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Gary Petersen’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Gary Petersen is the former vice president of federal programs for TRIDEC, the Tri-City Development Council, which works to promote economic growth for Washington State’s Tri-Cities (Pasco, Kennewick, and Richland) area. Before TRIDEC, he worked at the Hanford site for Battelle, serving as news manager, and in the International Nuclear Safety Program at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. In this interview, Petersen discusses the studies Hanford conducted in biology and health physics, the continuing cleanup of the Hanford site, and the future of radioactive waste disposal. Additionally, he discusses his involvement in producing the book Nuclear Legacy: Students of Two Atomic Cities, that looked at the connections between Richland, WA and Slavutych, Ukraine through the perspectives of American and Ukrainian students.

Date of Interview:
September 10, 2018
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly:   Okay. I’m Cindy Kelly. It is Monday, September 10, 2018, and I have with me Gary Petersen. My first question to Gary is to please say his full name and spell it.

Gary Petersen: Gary Petersen, P-e-t-e-r-s-e-n. Gary is G-a-r-y, so that’s easy.

Kelly:  Terrific. Well, Gary, you have the most fascinating history and I want to start with the beginning. Where and when you were born and your education. A little bit about what brought you to the Tri-Cities [Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland, Washington].

Petersen: Okay. I was born in 1940. I’m just a kid. As a matter of fact, I just attended my 60th class reunion this last weekend. Born in Omak, Washington, and I’ve been a native of Washington almost my whole life. What brought me to the Tri-Cities, though, is I was in the military in Korea. The military taught me how to write. I was a foreign correspondent for a couple of years in Korea. And that also gave me the impetus to go back to college and get a degree. Went through Washington State University. Got a degree in communications. I actually had a job with Ford Motor Company in Detroit, but I wasn’t excited about it. I had an advisor at WSU who said, “There’s a new company that’s just starting in the Tri-Cities called Battelle.” Battelle took the contract for the Hanford Laboratories, and they took that contract in January of 1965. I came in on a Friday and I went to work on a Monday in January of 1965. So that’s how I got here. 

Kelly:  Tell us about the Hanford Laboratories.

Petersen: Hanford Laboratories was started in the early days of Hanford. This is one of the fascinating aspects of Hanford that is probably the most unsung of all of our stories. When they first put in the reactors – there were nine reactors all on the Columbia River, and the last one downstream side was called F Reactor. They wanted to know the effects of the reactors on the aquatic life in the river. They started with aquatic biology, and health physics actually started here as well. The whole subject of health physics, but the first of it was biology. Biology and aquatic biology started at F Reactor, where the reactors – starting with B Reactor – went through cooling, and they would hold the water for a little bit to cool it off and then put it immediately back into the river. They wanted to know after nine production reactors what was the effect on the fish in the river. So it started with that, and it was called the Hanford Laboratories.

Hanford Laboratories was also responsible for all measurements of radiation, the dosimeter badges, anything to do with the health and effects of the radiation. It was a brand-new science. It started in probably 1945, I think, and the Hanford Laboratories existed until 1965 under DuPont [misspoke: General Electric operated Hanford between 1946 and 1965]. That’s the point at which Battelle took over the contract and it became Pacific Northwest Laboratory and now Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Health physics I’m still not the expert on. Ron Kathren is our expert on health physics. But I will tell you the science of health physics started right here, because they did not know what the impacts of radiation was going to be on any of the workers or the surrounding territory. It actually was not called health physics at first. It w­­­as the biological radiation effects on humans. It started, though, I think in 1945, 1946, when they first started realizing that there were potentials for effects of radiation on the workers and the environment and in the surrounding area. It started in 1945 after the reactors started operating and it’s continued. Now it’s an international organization and well-regarded in science.

Kelly:  You started in 1965 as a young man with a communications degree. What was your job?

Petersen: My job originally was to be the news person for the laboratory. I became the news manager for the laboratory shortly. The advantage that I had in that position is I could go anywhere on the site at any time. I had a security clearance that allowed me to go anywhere. It was a Q clearance [the Atomic Energy Commission/Department of Energy’s equivalent of the Department of Defense’s Top Security clearance]. But I could go out to biology. I could go in the reactors. I kind of stayed away from the chemical separations. Personally, I never cared for that area of the site. Much more involved today than I was back then. But from the very beginning, January 1965, I spent time all over the site. In the reactors, in biology labs, in chemistry labs, everywhere on the site.

One of the byproducts of that starting in probably 1966 was new employees into the lab would all be given a tour of the Hanford site, and I became the guy that gave that tour. I’ve toured hundreds, if not thousands and thousands, of people through the Hanford site over all these years. So I’m the old guy.

Kelly:  That’s great. Well, it’s interesting. Recently, Hanford had a visitor from Nagasaki—

Petersen: Yes.

Kelly:  Looking at the B Reactor, and he wore a protective suit. What was known at the time when Hanford was in full operation about the risks to being on the site or working in these facilities?

