The Manhattan Project

Roger Stover's Interview

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Roger Stover's Interview

Roger Stover is a nuclear engineer and U.S. Army veteran. In this interview, Stover discusses his work conducting radiation tests during nuclear tests at Eniwetok and at the Nevada Test Site. He recalls the overwhelming experience of witnessing both hydrogen bomb tests and fission nuclear weapon tests. Stover also describes his nuclear reactor work with the Westinghouse Nuclear Fuel Division in Pittsburgh, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Argonne National Laboratory, and at Hanford Site. He also comments on the lasting legacies of the Manhattan Project and the future of nuclear energy. Finally, he remembers teaching physics in Pakistan for one year.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
December 28, 2017
Location of the Interview: 
Florida
Transcript: 

Alexandra Levy: I’m Alexandra Levy with the Atomic Heritage Foundation. I’m here in Florida on December 28, 2017, with Roger Stover. My first question is for you to please say your name and spell it. 

Roger Stover: My name is Roger Stover, R-o-g-e-r, last name S-t-o-v-e-r.  

Levy: Can you tell us about when and where you born, and a little bit about your family growing up?

Stover: Yes. I was born in Naperville, Illinois. It’s a suburb west of Chicago. I lived in a small town. It was a small town of 5,000 at the time. It was a rather normal life growing up. I moved when I was about eighteen years old, and never came back to the area.

Levy: What kind of an education did you get, both in high school and in college? When do you decide you were interested in nuclear issues?

Stover: Yes. I graduated from high school and then went to Purdue University for a B.S. in mechanical engineering. Then I went to MIT for a Master’s in nuclear engineering, and then a doctorate in nuclear engineering back at Purdue.

The thing that got me interested in nuclear was when I was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1957, we were sent over to the Eniwetok testing grounds for the bomb tests in the Marshall Islands.

Levy: Can you talk a little bit then about being drafted into the Army and your work in Eniwetok?

Stover: I was assigned to Army Chemical Center in Edgewood, Maryland, which is just north of Baltimore. One of our assignments there working with civilians was to go over to the Marshall Islands to Eniwetok Atoll on Operation Hardtack I, which occurred from roughly April 1958 through August 1958.

Then we were also assigned and sent to Hardtack II, which was in the Nevada Test Site from September to October 1958. There was a rush on at this time to complete all of the nuclear testing before the end of October, when [President Dwight D.] Eisenhower had signed an agreement with the Russians not to perform any nuclear weapons tests.

Levy: Can you talk a little bit about Eniwetok and what it was like to be sent out there? How did you feel about being assigned to work on nuclear testing?

Stover: The first thing was, it was very exotic to be sent to a Pacific island. When we got there, it was very accommodating. Holmes & Narver out of Los Angeles was the lead contractor for taking care of people there. They had large tents for us to live in. They had excellent food. We had steak dinners every Wednesday night, and prime rib every Saturday night. There was a large PX [Post Exchange] there. Also, there was excellent scuba diving. The coral reefs were just fabulous. So that part of it was extremely enjoyable. But the work itself was enjoyable.

Levy: What kind of work were you doing exactly in terms of the testing?

Stover: What we were doing was measuring the radiation effects from the shots, from the bomb blasts. These are mostly hydrogen bomb tests, shots, as opposed to Nevada, where they were normally the uranium shots. What we would do is set out passive detectors before the shot, and then retrieve them after the shot. We would take foils out of the detectors and put them into Geiger counters, and then measure the radiation, the neutron, and the gamma rays from the weapons test.

Most of the shots were barge shots on the water. There were several under the water, and then there were also a few land shots on some parts of the atoll. Normally, we were about thirty miles away from the blast. On any given day when the shot was to go off, they announced it on the PA system and there was a regular countdown.

 Just before the shot went off, you turned your back, because the light pulse was so intense. Then right after that, you could turn around. We had on goggles. You felt the pulse of the light intensity or the heat, you felt that pulse immediately. Then about perhaps five or ten minutes later, you felt the blast effect. About fifteen, twenty minutes later, you saw the lagoon recede to a depth of about twenty or thirty feet. Then over the next hours, it gradually came back in.

Levy: How did you feel the first time you saw a nuclear test?

Stover: Seeing a nuclear bomb explode was completely overwhelming. As I said, we were thirty miles away, but we could feel the heat pulse. The shockwave was sufficient—it almost blew you over unless you were standing strong, with your legs thoroughly attached to the ground. It was just overwhelming to see.

We saw about, probably eight or ten shots in the Marshall Islands. The biggest one was about 10-megatons, as opposed to the weapon over Japan was on the order of, I think, about 10 or 15-kilotons. It was a major shot.

