Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly. It is September 11, 2018, and I have with me John Fox. I’d like him to start by saying his full name and spelling it.
John Fox: All right. My full name is John Fox. J-o-h-n F-o-x. I’ve always been grateful that I had a short name.
Kelly: John, I know you’ve had an illustrious career here. I want you to start from the beginning, when and where you were born and how you came to—
Fox: Oh, my gosh. I was born in Portland, Oregon, October 1, 1927. That’s not quite 91 years ago as of today. I grew up in Portland and San Francisco, sort of moving back and forth, depending on who I was living with in the family. My father died when I was four years old, and it was the Great Depression at that time. My mother was struggling, and so I lived with aunts and uncles here and there over the years.
I was in San Francisco when World War II broke out, and living with an aunt and uncle. My uncle lost his job, because it was dependent on receiving metal material for his construction-related projects. He moved back to Portland, and so I graduated from high school in Portland in 1944. I finished in December of 1944, just about the time the first fuel was being discharged from B Reactor—though I didn’t know that.
I went to Oregon State University. I completed a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering there in early 1951, came to work at Hanford in April of 1951. I worked for about the first five years in the reactor areas dealing with special irradiation tests and with the graphite expansion and helium issues, keeping track of that.
In the fall of 1956, the Hanford Laboratories organization unit was formed, which was a combination of all the environmental and biological research and development work, instrument development work and so on—together with a new program, Atoms for Peace, under the Eisenhower Administration, which was to explore use of plutonium as a fuel for power reactors. We built the small plutonium recycle test reactor in the 300 Area, which was a heavy-water-moderated and heavy-water-cooled reactor, 70 megawatts capacity, but ran at high temperatures. It used mixed-oxide plutonium and uranium for fuel as a prototype fuel-testing machine.
The Laboratories’ management was taken over by Battelle [Memorial Institute] in 1965 when they began the program of shutting down the Hanford production plant. I went into a lot of other diverse fields of management. I retired from Battelle at the end of 1992.
After that, I went into public service. I got on some city boards and park board and planning commission, eventually the city council, and finally, spent six years as mayor of the city [of Richland] and retired from that five years ago. In 2013, I decided I was old enough that I should no longer run for election, and so here I am, still surviving today. It was at that time I joined BRMA [B Reactor Museum Association] and got in on the formation of the national park.
Kelly: By ’51, the Korean War had begun and we were full-tilt into the hydrogen bomb—at least, that was in the planning stages. What was the mood at Hanford? What was going on?
Fox: There was rapid expansion of the plant. I came at the time they were completing C-Pile. I was here three months before I got a clearance to actually work out on the plant. They were stacking the graphite for C-Pile, and I was assigned graveyard shift to keep track of the stacking and see that things went in the right place, and nobody was spreading any contamination. I can claim to have been inside one of the piles. It’s all cocooned now, laid to rest.
Kelly: Was this done by hand? These are heavy graphite blocks, right, when they were being stacked?
Fox: Yes. The graphite blocks are several feet long and a little over four inches square. But the alternate layers are stacked differently, and some have holes for the process tubes and some for the control rods, the vertical safety rods and so on. Each one is custom-designed for the location in the pile. They’ve got to line up right, or the control rod won’t slide in. It’s checked and double-checked and triple-checked during that process.
At that time, the first three reactors, B, D and F, were all operating. B had been shut down for a period of time, because they had been fearful that they couldn’t continue to operate it because of the swelling of the graphite. It became difficult to push the slugs through the top layers of tubes, and you can get yourself into real trouble with that sort of thing. The DR and H Reactors had already gone into operation, and C was the third of the additional reactors there.
Following that completion of C and putting it into operation, they then embarked on a period of—the method of getting the swelling of the graphite under control was to change the atmosphere inside the reactor shield from helium to a combination of helium and carbon dioxide gas, which allowed the graphite to heat to a higher temperature and anneal out the swelling. That enabled them to keep all the piles running.
Then, it turned into a project to increase the power level of the piles, to see how far they could increase the power level by pushing more water through it and controlling the gas mixture and the water temperature to prevent boiling in any of the central tubes. That led to a more complicated analysis of the pattern of loading the peripheral tubes of the reactor with slightly enriched fuel to what they call “flatten out” or even out the power distribution in the reactor.