Petersen: My wife was 11 months old when she came here in 1944. Her father was one of the original people who came in 1943, and he was a pipefitter/construction worker at the time. He came out and then he brought his family from Kansas City. He was not unique to the influx of people who came, 50,000 people, to build the site. He was one of those. Originally, the people who came to build the site thought that they were here for a short period of time and then would be leaving. It was a war effort. They thought they would be leaving, going back to their homes. It ended up that most of them stayed, my father-in-law being one of them. He actually worked in mostly [the] chemical separations area.

But your question, Cindy, is an interesting one, because the secrecy aspect of the Hanford site was so ingrained in all of the people that my wife and her mother and their family didn’t know what the dad, Herman, was doing on the site. I mean, they kept those things separate. The City of Richland was like that. They call it the “Secret Cities” in Oak Ridge. It was the same here. It didn’t have that name, but it was the same here. They were very, very concerned about any information leaking out of Hanford, and what they did here in making the plutonium for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki. 

But I’ll also say there were individual things that were unique. People were picked up by a bus that drove through the neighborhoods. Picked them up, took them out to work. They’d come home at the end of their shift, whether it was A shift, B, C. I mean they worked 24 hours around the clock. The families didn’t know what they did, you know, and yet part of the chemistry of it was any worker out there on the site would have sample bottles put on their front porch where the urine samples would be collected. This became part of the health physics, where they would see if any radiation had been taken up by the individuals. Most of the families – I mean, it was a kind of a joke, a family joke. “Oh, the bottle’s here,” you know. But the families didn’t know what that was about or for until many years later. But it’s an indicator of how well they did with the secret part of Hanford, which got much more stringent in the Cold War, I might add, than it was originally. 

Kelly:  The secrecy got more stringent.

Petersen: The secrecy got much more stringent in the Cold War. It was already very closed, but in the Cold War, there were classes and training and education of both the workers and in part their family. “What happens out here stays here.” “Loose lips sink ships.” All of those phrases became well-known throughout the community, true.

Kelly:  By the time you came, Mr. Communications, was it still that kind of—

Petersen: It was. The Cold War, as you know, went on for quite a number of years. And that’s why I mentioned that I did have a security clearance, because we took tours out to the site, mostly of new employees. They couldn’t take cameras. There were no cellphones in those days, but they couldn’t take cameras, couldn’t take pictures. There were certain things that were never talked about. I mean, production rates, quantities of water that would flow through the reactors, how hot the temperatures were of the water coming out of the reactors. All of those things that could be used to judge what the production quantities were, all of that was classified.

People wouldn’t get on site if they didn’t have clearances for the specific area they were going into. A badge identified which areas you could and couldn’t go into. Some were only for the 300 area, which was the laboratories. Some were for the 100 areas, which was the reactors. Some were for the chemical separations, which is 200 areas. But only a few ­­ that allowed you to go to all of those places.

I had the fortune of touring a number of elected officials from the Japanese Duma [misspoke: National Diet, or kokkai], which is their congress, and from both the equivalent of our House and Senate. Those individuals, number one, they didn’t get dressed up for show and tell. They were interested in going through B Reactor and finding out what actually went on, to a person. There were 10 or 11 of these individuals from the Duma [misspoke: National Diet] in Japan, and to a person, they were fascinated with the history and the science and engineering that was accomplished in B Reactor and out here at Hanford.

There was discussion about whether it was the right thing or the wrong thing to do, but two of the Duma [misspoke: Diet] members recognized that probably there would have been more casualties had the war gone on, on both sides. It wasn’t a judgmental thing of you did wrong or you did right. It was more an appreciation for what was accomplished. And I think that’s pretty important. I mean, I’ve toured people from Russia out there. I’ve toured people from Japan, other places, and, usually, when they come through the reactor and go by chemical separation, they’re all impressed with the engineering feat and what was accomplished in months.  

I talk about it over and over again. Manhattan Project was started August 13, 1943 [misspoke: 1942]. The war ended August 14, 1945. I mean, that’s just an incredible accomplishment. Overall, my personal belief is it saved lives.

Kelly:  There was a short time, I guess, right after the war where it was a little uncertain whether Hanford would be continued, or any of the laboratories.

Petersen: Yes. There was a period. The history cycle of Hanford is fascinating. I mean, DuPont actually started the process here and did the construction. Every time I think of what they did in a short period of twelve months. It’s unfathomable. They didn’t have computers. They didn’t have cellphones. They only had a telephone line [inaudible]. But DuPont started this and accomplished incredible things in a very short period. They turned it over then to General Electric, who operated it up until the end of 1964.

GE [General Electric] had said they actually wanted out of the site. What became the community’s diversification effort was to take the GE contract and split it into parts and then have individual companies run those pieces and help the economy of the area. And also put more focus on whether it was production, research, those kinds of things. Battelle was one of the first to come and they won the contract on the Pacific Northwest National Lab, and they still operate it today. Pretty amazing continuity of service, I think, Cindy. That’s just a piece of the story. 

