Nuclear Museum Logo
Nuclear Museum Logo

National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Harry Kamack’s Interview

Harry Kamack worked as a chemical engineer for the DuPont Company during the early 1940s, when he was transferred to Chicago to work at the Metallurgical Laboratory. As a chemical engineer, Kamack admits that he did not have much knowledge of nuclear physics, but he quickly learned and was soon tasked with building a Geiger counter. In 1943, Kamack was transferred to Oak Ridge, where he continued work on developing processes for the separation of plutonium at the X-10 Graphite Reactor. In October of 1944, Kamack was transferred again to Hanford, where he continued research on the chemical separations process of the T-Plant.

Date of Interview:
November 1, 2003
Location of the Interview:


[Interviewed by Cindy Kelly and Tom Zannes.]

Tell us your name.

Harry Kamack: I’m Harry Kamack. K-A-M-A-C-K.  

Tell us where you’re from.

Kamack: Well, I was born and raised in Connecticut, and when I was in high school my father was transferred to Atlanta. So I went to Georgia Tech, got a degree in chemical engineering, and then I came out to Delaware. Worked briefly for General Chemical Company, and then I went to the Alabama Ordnance Works and started working for the DuPont Company there, I guess, about late 1942. 

And the Alabama Ordnance Works was a TNT plant and a smokeless powder plant. And not long after I started working there, early in 1943, the DuPont Company made an announcement that went to all the plants that they were setting up a division called TNX. And that’s all they said about it, except that some people would be transferred to it.

And as the weeks went by, people were being transferred to it, mostly first line supervision at that time. And there was, of course, a lot of speculation about what TNX was and the first assumption, of course, was that it was trinitroxylene, which is another kind of an explosive. But it didn’t make much sense because it was not the kind of explosives that was in use at that time in the war, and so nobody really knew.

Everybody who left said that they would write back and let us know what it was all about. We never heard, of course, from any of them. And the last thing in the world I expected was to be involved in it, because I was a new employee.

But then towards the end of April I got called to the superintendent’s office and told that I was to go to Chicago. And the next day I went to Chicago with another man, a chemist, named Clarence Kiernan. And the two of us found our way to the University of Chicago and to what was called—the code name for it was the Metallurgical Laboratory, which everybody called the Met Lab. 

And that was—or at least where the part of it that we went to was—in the physics building (Ryerson Physical Laboratory). And we went in there and the first thing we saw was a guard sitting at a desk with a pistol in front of him. And we showed our credentials and we got taken to an office where there was a DuPont representative named Dr. Dew, D-E-W, Walter Dew.

And he sat the two of us down and he said, “Have you made any guesses as to what this is all about?”

And of course, we’d been doing a lot of guessing, but we said, “No.”

He said, “Well, it’s about,” he said, “I’ll tell you in a few words.” He said, “It’s about atomic energy. We’re going to use atomic energy to make a bomb.”

And he said, “What we’re going to do—.” Oh, then he opened a drawer and he pulled out a couple little cubes of metal and threw them on the table and said, “You know what this is?” 

So I picked one of them up. It was this little cube about so big and it felt very heavy so I said, “Oh, I don’t know. It’s very dense.”

He said, “Well, that’s uranium.” He said, “We’re going to make a pile with uranium and graphite, and in this pile we’re going to make a new element called plutonium. And with this plutonium we’re going to make a bomb.” Well, he said, “Our part of it is to make the plutonium and other people are going to make the bomb and this bomb is going to be—maybe,” he said, “one way to do it maybe is you would have people like pieces, like slices like of an orange, and all these orange slices would go together and make a bomb.” And it went on and he talked about neutrons and alpha rays and beta rays and gamma rays and neither I nor I’m sure the other fellow had the slightest idea what he was talking about, and the whole thing seemed just very incredible. 

It’s very hard, thinking back. Excuse me. I’m having a little trouble with my sinuses. 

It’s very hard to recover the state of ignorance that I had at that time about this whole business of nuclear energy. That was a term that I never heard of. There was, I know, I just showed you a book which we were all advised to get called Applied Nuclear Physics, by Pollard and Davidson, which was the primer on nuclear energy at that time, but of course, nothing like that had ever been part of my education.

