it back online again. We had a good many years that we would call it “quickie discharge,” where you would have your process tubes selected long before you shut down.
How would you do this? Basically, by monitoring the temperatures and the water pressures. By monitoring the radioactivity of the exit water on a bank of process tubes, you’d know when you had a rupture. You would get a nose for the thing. Pretty soon you can almost select the individual tube before it even goes down. You watch those instruments—as I say, I was out there for thirty-three years— you get a nose for it. You can almost smell them out.
When this happened, you would shut down and discharge it and start it back up. The time you’d be down varied according to how long you’d been operating, what level you had been operating, many different things. If you were down for any length of time, then you’d have to stay down until the xenon had decayed to a point where you could start up again, because it would poison itself.
Sanger: So a number of hours, or longer?
Miller: Sometimes it might even be over a twenty-four hour period, over a day, you would have to stay down. Again, depending on conditions, how long you had been operating, what levels [inaudible]. But you can’t just shut the thing down whenever you wish and start it back up again. You were doing this if you could do it quickly enough. You might have 30 minutes down time. You might even have as much as an hour or hour and a half. But you wouldn’t have a long period of time to start up and shut down at your own discretion.
Sanger: You ever recall any problems with the cooling system?
Miller: I have no horror stories to tell. Cooling system? Sure, we have had problems with it. Screen plugging foreign materials in the system. Although we had the water treatment plant, we had screens along through the system too, so if any foreign material did get passed through our filtration, we’d catch it. Dangerous thing is when we were faced with a total loss of coolant.
Sanger: Was there at least a backup system?
Miller: A redundant system. In some cases, depending on circumstances you might have as many as three or even four backup systems. If you had a complete power failure, you still would have some backup facility.
Sanger: Was that the steam turbine backup?
Miller: We had steam turbine backup. We had [inaudible] backup. Just any numbers of systems.
Sanger: You had quite a lot of water stored that would be fed by gravity, if everything else failed? There was water in that long covered building on the west of the B Reactor. What was that?
Miller: Those were clear wells. After the water had gone through the filtration system and treated for pH, boy, that was the cleanest water you ever saw in your life. It was so pure we would drop a lightbulb in there on the end of an electrical cord and there was nothing to conduct electricity. And you would swear that the clear wells were just a few feet deep, when they were twenty-five, thirty feet deep.
Sanger: Was that the water just before it went into the reactor? I understand they made it look like just a building so nobody would know it was water, in case anybody put two and two together.
Miller: I can’t say why they designed it the way they did. It was nice to have it covered, keep the birds out of it.
Sanger: There would be the tubes and the slugs inside them, and the water would go between the slugs and the inside of the tubes?
Sanger: And the slug sat on—
Miller: Little ribs.
Sanger: So it was just once through and out?
Miller: Correct. Eventually we got to a point where the [inaudible] fuel elements. You see, the original tubing was aluminum, and that had been charged and discharged so many times that the ribs would become worn. That was lessening the size of the water annulus. So we’d put little supports around the cladding and the fuels, and curl them up so you would have no water annulus around the circumference of the fuels.
Sanger: That was later, though?
Miller: All of these things evolved over a period of time.
Sanger: I was talking to a steam fitter, said that his job out at the B Reactor was to install stainless steel tubing that he thought was a fuel tube, but it was too small for that. Do you know what that could have been? He said he never could figure out what it was.
Miller: The only thing I can think of is a [inaudible].
Sanger: Oh that was at the end of the—
Miller: That was the water that was supplied off of a long pipe that entered, a manifold, in other words. You attached this piece of stainless steel pipe first on the manifold itself, then into the individual nozzle on the end of the tube.
Sanger: That was how the water got through?
Miller: That’s how it got through. And it was discharged somewhat the same way through a [inaudible] into a manifold, from there it went down into the cooling basin, a holding basin.
Sanger: But nothing went through the graphite, except the fuel tube?