But yes, there was a lot of questions between 1945 and, say, 1963. In 1963, parts of the Cold War were starting to wrap up, and there was big fear here in the community that all of the reactors were going to be shut down. Hanford was going to go away. The workforce of roughly 8,000 people would disappear, and, you know, you’d see this place as a desert. There was the TRICNIC [Tri-City Nuclear Industrial Council], the predecessor of TRIDEC [Tri-City Development Council], which is an economic development organization, was formed in ’63. Sam Volpentest, one of my predecessors, worked very hard to protect primarily N Reactor, because it was the only dual-purpose reactor. It was the one that both produced 800 megawatts of power and plutonium. As the reactors started being shut down in that period, 1963 through ’67, then there was an effort to try and find other missions and other purposes to operate.

Let me just point out, too, the difference between today and when all nine production reactors were in operation. When all nine production reactors were in operation, the workforce was about 8,000 people out here in total. The annual budget was close to a billion dollars. $900 million, $870 million, somewhere in that range. During that period, 1965 through 1970, the staff was in that range of about 8,000 people. When it was decided to terminate all the reactors, including N Reactor, which didn’t come until 1986, everybody thought, “Well, this place is just going to blow away.” I mean, desert and everybody’s going to be gone. We saw the “Turn the lights out in Seattle” kind of effect.

Well, what’s interesting is here we are today and there’s roughly 11,000 people out there. Originally, they said cleanup was going to be – it was a phrase, “suck, muck, and truck.” You just suck all the waste up, truck it someplace, and bury it and you’re done. Then they found out it’s a complex issue. Today, we’ve got 11,000 people. The annual budget is about $2.4 billion. It’s more than double what it was when all the reactors were operating. I mean, it’s a fascinating life cycle as you look at it. 

The time sequence and time were different. After the Cold War, when [Ronald] Reagan actually demanded the [Berlin] Wall come down. We saw, you know, the SALT II agreements and all of the stuff that went on with that. The classification, the secrecy, still stayed. The mentality was so strong that, you know, it stayed for a very long period of time, even after the Cold War. There’s still some classified areas of the site, but not like there were.

Kelly:  Well, in truth, there’s a lot of support in Congress, in fact, to continue to ramp up or at least address—

Petersen: The issues.

Kelly:  The issue, right.

Petersen: Recognize, too, it wasn’t just Hanford. I mean, you know this, Cindy. It was all of the sites: Oak Ridge, here, Los Alamos. But then you add in Savannah River and Idaho Falls. All of them were interrelated and working towards the same kinds of issues. Idaho was more involved in the reactors for the nuclear Navy, but, at the same time, we were all working on the same thing, which is to protect and preserve the United States. You know, the military deterrent from any new world war, and it’s gone on for all these years. Each of those sites played a part of that. Not just one, all of them.

Kelly:  You say starting in ’45, they had the radiation effects research going on at the Hanford Laboratories and then in ’65, you know, the new laboratory was taken over or established. Tell us, did that expand the amount of research going on in those issues?

Petersen: It did. Originally, it was all biology and health effects, the health physics. But as Battelle came in, Battelle was a worldwide research organization. They had laboratories in Germany and offices in Switzerland. They were all over the world. They recognized that you could expand the research into many other areas, taking advantage of what there is here. Radioisotopes, I mean, everything from medical uses of radioisotopes. Some of that started here as a cause and effect of health physics as well. 

I’ve got to tell one quick side story just because I like them. An example of the kinds of work that aquatic biology did. I came in 1965. In 1963, two DVMs, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, went to the head of biology, who was a guy named Bill Bair at the time, and said, “We need to study the effects of radiation uptake in thick-skinned animals.” Because certain radioisotopes are bone-seekers or thick-skinned or those kinds of things. They talked Bill Bair into allowing them to buy six alligators.

This is my alligator story. The alligators were about two-foot long. They were young, and they were going to study strontium-90 uptake in these thick-skinned animals. They were put at 100-F area, in a pen in the river, because the water flow came by, you know, the last downstream. They started studying these animals to see if any of the radionuclides would go into the skin and the bone of these [alligators]. Well, a storm came up and the storm blew down the pen that the six alligators were in. They all escaped into the Columbia River. This is still during the Cold War. This was all heavily classified or under wraps, however you want to say it.

The workers out there, they found five of the alligators. One was still missing. And time went on—this was 1963, before I got here—time went on, and there was a fisherman downstream at a place where everybody went. He caught this sixth alligator, and people wouldn’t believe that he caught an alligator in the Columbia River. But the man took the alligator to a taxidermist in Pasco and had it stuffed. He wanted to preserve it. Well, a technician from 100-F was walking by the taxidermist shop, saw this alligator in the window, knew what it was. He ran in, grabbed the alligator, and took off. This was Atomic Energy Commission days. It was before DOE [Department of Energy].

Anyway, I got here in ’65, and in late 1965, my boss, a man named George Dalen, called me into his office one day and he says, “Gary, it’s time we gave Aaron his alligator back.” 

“What are you talking about?”