Now the interesting thing is that people that were a little older than we were would have known about it, because ever since Einstein became famous in the 1920’s and people heard about E=MC2 and there were all kinds of stories about how one lump of coal would be enough fuel to run the Queen Mary across the Atlantic Ocean and that—people knew about atomic energy. But then after fission was discovered in, I think, 1938, or so, the scientists stopped talking about it. They sort of set up a voluntary code of secrecy in the United States. And so at the time that we were going to school, we didn’t learn anything about it. And all these words they were using about—like neutrons and alpha rays and so forth were just—meant nothing to me.

(Question off camera.)

Kamack: So after our session with Dr. Dew, I was sent to go to the chemistry building. And I found my way to the fourth floor of the chemistry building. I was met by somebody there and they took me to this room, which had a locked door, and behind it we were in a laboratory and it was full. It was really crowded for a chemical laboratory, full of people. 

It was what I would describe as state of organized pandemonium. And amidst of all this going on, were a couple of people that were trying to sort us newcomers out and figure out what to do with us. And later on I learned the reason for the condition at that time was that one of the emergencies that kept cropping up periodically on the project had just come up, and it had to do with what was called the canning of the uranium fuel. 

The uranium had to be encapsulated in aluminum because of corrosion, and the aluminum had to be bonded 100 percent to the uranium. If there was any little air pocket between the uranium and the aluminum, then in the reactor it would get so hot that the aluminum would melt and the uranium would catch fire and the whole reactor probably would be destroyed. So it was a very critical thing, and they had just discovered that they didn’t know how to accomplish that. In fact, that was a problem that went on for quite a while.

But anyhow they set us to little jobs to try, I guess, to find out what our talents, or lack of talents, were. And the little job they gave me was to build a Geiger counter. 

Well, I only discovered what a Geiger counter was about two days before. But there was a diagram of how to build one in this book by Pollard and Davidson.  And I went to the stock room and I got the materials and I put them on a board and put it all together and had what I thought was a Geiger counter. And then when I turned it on, I forgot to put in one resistance, and so it burned out. So they didn’t put me in the instruments group. So they put me into the process development group, and so that’s what I would like to talk about a little bit. 

There’s not been very much published about the whole process side of the plutonium project but the most that there is, is in a book by—a journal really—of Dr. Seaborg that was published, which has all the whole history of it. But Dr. Seaborg and his people were working on, really on microscopic scale, which they had only micrograms of plutonium to work with, which were produced in cyclotrons. And so they were working out the chemistry of how to separate the plutonium at that scale, and then we were doing the same thing on a laboratory scale in beakers.

Now, there has been a myth about the project that started someplace, which is that the Hanford plant, the full-scale plant which had the reactors and the plutonium separation process—that the Hanford process was based on this microscopic work by Seaborg and his group. But that, of course, was not true because we had this laboratory. There were actually three scales of scale-ups. 

The first was our laboratory scale, which we were working in beakers. Then down the hall from us was the semi-works, in which another group was working in like twenty-five gallon and fifty gallon tanks. And then at Oak Ridge there was a pilot plant with a reactor and a plutonium separation plant. And so those were the three scales of development of the separations process. 

Okay, so we were the first scale after taking the results of Seaborg’s work. And the group that I was in were mostly chemists from DuPont, research chemists, and they had been there for about four to six months, I think. And I suppose that at the time that they came there, they didn’t know any much more about plutonium chemistry than I did when I came in, but of course, they had learned it, and being chemists they could assimilate this a lot faster than I could. I was a chemical engineer, and there’s a lot of difference between the education of chemist and the education of a chemical engineer. 

Anyhow, so I was assigned to a senior chemist. And we worked together on—he did most of the actual work of trying out different kinds of systems for doing the processing, and I did most of the analytical work, which consisted of taking a sample and, what we called, counting on the Geiger counter. 

Well, the Geiger counter would actually count individual disintegrations of plutonium, or whatever was there, and the concentrations were so very tiny that we were working with, that we were lucky if we could count over a period of say fifteen minutes maybe two or three hundred counts, which meant that two or three hundred atoms had disintegrated. And so that was the way we worked.

The Geiger counters of that period, some of them were homemade—not by me obviously—but some were, I guess, factory built, but they were extremely sensitive. They were all in a room with a carpeted floor, and you had to kind of tiptoe around and not talk above a whisper because the least noise, or vibration, could set them off. Each counter had an oscilloscope beside it so you could watch in the oscilloscope and you could see each count. And if there was anything—any noise, it would see a whole hash. And you would know that it had happened and you would have to stop and start over again. So it was kind of a touchy business. Eventually, when we got to Hanford, you would see a whole great room full of these counters with high school girls operating them, you know, and no problem at all, but that was two years later. 

