Karen Dorn Steele: It’s April 29, 2019. Our first interview is with F. Robert Cook, a retired Nuclear Regulatory Commission overseer at Hanford Reservation. First, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background—where you grew up and something about your early education?
Bob Cook: I was born in 1939 in St. Louis City. We lived in the St. Louis County at that stage, my parents did and my brother and I. Then I went to school in Normandy, which is a county school district in St. Louis County. Grade school and then high school, Normandy High School, which when I was a freshman, when my brother graduated, had two presidential scholars in that school out of 50 in the country. Very good school.
He went on to Washington University on a Westinghouse Science Fair project. He was five years ahead, and he was in chemistry, he was a chemist and got his Ph.D. in chemistry.
I was sort of following in his footsteps, per my mother’s insistence, and was in physics. I also got a Westinghouse four-year scholarship to Washington University in physics. It turned out to be physics. I got my degree in 1961. It was a A.B. degree and not a B.S., but an A.B., Bachelor of Arts.
I didn’t know exactly what I was wanting to do, but I had some pretty good classes in high-energy physics and electricity and magnetism that I liked. I applied to several colleges for fellowships for Ph.D. I got accepted at Rochester in a high-energy physics group, with a stipend, free tuition and a stipend of $175 a month or something like that.
But Washington University also offered me a fellowship in the newly formed molecular biology group, which meant I didn’t have to go away. I could live at home like I had been, and it had a $200-a-month stipend. I decided to go into molecular biology, which had my interest.
It was a brand-new program formed by Barry Commoner. I don’t know if you know Barry. He was up at the University of Chicago originally, and formed the first molecular biology program up there, and then came to Washington University and formed one down in St. Louis. It was very intriguing, and so I did that in graduate school. Took a lot of biology courses.
The first year was basically comparative anatomy, embryology, cytology, and all the courses you take in normal biology. Then I was assigned a Ph.D. thesis subject, which was to come up with a model and understanding of nerve physiology and how nerve impulses happen like they do. I did research in that area for a while, and it didn’t interest me. I really couldn’t get into it, for whatever reason.
This was during the Vietnamese War, 1962. I decided I’d better go into the Navy than get drafted into the Army. I did in the middle of September 1962, I enlisted in the Navy for Officer Candidate School. Went to Officer Candidate School for four months, which is basic training. Came out with an officer’s commission, ensign.
I was assigned, after an interview with H.G. Rickover [Admiral Hyman G. Rickover] in February, I was assigned to the Naval Reactors Program to work in the headquarters in Washington, D.C., in that program.
Steele: That was Admiral Rickover, is that correct?
Cook: Yeah, Admiral Rickover’s program. There were probably about 200 engineers in Naval Reactors at that stage. I went in and was accepted with another friend in my same company in OCS, Officer Candidate School. We were both accepted.
There I was. This is right before the Poor People’s March and right before Kennedy [John F.] was assassinated. My office looked right out on the reflecting pool in Naval Records, the old main Navy building.
That went on and that year, 1963, we were assigned to go to an atomic school for nuclear engineering at Westinghouse. It was called Bettis Atomic Power School. It was run by Bettis. I went there and had 700 class hours of nuclear engineering, basically, provided from shielding and thermo-hydraulics and core design and da-da, da-da, everything you need to know for nuclear engineering in six months. 700 hours of anything in six months is a lot of work.
Came back, passed that course, that system. Could’ve probably gotten a Master’s degree from Catholic University, but I didn’t bother. I didn’t go through with that.
I went on and worked in Naval Reactors through 1980 in reactor design. I was in charge of the structural design basis, which then became the structural design basis for all nuclear plants, ASME [American Society of Mechanical Engineers] structural design basis for nuclear plants. And, a shock and vibration design basis and a core design basis, and a welding entity, and so forth. I had a lot of background in design of cores and advanced core designs for the Navy.
Also, it was a broad spectrum. You learned how to contract, you learned how to do specs, you learned how to do design work. You learned how to prove and get into thermo-hydraulics. I taught thermo-hydraulics to the prospective engineering officers, as it turned out, about the third year in. One of them turned out to be Admiral [James] Watkins, who became Secretary of the DOE [Department of Energy] when I was out at Hanford, as a matter of fact.
That was my first 18 years of technical work in Naval Reactors. Along that timeframe, I had gotten to know lots of people in Naval Reactors. They were spreading out all over the place in the nuclear business, including some had left and gone to NRC, one of which was assigned to the high-level waste division of NRC.
Steele: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission?
Cook: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I had lived with him, and he was the best man at my wedding and so forth. I knew him very well, Jack Martin. He subsequently became the head of the Region V NRC office in Walnut Creek, California and so forth. He’s retired now.
But nevertheless, one day I get a call—and this is just background, because there’s a community of people that know each other in the nuclear business. One day I get a call from Martin asking me if anybody that I knew of at NR [Naval Reactors] that would like to come over to be his deputy in this group. I gave him a couple of names, one of which I was pretty sure wanted to leave NR. He had been there since the 1950s. He gives him a call, and he goes over to NRC as his deputy.
Then about a year later—this is 1979, I would say—about a year later I get a call from the deputy. Robert Browning was his name, and you’ll see his name on a lot of the letters that I sent back. Saying that, “Would you like to come work as a material section leader at NRC with a promotion?” I was already a 14. I had been in the Navy for four years, went out of the Navy, became a civilian with the same job, increased pay about three times.
I kept in that job and became a 14. Then they gave me a 15 as the section leader, which was pretty high. There was only one more non-executive entity, is a 16. I was right up at the top end of 15’s, too. You have a whole bunch of stairwells. That was a nice promotion.
I went over to NRC as the section head for materials. The materials were materials for waste package design and waste design, which was my forte, really. I had a lot of metallurgy under my belt already, and mechanical structural analysis and so forth.
I got into the materials section, and that was about the time that NRC was starting to look at the repository issues. Because the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which Martin, the fellow that went over there, was instrumental with [Tom] Udall in putting together, along with Russell Jim and some of the Indian folks out here at Hanford, was instrumental in putting together. Martin almost wrote the section relative to licensing in that.
Steele: So, they were looking for sites nationwide to store fuel rods?