George reached down, and here’s this stuffed alligator, about like so. He says, “Well, Aaron caught this over at a place called Ringold, downstream of F Reactor, and, you know, we went and took it from him.”

I will tell you that the story has been in the Tri-City Herald, so it’s a provable story. But all six alligators were found, and away we go. That’s just a throwaway story.

Kelly:  While they had the alligator back in their possession, did the laboratory analyze the bones?

Petersen: The laboratory did analyze for strontium uptake and there was some strontium that got into the thick skin of the alligators. When biology moved from 100-F area down to the 300 area – that was probably in 1967 or so, right in that timeframe – they moved the alligators. But at that point, they couldn’t keep them in the water and the river right outside of the reactors. And the dispersion of anything coming downstream—Columbia’s a massive waterflow. They realized that it wouldn’t do any good. So, they finally got rid of the alligators. But that’s the story.

Kelly:  Did they go to a zoo after that?

Petersen: Well, I don’t know what happened to them after that. They had Hanford miniature swine that were used for study of heat sources for artificial hearts. They had African pygmy goats. They had all kinds of animals that were related to Hanford and health physics.

Kelly:  I’m kind of trying to find out what we knew when and how much research was going on, and when the Department of Energy really focused on environmental management and the cleanup in earnest.

Petersen: The Atomic Energy Commission had a singular goal, and it was related to weapons production, material production, saving the Cold War. As you know, and now I’ll mess up the dates, but probably in 1974 or so, AEC changed to ERDA [Energy Research and Development Agency] and then ERDA changed to the Department of Energy. And the Department of Energy had multi missions, more than just production of weapons-grade materials for nuclear weapons. In that transition, somewhere between 1975 and ’80, the missions started to change. 

And Chernobyl happened in 1986. The last operating reactor really out there was N Reactor in 1986. It had a design something very close to Chernobyl. It was a graphite pile and it did not have containment like our power reactors do. N Reactor became questionable in this 1986 timeframe, too. There are many people who say that N Reactor wasn’t shut down because of Chernobyl. There’s others who say it was only because of politics that said you couldn’t continue. But there’s a third that says we had enough plutonium. We didn’t need to produce any more. Any of those could be right, and, you know, one of these days maybe we’ll figure it out.

But it was in that 1986, 1988 timeframe that the whole direction of the Hanford site changed completely to cleanup.

Kelly:  Just for those who are unfamiliar, what happened at Chernobyl?

Petersen: Chernobyl, actually, was a steam explosion. It wasn’t a nuclear explosion. I had the fortune under Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to travel to Chernobyl a number of times under the International Nuclear Safety Program, which is actually Department of State more than Department of Energy. It was a steam explosion and it was actually caused by project management error. I mean, they did some things to drive the reactor to a point where it actually had a steam explosion and blew the top off, and then the fuel melted down, and that’s where the radiation was released. But that reactor had no containment. I mean, it had confinement, is what they called it. I shouldn’t say it quite this way, maybe, but the Russians always say that they could design for every safety feature possible. But as we looked at it afterwards, many of the reactors of the same kind needed additional work.

I don’t think most of the world understood that it was Unit Four that had the steam explosion. Unit Three that was attached to Unit Four by a turbine hall continued to operate for another three years. I think most people didn’t know that. There were still workers going in and out of that area into Unit Three for a number of years after the steam explosion at Unit Four. It was kind of an incredible place.

Kelly:  Now, I know you’ve done a lot of work – you want to talk about that now, with the city, and people—

Petersen: Slavutych [Ukraine]?

Kelly:  Yes.

Petersen: Chernobyl, the reactor site, had four reactors, and Unit Four was the one that had the steam explosion. There was a small town called Chernobyl right next to the reactors of Chernobyl, but it was a small town. Pripyat was the main town right next to the reactors that had roughly 20,000 [misspoke: 49,000] population, and it was where most of the workers for the four reactors all lived. Just within two or three days after the steam explosion and the radiation release, the Russian hierarchy ended up telling everybody they’d have to move away just for a short period of time, just take the necessary items that you need to leave and, you know, you’ll be allowed to come back. Well, they were never allowed to come back to Pripyat, even though there’s a few people [still] living in Pripyat. It’s the world’s largest ghost town. As you go through there, you can see things like a grand piano in an apartment still sitting there. I mean, now it’s a wreck, because it’s been years and years. But you see, you know, children’s toys out in the street.

But the next closest town was Slavutych, and so the workers who came for cleanup and operations ended up working in Slavutych. To get from Slavutych to Chernobyl, they have to go through Belarus, another country. Most of them travel by train back and forth every day. Not a great distance, about 30 miles, something in that order. When I first went over there, we stayed in Slavutych. All of the Ukrainians that I met, they started teaching English in their classrooms well before the accident in 1986. But they loved to have Americans come to classrooms and speak in English and sing songs, “Old MacDonald Had A Farm,” whatever, anything so you could help the students understand English. I volunteered, when I wasn’t going back and forth to Chernobyl, to meet with the students.