So that’s what we did in Chicago. And it was of course very exciting work, you know, but it was also very frustrating to somebody like me who was so completely ignorant of what we were doing. And other than what we could learn from reading Pollard and Davidson and talking to each other—that was the way we learned and we couldn’t talk to each other anyplace except in the laboratory because of the risk of being overheard. But we did have one way, which is—one of the men in our group, George Bankoff, had an automobile. So we would pile into his automobile and drive around Chicago, and that’s the way we could exchange information. And of course, the senior people were not averse to explaining things to us, but we were really very busy and, I mean, we were going from early morning to late in the evening and so, you know, we just didn’t have time. 

So that’s the way it was in Chicago. And then our group went pretty much as a whole to Oak Ridge and that transfer—oh, let me tell you a couple more things about Chicago before we leave there. We didn’t have anything to do with—

Can you move that paper in your pocket?

Kamack: The very first week I was there, probably about the second or third day, we went to the—I went with a couple other people to the dining hall at the university which was very elegant. The whole university’s very elegant; the dining room was a very elegant room with great long tables. So we were sitting at one of these tables, and I looked at the person across the table from me and I recognized him instantly because his picture was on the front piece of a physics book that I had read once. And it was Dr. Compton—Arthur Compton—and I was familiar with his work because I’d been interested in astronomy, and he’d done a lot of work on cosmic rays. 

And so I immediately—and he’s a very distinguished-looking man—so I immediately recognized him. And when we got back to the laboratory I said, “Is Dr. Compton working on this project?” 

And they said, “Oh yeah, he’s the head of it.” He was the director of the Metallurgical Laboratory. 

Then a little later I discovered that Dr. Fermi was living next door to me where I was boarding. One day, when I was sitting on the front steps—he had a little boy—and his little boy was telling me about how he and his family had escaped from Italy by going to Norway, where his father got the Nobel Prize, and then they came to America. And, you know, I had to believe this little boy [chuckle]. You know, all of this being thrown at me in a few days was a lot to try to assimilate.

Anyhow, we did go to Oak Ridge at the end of November, and Oak Ridge was a lot different from Chicago. At first when we got to Knoxville and we had to stay at a hotel in Knoxville—our whole group—for several weeks because there was no place to put us in Oak Ridge. And then after about three weeks I think—this was pretty luxurious living compared to what was to come, and—but we didn’t know it.

Anyhow, after about three weeks the accounting people discovered our presence in the hotel and we were in the course of an evening taken out and shoved into the construction barracks at Oak Ridge. And so we were there and then when the director of our section discovered that we were there, Bart Sutton, he was incensed. And so he took it up with the authorities, and so we were taken back out of there and they found some dormitory space in Oak Ridge, which was a little better.

In fact, I was in a very nice dormitory that had two rooms with a bathroom in-between for the two rooms, and so that was pretty nice. And that went on for about three or four months, and then they decided to make that into dormitories or apartments for married couples. So we were thrown out of there—back, well, into fairly nice dormitories but, you know, communal bathrooms and all that, but in the center of town with the operating people. 

And so there we were in Oak Ridge. And what Oak Ridge was like at that time was the nearest thing that I can imagine to what a western frontier town would have been like just after gold was struck because people were pouring in from every direction, from all over the country, from New York and from the mountains of Tennessee and every place. 

And everything in Oak Ridge was a sea of mud and it was a very pulling kind of mud. One day I actually lost my shoe and overshoe, just came right off in the mud. It just pulled it right off. It was every place. They would try to put down cinders or boards or something for people to walk on, and then fifteen minutes later a bulldozer or something would come through and it’d be gone. 

There were a lot of young women there, mostly from New York. That’s where they recruited them. They were working in the offices, and the administration building had a huge porch on the front. And on this porch they had these great big buckets of water so that all the girls could come up and wash their feet before they went into work. Then when they came out they put on their overshoes and went back, and maybe they had the same kind of buckets at the women’s dormitories. I don’t know.

So that was what Oak Ridge was like. It was a beehive of activity, of course, and when we got there, as I said, they had built a pilot plant. DuPont had built this pilot plant there. It was called Clinton Laboratories and it was really a very small part of the whole Oak Ridge operations. The big thing at Oak Ridge was what was called Y-12, which was run by Tennessee Eastman, which was where the electromagnetic process for separating U-235 was. Well, we knew that there was a big plant someplace, was back in another valley, and so we never saw that or knew anything about it.