Cook: Yeah. They wanted at least three sites, because NRC had to do an environmental impact statement and you have to have alternatives. You can’t just pick one, and not look at alternatives. The idea was, there had to be three alternatives for high-level waste, and so three sites were being picked. The Department of Energy had agreed and that was the law, basically, as to what had to be done to go through and do a licensing endeavor.
So that occurred. The key was that the licensing was for high-level radioactive waste, which is a very precise definition. It has to do with the source of the waste, and that’s a key understanding that a lot of people don’t have. But it has to do with the source of the waste, which is from reactors that operate and produce fission products, basically.
The fuel is a source-based definition. You couldn’t dilute it. The definition was set up so you could not dilute the waste by water and put it in the ocean and meet some low-level criteria. One of the biggest issues was iodine-129. There was lots of iodine-129 produced in this waste, many curies, hundreds of curies, probably. There’s 50 curies right at Hanford by itself. Of course, it’s [iodine-129] got a 16-million half-life, but it also has the lowest per curie allowance in drinking water.
Steele: Just to back up a minute, Hanford was selected as a possible site for basalt. It was called the Basalt Waste Isolation Project.
Cook: Yeah. There were three different rock types. There was a salt rock type, a basalt rock type, and a tough rock type. Tough is volcanic ash that is solidified. That’s the Nevada Test Site, on the Nevada tests.
Others were looked at. Granite was looked at, too, originally, but it was narrowed down to three different rock types. Salt was considered a rock type. You might say, “Salt isn’t a rock,
but it is a rock type. In fact, depending on how deep it is, it’s not a bad repository, as it turns out.
Steele: In what year were you assigned to go to Hanford?
Cook: I was assigned to Hanford in ‘83. I rode back and forth in the car, because [Robert] Browning lived right next to me in Arlington, and I rode back and forth. One morning, we’re riding out to work in the district [Washington D.C.]. Lo and behold, he says, “Now, we’re looking for site representatives. Would you be interested?”
I knew the first one. He said, “The first one would be at Hanford.”
I said, “Sure.”
Steele: Okay. This was supposed to be a different–
Cook: I said, “Sure,” right in a five-second—I already knew that NRC was looking for reps. I already decided that if I got asked, which I thought I might, yeah, I’d accept. So, I accepted right there on that drive. I’d already talked to Sonny [Cook’s wife] about it, too.
Steele: Your wife?
Cook: Yeah. We had already talked about trying to get out of the D.C. area. The traffic was just unbearable. Scale of one to ten, you’re at a one here and a 9 ½ there. It’s terrible.
Steele: Well, Hanford, of course, had been a major Cold War site, the source of plutonium manufacturing during the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. It was a very secretive place. Now, the Basalt Waste Isolation Project wasn’t supposed to be as secretive.
You were supposed to be there to oversee what was going on. But what was your reaction when you got there? What was the Hanford reaction to your being assigned to go there?
Cook: Well, you know how a dog looks at a cat, or a cat looks at a dog? That was my reaction. I was either one or the other, I’m not sure which. I think I might’ve been the dog chasing the cat, but the cat didn’t like it all. That was kind of the reaction.
The DOE didn’t want to have any presence of the NRC on the site, clearly. When I was assigned to the site in ‘83, September I went out there, I had done a previous survey of housing and whatnot—before then, my wife and I went out to look at Hanford. We got assigned to what she terms as a broom closet. You can see it in here. It was just a one-room closet, basically. A little bigger than a closet maybe, enough room for a desk or so, in the basement of the building in Richland.
Steele: The Federal Building?
Cook: Federal Building. Right next to me was the GAO [Government Accountability Office] Office, which was a little bit bigger, but basically a bigger broom closet. So, here, the GAO—which they didn’t want either there—and the NRC are sitting next to that. What a dreadful decision to put us side-by-side for DOE.
Steele: Because the GAO was the oversight?
Cook: We were on the same side, we were doing the same thing.
Steele: For Congress, yeah.
Cook: Basically, yes. There was a lot of collaboration between GAO and NRC in that regard. Right[0:18:00] there, because we visited.
Steele: Why didn’t they want you there?
Cook: I’m guessing now, because I’ve never asked them why they didn’t want me there. In fact, they always would claim they wanted me there. It’s a hypothetical question.
They didn’t want me there, because of the uncovering of things they had covered up. They were dreadfully concerned, particularly the defense people, about what would happen vis-a-vis interaction with defense people on the site. Because a lot of the site was contaminated with defense wastes, it was going to be inevitable that there would be an interaction at some point. The sooner the better from my standpoint, because the information was pertinent to licensing the basalt site.
Just to give you some examples, they didn’t want it to be widespread that the high-level waste had been dumped in the BC Cribs, just outside the 200 Area, by the way. Three cribs with nothing but high-level waste dumped in them, because they didn’t have tanks in the early 1950s to do the disposal or the storage.
They even injected deep injections into wells of high-level waste, into one well, at least, that I know of. They didn’t want that to be known that they had already disposed of high-level waste in the deep aquifer. That has never really come out.
They certainly didn’t want me getting familiar with the geology, for example, that was involved in the isolation requirements that NRC had, which was a thousand-year groundwater travel time between the edge of the repository and the hospitable environment. Any aquifer that could be tapped for water sources was a hospitable environment, including the ones higher up particularly.
They didn’t want that data, which was in the logs and all the data that had been accumulated on the site in the early days, in which they had never envisioned that they were going to have some NRC guy and GAO guy out there looking at whether or not the environmental issues are really being met or not.
Steele: You’d been there for a couple of years, and in 1985, you come across this letter. It was a 1973 letter from the President of Atlantic Richfield Hanford Company, that was the site manager at the time, to the Atomic Energy Commission. They noted the strong possibility that long-lived radioactive iodine-129 from Hanford was moving across the Columbia River to farm wells east of the nuclear reservation.
The head of Atlantic Richfield at the time said that information “should be limited to those individuals that have a need to know.” In other words, only kept close and not shared with, say, the farmers who might’ve been drinking or using the water, or other members of the public. What did that letter say to you?
Cook: Well, just that. Except it also had a lot of intimidation in it for employees not to comply with the objectives of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act [NWPA], which were to understand the groundwater system at Hanford. It also was inconsistent with NWPA, which said you shouldn’t classify or otherwise control environmental data. It’s necessary for the public to know. The whole process was supposed to be an open process. They were doing their best in keeping the iodine data from coming into the open, and had done it for some time now. All the way after—it was interesting that that letter came out after NWPA was passed in ’72.