Miller: Only thing that went through the graphite was a gas, inert gas. And that was circulated to keep any condensate from forming inside of the graphite block, and also to exclude any air. You didn’t want oxygen in there.
Sanger: How would that be circulated? Through piping, or something else? Maybe that’s what he was talking about.
Miller: You didn’t have any piping for that, except the gas mines that went through [inaudible] up the front through the reactor, because of the way it was honeycombed there. The graphite blocks were four inches by four inches and then the little corners might [inaudible] honeycomb [inaudible] the reactor.
Sanger: What was the gas? Was that helium?
Miller: [Inaudible] gasses. Helium, nitrogen, carbon dioxide. You use a mixture of gasses, depending on the conditions. See, each one has a different heat transfer ability.
Sanger: How was it accomplished, when you got the slugs out of the back end, out of the water and into the lead casks? Is that how you did it?
Miller: We loaded the lead casks underwater.
Sanger: So there wasn’t any contact with radiation that way?
Miller: No. The cask itself had a lid that had a couple of bars across the top. It had a latch, a lock, where the lid was locked onto the cask. You would unlock the empty cask and lower it down into the basin. You had a framework; these arms that extended out that would be caught and remove the lid. You would put it down into the basement and load the fuel elements in, and when you brought it up, that lid would drop into place under water. At first it was monitored as it was removed from the basin to make sure that the lid was seated properly and there was no leakage.
Sanger: How did you get the slugs into the cask underwater?
Miller: When the fuel was discharged, the fuel elements were picked up under twenty feet of water with a long pair of tongs and placed into what we call buckets, a basket, up there. When you loaded the cask, you put in a bucketful.
Sanger: All underwater?
Miller: All underwater.
Sanger: And the water was what, twenty feet deep? Men would walk around the edges of it with the long tongs to get the slugs?
Miller: Yeah. There was an open chute up, there with a railing around it.
Sanger: I think I had seen that, when they still let people back there.
Sanger: What was the pool where the water was? Just a discharge pool?
Miller: A storage basin. That is what we called it, and it was large enough you could have a good many buckets of fuel in it. It was properly spaced apart, so you would get no reaction with the coolant. The limit to how big a pile you could have, was the critical mass. These buckets were stored on yokes on overhead rails. Of course, these rails were far enough apart that you could not create critical mass.
Sanger: Then the casks were put in a rail car?
Miller: A special railroad car, yes. The cask was lowered into this well car, and it had water in it to keep it cool while it was in transit. You see, there was residual heat for some period of time in these irradiated fuels. The cask was lowered into the well car that had water in it, and you changed the water each time when you were going to ship.
We did have a time limit depending how long the fuel had been in storage, how many hours since it was discharged, because you have a lot of different fission products in a fuel. Some have a very, very short half-life, some of them just seconds, and fractions of a second. The longer you [inaudible] the less radioactivity you have. The less radioactivity, the less heat generation. But you did have a time limit on how long you could keep it in the well car, during the course of going through discharge [inaudible].
When you ship this, you would note how many hours it would remain in the car. Your railroad crew would then have to fall in, to be sure they were receiving at the 200 Areas or bring it back to us and let us back in the basin in that period of time. Safeguards, safeguards, safeguards. I will assure you in these time limits that I’m referring to, we had a very conservative figure there. So if something did happen, you still had time to handle it.
Sanger: What if the train left the rail?
Miller: This did happen. These well cars, because of the great weight of the train, had very little roof clearance. It was possible, when we had a heavy snow and sleet storm, the car could become derailed, just lifted off of the tracks. We had a rail crew that immediately could get it back on the rails. If for any reason we couldn’t do this, we could take, I don’t know, a tank truck, and put some water in it. Never had to do that, but we had the capability.
Sanger: Where were you when the war ended?
Miller: I must have been at D Area. I spent thirteen years at BC [Area] in the 200 Area. Not all in one continuous period of time, but over a period of years I logged thirteen years in that location.