Because originally, it would be at high power rate right in the center of the reactor, and then more spherical pattern inside this cube. They found ways to distribute that out farther, and then they could reach a larger total power output with the same water flow. Then, they embarked on a large project to put in more pumps and piping and increase the water flow.
By the end, later on in the years of the Cold War, they were operating those reactors at eight times the power level initially. The reactor originally intended to operate at 250 megawatts thermal was running at close to 2,000 megawatts. Later, they built the K Reactors in the late ‘50s that were rated at 3,000 megawatts each. The total of the eight directly-cooled reactors was running at a peak power level of about 18,000 megawatts, although not necessarily running at full-blast all at the same time. Because you still needed to shut down frequently to discharge the fuel.
Kelly: Was the reactor design of C identical or similar to B, or was it different?
Fox: C was identical in the reactor core itself, I think. There may be some tweaks in certain features in it. There was greater provision for some of what we called “test holes” on the south side of C Reactor to put in special irradiations, because there were increasing requests to radiate, for instance, graphite samples. One of the things that came to light in the measurements we were taking in the mid-‘50s on the profile of the graphite at the top, in the top tube channel of the reactor to see if it was coming down. The annealing of the damage in the central part of the reactor resulted in the tubes being bent into sort of an S-shape at the top.
But the significant thing was H-Pile, which was started up after they changed the gas composition, never did expand. In fact, I was the one who wrote the document that showed that from the beginning, H-Pile began to shrink in the middle. That caused us to do more exploration of graphite samples, irradiation of graphite samples, at higher temperatures. That was one of the kinds of tests we did.
We even had one experiment for the naval reactor program, of putting in a prototype control rod for a submarine reactor design. That had to go in one of the vertical safety rod channels. That was an interesting experiment because it had monitoring lines, temperature, and gas pressure, and so on with external monitors. It led to a very complicated removal process on the top of the reactor, to chop it up into pieces and pull it out in the gas, and chop it up into pieces and get it out.
Kelly: The control rod?
Fox: Yeah. The experimental control rod.
Fox: Yeah. You couldn’t take things out of the reactor in one piece. You always had to have some casks where you could pull it out and chop it off, and then pull the next section out and chop it off and so on. Any experiment which had temperature, pressure monitoring devices, you had to be able to dispose of them on the way out.
Kelly: Go back to the 300 Area—you had a test reactor, the 300 Area that used heavy water?
Fox: There were other small reactors built, but the plutonium recycle test reactor was heavy-water-moderated and heavy-water-cooled. It had a number of innovations in design in it that were clever. The tank of heavy-water-moderator was built like a chicken-watering device, where you have a jar of water and a saucer around it for the chickens to drink out of.
To start the reactor up, you filled the chamber at the bottom. Then, you put a gas pressure, helium gas pressure, on it to force the water up into the moderator tank of the reactor, called the “calandria,” because it had aluminum sleeves for the zirconium process tubes to go through. To scram the reactor, you just shut off the gas pressure and the water dropped out. It didn’t have any moderator anymore. That was a unique design. I don’t think anything like it’s ever been thought of or used elsewhere.
But the primary cooling system of it was high-pressure, high-temperature water as in a pressurized water reactor, except it was heavy water. But it had zirconium-clad fuel bundles similar to those in a light-water power reactor. That reactor started operation in—I think it was 1961, and ran for several years. But an experiment they ran late in the game for high-temperature, molten-core ceramic fuel failed on them and damaged the reactor. After that, they shut it down.
But then, following that, the FFTF [Fast Flux Test Facility], the sodium-cooled fast reactor was built in the 400 Area. But there was also a low-power reactor called the high-temperature lattice test reactor in the 300 Area. That was used, I think, to support the design of the N Reactor, because the N Reactor had a high-pressure, high-temperature water cooling system, so it could generate steam for the power plant next door.
The plutonium recycle test reactor was the only one which was in a containment vessel. That reactor was demolished two or three years ago in the cleanup of the 300 Area.
Kelly: Just curious. Do you know whether the first reactor built by the Soviets was a replica of the B Reactor?
Fox: I’ve heard that it was, but I don’t know that for a fact myself.
Kelly: Some thought it might be a replica of your experimental reactor that you built on its side.