Now, separately, they had a project in the Gable Mountain that was to bury waste in Gable Mountain in canisters. It was vitrified waste, the defense waste that they had at Hanford. They were trying to do something with their defense wastes, and had a plan to put it in Gable Mountain.
The Indians didn’t like that at all, because Gable Mountain has sacred significance to them. Plus, it didn’t meet the requirements NRC had for geologic isolation. It was not geologic isolation, it was just, “Out of sight, out of mind,” situation. That had been on the books up until the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, and then that sort of put the kibosh on any further action on that site in Gable Mountain.
That project was turned into the BWIP [Basalt Waste Isolation Project] project, which then all of sudden became a deep, geologic isolation site. Because Rockwell International was there at that stage running that, and DOE didn’t want to give that up. Of course, the state was happy to maintain a big project like that in the state.
Steele: I think the bottom line on this for you was that this data went back to the early ‘60s, but the data was not being used in the BWIP environmental assessment. Is that correct?
Cook: It wasn’t being used in any of this. It hadn’t been identified to NRC heretofore, even though they knew from the ‘80s. This is four years into the project in communication. They knew into the 1980s that that was very pertinent data and, had just kept it secret, basically, under wraps, “Official use only,” like that letter says.
I brought another letter which was earlier, 1982, which parlayed that same story to anybody that would talk to the NRC—before I was out there, by the way and before we had any agreement with DOE and the contractor. Not to talk to anybody for threat of being terminated.
Cook: There was a big threat to the employees: “You don’t let any of this information out.”
I learned of the idea of iodine and all tracers early on when I was still at NRC, that that was a desirable natural tracer for radionuclides. Because, it goes right with the water, and it’s very pertinent to understanding groundwater travel time.
Anyway, I was already up to speed of that, and there was this hydrology session over in Seattle. I can’t remember who it was that sponsored it. It might’ve been the state. But there were people from BWIP over there making presentations, and I would always go to these things to find out what people were saying.
There was one fellow there, Vern Johnson, that was involved heavily in the BWIP hydrology. He rode home with me in the government car, from Seattle back. That was a four-hour trip, and I had lots of questions. He was an honest broker. He had done studies about how the contamination early on had contaminated the Oregon coast, so he had done studies at Oregon or somewhere else in school. He was into the issue of the contamination and what was going on, and how hydrology was important.
I asked him, “What about natural tracers that you get from radionuclides at Hanford?”
He says, “Oh, yeah, there’s been studies, but they really haven’t come to light.”
Out of the BC Cribs, for example, there’s a plume of radioisotopes that come out of those BC cribs. They were using that to try to understand how long it took in the unconfined system. Now, not in the confined system. They didn’t want to even run tests in the confined system, because it would indicate there might be stuff in the confined system, which would’ve queried the whole idea of the BWIP program. Because there was communication vertically up to the surface, so nobody wanted to show anything like that. There was a big effort to cover up the data, particularly the fracture data.
There’s a huge tectonic force that is in the basalts, and that force causes fractures at a 45-degree angle to the force. The whole area in the BWIP site was fractured by these small fractures, due to the rocks giving way and causing breakage, a pathway, a water pathway. Some of them were bigger than others, but the whole area was riddled. Right where they wanted to put the repository was riddled with these vertical fractures, way down.
Steele: What you were discovering had a potential to stop the whole mission, is that correct?
Cook: Yes. I knew exactly that information that I needed to collect to show that this system wouldn’t work. The issue was getting the data, which I felt was available, including the iodine data.
Steele: Some of it was in a classified section of the Battelle library that wasn’t classified, is that correct?
Cook: I started talking. After I talked to Verne Johnson coming back, I started working on this in January, I think it was, of 1985. I probably talked up until the middle of February or the end of January to probably 30 different people, just asking them the question, “Hey, what about iodine-129 monitoring, and why isn’t there data in the plumes for this plume and that plume on iodine-129?”
Some of them said, “Oh, there is.” They didn’t have any reports, though.
Then I went into another endeavor per the request of my boss, Bob Brown. He was the section, the division boss. After Martin left, he became the division boss. I’m working directly for the high-level waste management group. The idea was that I would send these reports, and he asked me to do something else and I’d have to go look in my notes here what it was. But it wasn’t to do with iodine, in the February timeframe. I stopped working on iodine for about a month, and was working on something else. I can tell you what it was, it’s just that I don’t remember exactly what it was.
Then I started back up about March, and I talked to probably another 30 or 40 people. I estimated in the report that I wrote in May that I had spoken to 50 to 75 people. Well, it was closer to 75, I think. And, lo and behold, asking about data, out comes the iodine report.
I said, “Well, let me borrow that for a day or so.” I borrowed it for a day or so, made a copy of it, and gave it back to this person. I never interacted with that person again, because I was sensitive to how persecution may go, and retaliation might go. I was very careful. In fact, I’ve never revealed who that source was yet.
I told folks at NRC and also at Rockwell, “If you get a judge and a court order for me to disclose that information, I will in camera, but I’m not going to do it to you.”
There I was sitting on this information. I thought about it for a while, and how I wanted to confirm it and get some corroboration. I went out to the library to see if this document was in the library files, but it wasn’t.
Steele: At Battelle?
Cook: Yeah, at Battelle, the Battelle 300 Library. All the technical information should be there.
Steele: It wasn’t there?
Cook: No, it wasn’t there. But there were 75 other files, other documents on iodine-129. I just looked in the card catalogue, and there were about 75 documents. I got them all listed in this one report. I made a list of them. This was the document. I left my notes over there, and I got panicky. This was the document with all that information, and you can see what I wrote down at the time. I thought I had lost it. Finally, I retracked where this must be. and the woman over there, the librarian, had my notes.
I had a Q clearance, I could see any of their files, except some that might’ve been a separate classification. Well, some of these 75 documents were classified secret.
Steele: In the mid-1980s? Still in the mid-1980s?
Cook: Yeah, still in the mid-1980s. They didn’t bother declassifying stuff that had been classified secret in the 1960s or 1950s that was still in that file.
I thought, “Hmm, the title and the policy in all of the government was never to make a file that was classified that you couldn’t find the document. The title had to be unclassified. But it identified the classification of the document and the number and so forth.”