Levy: What was the purpose of the testing that you were doing, to test the radiation?

Stover: The government was very interested in finding out what the effect was on contamination and also, they wanted to know how far the effects of the blast in terms of radiation neutrons and gamma rays surrounding. They were interested in plotting this kind of information, distance from the blast.

And, also, the effect on ships. They had ships in the lagoon, so they wanted to see what the effect would be on the ships. Also on the effect of the contamination, how it could be contained and how far it would float away.

Levy: Were there ever any health concerns for you and your fellow soldiers, or were you far enough away that that wasn’t considered to be an issue?

Stover: In terms of radiation effects and impact upon the people there, as I said, we were thirty miles away, but you had to be careful about fallout. I think at one point, there was a concern for fallout.

What we did was, we wore film badges, and these were measured once a week. If you exceeded five roentgens, then you had to leave the test site, you were sent back home. Now, a normal X-ray would probably be about maybe ten millirems, so if five roentgens was quite a bit of radiation.

One of my friends, one of the soldiers serving with me had just gotten married before he came. After about one month, his film badge mysteriously read five roentgens, so he had to be sent back home. There was always some speculation that he wanted to go back to his newly-married bride, instead of staying there for another two or three months. But other than that, there wasn’t any concern about radiation.

Levy: You learned how to read the film badge, and you learned how to work with Geiger counters and the other testing equipment. 

Stover: Right. We had about ten Geiger counters inside of a converted semi-trailer. After the blast, we would go out and retrieve the detectors and take them apart, and take out the little metal disks and put them into the Geiger counters and measure the radioactivity of the various metals. The radiation levels of the various metals helped us determine the neutron field, how strong it was and also the effect of the gamma rays.

Levy: Did it look to you like the Marshall Islands, like Eniwetok, changed from the atomic bombing tests over the time you were there? Or did it mostly look like it stayed the same?

Stover: Well, of course, the island where we were, it stayed the same. The surrounding islands, there were a few land shots, so they actually set the weapon on a part of the atoll. Of course, that was blasted with a large crater.

Then there were also shots inside the lagoon, and some of those were underwater. That left a large crater in the lagoon. The lagoon in the Marshall Islands, Eniwetok, was not that deep perhaps, fifty feet or so. It was quite noticeable.

As we went around in the LST [Landing Ship Tank], that’s how we put the detectors out. That’s a landing barge from World War II. We never got very close to any of the damaged parts of the island, because of the radioactivity involved.

Levy: Did you meet any of the native Marshall Islanders, or had they all been relocated?

Stover: Yes. All of the native people had been evacuated, so we did not meet any of them. 

Levy: Do you know, is Eniwetok inhabitable today, or is the radiation still too high?

Stover: They took some people back to Bikini, I think, in 1980. It seemed like the radiation levels were low enough to exist. But what happened was, the radioactivity was absorbed into, I believe, the palm trees or the banana trees. It produced an environment where they couldn’t live. So, they were taken back off.

I don’t know what the present state is now. As far as I know, there aren’t any people back in the Marshall Islands, or in Eniwetok at least.

Levy: The ships that were used to test to see the impact of the bombings on the ships, were those left in the water there, or were they taken back and examined?

 Stover: They were taken back. After every test, the ships were washed down and decontaminated. As far as I know, there are no ships left in the lagoon.

Now, it may be different in Bikini. There were also tests there. I was not over at that part of the testing, only at Eniwetok.

Levy: Did you have to work on the ships washing them down, or was that other people’s duties?

Stover: We spent one day on a ship, but we were just there as guests. I don’t remember why we were there. But no, I did not do any decontamination of the ships.

Levy: Can you talk about witnessing the tests in Nevada? Was that right after?

Stover: Yes, it was right after. We packed up the trailer and it was shipped back to the States, then we went to Nevada, to the test site. Again, we lived in four-man trailers. It was at Camp Mercury, which is about seventy, eighty miles outside of Las Vegas.

These were a series of some balloon shots and some surface shots and also some underground shots. They were much lower yield, they were on the order of maybe one kiloton at the greatest. We performed the same regimen. We took the detectors out the day before the shot. Then after the shot, we went back and retrieved them and took them back into our labs and counted the samples.

One interesting story, being out in the desert, we had access to Jeeps. Being young men, guys liked to take the Jeeps and go riding out in the desert. Well, two of the guys I worked with did that one day, and they found themselves about a mile away from a balloon floating in front of them with a closed gate. They had to call security to get through the gate quickly and get out. This occurred about one hour before the balloon shot. They were very fortunate to get out quickly.