Fox: The 305 Reactor was used for testing the fuel slugs, a statistical sampling of the fuel slugs going into the production reactors for quality control and assurance of purity and so on. I’m not sure, but it was a very low-power reactor.
Kelly: So, that probably wouldn’t be it. It would’ve been the B Reactor, not—
Fox: Yeah. It was. I never paid any attention to that reactor, so I don’t know. I don’t think it had a cooling system at all. I think they just brought it up to critical, and took measurements of it to see if there was anything requiring further withdrawal of the control rods to get it to go critical. But I’m not sure.
Kelly: I was just curious.
Fox: But there was no big water-cooling system there for it. If you look at the photos of the production reactor areas, you see there’s all these other buildings around for the water-pumping and the retention basins and the holding basins and reserve supply of water and so on.
Kelly: There was none of that for the 305?
Fox: Yeah, not in the 300 Area. Because if you were going to take a reactor up to any appreciable power level, you’d need the backup systems for it, in case of an accident.
In the case of the PRTR [Plutonium Recycle Test Reactor], that was why it required a containment vessel, so that in case of an accident consequences would be contained. None of the production reactors, including the N Reactor, were in a containment vessel. But the N Reactor did have—because of the high-pressure, high-temperature reactor—it had a sort of confinement system. It would withstand a low pressure and contain the consequences of a major piping rupture.
Kelly: Why was it called Plutonium Recycle Test Reactor? Did I understand, you said “recycle”?
Fox: Yeah. The idea was that you could take plutonium and repeatedly reuse it. The nuclear fuel cycle for thermal reactors would include reprocessing, extraction of plutonium, and then recycling it through the next batch of fuel.
The weakness that emerged in that approach was that as you did that, you built up more plutonium-240 and 241 in doing that. You got into issues with spontaneous fission in the other isotopes and in handling the materials. But aside from that, when it came to the time of the Carter Administration, Carter banned reprocessing of fuel and that killed the fast breeder program and any further use of plutonium.
Kelly: How was that decision received by those like yourself, working on these reactors?
Fox: Not well, because when you go back to the original premise back in 1956 of, “Can’t we use plutonium for some peaceful purpose?” Just as a pragmatic consideration, if you look at the total uranium resource in the world and with the once-through system we’re using now, you’re only extracting a tiny percentage of the available energy source. If you could convert a major fraction of the U[ranium]-238 into plutonium and then generate energy with that, you could multiply the total available energy to civilization by 50 times or more, depending on the efficiency of the process. Ultimately, I think that mankind may be forced to turn to that, despite all complications that might ensue, and find ways to deal with those.
Kelly: What was Carter’s concern? Why did he stop reprocessing?
Fox: I can’t read Carter’s mind. Of course, he went through the Navy nuclear program. But I think he was concerned that it might lead to some disastrous accident in handling of plutonium or diversion of plutonium to sources that didn’t care how they used it, which of course, is still a concern. But nowadays, maybe Savannah River will get the mixed-oxide fuel plant built and start to burn the old weapons-grade plutonium in the TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] reactors. I don’t know what will come of that.
What I do know is that mixed plutonium/uranium oxide fuel was made in the 308 Building at Hanford in 1960. That building made mixed oxide fuel and used it in the plutonium recycle reactor, and both have been demolished and cleanup. All they got is a parking lot there now.
Kelly: But Savannah River has a plant, the mixed-oxide—I mean, they’ve been doing this for a while now.
Fox: Well, I don’t know whether they’re going to continue that or not, whether they’re going to get the appropriation to continue it.
Kelly: Right, right. That’s interesting.
Fox: They’re having as much trouble with that as we are with the vitrification plant.
Kelly: In terms of funding, or technically?
Fox: I don’t know what their technical issue is there. It’s hard for me to say.
We’re still getting funding for the Vit Plant, but our big controversy here now with the Vit Plant is whether or not the [Washington] State Department of Ecology will permit grouting of the low-level waste, which they do at Savannah River. They vitrify the high-level waste but they grout the low-level waste.
Here, the Tri-Party Agreement among the State of Washington, the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and DOE [Department of Energy] requires us to vitrify everything. There’s a strong pressure now from some quarters to follow the practice at Savannah River, which would expedite the cleanup here and reduce the cost of it by reducing the quantity of waste that needs to be vitrified and capsulated that way. I don’t know what’s going to come of that, but I think you mentioned the reasons the State’s objecting to going the Savannah River route here.