All secret documents I knew had been categorized with an index, because they’re all numbered. The indexes of the classified files are supposed to be unclassified. I talked to the folks who were doing the downwinder business 25, 30 years ago, that what you want to do is get the files of those classified documents so you can know what to ask for.
Steele: Now, when you were looking for this stuff and raising questions about it, then the Energy Department stepped in. Isn’t that correct, they started an investigation of whether there really had been a coverup?
Cook: Well, that was later on. Later on, I went to a meeting in DOE. The manager of DOE wasn’t there, but all the second-layer managers were there, including a fellow named Sandiford and another guy, both of which were working in the defense area. They didn’t like me at all, I’ll tell you. There were a bunch of people from Rockwell. There were probably 30 or 40 people. Sandiford just made note of the fact that they never had gotten any. I was asking the question. They never had, the Department of Energy nor the ERTA nor the AEC had ever collected any iodine data, which I knew was false. That’s just lying to the NRC.
This is another interesting little sub-light, but at that stage, I thought it was a felony. Because I thought that Part 21 of the NRC rules applied, which says, “When you’re doing design work for a nuclear facility,” which is very well defined, “you can’t lie to people.” You can’t lie to the NRC in particular. It’s a felony. It’s obfuscation of the data and corruption of the data, which is important to health, safety and the environment.
Here’s this guy lying. The first thing I do is I called my boss back. “I’ve got a case of DOE lying to me, just frankly outright. I think I need to report this to the inspector general,” which I did.
The inspector general came out and interviewed me. I had known him, but I’d never been interviewed. Kind of like this, except they had tape recorders. I had my own tape recorder, too. I had all the documents. This went on for about 45 minutes, I would say. I told him exactly, “Hey, here’s the documents, here’s the question. Sandiford was lying to me.” That was the allegation.
They then started to do an investigation. The investigation, under that pretense, was that I couldn’t have access to people anymore. They decided since the investigation was going on, NRC all of a sudden was limited by the investigation, even though I had the MOU [memorandum of understanding] that didn’t say anything about investigations being a stopper in doing the whole project.
Steele: But that slowed you down then, because you couldn’t talk to anybody during that investigation?
Cook: I was harder to talk. It’s not that I didn’t talk to people, I still managed to talk to people. I did a lot more reviewing of documents and writing down what I knew to be the case. You’ll see some of that in the documents. But that was an impediment to the whole investigation to get data.
See, the NRC’s issue, the whole modus operandi was born out of the Three Mile Island incident, where the NRC learned that you had to be completely open with the public or else NRC would be discredited. My job was to be completely open with the public. Anybody from the public could come in and go through my safes and see everything I had in the safe drawer—except one item and that was my secretary’s personnel file, which was personal information. I didn’t care if they saw my own file. I’d have showed them my own file. Nobody ever did that, but that was an open invitation. I never did get accused of being closed, never, by anybody. In fact, it was the opposite. I had NRC new commissioner under Reagan Admiral [Ronald], Carr, come out and say, “How come you’re putting all this information out?”
I said, “Well, that’s the policy of the NRC to do that.”
Steele: Yeah, and I wanted to ask you about that.
Cook: He didn’t know what the policy was.
Steele: At that time, though, the NRC was changing?
Cook: Oh, yeah.
Steele: It was the Reagan administration, so what kind of pressure did that put on you and the NRC?
Cook: Well, eventually it changed completely. Once Reagan got all five commissioners, they’re the ones that decide the policies for the NRC, and that changed in about 1987, near the end. I didn’t worry about it, because I knew the project was going to be cancelled anyway in, about July 1987. I had been having contact with [Congressman John] Dingell and [Senator Ron] Wyden and [Senator John] Glenn and a number of other folks.
Steele: Congressional overseers?
Cook: Congressional oversight. They were all getting, by that time, per request, my letters that I was sending back to headquarters. It went into the public document room. I had two or three governors on the list, and EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]. You might’ve even been on the list. I think you were. I know HEAL was, for example. Anybody that wanted to get a copy, I made a copy. I think I had a distribution list of about 35 different people that got the whole report.
Some of the reports were quite significant. The one that you identified in one of these questions, I think it’s the October 1st, 1986 report, not ’85, but the 1986 report had, something like S attachments to it. It’s a big thick package like this. Remember, I said I started to get into analyzing stuff, much more than just talking people? So, now I’m getting reports and writing letters on the reports. That’s the reason I had all these attachments to identify the issues in writing.
Steele: You said you knew in July of 1987 that Hanford was going to be [dropped as the geologic repository site]?
Cook: Well, I didn’t know.
Steele: Around there?
Cook: I didn’t know, because Congress hadn’t really defunded it.
Steele: Right. But in December of 1987, it was officially dropped as a site?
Cook: Yes, yes. It [BWIP] was officially dropped. I got notice in early January  that my job was abolished, because there was no more project there at NRC. I had an option of going back into the waste management group at NRC or retiring. I retired.
Steele: In the interim, the Energy Department, which had started that, “Was there a cover-up?” probe, concluded there was not a cover-up. But then, six months later in early 1988, the General Accounting Office of Congress said exactly the opposite. They said there had been a cover-up and that had it not been for your work, it wouldn’t have been uncovered.
Cook: I read that in there, but I never did see the GAO report. I have to look at that.
Because there was a similar report later on. After NRC, I went to work for the Indians. One of the issues, it was a much broader scope of purview at that stage, and one of the issues I got approval from Russell [Jim] on—or, no, this was in-between that timeframe. I got approval—I didn’t need approval, I was working for HEAL at that stage with a contract of Greenpeace to put together an item on an issue at Hanford, which I did it for the Redpath presentation, and which identified another cover-up. That cover-up was explosion hazard in the tanks, the cesium ferrocyanide explosion hazard in the tanks, to be specific.
Steele: That was the other risk, another Hanford risk?
Cook: A Hanford risk. That whole explosion hazard was reviewed by a fellow named Steve Blush, who was the environmental Assistant Secretary under Hazel [R.] O’Leary now. This is in the 1990s.
Steve Blush reviewed that whole area, and he also had cognizance of QA [quality assurance] at Hanford. He wrote a big Blush Report, and he had the same words in there. That’s the ones I remember about—if it hadn’t been for me, the explosion hazard would never have come to sight. He called me a former NRC representative, so it was the same words the GAO used, except I was a former representative.