Levy: Can you explain what you mean by a balloon shot?

Stover: Yes. What they did was, they wanted to test the effect of a weapons explosion in the air. They would attach the weapon to a balloon and then float it up into the air, perhaps 500, 1,000, 2,000 feet. Then it was exploded from there.

Levy: Since the Nevada shots were smaller in terms of the destructive power, were you closer or were you still thirty miles away?

Stover: We were closer. We were on the order of about ten miles away, yes. The blast effect and the heat effect was much less.

Levy: How did your response to witnessing the tests change over time, since you went from seeing the larger hydrogen to the smaller fission tests?

Stover: It was just more of a reaction to the size of the weapon, and the destructive force of the larger megaton blasts, as opposed to the smaller shots. [0:18:00] Still, it was all overwhelming to see these weapons being detonated.

Levy: The smaller one still was an overwhelming experience.

Stover: The smaller ones were still quite overwhelming, certainly.

In terms of contamination, the balloon shots, the contamination was fairly well-contained, because they did a good job of studying the wind currents. But there was one shot where some low-level radiation drifted off towards Los Angeles. That was noticeable. But it was only one. I guess that was a positive note, and it was a very low radiation level.

Levy: Was that reported on in the media, or did the military try to keep that confidential?

Stover: I’m not sure. I looked at it in Wikipedia just yesterday, and I noticed that. I don’t remember that at all when I was there. 

Levy: You don’t remember being notified?

Stover: No, not at all, no.

Levy: It’s interesting that you talk about it still being overwhelming as a smaller fission [bomb], because I know it’s hard for people today to understand that fission ones were also very large. But the hydrogen bombs would seem even bigger. It’s all a matter of scales. But of course, the fission ones were still very large destructive power.

Stover: With the hydrogen bombs, of course, you were much further away, thirty miles away. With the smaller atomic bombs, so-called, you were closer, but they were still gigantic in size and effect.

Levy: Can you talk also about what other security precautions were taken? Were there civilians ever allowed to witness any of these tests as journalists or as experts?

Stover: Right. Operation Hardtack I and II was a combination of many government services. There were military, and I would say mostly civilian contractors were there. There were a lot of photographers certainly there, because you can go online now and you can see movies of all these shots. In fact, I was going through some of the films about a year ago, and I saw a couple of my friends that I worked with on the beach.

Levy: At Eniwetok?

Stover: At Eniwetok, yes. There were a lot of civilian contractors there. The story was, well, they were there for longer than just the test, because they were also working Bikini, and also Johnston Island. There were some rocket shots off of Johnson Island. They could be there from twelve to eighteen months.

Now, back then, the IRS code said that if you were out of the country, I think twelve or eighteen months, then you didn’t have to pay income taxes. They tried to stay eighteen months. It was a real tough haul for some of those civilians, but they had been there quite a while.

Levy: How many people were in your specific Army unit working on the nuclear tests?

Stover: There were about fifteen of us assigned from Army Chemical Center.

Levy: Why do you think that you and the others were selected for this kind of work?

Stover: We were selected because at Army Chemical Center, we were doing radiation effects in buildings. We had concrete structures, and we would put a radioactive source in one room. Then we would go into the other rooms and measure the radiation field. So, we had experience with measuring radiation with these Geiger counters.

They wanted another way of measuring the blast effects, the radiation effects from these shots. We were just one way of measuring. There were other ways of measuring, too, but ours was a rather simple way of passive detectors: putting them down before the shot and then retrieving them after the shot. They also had online monitors stationed around, but sometimes they did not survive. It was important to have many ways of measuring the radiation effects.

Levy: When you were drafted, did you want to go into the Army Chemical Center, or was that something the Army picked for you to do?

Stover: There are two parts to that. When I was drafted, I did not want to go into the Army. Then the second thing was, after basic training, because of my background—I had already obtained the Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering—they sent all of the scientific personnel, trained personnel, to various technical Army bases throughout the country. One of them was the Army Chemical Center. It was quite a good experience there .

Levy: Although you hadn’t wanted to be drafted, in the end, it—

Stover: It worked out very well. It’s like a lot of things in life: you don’t look forward to them, but then you experience them, and you look back upon them and it was really a good experience.

For instance, there was time to take courses from USAFI, United States Armed Forces Institute. I took a Russian course and I took a German course. We were close to Baltimore, so we could go into Baltimore and play contract bridge. We were close to Washington, D.C., and it was really an interesting place to visit. We went to a session of Congress once. That was impressive to see these men who were making decisions about my life in the service. That was very impressive. It was a very good two years.