The only one I remember the recent reactions to was N Reactor in 1963.
Sanger: Did you work out there?
Miller: Yeah, before I retired I spent seven years at N.
Sanger: Oh, you did? How old are you now?
Sanger: Do you still associate with a number of people that you worked with all those years? Are they still around? I suppose most of them—
Miller: Quite a large number of them. We do not like to read the obituaries.
Most of us there in the operating group were all of an age bracket.
Sanger: What, thirty about?
Miller: Twenties, early thirties.
Sanger: How did you happen to escape getting drafted? Age or deferment for this job?
Miller: Well, I was deferred first when I was working for Remington, an essential industry. See, I worked for Remington before we went to war.
Sanger: In Denver?
Miller: Yes. I helped open that place.
Sanger: Oh, you did?
Miller: Mm hm.
Sanger: Is that still there?
Miller: No. The Bureau of Reclamation, I understand, [inaudible] that location now.
Miller: Yeah, when I worked for Remington, we didn’t even have boilers. We only had locomotives sitting out in the siding, generating enough steam to keep things from freezing in the building.
Sanger: When would that have been?
Sanger: But they were gearing up then for war?
Sanger: DuPont owned Remington, didn’t they?
Miller: Yes, Remington, well it was a wholly owned subsidiary, as much as fabrics and finishes.
Sanger: So you didn’t know what you were doing out there, until the bombs were announced, that they bombed Hiroshima?
Miller: No, no. Well, you know, we really did not discuss the job. We were under an oath of security, of secrecy, because of security reasons. But we really did not discuss it among ourselves to speak of. Very little. Just about that time of the world. The Germans were getting well into their rocketry program. In my own opinion, I thought that we were making a solid rocket fuel, competing with the German rocketry program, the buzz bomb of theirs. So I was way off base, too.
Now obviously, I had to have had some idea of what we were working with. Not being entirely stupid and the weight of the damn stuff, and the [inaudible] a clue. All of the radiation checks were secret. I used the wrong word. When they spoke of radiation during the very secret war days, they just referred to it as “activity.”
I made the mistake then in the hearing of one of our managers. I used the word “radioactive,” because I knew what I was talking about. But oh my, I was taken aside to an office and the security people impressed upon me, “Now, that’s a ‘no-no’. Don’t you never say that again!”
Sanger: Oh, is that right? So instead of saying “radioactivity,” they would just say “activity?”
Miller: Activity, yes.
Sanger: Or ‘the activity here is high, so stay away’?
Miller: Right. Mm hm.
Sanger: Had you studied physics at all? Why would you know what was going on? Had you read about it before?
Miller: Well, I guess the little bit of physics I had acquired before was just enough to get me some leads to the thing. From there on out, it started to occur why, [inaudible] some reference material. Of course, I was curious to know what they were doing. I had no idea we were splitting the atom. That was not a new concept at all. While still in school, the idea of splitting the atom, we had untold sources of energy. It might not be the greatest thing since motherhood, which turned out not to be entirely true.
But it was not a new concept. I am talking about way back in the ‘30s, when I was still going to school. But that was rumored around through the more technical people at that time. They had been dinking around with the idea.
Sanger: Do you remember—I think we went into this down at the science center that time—but do you remember your feelings when you heard about the bombs, when you knew what you had been doing?
Miller: Oh yeah, I remember all right. First, I was greatly surprised, especially when I began comprehend the damage that had occurred. I did not have any guilt feelings, and do not have any to this day. I am sorry it had to make its announcement to the world with a big bang. You know, I think it has hurt the program a great deal.
Sanger: Was the attitude generally, as you recall among your friends, that it was a good way to end the war? It made it worthwhile?
Miller: That was the general opinion, yes.
Sanger: Yeah, everyone has said that. I think the only people who I have talked to who have expressed any doubts at all were a couple of the physicists. This is all by hindsight, of course, because they certainly worked hard at the time to do what they knew what they were doing.