One of the things that just struck me was we had two nuclear cities. We have a nuclear city here in Richland, and you have Slavutych that’s over there, and students that are bright, very smart. So, I suggested that the two teachers – Maureen McQuerry was the one here, and Inna Ryazanova was the one over there – and said, “Why don’t we see if we can get these students to write similar stories? We’ll put them into both languages and then find out if we can get it published someplace.”

It took some effort, but they got going. These are little more than middle school. I mean, it’s tenth, eleventh graders. Some ninth, but ninth, tenth, eleventh graders. And so they took it on. Now you can do FaceTime anywhere in the world, but we went to the laboratory and we set up a video conference call with Slavutych, which was incredible in some of those days. And the time difference, too, you had to time it so it was either very early morning here and late in the afternoon there. I think it’s 11 hours difference, or was. The students talked to each other and communicated and built this book [Nuclear Legacy: Students of Two Atomic Cities], and that’s what we ended up making. It was just an amazing feat.

As a result of that, four students from Hanford went to Slavutych for two weeks, and four students from Slavutych came here for two weeks. They’ve all done very, very well.   

Kelly:  I think you were telling me that some of them went on to study—

Petersen: They did. Two of the four Ukrainian students who came here ended up coming to the United States and getting their PhDs, which I think is pretty amazing. I’ve lost touch with them now, because it’s been 25 years or so. But I also feel good that most of the students from the United States who worked on the book all got scholarships, and it assisted them in going on into college. I even ran into one this last summer, where they said they still can’t believe how working on that book in two languages has helped them. It was a lifelong experience, so that’s pretty neat.

Kelly:  It’s very neat, very neat. Well, that’s a nice sidelight. That project happened after, so it was like late ‘80s.

Petersen: Yep.

Kelly:  Is that right?

Petersen: It did. It was late ‘80s, early ‘90s. I attended a number of international conferences and one of them was in Prague, where we had people from Lithuania, Czech Republic, all of the nuclear countries under the Russian regime. I ended up bringing two cases of those books to that conference. I thought I was going to get in the middle of a fight, because they were all fighting for the book. Because most of them – it’s Ukrainian, not Russian – but most of them could read Russian and that’s close. They just were impressed with the relationship of the students between the two communities. It gained some international recognition as well out of that. It was pretty positive, pretty good.

The picture on the front of this is actually our two students from here. This was in the midwinter, and they walked through Pripyat. That was some of the first people to ever be allowed, public be allowed, back into Pripyat. That was pretty impressive, the fact that we got the Ukrainian government to allow these students to go in there.

There’s a side note. They also got to go into Unit Three of Chernobyl, and I had not anticipated that. When I found that they had gone, I went to the laboratory director of Pacific Northwest National Lab, said, “Here’s what happened. They took our two students into Chernobyl and they didn’t have—” I mean, when I went over, we had our own pencil dosimeters and dosimeter badge. We were draped and we knew what we were getting in radiation. These students didn’t. And so, the lab director says, “Gary, it’s your job to go to each of the four houses and talk to the parents and say, ‘Your kids are all right, and when they get back, they’ll go through the whole body counter’” – which we have here, which is also part of health physics – “‘to see if they got any radiation dose in their body.’” They didn’t. I mean, that was a fortunate, fortunate thing. But there were things like that that fell out of this process, too, that were just kind of interesting.

Kelly:  Well, we are trying to kind of give people a sense of Hanford’s environmental legacy. Maybe you can give us a little summary when this environmental cleanup work began in earnest until the present. You dated it to the mid-80’s. How much has been invested in cleaning up the site?

Petersen: I think that this site and the Columbia River has been studied more for environmental effects than almost any place in the world. Let me just point out that we’ve had news organizations from all over the world come here, and I’ve explained to them that every day I drink water from that Columbia River. Every day. I take a shower in the water from that Columbia River every day. If I was concerned about it, I wouldn’t do that. I raised two daughters who did the same thing. The city of Richland is the only major metropolitan city that takes all of its drinking—not all—80 or 90% of its drinking water from the Columbia River. It is the most inspected water source, I think, anywhere in the United States.

But as part of the environmental studies that have gone on here because of the development of health physics and the things that we know relative to radiation. We know the groundwater flow underneath the river. We know how long it will take for anything to reach the river. And the river is the main body that flows all the way down through Portland, and so there’s been concern. That’s why cleanup is still an important federal obligation. I mean, you don’t just leave that radiation to sit out there. You do something with it.

But radiation is important to us anyway. I mean, we wouldn’t be alive if we didn’t have solar radiation around us every day. Our plants wouldn’t grow, you know. So, it’s a matter of degree. The environmental studies that have gone on all show that mostly this is an extremely safe place to work. That doesn’t mean we haven’t had accidents and incidents. It doesn’t mean that everything is always perfect.

It’s kind of things that have gone into the studies of the environment. The effects of radiation on humans, the effects of radiation on animals. I feel safe. I mean, I would do it again. Grow up here, raise my children here. Why not? It’s a pretty safe place.