Levy: What was your rank when you were in the Army?

Stover: SP4 [Specialist 4th Class] was my rank. Started out as a private, of course.

Levy: When you were in Nevada, was there any concerns about the health effects from the tests in the surrounding communities, or were the tests all very far from any towns?

Stover: The tests were about eighty or ninety miles from Las Vegas, and I’m sure there were some concerns. But they weren’t revealed to us, and we didn’t read about any of them. 

We went into Las Vegas every weekend to play the slot machines, and we didn’t encounter any obvious opposition to the tests. Although as I look back upon it, there was a lot of opposition in the newspapers. But we didn’t have any personal contact with that.

Levy: Do you have any specific impressions of a particular test, either at Eniwetok or Nevada? 

Stover: I guess the most impressive test was the shot called “Oak,” and that was about 10-megatons. I think that was the one where I experienced this extreme heat pulse immediately after the shot. It was like stepping out into the blazing sun. Then the shockwave after that, about five or ten minutes later, which almost blew you to the ground. That was probably the most impressive. It just covered the complete horizon. It was just enormous. 

Levy: When the tests were ended because of the agreement that was signed, were you still in the Army at that point?

Stover: I was still in the Army at that point, yes. We continued our measurements in concrete buildings after that, but that was as far as it went.

Although, we did do some measurements on our Geiger counters and we went to various labs. We went to Los Alamos to a small test reactor, and we tested some of our detectors there to see if they were normalized correctly. We also went to Brookhaven National Laboratory and also checked some of our detection devices. But otherwise, we were out of the game after that.

Levy: How did you find Los Alamos when you went? 

Stover: It was really interesting. We got there about a year after they had opened up the gates. The word was that all of the surrounding communities were antagonized by that, because they got all these wild young kids from the scientific community infiltrating their communities and raising a ruckus. They didn’t like the fact that they had opened up the gates. 

It was very quiet at that time. We stayed at a boy’s school, which had been converted into a motel. It was old and rustic and had wood beams, and is still there today. I went back last year and looked at it, and looked in one of the rooms where I stayed. It was a very pleasant community at the time.

Levy: Do you remember the name of the building you stayed in? Was it Fuller Lodge?

Stover: Fuller Lodge, it sits on top of a small hill, and it’s right in downtown. I don’t remember the name of it, but it still takes Fuller right now. Although, I think part of it is, it’s right next to the museum. Is that the place, Four Lodge, is that what it’s called now?

Levy: I believe that’s Fuller Lodge. 

Stover: But it was a boy’s school back then, and they took it over and converted it to a motel.

We had a visit from—I think it was the Queen of Greece [Frederica] at the time, and she came to town. That was in 1958. They had a parade for her downtown in Los Alamos.

Levy: Why did the Queen of Greece come?

Stover: I don’t know why she came. Maybe they were looking for money. I don’t remember why. Orit might have been the Queen of Spain, one of the two.

Levy: How did you find Brookhaven?

Stover: Brookhaven, I don’t have much of a memory, because I was only there a couple of days. It was out in Long Island, of course. I don’t have much memory of Brookhaven. [0:30:00]

Levy: Is there anything else you want to say about your time in the Army, or working on the nuclear tests?

Stover: No, I think that’s all. It was just an experience that few people will ever get to see, and I hope no one will ever see it again. But it was impressive, and I was glad that I was able to go there.

Levy: Okay. We’ll move on to your later career from the Army. When you got out of the Army, did you go straight to do graduate work?

Stover: When I got out of the Army, I went straight to MIT and got a Master’s degree in nuclear engineering. Then I went to work at Argonne National Laboratory, where I was a reactor supervisor for what’s called a fast zero-power reactor.

The way it worked was: it was like two bookends, and it was packed full of highly-enriched U-235. To make the reactor critical, you just pushed the bookends together on a table, on two flatbeds. Then it went critical, and you made measurements. Then when you wanted to stop the reactions, then you just pulled the table apart. There wasn’t any radioactivity involved.

But what was involved was a lot of highly-enriched U-235 metal plates, which had to be controlled. They were put into the bookends with baskets, long baskets about this long and about, this square. There was a rigorous control of where all these highly-enriched U-235 plates were.

During that time, I spent about three or four months out at the—it was in, let’s see, Idaho, the nuclear test site there. We had a low-power reactor there called—well, EBR-1 was one that was also called Zero-Power Reactor-1. I went out there as a trainee to see how to operate and supervise a reactor. Then I came back and was reactor supervisor for what was called Zero-Power Reactor-3, ZPR-3. Did that for three years.