I never did see that GAO report for whatever reason. I have a bunch of them, but that went above me somehow. I would’ve remembered that.
Steele: It said there was a pervasive cover-up. You were responsible. But let’s just go back to the NRC.
Cook: It’s a cover-up of the cover-up.
Steele: Yeah, there you go, a cover-up of the cover-up.
What did you learn from this about ethical decision-making and government? I know you gave a talk some time in 1988, I think, at the University of Washington about this. You said you gave the NRC a D or an F, a D for protecting the health and safety of citizens from nuclear waste hazards and an F for environmental protection. Do you still hold to those low grades?
Cook: NRC’s basically absolved themselves of the environmental issue, and has it now relegated to EPA. That’s an interesting thing, as an aside.
There was a general thought in DOE, and I think in Congress, too, probably, that the basis for hazardous waste, heavy metals, which are disposed of, too, in the ground, should be no different than it is for nuclear waste. Because they both cause health effects. So, why do we use a different system?
It turns out the hazardous wastes were being based on a risk assessment. Risk assessments, from my standpoint, are notoriously corrupt. Because the assumptions are arbitrary and there’s really no control per that whole procedure on getting good assumptions in the risk assessment, independent, good assumptions in the risk assessments. You’ve got factors that you can crank in and da-da, da-da., John Till did this extensively for getting the analysis for the downwinders.
Steele: The HEDR Report.
Cook: The HEDR [Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction] Report, right.
But nevertheless, all risk assessments are phony, as best as I can tell. The best example is the risk assessment that was patterned after here in the United States of the one done for Fukushima. It didn’t include a simultaneous tsunami and earthquake by assumption. “Oh, that’s impossible!” That never was evaluated in that so-called risk assessment. We all know what happened.
That whole idea is very common. The reason it’s become common is it’s easy to bluff it, easy to fake it, so to speak. Consequently, the public doesn’t understand what’s happening in these assumptions. They’re pretty complex assumptions at some time. You’ve got to have an expert that really understands how the assumption can affect the outcome, and whether it’s reasonable or not based on experience. A lot of times, you really can’t tell. You don’t know, you’re up in the air. You don’t have a design that allows that. Since you can’t analyze it safely, you don’t do it.
One of the things I did is in this batch of documents, is put in some stuff of my comments. Remember, I said in 1986 I started to make comments, because I was curtailed in talking to people and getting the data out myself. I started making comments. One of the comments is on this very design procedure. Rickover taught us that the devil is in the details. The devil of the design is in the details. People understand that in DOE, except they used that devil to obfuscate the details, to make it look like there was something that was covered up, and it never was.
That whole issue of design and the NEPA, how it evolved away from the NRC model for handling nuclear isotopes, which you had a model and you had to decide whether there was reasonable assurance. Reasonable assurance is a high level of assurance that this is a conservative issue. If there’s a 10% chance that the assumption is wrong, that’s not reasonable assurance.
Steele: Let’s go back to iodine for just a minute. You were there in 1986 when the Energy Department, after lots of pressure from the media and interest groups and Freedom of Information Act requests, released the big stacks, the initial stacks of documents on the Hanford releases, which stunned the region, because they turned out to be pretty massive.
But a lot of the coverage, at least the press coverage, [0:51:00] focused on the iodine-131, the shorter-lived iodine. But you were looking at the same time on this very long-lived iodine-129. I’m wondering, do you think that iodine-129 as a health hazard got enough attention?
Cook: I will tell you, if you look at the drinking water standard, it’s at 4 picocuries per liter, which is the lowest of any radioisotope for drinking water. That’s been around for a long time in the ICR. I would say, yeah, iodine-129 is a long-term hazard. Once you get it into your thyroid, it doesn’t get out very easily, so you can accumulate iodine-129 over a long time.
Iodine-131 has an eight-day half-life or something like that, and it’s gone pretty quick. You get a big dose, but you don’t have an aggravating long-term dose. I know, for example, that cancers are caused by double-strand breaks in DNA. The iodine, if it’s near a DNA molecule, will cause a double-strand break, just like tritium does.
Tritium is another. It has an electron that’s ejected during the decay, which is fairly short-range. For example, the tritium electron, the distance it goes is about the same distance as a nucleus in a cell. It’s microns. All the energy is deposited in the nucleus, and if you get a beta that goes through a nucleus, it’s going to cause a double-strand break. If that doesn’t kill the cell and it reproduces, you’ve got a double-strand break, which can be a cancer-forming break.
The long-term insult, over long-term, may be worse than it is in a short-term associated with X-rays or something else like that, where your body has a chance, particularly for old folks. My thyroid, if it has 129, it’s still there from when I got it originally. Your immune system goes to pot as you get older, and you don’t correct those double-strand breaks as readily. That’s one of the things I learned in microbiology, by the way, in the 1960s. I’d been always very sensitive.
One of the things I was worried about was that the ICRP rules don’t look at mutagenic effects. That’s where the gene cells are affected. You know why they don’t look at mutagenic effects as being controlling issues? Because, they assume that statistically, a mutagenic effect will not occur in a population where it affects more than one person in a million.
That doesn’t apply to an Indian population, where they only have 10,000 people in the Indian population. You can get mutagenic effects which are propagated through that whole population fairly readily.
The reason I’m saying this is, because this is another cover-up. The assumption that you don’t have populations that are small populations that are affected by mutagenic isotopes is just wrong. That’s a bum assumption on the criteria.
Steele: Let’s back for just a second then. Right after BWIP got cancelled, your job was terminated and then you went to work as a consultant for the Yakama Indian Nation. Is that correct?
Cook: Not until 1991.
Steele: Until 1991.
Cook: Russell was working on it.
Steele: Russell Jim?
Cook: Russell Jim, yeah.
Steele: Explain who he is.
Cook: Russell Jim was a Yakama Indian who was involved with the nuclear waste business right in the late 1970s, and worked with Martin and Udall to get the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to reflect Indian concerns. The words in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act basically came out of Russell’s interaction with Udall.
Originally, his father was the chairman in the 1960s, or in the 1950s. His brother, Robert Jim, was the chairman during [President Richard] Nixon. There’s seven kids in that family. I’ve known all the living ones, and the children of some of the ones passed away, Robert and Ralph Jim, quite well. I know them quite well. Russell’s brother helped me put a cabin together up in Alaska for a year in the summertime. I knew him very well. I knew this family.