But the situation here with the waste is much more complicated than at Savannah River because of the fact that over the decades here, we used five different reprocessing technologies, whereas Savannah River only used one. Of course, we have “managed” the tank farm contents over the years to prevent overheating, to suppress the formation of hydrogen gas, and deal with other problems from the heat generation and the changing chemistry in the tanks.
The result is that we have apparently something like 40 different chemical feed streams from the tank farms to handle in the vitrification plant, whereas Savannah River has used only one reprocessing practice. That’s the PUREX [Plutonium-Uranium Extraction] process using TBP [tributyl phosphate] as the extracting chemical. Whereas Hanford began with the bismuth-phosphate process, which did not recover the uranium. It put all the uranium into the waste storage tanks along with the fission products.
Then, they switched to the redox [oxidation-reduction] process, which used hexylene chemical for extraction. It recovered the uranium separately as well, so it eliminated that issue. But then along came the PUREX process. We ultimately switched to that, and that used a different hydrocarbon than hexylene.
Then, we went back and recovered the uranium that had been put in the tanks by the bismuth-phosphate process, and recovered that uranium with yet another process. Then, we went back and took out the cesium and strontium. Cesium and strontium are two of the highest quantity fission products, and they both have about a 30-year half-life. They have a high rate of heat generation and they were causing some of the problems in managing the waste in the waste tanks.
There’s five different chemical processes to do these different things. There’s still some, apparently, strontium and cesium in some of the tanks, because I think there’s still a little work needing to be done there. But the strontium and cesium which were extracted were safely encapsulated and have been in a water storage tank, separately, for a number of years now. In fact, they’ve gone through a half-life or maybe two. There’s now the prospect of taking them out of water storage and put into dry storage.
All of that means we’ve got a much more complicated situation to face. It’s exacerbated by adoption, early on, of this so-called black-cell design for the Vit Plant, which was adapted from a British approach, which says, “You build this thing so you don’t require any pumping and mixing and things that require maintenance. Everything’s driven by pulse pumps, pressurized by hydraulic or pneumatic pressure to move things around through the thing. And you don’t ever need to go into the plant to maintain it.”
Well, you can never answer all the reliability questions that get raised in that. They’ve even gone to doing full-scale mockup of those pumps out here in a building near the WSU [Washington State University] campus. They wouldn’t accept the typical hydrodynamic design of it. “Oh, we’ll test it on such-and-such a scale and then it will scale up, and no problem.” But every review that comes up, then they say, “Oh, no, we have to go to larger scale, or eventually full-scale.” The black-cell design keeps on raising questions about it.
So, we’re spending far more. We have more people working on cleanup than worked in full-scale production at Hanford years later. That’s a consequence of postponing doing things early on, because the urgency was on production. “We’ll take care of the mess later on.”
We do have a complicated mess here that’s quite different than the situation at Los Alamos, which deals with plutonium contamination. But we have that plutonium contamination problem, too, from the plutonium finishing plant that they’re still demolishing. That’s more similar to the situation at Rocky Flats or Los Alamos. Oak Ridge has not had that kind of problem there, because they haven’t dealt with the processes that we have here on the scale that we have here.
Kelly: On the black-cell design, it was the—we actually hired the ICI [Imperial Chemical Industries]. Who was the British—
Fox: BNFL, British Nuclear Fuels. It was a competitive bid for the design of the Vit Plant, and they came up with that, and said this would be a much less costly way to approach it. From where I sit, I think that’s not the case.
They didn’t want to build it like the Hanford Canyon buildings, where you were equipped with a crane and remote handling to change out any of the vessels in the cells in the canyon building and so on. They said, “This is a simpler, cheaper way to do it.” It was perhaps—to crassly state it—that’s what you get when you take the low bid. You get something that you pay through the nose for later on.
Earlier than that, in 1970, when the FFTF [Fast Flux Test Facility] project had started, and Battelle was the PNNL [Pacific Northwest National Laboratory]—well, PNL [Pacific Northwest Laboratory] at that time. It didn’t have national lab status. Battelle had a design for a sodium-cooled reactor that was more like a materials testing reactor, more along the lines of the type of reactor that they had at Idaho Falls.