Then I took several trips around the world, and during one trip, I stopped in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, at Gordon College. They wanted a math and physics instructor. I was very interested in living abroad for one year. After I left Argonne, I went and taught physics in Rawalpindi, Gordon College, for one year. Then I came back and started my doctorate at Purdue University.

In 1968, when I graduated, I went to Westinghouse Nuclear Fuel Division in Pittsburgh, where we manufactured nuclear fuel for the Westinghouse power reactors. This was using computer analysis to determine where to put the fuel elements. Each reactor had on the order of about 200 fuel elements, and you could place them in various parts of the core, depending upon their enrichment and how much energy had been taken from them. You did that so that you could level out the neutron field inside the reactor vessel, so that you didn’t prematurely burn out any of the fuel assemblies, or even the vessel itself.

Then after that, I decided that I wanted to go out West, so I transferred out to Hanford. At that time, Westinghouse also had the contract for Hanford, so it was called Westinghouse Hanford. Out there, we were associated with—well, to get back to Pittsburgh, those were all water reactors, water moderators. At Hanford, the reactor out there was a sodium-cooled power reactor. I was responsible for a group that did the thermal hydraulic calculations on the reactor out there.

Well, then after that, my wife’s mother was back in Tennessee, so she wanted to go back to be with her. She was ill. I [0:36:00] applied to Oak Ridge National Laboratories and took a position there as a manager of shutdown—well, there was one operating reactor and about three shutdown reactors. We did some operating on an operating reactor. It was a little ball of highly-enriched U-235, and you could perform some experiments with it. You could also hoist it up in the air.

Then there were three shutdown reactors. They were water reactors, experimental reactors. It takes a lot of work when you have a shutdown reactor, because they still contain uranium inside, uranium vessels. There’s a lot of water, and it tends to seep out, so you have to be careful and monitor all of the instrumentation to make sure that they’re shut down correctly, maintained correctly. The idea is to eventually restore them to a green surface and get rid of everything. But it takes a long time. It’s called the deconstruction, demolition of these reactors. As far as I know, a lot of them are still there.

That finished my nuclear career, after about thirty-five years in the nuclear industry.

Levy: Wow. That’s quite a career. 

Stover: Well, thank you. It was quite varied and enjoyable.

Levy: To go back a little bit earlier in your career, can you talk about what it was like to see the EBR-1, the Experimental Breeder Reactor-1 in Idaho?

Stover: Well, I didn’t operate the reactor, but I went over there several times just to look at it. The interesting thing was how all the instrumentation was analog. It had motors whirring, and you had to feed in paper. Sometimes, the photo multiplier tubes didn’t work, and so it was like changing light bulbs. You had to go to the lockers and put in new bulbs. Compared to today’s equipment, it was very backward, as I remember. But it was the best we had.

Of course, EBR-1 was the first reactor to produce electricity, and they produced a light bulb, turned on a light bulb, as I remember, for the first time. 

Levy: At Argonne, when you were working on the U-235 reactor, can you talk a little bit about the implications of that reactor? What were the research goals of that?

Stover: The fast reactor, as I say, was air—well, there wasn’t any need for a cooling, because there wasn’t any power. It was just a zero-power.

It was mostly to calibrate analytical computer models, just to see if you could calculate what the radiation field was, or how well you could calculate how much uranium, U-235 was necessary to produce criticality. They would put the reactor on very short power excursions, and so that was important to be able to calculate how quickly the neutron field multiplied. That required a lot of data, and that was part of it.

Also, a side effect, or a non-scientific effect, was, we used to insert our own pieces of material into the reactor. I irradiated a silver dollar, which I still have, and it has a very low level of radiation. But it was mostly to calibrate computer models.

Levy: That’s very interesting. So this was some early computer work that was being done?

Stover: Right, yeah.

Levy: What was it like to live out at Hanford? I know Hanford site is quite large and little bit away from the Tri-Cities area.

Stover: Well, the Hanford site is located north of the Tri-Cities: Richland, Kennewick and Pasco. It takes about twenty, twenty-five minutes to get there. You had to go through security gates at all times. But, it was a very pleasant area to live in Washington State, because you had the Columbia River, the confluence of the Columbia River and the Snake River. In the summer, there was a lot of   and fishing.

That was the high desert, and the area got very hot in the summer, it got up to 95, 100 degrees Fahrenheit. But the Columbia River was cool, so you could go out boating and go swimming, cool off. A lot of mountains around there, so there was a lot of good hiking, a lot of good skiing. If you liked hunting, there was some good hunting. It was a very pleasant place to live in some aspects.