Russell was a very strong advocate of Indian indigenous rights and culture. In fact, I didn’t know this just until a couple of weeks ago, he had been invited to talk at UNESCO in the late 1960s. He talked not only on environmental stewardship but on cultural rights of indigenous folks all over the world. He was a world advocate of cultural indigenous rights. He was involved with Hanford early on, because he was involved with the nuclear business and Hanford was part of the Yakama ceded land.
He was assigned that task by the group—what it’s called in the Yakama Nation? It’s environmental culture. It’s not waste management. But that waste management group, environmental waste management was under the heading, and the heading was basically the environmental group in the Yakama Nation.
He was involved in the BWIP business from the get-go, even when they were trying to put Gable Mountain as a repository. That caused an uproar within the Yakama Nation, because that was a sacred mountain and they had been visiting that all along. It’s interesting the DOE and the AEC allowed the Indians to go on the land, because that was a treaty right.
Steele:, They’re still involved, the tribe is still involved?
Cook: They’re still involved. The treaty is a treaty. It’s like a constitutional right, basically.
Steele: The tribe has standing as a tribe to intervene?
Cook: Exactly. See, they never were defeated like a lot of the other tribes in the United States militarily, so they worked out a treaty agreement. The Treaty of 1855 was just that.
Anyway, that’s how he [Jim] got involved. He then was working and funded by the DOE for the BWIP program leadership. Then when that closed, that funding under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act went away, but there was still this issue of cooperation and coordination on the site. He managed to get Hazel O’Leary, who was appointed to set up a program under cooperation with the Indians through the DOE for oversight of Hanford.
When that happened, he called me the next day, Russell did, because he was assigned and he had been doing all this back in DOE. After the demise of the BWIP program, he had been working with the DOE to establish this program. He got it established, and the first call he makes to me: “Can you put together an office and run that office as a technical analyst in Richland?”
Which I didn’t know was coming up. I knew there was work happening to try to get something approved, but I didn’t know it happened. I said, “Sure.”
I proceeded to establish an office in Richland. We had about seven or eight employees that I hired to do oversight in Richland. That occurred in probably April of 1991. Then finally, in 1997, I retired again. I wanted to put a house together in Alaska anyway. I retired in 1997, and bought property in Alaska in 1998, and built a house up there. I’m an Alaskan resident now.
Steele: Can you summarize what the tribe was able to accomplish from 1991 to 1997, or the years you were there, in terms of Hanford oversight?
Cook: In the 1980s, during the BWIP program, they had a very effective lawyer, Jimmy Hovis. His daughter is still part of the Hovis program out of the Yakama. In fact, I just talked to her two weeks ago. They basically have gotten to a position under the EPA Superfund cleanup to have lots of liabilities identified and lots of cleanup emphasis through the Superfund issues, to get the site cleaned up.
Now, DOE hasn’t really changed very much in their initiative to clean up the site. The state is worse, because the state loves to have this very expensive, high-level waste vitrification plant going on and on and on and on and on.
Steele: It gets more and more expensive.
Cook: It gets more and more expensive. It promises to be a cash cow, a golden goose laying golden eggs for the state forever, for the foreseeable future, unless Congress decides to cut it, which I think is coming up.
Because the design of that plant isn’t going to work. I said that right from the get-go. I could not understand how DOE could ever agree, nor the state agree, with the design of a plant which you couldn’t repair. You had to go good for 40 years, for the design of that. You couldn’t get in and repair it, like you could of the modular construction of the Purex plant. You could change out components if they failed. But here, this plant, it’s a black hole, and it’s supposed to work for 40 years. Never heard of that.
I know in the Naval Reactors Program, we had reactors that might’ve worked for 40 years, but they were well-designed and simple. Nevertheless, they could be repaired at any stage. They might’ve gone for 40 years. We wouldn’t allow them, because we didn’t depend on the capability. We always had overhauls established midway or less then midway through the life of the ship, which was 50 years.
But to put a huge plant like that and say it’s got to operate for 40 years without any repair, it’s just nonsense. It’s not going to happen. The state should know that. I wrote plenty of letters for the Yakama saying, “This is not an acceptable design, just because it’s very unlikely it’s going to work.” I’ve never seen anything like that.
They were supposed to start taking waste out in 1998. Here it’s 21 years later, and still no waste. They’re talking now ‘36, so 2036. It’s on and on and on. DOE is wonderful at doing that kind of project anymore, where there’s really no incentive to get it done. In fact, they may have a disincentive, because their jobs are maintained, particularly the jobs of the corporations that are making money off of this black hole. That’s a big money sink, and nothing being accomplished but hiring people and keeping the finances of Richland sailing high and the state as well.
Trisha Pritikin: In 1986, when all those records were declassified by the Department of Energy, I don’t recall any information coming out on any of the other radioisotopes of iodine other than I-131. Because, I know there are more, not just I-129 and I-131.
Cook: There was a whole disclosure earlier on the iodine-129 issue. In fact, I remember getting four boxes. Those were some of the boxes that I know the Yakamas have that I didn’t keep. They really weren’t pertinent, because they didn’t have the data in them and they didn’t have the reports from Parker in the early days, which were classified and should be declassified. Parker would write classified environmental and safety reports, Herb, I think his first name was–Herb Parker, back to the AEC all throughout the Manhattan Project. Those reports would’ve been the basis, for example, for buying up the Wahluke Slope, and DOE and the AEC deciding to do that in the 1950s, as Karen and I have discussed.
Those reports, all those Herb Parker reports should be declassified and made available. They were monthly reports. They were probably secret, is what I would guess. A lot of them probably were secret. Remember, I said the file books with the secret documents listed from that time? That would be the first thing I’d ask for, to get out of archives. It’s very specific. That should be around, that should be available.
Get that document, and then you got a whole bunch of documents that are—B&L, or I’ve forgotten what the designation was on it. It may have been GE [General Electric] or some sort of report, whoever Herb Parker was working for. I know he worked for the laboratory at one time.
Steele: I think it was GE.
Cook: I think it was GE, though, too. Those reports would be very key to looking at the data that was reported back then and what the conclusions were about it.