Milt Shaw, who was the DOE manager of the fast-breeder program at the time, wanted a small, pilot-plant design as a prototype for the Clinton River fast reactor that they were going to build near Oak Ridge. They got into a big dogfight over that, and he took the contract away from Battelle and gave it to Westinghouse [Electric Corporation].
They split the lab at the time, and I had the choice of staying with Battelle or going with Westinghouse on the FFTF project. I decided that I’d had enough of the nuclear business at that time and I wanted to get into a greater variety of things with Battelle. So, I stayed with Battelle and got into other things.
But we had a sort of an analogous thing come up at one point there in the days of the mainframe computers. We had a UNIVAC computer and the Department of Energy went out for bids, and—oh, no, it was the other way around. We had an IBM computer. They went out for bids and they got a low bid from UNIVAC [Universal Automatic Computer] for a computer and they took it. Well, it turned out that none of the software programs for the IBM computer would run on the UNIVAC operating system. This is back in the days of COBOL programs and what-have-you.
DOE said to the various contractors—we were all complaining that, “You didn’t factor in the cost of converting the software, which is enormous.”
And they said, “Well, you just have to absorb that in your operating budget, your overhead budgets. So, that doesn’t count, because the procurement is such-and-such.”
I said, “This makes no sense. It means you have to drop something that you were going to do to go through that.” All because of the DOE procurement rules.
Kelly: Tell us, what was your work at Battelle? What did you do there at this watershed, when Westinghouse took over the—
Fox: I first inherited some remaining programs. There was still work on radioisotopes and trying to find ways to use some of the isotopes for commercial use. But that has been a very disappointing area—again, because of the cost of extracting anything from the waste products and finding the right application for it. There is a little, local cottage industry on that. The IsoRay Company makes some little capsules. I’m forgetting what isotope they use for them, but they are used for treatment of prostate cancer. They do a little of that extraction still in the 325 Building in the 300 Area. There’s still a handful of buildings in the 300 Area that are in use by the lab.
Battelle helped—in the late 1960s, Exxon diversified into the nuclear fuel business and built a nuclear fuel manufacturing plant here west of PNNL, which they later sold to Siemens, who later sold it to the French firm.
It was Areva [NC], but the French have—they’re using a different name now. Because the French—they sold that electricity to France. I don’t know who owns it. Every few years, it has a different name, but they’re still making the fuel that was started by Exxon. Battelle supported that under contract to Exxon initially, and some of the people who worked for Battelle transferred to Exxon, and later Siemens and Areva.
Then, I got into a periphery of the environmental activities in the 1970s, and what passed for a computer group in the lab because the computer system was centralized for the Hanford plant at that time. But when minicomputers were introduced, and later personal computers, then we got into partly technical and partly political battles over who could do what with a computer. [laughs] We had the mainframe computers. We had the DEC [Digital Equipment Corporation] mini-computers. Our typing pools went to using Wang computers for word processing.
Then, the personal computers came along. At first, the Apples and then the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. The accountants all went for that. When the Macintosh came out, some of the scientists went for that. The word processing shifted. Plant standard word processing was Word Perfect. But Battelle and Columbus was standardizing on Microsoft Word, and we had documents which wouldn’t translate to others. [laughs] I went through several years of that. Of course, now it’s a whole different world with technology.
That’s where I ended up. In ’92, I was in the internal services group trying to referee [laughs] and support all these different things. I managed to get rid of the Wang computers first, at least.
Kelly: So, I’ve forgotten what we agreed on that you wanted to talk about in terms of the environmental legacy.
Fox: Yes. The other thing that I wanted to say was—from the start, I think Leslie Groves was immediately aware of the status of the salmon runs in the Columbia River. One of the first things that was done was to contact the University of Washington to get support from them in doing this. They set up early on a research program on that topic.
I don’t know the timing of this, but at each of the original reactor areas, there was a, I think, 108 Building that was near the reactor building. I’m not sure what the function was supposed to be for those buildings, because when I came, the 108 Building at B Reactor had the tritium processing facilities. It was under what they called the P-10 program. B Reactor and I think F Reactor were producing tritium, and it was extracted in two lines at the 108-B Building.