On the other hand, it was not very beautiful to behold to the eye, because it was a lot of brown and desert. There were many stories of people that were seeking employment, and they would come out with their wives. They would land at the airport and they would immediately turn around, because their wives saw all of the sage and the brown. They would say, “I don’t want to be buried in a desert. Take me back home.” They would turn around and go home.

In the spring and the fall, the sagebrush would just roll in off of the desert, the high plains, and would clog the streets sometimes and your sidewalk. You never had enough water for your lawn, so you were constantly watering your lawn. It was very dry.

But otherwise, it was a very pleasant environment. There were a lot of wineries along the Yakima River, probably stretched from Seattle to the Tri-Cities, right now there probably are sixty or seventy wineries. That was pleasant, if you enjoyed drinking wine. It was a very sunny environment, and it was very pleasant living. 

Levy: What about living at Oak Ridge? Were you living in Oak Ridge, or did you live in one of the surrounding areas?

Stover: I lived in Knoxville and commuted into Oak Ridge. In Knoxville, I lived along the Tennessee River, so that was pleasant.

Oak Ridge was a small-town atmosphere at the time. There was the Oak Ridge Playhouse, which we regularly attended. When you went there, you could see, and in some sense, smell the old scientists, because they wore all their old topcoats and their jackets, and they were kind of musty. It was a very pleasant environment to live in Oak Ridge at the time.

Levy: Were there many differences along the different national laboratories that you worked in over the course of your career, since they all have slightly different specialties?

Stover: Let’s see, differences between the laboratories. I would say they were populated by the same types of personnel. The geography of the places was quite different. For instance, Argonne was located on an old estate from, I think, the Morton family in Chicago. So they left all of their white deer there. You had to be careful as you drove around Argonne to not hit the deer. I think they’re still there. Oak Ridge was quite pleasant. There were hills surrounding it. A little colder at times. Washington State, as I say, I didn’t notice it at Hanford, it was just a different desert environment.

But, as I say, there were the same types of personalities and scientists at the various locations. I can’t really say a lot of difference between them.

Levy: What about security? Was the security pretty tight at all of those places?

Stover: Security was always tight. You needed to wear a badge, and when you went into town for lunch or something, they were always asked to hide your badge so that no one would find it. There were different levels of security.

For instance, at Oak Ridge, we were in the so-called commercial reactor part of it, some research, but we were also close to Y-12, which is where the weapons parts were. I had occasion to go over there several times, and security was very high at Y-12. We had part of one of our reactors stored in there, so one of my jobs was to go over there and check to see that it was still there about once every six months. The security, of course, was much tighter getting into Y-12.

Levy: Did you know anybody who worked on the Manhattan Project?

Stover: No, I didn’t know anyone who worked on the Manhattan Project.

Levy: Did you ever see the K-25 plant?

Stover: Yes, I did. I went there while it was still operating, and then I’ve been there several times since. Every time I’ve been there over the years, you see fewer and fewer buildings as they demolished the site. I think it’s almost completely demolished now.

It’s possible to go there. There’s a lookout site, and you can look over all of it. I think you can drive your car through most of the K-25 area now.

Levy: What was it like to be there when it was still in operation? I know it was an enormously large plant.

Stover: It was overwhelming in size. They rode bicycles inside, it was so large. My contact there was very peripheral. I think we just went there once or twice. It was just overwhelming, the size of the facility.

Levy: You’ve worked on a number of different kinds of nuclear reactors. What do you see as the future of nuclear energy today?

Stover: I see it’s one part of the energy future. There’s a lot of solar, there’s a lot of wind. Coal is still important.

But nuclear is still an important part, because for one great benefit, it’s zero contamination. There is no contamination at all from a nuclear power plant. I think it has to be considered as an energy source for the United States and the rest of the world.

The big problem with nuclear power right now is the cost. It’s very expensive, and it takes planning commissions to sell to the state regulatory groups to raise the money to build and operate these nuclear plants. But once they’re built and operating, then they’re very efficient. There is no contamination of the environment. It’s should be considered one of the clean sources of energy, along with wind, solar, and hydro.

Levy: How do you feel about the controversy around the use of nuclear reactors, with some of these concerns over Fukushima and other issues?

Stover: Fukushima worked correctly. The reactor shut down correctly. The only mistake was that they just built it too low, and so the water inundated all of the safety systems. They have started using the information from that event by building things higher, and building higher walls to prevent such a catastrophe from occurring again. They’ve taken it into account.

One thing about science is, that science is not always accurate, but they learn from their mistakes. Then they build upon and correct the mistakes, and move forward and make things better.