Miller: I had some negative opinions too, since then. I truly wished that it had never been possible. I do not think it is going to contribute all that much to our welfare, and I still have some grave doubts about nuclear reactors as a power source. Hell, I would not want to live next-door to one. No way.
Sanger: Is that because of the radiation danger?
Miller: Just in general, part is due to the radiation, yes. That stuff is sneaky. What I mean by this is contamination, and usually it would spread. Not just what you have on your hands and feet either, but getting into the food chain. It has already done that. And it is not in the way. It is like TV: there’s a lot I don’t like about it but you have got to learn to live with it. I do not think we need to get near as panicky as the general public seems to be, and certainly you realize that you got to [inaudible].
Sanger: I think you also mentioned, just as soon that man or mankind still settle their disputes with clubs?
Miller: Yeah, I would be a fan of that. Where do I vote?
Sanger: But as you say, it is like television.
Miller: It is here. It is not going to go away, and you have to learn to live with it.
Sanger: I think this is probably self-evident, but I wonder if some of the general public’s fears of nuclear energy are based on the bomb?
Miller: Well, of course it is.
Sanger: There is not much connection except for the radiation danger, but I imagine a lot of people think that a reactor is like a bomb sitting there ready to blow up.
Miller: You would be surprised— well, perhaps you would not. I was surprised that people coming into the science center and their opinion of a nuclear reactor in some cases were really quite weird. Now they would find it very hard to believe that there were people running the reactor that live a normal life and perhaps have just normal feelings about something weird and apart from the world.
Sanger: When you were out there during the wartime period, would you be checked for radiation? Or did you know, since they were not admitting that such a thing existed?
Miller: Oh yes, yes. We always had what we called hand and shoe counters, radiation detection insurance. Before you would smoke, before you would eat, you would check your hands and feet. We would check our hands and feet before leaving.
Way back in the early days, once each week I had a cursory medical inspection. Monthly I would have a urinalysis; they would deliver a bottle to the door and you would give a urine sample. And blood cultures—they were always quite perturbed because I always had an extremely high ratio of white blood cells. The problem was, after I had been here a short while I developed allergies. To what, we never tried to really pinpoint, but to some of the vegetation in this locality. A fever, in other words. Just enough to throw my blood count way off. I was never really deeply concerned about it; they were far more concerned about my welfare than I was.
Another thing they would examine very closely was the extremities of your skin. If there was going to be any radiation burns, you would expect it to be in the extremities, in the hands mostly. I was having quite a bad time with breaking out between my fingers and in the crook of my elbow and on your arms. I finally decided that it was just the salt boiling out. You see, we did not have air conditioning and that first summer, we had some days that were 112 [degrees Fahrenheit] thereabouts, and the salt was actually on your skin.
So instead of having a smoke break, at the end of the two-hour period, I would take a shower. Before lunch, take a shower. And after working a couple of hours, about 2:30, I would have another shower. Just a quickie, just to rinse off the salt deposit. I do think I was one of the cleanest darn persons in this area.
Sanger: What would they say, if anybody asked why they were checking them like that?
Miller: I do not know what they would say, because I never heard anyone ask that question.
Sanger: As far as more direct contact, the biggest risk would have been what? When you were unloading the radiation?
Miller: Why yes, the biggest risk we would have is during the charge/discharge operations.
Sanger: And with the charging, how would that be done? Was that done with tools?
Miller: Originally, the first charging just had a fulcrum and a big lever. You would be pushing those things, and it would take two men to move that column of fuel. We would keep switching off people, putting the fuels in place and the guys handling the lever.
Then we got a pneumatic charge machine, and of course, the fuels you put in would displace the ones downstream. Those coming out would be highly radioactive, so you want to be sure that everyone was clear of the rear face area, the discharge area, before there was any displacement of fuel. In valving, it would be possible to flush the radiated fuels out, because you always kept water on your [inaudible]. So your valving sequence learned to be right; you wanted to be sure that you had reduced pressures on the front before you uncapped any of the tubes on the rear. That got a little hairy once or twice—bad communication structure. Of course, it could have been a little more sophisticated, if we had better communications, too, front and rear.