At F Reactor, they used that building for the biological lab and fish labs. They built fish tanks there, and I can’t describe the history of that, although I do have somewhere a presentation that Bill Bear gave on that five years ago on the history of that program. That was one aspect of that, because there was a concern about both the temperature and the radioisotopes that could go—particularly in the case of ruptured slugs or an accident at one of the reactors.
There was, of course, the worker exposure and so on. A very pointed thing in the agreement between Manhattan Project, [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers, and DuPont was an instrumentation program to develop instruments to measure radioactivity at very high levels, which they hadn’t dealt with ever before. But at low levels as well, in a range of circumstances. Because they didn’t have a grasp of how to measure and how to set limits on exposure.
They also recruited Herb Parker from a Swedish hospital in Seattle to lay out a program of worker protection, irradiation monitoring, and so on for the Hanford production plant. You could find this history out from the Herb Parker Foundation people. I think he first may have gone to Chicago to work on planning this program and then lay it out.
I’m not sure how they maintained any real secrecy on this point in the wartime days. You wore film badges that they read out periodically, and they had ionization pencils, they all wore a pair of those. They set up a program where if you had to go into what was a high-radiation zone—for instance, every month, say, you had to go on the back face of the reactor and you had to open up all the tubes that were going to discharged in there. You were in a high-radiation zone there, moderately high.
You had to determine how long could a person be in there under the circumstances. You usually had a radiation—we used to call them HI, health instrument organization was what it was called in the early days. Later, they changed it to radiation monitor. You typically had to get a permit for them, which was called “the special work permit” to enter certain kinds of radiation zone of known or unknown, little known. You strip down to your underclothing and put on suits and tape up the seams, and maybe wear masks or maybe even have an oxygen supply. I never did anything that required an oxygen supply, but I did go into such situations when we were taking samples out of the reactor and so on.
In the canyons, for the original bismuth-phosphate process, they had designed into the system for each of the cells a piping that was built into the thick concrete floor, where you could siphon up a sample of the radioactive fluid and take a pipette or something, take a small sample of it into a cask. People had to suit up and go out. I think always a pair and a radiation monitor with them, and enter the canyon building and go withdraw samples to send to the lab, to see if the extraction process, the precipitation process, had really gotten enough plutonium out of it.
They would get an estimate from the physicists at the reactor for this discharge batch of how much plutonium there should be. They would take a sample of the precipitations step and see if that had that right amount. If not, they might have to repeat that precipitation process an extra time or so on. Later plant designs, that wasn’t necessary. They had a siphon system that transported it out to the labs, but they had to have a lab in each processing building.
Those were examples of some types of jobs that required special protection, special work permit, and so on. At times, I always wondered—for instance, if they had to replace some equipment in one of the cells and haul it off to some storage cell or something, if they spilled anything on the floor of the canyon building, if they couldn’t go back in again, or how they cleaned it up to where they could go and sample.
But at any rate, I’m not familiar with those operations. But just sort of an example of how they went about worker protection and limiting exposure. If you hit your limit for exposure for the week or month, then you couldn’t go on that type of job until the next month or whatever. Or if you got overexposed, it might take away your exposure for a few months, and then you had to be assigned to non-exposure jobs.
Ordinarily, when a reactor was running, for instance, you could go in the control room, or you could go in the front face area and so on without that type of protection.
Kelly: This was a policy that [General Leslie] Groves established? What you just described was introduced during the Manhattan Project?
Fox: Yeah. It had to be introduced, but it was a learning curve type thing. They make a plan in anticipating what they would meet, but then the real world presents the problems. Not quite what you anticipated, and you have to improvise around them. A lot of things they had to do—they might have to call in help to the maintenance operation and the machine shop to make some special tool to do something to get at something that they hadn’t anticipated.
But still, it’s remarkable if you look at the overall history of the plant operation, that everything worked and that they had as few really serious problems as they did have, compared to average industry even.
Kelly: I suppose if you look at the attempts to vitrify the waste, as complex as it is—we’ve tried four or five different processes over the last however many years. It’s a struggle. Yet during the Manhattan Project, they were able to do this chemical separation plant with the back process remotely operated. First time they used remote operations anywhere.