Levy: The reactors that you worked on over your career, were they nuclear power reactors, or nuclear weapons-related reactors?

Stover: They were both. At Westinghouse Electric, they were all power reactors, producing around 1100 megawatts of electricity.

The reactor out in Hanford was an experimental breeder reactor. It was a so-called fast reactor, sodium-cooled. It breeded—you took uranium-235 and out of that you got plutonium-239. You could recycle that into new fuel, and so it bred its own fuel, so it could continue on. The problem with sodium is, it’s very not only toxic, but it can also eat into metal. You have to be very careful how you handle sodium. I think that was one of the problems with a breeder reactor. 

Also, at the time, as I remember, the President, Jimmy Carter, shut down the interest in using plutonium, because of the fear of it being spread throughout the world. He wanted to stop all programs associated with plutonium-239. That led to the eventual demise of the breeder fast reactor.

The reactors in Oak Ridge, in the ORNL [Oak Ridge National Laboratory], the laboratory itself, some of those were used to produce small amounts of U-235. But most of that was produced at the gaseous diffusion plants. They were just used for research purposes.

Levy: Is there a particular type of reactor that you see as being the most promising for nuclear power reactors going forward?

Stover: The most used reactors right now, and the easiest one to build and operate, are the water-cooled reactors.

There are better designs in terms of safety, which will require more development, and those are the gas-cooled reactors. There are none operating right now. I think South Africa perhaps has worked on them. But the advantage is when they heat up too much, they just shut down automatically, and they use gas and they use small pebbles of uranium-235. That is probably quite promising, but right now the main interest is in water-cooled reactors. 

Levy: We’re doing an educational project now on the Manhattan Project’s legacy at Hanford, specifically the environmental legacy. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Stover: There was a lot of ground contamination, because wastes from the production reactors was buried in tanks, for the most part. A lot of these tanks have leaked. There’s also other residual contamination, which was on the surface. But it was mainly the contamination of the tanks into the ground some thirty or forty feet.

Now, most of those tanks were maybe 1,000, 2,000 feet from the Columbia River. But there are models that show that the ground contamination gradually leaks into the Columbia River. That’s always been a concern, and still is a concern.

The Columbia River is monitored very carefully now for, for contamination. Also, the water supply for the Tri-Cities, a lot of that came from the Columbia River. The water supply was monitored, I think, on a monthly basis, and that information was available to the citizens who live in the Tri-Cities area.

Since then, they’ve moved a lot of that liquid waste in single-walled tanks into double-walled tanks to prevent any further contamination into the soil. Eventually, they want to reprocess all of that waste and get rid of it. But it’s a very difficult process. There are so many thousands of gallons. 

The other concern was the air contamination from the chimneys. I don’t know how or why it happens, but every once in a while, there would be a puff of radioactivity going out. The prevailing winds took it to Spokane, which is to the east of the Tri-Cities.

There was, and I think there still is, a group there called Doctors Against Radiation. They would weekly and monthly post these stories about how Spokane was being contaminated by all the puffs of radiation that came out of the chimneys at the production reactors. I’m not familiar with the level of contamination, but as I remember, it was really quite low and not of concern. But it was a constant process, and they wanted to shut down the whole Hanford site. They still do, and they’re still after the government to clean it up as quickly as possible.

Levy: And the efforts are still continuing on today.

Stover: They’re still continuing on today, right.

Levy: Was the relationship between the Hanford site and the Tri-Cities community generally positive?

Stover: Oh, I thought it was very positive, because it produced a great amount of employment. I don’t know that there was a lot of local opposition to the Hanford site.

Levy: We’re also doing another project on Oak Ridge and its legacy of innovation from the Manhattan Project through today. Can you talk a little bit about the innovative work that you saw going on at Oak Ridge over your time there?

Stover: I’ve been gone from Oak Ridge for about seventeen years. There were several things that I remembered since then, though.

One project they were working on was insulation for homes. They were developing ultra-methods of insulation and how to measure it, so you could cheaply insulate your home and reduce energy consumption.

Another project they had was—Oak Ridge was very involved in removing high-enriched uranium from many countries in the world, from reactors in storage. There was a group that worked probably under the radar—not a lot of people knew about it—to find the enriched uranium, where it was located, and then to work with the various governments to get it moved to a safe location.

There was a lot of very close interaction with people at Oak Ridge, for instance, the Russian government to remove a lot of that uranium and put it in safe places. A lot of it, I think, was brought back to the United States. It was quite an involved process.

Stover: People that were in it didn’t talk a lot about it. Of course, they wanted to do that, so that it wouldn’t be known to potential people that wanted to get or grab some of the stuff. Those were two programs that I remember.