Cook: They clearly had an idea. Once the silver reactors were put on the stacks, which was to remove the iodine from the stack at T Plant, at Purex, and at U Plant, where the dissolution was going on. Once those iodine reactors—which are nothing but a silver iodide, I mean, a silver nitrate ring, which then chemically reacts with the iodine to form silver iodide. All the gases go up through these rings and they might have some water or something pouring over them, too, to make it more soluble and get it. But the rings collect the iodine. It did a very good job at doing that. They probably reduced the iodine concentration by 10,000, maybe, which was significant, 10,000 from what it was before, by a factor of 10,000.
I’m pretty sure, I don’t know this for sure, but I’m just putting it together, because I’ve never seen a secret document. I made a point that I didn’t want to see any secret documents. In fact, I didn’t want to see any classified documents either—at least take them home with me, take them back. I never did. I just had unclassified stuff, even though I had access. I could’ve reviewed the classified documents in the library, for example.
But the ones you want to look at are the early ones, because that’s when the iodine was coming out. The Green Run wasn’t done to look at contamination of people. They knew about that pretty well already. The Green Run was to validate a model for how iodine distributed in the atmosphere, so then they could fly U2s over Russia and decide where their plants were just by sampling the air streams at 100,000 feet. That worked, I think.
That’s the reason why they claimed that that data was classified, because the analysis, which was baloney. The analysis was written up in other documents on how you did it. You had to put it in a reactor over at Pullman—I think it was Pullman over at the University of Washington, maybe it was Idaho, Moscow, I’m not sure—to activate the iodine-129. Then it became quite a bit more activated than it was just as iodine-129, and you got a signal that you could monitor.
Otherwise, you know, they were monitoring in attocuries, very sensitive, very, very sensitive monitoring scheme. Attocurie is 10-18, I think, curies per liter. That’s a pretty sensitive monitoring scheme. The way they did that was, they increased the activity from 10-18 curies per liter to about 10-12. They raised it by about a million, the activity, by activating it to a different species in the reactor. Now, that’s what they claim was classified. It wasn’t classified, though.
Pritikin: What I’m wondering is, you mentioned John Till and his work on TSP [technical steering panel] and his work on HEDR. Did John Till request any of these documents on the other nuclides of radioiodine, of iodine?
Cook: Well, I don’t know if he did or not. I certainly recommended it to him two or three times at least in public meetings down in Richland. No, I said, “Hey, get Battelle to give you the data on the early iodine releases, and see if your calculations are what they measure in the ditch water for the cows.” They didn’t use ditch water as the drinking water for cows. They assumed it came out of a well.
That’s nonsense. I had gone over and talked to the—in-between times, this is after I’m a nuclear rep and before I became a representative for the Indians. This is kind of the timeframe that I was looking for issues for HEAL.
I went over and asked the farmers, about two or three of them, how their cows that they had, their cattle and cows, drank in the wintertime. They all said, “Oh, they drink probably 90% ditch water. We don’t run well water for them. They drink everything. It’s runoff.”
That’s right surface water with, with the iodine-131 that came right out of the stack. In snow or rain, whatever it might be. But nevertheless, it’s at the surface, and the cows are drinking. You think that got into their modeling? No, absolutely not. Even though there was data on what the milk probably had in it from early on.
Those guys were smart during the Manhattan Project. They were monitoring what they knew would be a problem. If they didn’t monitor the milk, they’re a lot more stupid than I thought they were at that stage.
Pritikin: Do you know when the milk pathway was first recognized? They were always telling us it was around 1957 after Windscale [fire in Great Britain], but then you look into some of the—
Cook: That’s all baloney.
Pritikin: It’s way before that, 1930, 1940s.
Cook: Absolutely. That’s why they never did want to release the Parker reports because those Parker reports, more than likely, I fully believe it. I know how smart they were and I know that the Wahluke Slope was bought up in the 1940s to avoid long-term liability.
That was per Ned Tracknell, who was the public relations person for the AEC during the Manhattan Project. He came out and visited me. He was a personal friend, and he came out and visited me while I was still working for NRC, probably around this time, 1984 maybe, even.
I knew that there was an issue with iodine-129 early on, and a lot of it came directly from his mouth that, “Well, if there wasn’t any issue, why in the hell would they go out of their way to buy up all that land north of the river?”
Pritikin: Is there still I-129 in the water, in the aquifer over in the farms across from Hanford? Is there still I-129 present in the water of the wells?
Cook: I would think so. There’s iodine-129 in the river water at Hanford that’s coming in. They monitor it as a beta emitter.
That’s another issue with EPA. EPA clean water standard ought to have a requirement on iodine-129, period. They don’t, because it costs a little bit more to monitor it. It’s a more complex monitoring or evaluation issue. They should assume that all the beta decay is based on iodine-129. They don’t do that. They don’t know what it’s based off of.
Some of it’s tritium, but tritium is just insidious as iodine-129. It permeates your whole body, not just the thyroid primarily. It gets into every DNA molecule and every nucleus, and lots of tritium. When you get tritium in your body at the drinking water standard of 20 picocuries per liter, you’ve got a lot of tritium going off everywhere in your body, and causing double-strand breaks. Some of them get repaired, some of them don’t. Those that don’t, particularly in old guys like me, cause cancer. Maybe even over 50.
Pritikin: Why is it that I-131 was kind of the radionuclide of focus at Hanford? I don’t know if you know the answer to this, but they only concentrated on I-131 for the Hanford thyroid disease study, they only concentrated on the thyroid. We asked about exposure to other radionuclides like you’ve just been mentioning, which can be full-body damage.
Cook: Tritium is a very insidious mutagenic isotope, I think. In fact, we did a study when I was working for the Indians looking at the vole, v-o-l-e population around Chernobyl, after the Chernobyl accident. The vole population, which was drinking tritiated water, which was well monitored and measured. The vole population, if you wanted to avoid mutagenic effects that were noticeable in the voles, you had to limit it to not 20,000 picocuries per liter, but 200 picocuries per liter. That would eliminate the mutagenic effects in that vole population.
Now, their double-strand breaks are just like ours, I think. They may even have a better mechanism for repair and double-strand breaks than people do, I don’t know, maybe not. Maybe I’m wrong and it’s an inverse of the that. But they’re very similar, and the mutagenic effects in the voles came out at 200, 100 times less than the ICRP specifies for drinking water for tritium.