Fox: Yes. It’s just amazing that it all worked, and enabled them to produce the product on that timescale. Yet at the time, I think there was a lot of feeling of, “Why is taking so long? We need this to end the war.” There were places upfront where they might’ve been able to save some time or compress some time.
The famous dispute—at least famous within the industry—dispute Met Lab physicists and DuPont engineers over the reactor design and how many tubes to put in, and it turned out that the DuPont conservative design saved the day. But going into it, each of them thought, “Well, we could save some time if we only built this.” You can understand the different positions at the time, different approaches to things. But it was an urgency that drove it.
With something like the vitrification and the ultimate storage, we still can’t face as a society where to put the vitrified product after we’ve vitrified it. Still, “Now, what do we do with it?” We haven’t ever faced up to that, because there just isn’t that urgency that wartime put upon us.
Kelly: That was one of the themes that John Price had, in the way—that he saw patterns where—like when the tunnel collapsed. People had known about the weaknesses there since 1980 or some such thing. Wasn’t until it failed—
Fox: It was not until it becomes a crisis that you can muster the support to do it. From my experience in public office, in politics, it’s that way. In order to muster enough support to do something, you sometimes have to let it come to a point of real concern.
When are we going to spend a few million dollars to fix this traffic problem? Nobody wants to pay more taxes. Nobody wants to raise the gas tax, but you got to have a way to pay for it if you’re going to fix it. It just has to get to a certain point of intolerance before people will say, “Okay, we’ll do it.” Just to pass a bond issue for a school is similar. It’s human nature.
Fox: Of course, another aspect, besides the worker protection, of the environmental concern was the operation of the chemical processing plant. You notice in the guidebook we put out this year that the illustration of the first atmospheric test at the T Plant was done while the T Plant was still under construction. They realized that when they dissolved the cans of the uranium and they dissolved the uranium upfront, the gases would be released, and it would carry radioactivity to the plant.
They ran some atmospheric dispersion tests by burning fuel at the base of the stack. The stack was one of the first things they completed, so they could run these tests in advance to determine how high they needed to make the stack, and how it would divert—spread—under the various climate conditions here. Because we do have windy days out in that desert and then stagnation days.
They built a very tall meteorology tower in the 200 Areas to monitor that during plant operations, monitor the weather. They had days when they would not dissolve, depending on the weather conditions. That was one control, but they put in a complete monitoring situation. They did a lot of aerial surveys around the plant, too, I think, ahead of time.
Kelly: But when you mean aerial surveys—
Fox: Of the atmospheric conditions away from the plant and so on. Maybe they did some releases and then sampling around. The atmospheric monitoring and modeling of that was an early program, as well as the aquatic program for the fish. The entire monitoring program of radiation of the river, of the atmosphere, and trying to model that and setting up the biological program on what were the effects of uptake in the fish, and also the animals and birds, the ducks and migratory birds.
There once was a pond near the 200 West Area, and they had a lot of migratory birds. There was a herd of wild goats that roamed the plant when I came to work here, and there are coyotes and deer and elk roaming around. They had to sample those for uptake, and so the whole ecosystem and uptake of materials into plants and animals became a monitoring program.
When the processing plants were built, it’s my understanding that initially they did not put particle filters at the base of the stacks at T and so on. But they quickly discovered that they need particle filters there, and so that was an installation. Because their equipment was being contaminated in that area.
That became a pretty comprehensive monitoring and analysis program. The biological program led to developing miniature pigs that were about the same body weight as humans as a surrogate for doing radiation tests on. I think that probably some of that work, in retrospect, would not be popular with a lot of people today.
Smoking dogs—they had a colony of dogs trained to smoke. Because with handling plutonium in a Cold War facility, the Plutonium Finishing Plant, where the plutonium nitrate was converted to metal buttons to ship out, the main hazard is alpha radiation from the plutonium. Alpha radiation doesn’t penetrate clothing or any material very well, but if you ingest it by breathing or drinking or through a wound or something, then it can be very difficult to deal with. The biological impact was being studied, again, to try to set limits on human exposure to various forms of radiation.
Over the years, it led to a more diverse range of applications that PNNL is still doing. It’s enabled, on the instrument side, to develop very sensitive instruments for detecting nuclear materials at border stations or other places. It led to their molecular sciences laboratory for a variety of applications, for their work on climate change and other factors. It’s still a cornerstone of the laboratory programs here now.