Kelly:  Among the people that we’re interviewing are some that were involved as children living here who didn’t have such good fortune, and have had some ill effects from what they attribute to be exposures to byproducts of the production here.

Petersen: Let me describe. Times were different when I grew up. I mean, you know that I’m in my late 70s. I hear stories from my wife about living in Richland, and the way that they controlled the mosquito population was to have a truck blow DDT [a type of insecticide] out the back and drive down the streets. Most of the boys – and I know three or four and they will verify this – thought it was really interesting to ride their bicycles back and forth through the DDT spray. So we didn’t have the regulatory requirements that we do today for any of this. I grew up on an apple ranch, where we’d spray DDT and parathion, paraquat, malathion [types of herbicides or insecticides], and you’d do it by hand with no mask. If you got really covered in the stuff, you would jump in the river and wash it off and then go do more.

I don’t know of any place or case where you can say specifically that something caused cancer or asthma or something that’s caused directly as an effect of the Hanford site. I think our incidence of cancers are actually lower than the statewide average and certainly lower than the national average. There are people who have been affected, no question about it, and I think you’ll talk to some. But what is the specific cause? I don’t know that we’ll ever know. I just don’t.

Kelly:  You’ve been present through all of this and studies that were released in the ’90s from the Centers for Disease Control looking for excess cancers or—

Petersen: Yep.

Kelly:  Incidents.

Petersen: And the laboratory ran most of those studies. There was the thing called the Green Run where they released radiation through the stack that did go downwind. They actually had an array of towers out on the site – the atmospheric sciences portion of the laboratory where there’s a 300-foot-tall tower. There used to be 300-foot and then an array, 200-foot and then 100-foot towers. They would release various samples from the top and see how it dispersed as it goes down through that array of towers. That was all part of the studies, too. Was the radiation released? Yes. Was there a direct cause and effect? I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know any way you can really prove or disprove. But no difference in smoking. I mean, a lot of people smoked in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and now they know the cause and effect and the hazards from those. Can I judge that? I can’t.

But I feel as safe here as any place, any place around. Jokingly, all of us have said one time or another, “Turn off the lights, and I glow in the dark.” But it’s always said in jest. We live close to Hanford. My house is less than four miles from the Hanford border, so I’m one of the people who live in North Richland. Like I say, raised my two daughters there. They went to Hanford schools. I still think it’s an excellent place to live.

I think it’s not much different than the debates that probably will follow about whether it was right or wrong to drop the bombs. I would have hated to make that decision. I don’t think I’m capable of it. Did it save lives in the long run? Both Japanese lives and American lives? Probably. But how can you – I couldn’t do that. You know, I just couldn’t do it.

But look at all the good. I mean, the radiation effects for treating cancer is incredible. Everything that came out of the nuclear arena has not been negative. Nuclear power plants are probably some of the safest in the world, produce carbon-free, carbon-free power. Nuclear medicine is just far beyond what anybody ever guessed it would be. So, there’s positives that can weigh against the negatives, too.

Kelly:  That’s true. It’s interesting. Since you have been involved in this so many years and as a community leader and spokesman, what do you say to people when the drumbeat in Seattle and many of the environmental activist groups is that Hanford is the biggest Superfund site. It so scared the National Park Service before the [Manhattan Project National Historical Park] legislation was passed that they were afraid to send rangers to the B Reactor.

Petersen: I’ve given talks in Seattle – gave a talk to a Rotary in downtown Seattle. One lady in the audience said, “I will just tell you I will never let nuclear power into my house.”

I’m sitting there thinking, “You already have it.” I mean, the Hanford generating plant out here, the Columbia Generating Station, produces 1,157 megawatts of power. It goes into a wire that is just like the river that goes everywhere. You can’t separate out what was produced by coal, you know, natural gas, the hydrodam. You know, it’s already there. But to say you’re never going to do it is – I mean, it’s difficult. I try to compare them to what I know, and what I know is I’ve been in and out of those reactors. I’ve been in and out of the chemical separation areas. I’m still alive and feeling pretty good for my age. It’s not for me to debate whether it’s right or wrong. I just try to say I feel safe and I feel that most of the world is better because of things nuclear than it would be without them. You can’t really stop it. Let’s use it to our benefit, and if we can stop any other war from ever happening, then that’s a benefit, too. 

Kelly:  Tell us about the extent of cleanup activity that’s gone on since let’s say the early ‘90s when it began to be funded seriously by Congress.

Petersen: There’s no question in my mind that what we call the River Corridor has and is being cleaned up. I mean, the 300 area where I worked for most of my early career, I think that there’s 152 buildings that have been removed. There’s only a couple left. And all of the contamination has been cleaned up and removed to the central plateau. There’s still the K Basin sludge, which is at K East Reactor – K West Reactor. I’ll get it right: K West. That is in the process of being removed. There’s no question that we still have high concentrations of radioactive waste that need to be taken care of: tank farms, 324 Building. There’s 618-11 waste site, there’s things that still need to be done.