I can remember being on the rear face and full protection. That means I had on coveralls, and cloth boots, and cloth gloves, and then rubber boots, and rubber pants, and rubber jacket, and rubber hat and rubber gloves, and an assault mask. It was difficult to talk with one of those assault masks. You talked into the mikes, and it was intelligible.
I was trying to raise the front face: “Rear to front, rear to front, rear to front.” No response. Okay, “Rear to control room.” There was always somebody in the control room. No response. I got so damn disgusted, I started to slam that mike down, and I looked and I only had that much cord [gestures small amount] on the mike. One of the pieces of machinery coming by had cut the cord to the mike. And I was just screaming like mad trying to get somebody to listen to me. That is what I am talking about, communication being pretty bad.
It finally got to the point where we had space mikes, for instance. We did not have to be trying to talk into the thing. Oh, there was no end of improvements.
The first ten years were absolutely fascinating, because I learned something new every day and on good days, I would learn several things I did not know before. Of course, after the secrecy bit was gone, when the technical manuals were made available, I could have bought one and brought it home. Of course, you could not do that, but I read relentlessly. General Electric started their School of Nuclear Engineering, which I participated in. It was just ideal the first ten years, and then it got to be, oh, all right; it was a job.
Sanger: What did one of those assault masks look like?
Miller: It was just a regular Army gas mask.
Sanger: Like a gas mask?
Miller: Except that the canisters we were using were different. They were not charcoal filters, because you were not filtering out poisonous gases. It was more of a respirator type, but you wore front full-face coverage so none of the radioactive materials would come into contact with your skin. Any particular matter would be filtered out, of course.
But being dangerous? No. If anything happened, you could take off your mask. One breath was not going to make any difference to your life span. There were times when your skin would become contaminated. I had my hands contaminated many a time.
Sanger: Was that later, after the war?
Miller: No, during the war.
Sanger: How would that happen?
Miller: Well, have a rubber glove that leaked where you would snag it on something without being aware of the fact. We would get contaminated water on it. You would feel your hand getting damp and sure enough, it was contaminated.
Contaminated methods were really stiff. What you would do is, you would wash with soap and water. I guess it would be possible to get something ingrained in your skin. I know it had happened to other people and they would have to abrade it off your skin, but that was rarely the case.
Sanger: Where would the water come from?
Miller: The process tube to obtain fuel. You were working back there in the discharge area; there was an open process tube and you keep water on it all the time. You are bound to get some splashed on you, so you wore rubber clothing.
Sanger: So how long have you lived in this particular house?
Miller: Thirty-six years. Our first house was a two-story duplex and we had the one child, a very small girl. We did not need all that much space. That is what was available. There was a long delay in my wife coming up here, because the house was designed for me and it did not pass inspection. So they had to rebuild part of it. I was living in it at the time, but I could not bring my family up here because I never knew where my family would be. They might be in the basement one day and the next day they would be upstairs. That might be a point of interest, too. Although I was living in my own house, they provided me with maid service.
Sanger: Oh, they did?
Miller: I would never see her, of course, because I would be working all day. But they would move my bed into whatever room they were not working in. The maid would come in and make up my bed, with fresh linen. Whatever room I was in, was always just really clean as could be.
Sanger: So when did your wife show up then?
Miller: About three years later.
Miller: Because, yeah, there are lots of them, you know.
Sanger: So you grew up in Denver?
Miller: I spent most of my early life in Denver. I was born there. I traveled for a couple of years, worked a couple of years in Chicago. But except for that, I spent my time in the Denver vicinity. As a matter of fact, when I was a little kid, I lived in a little colony of relatives. My great-grandfather lived on one side, my grandparents on the other. My uncles and aunts and stuff lived down the block.
Sanger: Did you go to college?