But, what they’ve tried to do—and I guess all national labs try to do the same thing—is get programs that can spin off into industrial applications and commercial applications. Congress is always very interested in that kind of thing. If you can take some research money and then start a company which sells that and produces a profit, then that’s very interesting.

Oak Ridge has partnered with the University of Tennessee and a lot of other universities to put together such a program. I think Argonne does the same thing, and Los Alamos. All the labs do the same thing. Self-preservation, I guess.

Levy: The national laboratories still continue to be real centers of scientific and engineering innovation? 

Stover: Yes, I think they will. Although the funding for research has gone down a lot, so that’s a real concern. But it’s also gone down in corporations.

Levy: Do you think it’s important for the funding to be continued to help with the innovation?

Stover: Well, of course I’m biased, but yes. I think it’s very important to continue funding for research.

Levy: My last question was, what was it like to teach in Pakistan?

Stover:  That was extremely interesting. I, as I said, taught physics there. It was in Islamabad, and there was a college, Gordon College, there. It had been established about 1890. A lot of the students were from the countryside, so they were somewhat naïve and perhaps not very mature.

I remember the classroom where I taught, it was so hot there most of the time that there were windows—kind of like a Red Roof Inn motel—where the doors open onto kind of a walkway outside. Well, here, there were just windows, and you could open them up so the classrooms would stay cool.

I would be standing up in front and teaching them physics, and I would turn around and write something on the blackboard. Some of the students in the back would just hop out the windows and take off, because they weren’t interested in listening to physics. Also, they would take their ballpoint pens in the back and they would clip the little pocket clips and make noise. There wasn’t a strong interest from some of them in learning their education, learning physics.

But the courses in Pakistan, like a lot of other countries, your excellence depended upon your year-end tests. You didn’t really have to  be in class every day, and you didn’t have to learn every day. But at the end of the year, you had to put it all together and take the final test and then pass or fail. That was very important. It affected the way you taught the class. 

Another aspect was, I was in an English-American mess. There were three of us, two British guys and myself. We hired a man from Afghanistan. He was about 6’2, 6’4. I think was a Pushto, and he came from a village there, and he cooked our meal every noon. It was always a typical Pakistani meal. It was light on meat and heavy on the curry, and a lot of rice. He cooked very well. He disappeared about once a month to go home.

The other thing I remember about Rawalpindi is how you felt close to the people. Because when you went out on the street, people virtually lived on the street. Or if they didn’t, they had a house or something, but the house was always open. You could see into their house, you could see them eating. A lot of outdoor restaurant. A lot of, they called them “Water wallies,” these were guys who carried water around in big sacks and you could buy water from them. As I said, a lot of sidewalk restaurants were set up and you could eat there.

Another aspect was the beauty of Pakistan. One Easter vacation, the British guy and I went up into the mountains, in the Hindu Kush, at about 13, 14,000 feet into the snow. Just into the back villages, and that was the most interesting part, people who hadn’t seen Americans for years and years. The town elders would invite you into the town square. They would feed you fruit, apricots and raisins and so forth that they had grown themselves, and were very open to your presence there.

When we flew into Nanga Parbat, which is the second highest mountain in the Himalayas [in Pakistan], and we were at about 12 or 13,000 feet in an old DC-3, so there wasn’t much pressurization. We were there for about four or five days. We were trying to get back home to Rawalpindi, and we couldn’t because the weather was socked in. Being in such an old airplane, DC-3, you had to wait for the weather. We sat there up in the mountains for about two or three days before we got home.

But it was a very interesting experience meeting these Pakistanis. A lot of them up there, it was rumored to be that they were remnants of the Greek invasion back from Alexander the Great. Indeed, some of the pictures I’ve taken that I still have, they look like just normal Greek people. So they say they’re enclaves of Pakistanis living in the mountains now, direct descendants of Alexander the Great.

Also, you can go through the pass, the Khyber Pass, going into Kabul. I went over to Kabul one time, and as you drive through the pass, you can see all of the stones that have been etched by the various invading armies that have put their signatures on there. Kabul was very interesting, too, walking around.

I went up to visit an old fort, and these Afghani soldiers were up there and started talking. They wanted to engage in a game of chess, so they invited me in to play chess. I didn’t play chess very well, but I sat there and played. That was an interesting thing.

They put down their rugs, as they manufactured the rugs on the sidewalks, and poured water on them. They just allowed them to sit on the sidewalk and dry until they were ready. That was the Persian rugs that the Afghanis made.

That’s what I remember about teaching.

Levy: That’s really fascinating. 

Stover: It was an interesting year.