To leave it would be a horrible crime. You can’t just leave that, built a fence around it, and walk away, because sooner or later it will get into the groundwater. Once it’s in the groundwater, it will go to the river and go downstream. You just can’t let that happen.

But the success that they’ve had so far with the River Corridor, getting things away from the river—chromium, mercury, and radioactive materials – has been astounding. They’ve really done a good job of cleaning up all of the things that were right along the river with the exception of 324 Building and K Basins. And both of those are on the schedule to be taken care of.

That leaves the central plateau. That leaves the tank farms. They’re supposed to start that in 2024, and so you’ll see some of that starting to happen—or earlier, if there’s new processes that can be developed. So it’s coming.

Kelly:  Someone asked me the other day what is it with the vitrification [turning spent fuel and waste into glass]? Why can’t that happen at Hanford? It’s been years.

Petersen: It has. The nuclear waste at Hanford is unlike any other site. It’s not like Savannah River. It’s not like Oak Ridge. They tried different processes to speed up the production of plutonium, and so they had PUREX [plutonium-uranium extraction] and REDOX [Reduction-Oxidation Plant]. A variety of different ways that they would remove the plutonium chemically. No two tanks are alike, and there’s 177 tanks. No two tanks are alike in the composition that’s in those tanks. It becomes a very complex problem. If you were cleaning up gas stations, almost all gas stations have tanks underground and they either have regular or ethyl, premium, and you know what you’ve got. But if every single gas station had something different under the ground, then you would have a much more difficult problem. The 177 tanks out there have all different chemicals in those tanks.

As you get to the tanks and you want to solidify it, turn it into glass, you have to have a plant that can take any composition of the material and mix it and do it safely in zones that you may never be able to go back into. It has to be almost 100% failsafe before you start. That’s why the waste treatment plant has taken so long. That’s why it cost so much.

If you’re going to turn it into glass, there’s the answer. There are other answers. The GAO [Government Accountability Office] came out with a study that shows that at Savannah River, they’re doing very well with grout. It’s cheaper, and you can do it probably faster. Those kinds of processes didn’t exist when the waste treatment plant was started. There needs to be a way to look at what are the alternatives you can do with low-level waste rather than high-level. High-level has got to be glassified, but with low-level waste, you potentially can do a lot in—whether it’s grout or some other form—and solidify it in a way that doesn’t have to go through the plant. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s where we are.

Kelly:  I think over the years I’ve heard a lot of people who push back against mixing. I guess grout would be mixing up the chemicals with a cement-like situation. It would stabilize it and make it kind of permanently a solid.

Petersen: Right.

Kelly:  Is that the idea?

Petersen: That’s the idea. The GAO report shows that clearly for mixed low-level waste or low-level waste, there’s classifications of waste that you can put it into a cement—a solid structure—and  put it into a burial site and it won’t be leachable for hundreds of thousands of years. It is being used at Savannah River. They’re doing some of it at Idaho. If you can do it with mixed low-level waste or low-level waste, that should be considered, because it’s faster and cheaper, and you get those tanks emptied as soon as you can. Otherwise, we’re looking at 2056, the year 2056, before some of this gets glassified. In a congressional sense, that’s beyond – that’s a senator who is fresh and has, I don’t know, three terms, five terms. Congressionally, you can’t fund – I can’t look at 2056 and say, “We’ll have money to do that.” That’s another policy issue that’s got to be solved somehow. And that’s a tough one.

Kelly:  Is there a lot of pushback from environmental communities or other spokesmen?

Petersen: There is. And [Washington State] Department of Ecology, they’re saying, “It’s got be as good as glass or we won’t accept it.” Yet, the GAO report has shown that for mixed low-level waste and low-level waste that grout can be just as effective as glass. You put it in a repository like WIPP [Waste Isolation Pilot Plant] or the WCS [Waste Control and Storage] in Texas, which is not very far from WIPP. You can do a lot of things with low-level waste or mixed low-level waste. 90% of what’s in those tanks out here, 177 tanks, is low-level waste. You could take care of 90% of the problem if you could only do something with grout and move it off.

But the environmentalists also don’t want it to stay here. One of the issues, and we haven’t talked about it at all, is this site has become an interim storage site with no vote of the people, no decision by the local population. It is a long-term interim storage site. If you talk about 2056, we are a long-term interim storage site, just by de facto. Knowing that, you should make decisions that say: how do you speed that up? How can you do it economically, so you don’t bust the federal bank either? Cleanup costs a lot of money. If you can do that and do it in the process, Cindy, it’d be fantastic.

Kelly:  I’m just curious. How much has been invested in the vitrification process?

Petersen: Good question. I think the current estimate to complete is $110 billion. I want to say probably $30 billion has been invested. But the cost to complete is under study right now, and when that comes out, I don’t think it’s going to be $110 billion. I think it’s going to be something well over that.