Tritium from a mutagenic standpoint, particularly for Indians in the small breeding population, so to speak, is important. I made that point probably a half-dozen times in the 200-some-odd letters I wrote for the Indians from 1991 to 1997. If you’re interested, I don’t have hard copies of all those letters, but I got a digital copy of all of them. I would want to get the current group’s agreement to give that up. Because they were Yakama Indian letters, which were sent to DOE, so they should be in a DOE file, too. But they’re probably very hard to come by. They’re easy to come by for me, because I got them all on digital stuff. So, that’s a source.
It focused on different issues, and we mentioned some of these, much more cultural than environmental, which are primarily cultural, too. But like the fishing, fisheries, I talked to Karen this morning.
The fisheries for the Indians were very important. The chrome, the trivalent chrome, which is chromic—basically, chromate that went into the river, once through the reactors and then into the river in a diffuser. They put the cooling water in a big pipe that went out across the river so that everything was diffused.
But downstream—well, anywhere that chromate, dichromate got into a red [salmon]’s bed, the fry coming out of the eggs were sensitive at three parts per billion chromate and they couldn’t survive. It decimated the salmon population once the chromate started to be issued, until it was discontinued. There was no salmon spawning going on in the Columbia River below where those diffusers were in the water.
Pritikin: I have one final question: back to John Till and HEDR. We were talking a little bit about risk assessment and John Till and his way of applying risk assessment. I wanted to understand how his approach to risk assessment might’ve impacted the results of HEDR. I don’t know if this is a [inaudible] question.
Cook: One, he didn’t have a validation scheme or whatever you want to call it to show that his assumptions were valid, and the models were valid. In any analysis, if the analysis doesn’t reflect what’s real, you get a bum answer. His validation schemes were not acceptable, and they weren’t acceptable because they didn’t use existing data.
With a complex system like that, it’s experimental. It’s empirical how it’s going to work. Because the detailed modeling is just impossible to specify. You have to bring together a whole bunch of random variables, and that gives you a result. And it can vary, depending on the weather, by a significant amount, too. The weather has a big influence. He did not take the data that had been collected, and over different weather conditions and different times of the year and so forth early on.
That’s the reason why I’m talking about Parker. He [Till] didn’t bother. You asked me if I knew whether he got that data. I don’t know. He should’ve been asked that in a court of law, “Did you ever get any data from the timeframe when iodine was being emitted? If so, where is it?” Let him lie in the court of law and go to jail for perjury.
I don’t think that question was asked. I know I suggested that he get the data, and I fully believe, like I’m telling you, that the data existed. , though. It was secret, and that whole secrecy stemmed on into the 1960s and into the 1970s and up to the time it finally got identified, really. The coverup had been that long.
They used the guise of it being secret because of the espionage issues, I think. I don’t know that for sure, but that’s the only thing I could conclude. From my own rationale, and I caused a big consternation. Remember, I had 75 documents that I got out? Three or four of those documents had to do with this laboratory that was analyzing the air samples, apparently. I didn’t know that for sure, and here I list these documents in my report, I think. I listed 75, or I know I sent them back to NRC.
Cook: I went to DOE to find out whether these titles—I went to Elly at DOE, who was the classification officer there, to ask him to make sure that these titles were not classified. That caused a consternation, because there was an effort to take the ones that were secret that shouldn’t have been in that file in the first place, in the card catalogue and in the technical library.
It turned out that Fred Brower and his crew that were doing the analysis didn’t know any better, I think. They didn’t know that they weren’t supposed to put information that came out of U2 planes—and that’s what I’m guessing, I don’t know that—they didn’t know that they were supposed to keep this secret document out of the library.
Steele: I had a follow-up question. You were talking about HEDR and John Till and that he didn’t have good validation schemes. There was an interesting development in the middle of the Hanford trial when Judge [Alan] McDonald still had it. There was an expert report that both the defense and the plaintiffs’ attorneys agreed to. It was written by Thomas Pigford [PH], who was an engineer at UCal Berkeley at the time, and McDonald sealed it for almost a decade. It finally came out.
Cook: Pigford was, as I remember, he was also on the National Science Academy.
Cook: He was a pretty honest broker. He felt that he wasn’t going to do anything to impugn his reputation, and he didn’t.
Steele: That report was leaked to me and I wrote about it and he said exactly what you are saying, that the HEDR dose estimates didn’t take into account enough variables, and that they significantly underestimated the doses.
Cook: That’s right. They weren’t validated. Significantly underestimated, it could’ve been by three or four orders of magnitude not enough.
I know the timeframe is of interest, because the timeframe was definitely limited by when the iodine reactors went on the stacks. That should be available. When did AEC and the contractors install those iodine reactors on T Plant and U Plant, which were there? Purex wasn’t operating yet. Purex had iodine reactors on it from the get-go, as best I know. But the T Plant in particular was probably the oldest one that probably was emitting iodine.
Steele: Bob, I just have one follow-up question about the Hanford thyroid disease study. I don’t know if you followed that at all, but it was announced with great fanfare. They couldn’t correlate thyroid cancers they found with doses.
The National Academy of Sciences stepped in and analyzed what they did, and they said—this was the Fred Hutchinson study—and they said that their power analysis failed, but that the study didn’t have enough statistical power to detect an effect. And yet it was used as a way of saying that downwinders should be reassured, because they didn’t come up with a result that correlated doses with illnesses.
Cook: The ones that would’ve been very well-correlated, I think, were the reception of the iodine-131 when it was coming out of the stacks without any reactors on the top. If the data was being used for people that lived considerably after that time or weren’t kids to begin with, then yeah, you might not have a very good correlation.
The good correlation should come from that early days. Those would’ve been people that are my age now. I was born in 1939, so these are kids that were born from 1943 to 1946 or 1947, whenever this was going on. They’re mid-70s right now. That’s where the correlation should be identified, and were you’d expect the latent cancers would be coming out in live people.
You’d also want to look to see if people had died, if there’s a registry. If people had died in that cohort, that age group, more frequently from thyroid cancers than others. That in itself should provide data on the actual concentration for the end of the dose reconstruction model, that should confirm whatever was at the end of the dose reconstruction model. I’ve never seen in the thyroid study a consistent cohort.
Pigford understood how it should happen, too, I think. I would put a lot of faith in what he had to say—particularly if they didn’t want to give it to you. That’s the screwy thing. What’s the basis for not putting something out? If you hire somebody that’s independent, it’s a priority, “We’re hiding this, it’s not consistent with what we want you to know.”