One of the ones that I can’t answer is, “Why is it so difficult to prove that radiation causes specific health issues such as cancer?” A lot of medicine and a lot of diagnosis is based on statistical evidence.
Epidemiology, it doesn’t necessarily prove cause and effect but it is, statistically, guilt by association or what-have-you. It’s hard to prove conclusively. Probably a lot of lawyers have handled a lot of cases that deal with, “Do you have evidence here that conclusively proves that this health problem in this person was caused by that or something.” It isn’t just radiation that is difficult, that proves this conference.
The initial premise in the wartime days was that exposure to radiation must be tolerable up to a point by living creatures. Because creatures are exposed to radiation from sunlight and so on, and here and there radon and so on. You get more exposure if you live in Denver than if you live at sea level, and what-have-you. That was the premise.
I forget the two individuals at Livermore lab who promoted the linear extrapolation from higher levels back to zero and said, “You should base everything on this linear extrapolation.” That become the adopted thing. As Wanda mentioned last night at the BRMA meeting, this conference at the end of the month here is to re-examine the low-level data, what they have on low-level radiation, to try to reopen whether the linear analysis or linear assumption is really valid or not. I don’t know what’s the case.
I do know that under the worker compensation program for the nuclear sites has set up, in collaboration with the Department of Labor, that skin cancer, for instance, is considered a possible product of exposure to radiation by the workers at the nuclear processes. Oak Ridge does an analysis to determine whether or not you have had enough exposure that it’s a plausible cause for skin cancer. If it’s determined individual-by-individual that you have had sufficient total exposure to radiation from your work experience, you are entitled to some compensation from that fund and for reimbursement or pay for removal of skin cancers.
But that is all, I think, guilt by association. It isn’t based on any definite proof that that’s the case. Around here, you can probably debate it there. I think a number of people here have qualified for that, but we also have a lot of sun in the summertime. A lot of people have mostly pre-cancerous. I only know of one individual here that died of a melanoma, consequences of a melanoma that he ignored. But I don’t think he worked at Hanford.
I don’t know what to say. It seems to me that there is a real difference among people in susceptibility to one thing or another. I have hay fever and some sensitivities to certain things, so I have an immune system that reacts strongly to certain things that other people don’t have. We have one very close friend whose family—Alzheimer’s runs in the family, and she is going through that now, following her sister and her mother. It’s clearly heredity in that family. I have a long-standing heart problem, and I think that’s hereditary in my family.
Proof of cause is a tough thing. But on the other hand, I think I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you today were it not for the progress in heart treatment during my lifetime. I think in the next generation or two, that’s going to, we’re going to learn enough more about the brain to deal more productively with dementia and Alzheimer’s, and more about cancers to treat a wider variety of cancers. Although somewhere just recently I read that if you prolong life long enough, everybody will die of cancer. Even if you could live to 150, then you’d die of some form of cancer.
Kelly: If there’s anything else, especially if you’ve been thinking about something you’d like to say.
Fox: Yeah. Well, I don’t like to be defensive about anything and everything that’s ever been done or not done at Hanford. Of course, I sort of decoupled from the production aspect at Hanford early on. I only worked five years in that and then went into the lab, because I was just interested in a broader spectrum of things in my life. I didn’t want to be a narrow specialist.
But I understand people’s fear of radiation, because it is something that is not discernible by the senses that humans have. It’s there, but you don’t know it. I can see people who tend to be more fearful could even get paranoid about that. Or people who are optimistic take the blasé approach, “It doesn’t bother me until it hurts me in some way I can sense.”
It’s just like a whole lot of other things in the spectrum of humans in their reaction to things. But I’m a pragmatist. I think we just need to find practical ways to deal with it. If we understand it more thoroughly and can devise ways to contain its effects and handle the materials, we could make more productive use of the handing radioactive materials and putting them to use. But you’ve got to be about 100% effective in doing that, and that’s tough to achieve.
Kelly: It is. Very high standard.
Fox: Yeah. Ultra-high standards. But it’s no different in character than dealing with space explorations and the things we talk about doing in space. If we want to colonize Mars, which seems like an ultra-ambitious and not very compelling need to me, but it’s interesting.