Part of the community’s concern – my concern – is what is the sustainability of federal funding to do that? It is huge. I go back to what I said at the start: suck, muck and truck sounded so easy, and 8,000 to operate the reactors sounded like a lot. Well, here we are today, and we find out that cleanup is an extremely difficult process. To get it back to drinking water standards or something close to that is going to cost money. How do you do it and what are the alternatives as you go forward? They’re pretty hard choices, pretty hard choices.

Kelly:  When you say drinking water standards?

Petersen: Well, the water treatment plant out there right now is pumping billions of gallons of water from the 200 areas, where the chemical separations are, cleaning them up to drinking water standards and then pumping it back into the ground. They’re trying to clean it up as they go, anything that is already down there. That’s part of the process. Along the river, everything there is trying to keep to drinking water standards. [1:00:00]

One of the problems with the radiation and health physics field is they can study parts per billion. They’ve gotten so good at measurements of very, very small quantities that now everybody wants it zero. You can’t get it to zero. There’s natural uranium coming down from Canada in that river. You need to measure it before it hits the Hanford site and after, and then make some judgment. Because the river is so big, and the waterflow is so huge, it just will dissipate over time. 

Kelly:  Does Richland treat the water that you— 

Petersen: They do. I think that this is probably some of the better water around. We still buy bottled water on occasion, and I still think that’s funny at my age. I don’t know when bottled water came into existence, but it wasn’t until ‘70s or ‘80s or ‘90s. I don’t know.  ­­ to me to buy bottled water when the water out of our tap is the same thing that we make in the icemaker and it’s all good.

Kelly:  That gives you a chance to say anything you’d like to about how important this history is to preserve.

Petersen: I’m a member of BRMA, which is the B Reactor Museum Association. They finally talked me into joining. But I realize every day that there are people who have this knowledge base that are dying. Ron Kathren is probably the expert on health physics here locally. He talks about Herb Parker, who started the field. Jack [Selby], have to remember Jack’s last name, just died. We’re starting to see all of these individuals that have this institutional and historic knowledge, and they’re going. I’m 77, and I feel pretty good, [1:03:00] but at the same time, at any point, all of us could be gone and the institutional knowledge will disappear. That’s so sad. Very few people actually got to go around the whole Hanford site all the time and see the various aspects of it.

The stories are different, and you realize that the view of different individuals is from their view. I’ll give you one. We haven’t talked about the lab much, but when Battelle came in and bid on the laboratory, I heard three different stories about how that came to be. One is from Sam Volpentest, who worked until he was 101 years old, and Sam takes all the credit for being in New York City when General Electric decided to get out of the Hanford site and put the different aspects up for bid. Sam went after it with the old Atomic Energy Commission and Sam says that he was one of the real strong individuals that got Battelle to come here.

You talk to Fred Albaugh, who just died, and Fred was the first [misspoke: second] laboratory director, but he was out of Columbus, Ohio. He says that Bert Thomas, who was his boss over the whole Battelle Memorial Institute, said, “We need a laboratory in the Pacific Northwest, go and find one.” It was Sherwood Fawcett that ended up finding out that, “Hey, there’s this laboratory that’s going to be bid by the government.” And so Sherwood says that he took it on and he became part of the instigation.

The third one was Fred Albaugh, and Fred Albaugh—I’ll get some of this a little bit wrong—but Fred Albaugh worked out here at Hanford Labs. His wife was secretary to Glenn Seaborg, and Glenn Seaborg let Fred Albaugh know that the laboratory was going to be put up for bid. Fred Albaugh, who worked for Hanford Laboratories, ended up going and searching for a company and he found Battelle. He claims that he had the leadership role.

My point is I think all three are correct, but they never connected to say it probably took all three. Cindy, it’s absolutely no different to me than the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. You know, because you were part of it. I mean, if 26, 28—how many ever there were didn’t work together to get it done, it wouldn’t have happened. The same is true of the laboratory. There’s always more than one view of how did this take place. That’s where we are. I don’t know if that is the answer you were looking for either, but that’s why you can’t change history. History is a different view from different people of the same thing.

Kelly:  Exactly. It’s always evolving.

Petersen: It is.

Kelly:  As we learn more and peel back the onion. 

Petersen: Yeah. And my history is different than somebody else’s. Bill Bair even said later, “Gary, there weren’t six alligators. There were eleven.” He was the manager of the group. I only knew there were six, but he could’ve been right. I don’t know where the rest are.

I’m heartened because we’ve got the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. I’m also disappointed, because the bill was passed in 2015. Here we are in 2018, and it is still difficult to – you can’t drive to any part of it. Like any national park in the United States. I’d love to get in my car – I’ve got visitors from out of town on Saturday – and go to the park. We’re not there yet, and the restrictors are funny restrictors. In the case of Hanford, the road is not good. There’s not enough restrooms to serve the public if you were to open it. There’s only three restrooms still at B Reactor. There’s restrictors that say you can’t just open the doors and let anybody go out. But we need to get there. We need to have the national park be a national park.

I just keep hoping that at any point I can take my grandkids and just go. But that’s going to take a while.

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