All we knew about was our—Clinton Laboratories. It was also called X-10 [Graphite Reactor]. And then later on there was another diffusion plant was built there also [the K-25 Plant]. So our plant up on the top of a little hill—we had a nuclear reactor, a graphite uranium reactor, air cooled. At that time it was thought that Hanford would be helium cooled, but later on it was decided it would be water cooled. So anyhow, we had this reactor, and then we had the plutonium separations buildings, was called a canyon. C-A-N-Y-O-N, like a—you know, like a gorge, because that’s about what it looks like from the inside. It was just a long concrete building with a very heavy, many feet thick concrete walls. And it was divided into sections and in each section there were tanks where the separations process would start, would be carried out.

Can we stop again a second?


Kamack: Don’t seem to even believe that we existed, because they say there was no intermediate scale-up between Seaborg and Hanford.

Okay, let’s go on. 

Adjacent to the reactor building was this concrete canyon, which had to be remotely operated after it was started up and remotely maintained. I mentioned that there was a myth about the separations process, that there was no scale-up, and actually there were three stages of scale-up, this canyon being the third stage.

There was of course some basis to the myth, which was that at the time that the construction at Hanford had been underway, the process that was going to be used was unknown. So DuPont decided very wisely that whatever the process was going to be, it was going to be very simple. It was going to be the kind of a process that you could just do step-wise—batch-wise, as we call it—batch-wise in a series of tanks. 

And so what was going to be built at Hanford [at the T-Plant] and what was in this pilot plant were just a series of tanks with pipes and some pumps that could get from one tank to the next, and whatever was going to be done was going to be done in these tanks. And this was as opposed to a lot of other kinds of processes that could have been—had been actually worked on, which were continuous or semi-continuous and—or could have been better. But the problem was that the kind of—it wasn’t the operation of the indirect operation that was the problem, it was the indirect maintenance. Once the process started, nobody was ever going to be able to go inside again, even if the process was shut down and everything cleaned.

[Tape switch.]

(Question off camera.)

Kamack: The real genius of this separations process [in the T-Plant], and I can say this freely because I didn’t have anything to do with the construction of it, the real genius that went into it by DuPont was to design it so that any piece of equipment or any piece of pipe could be disconnected, unbolted, pulled out, a new piece put in, bolted up, all by an operator who would be working from a crane outside looking in a series of mirrors and periscopes and this actually worked. 

Actually when it was first started up, when everything was put together cold—there was a mock-up plant at Hanford and also Oak Ridge where each piece was put together in the mock-up—the people that did it were required to put it into the canyon in the same way. Even though the canyon was completely unradioactive at the time, they weren’t allowed to go in and see what they were doing. They had to show that they could do it. Okay. So that was really the—I call a genius in the design of the separations plant. The process itself was basically quite simple, although there basically, there was an awful lot of detail that had to be worked out. 

The way it worked was, the first tank was a dissolver. The uranium was in the form of slugs about so long, cylinders encapsulated in aluminum. And when they came out of the reactor, they were put into a pool of water for two or three months to cool, and then they were taken to the separations plant and dissolved in nitric acid. Well, first the aluminum was dissolved off, and then the uranium was dissolved in nitric acid, and then you had this very highly radioactive solution of just a tiny amount—a lot of uranium, a tiny amount of plutonium. The amount of plutonium, even at the Hanford scale, would have been about a half a pound of plutonium and a ton of uranium. And at the Oak Ridge scale, it was a lot less than that.

So you had the dissolver and then from there, in addition to the plutonium and uranium, there was a lot of fission products. That’s what gave all the radioactivity. And so the first part of the process was to decontaminate things—it was called decontamination. And it was several cycles of removing the fission products, and that was done by repeatedly precipitating and then re-dissolving the solution. 

Now the amount of plutonium there was so small that it would not precipitate by itself, so you had what was called a carrier. And at that time they hadn’t quite—well, by the time we got to Oak Ridge they had pretty much made up their mind, DuPont had, what the carrier ought to be. There were two or three candidates and the one that was selected was called bismuth phosphate. So the first step in the process, they would precipitate bismuth phosphate, and it would carry the plutonium with it and a lot of the fission products, but not all of them.

Then you would re-dissolve and precipitate, then you would change the oxidation state of the plutonium so that it would not precipitate. And then you would make another precipitate, and the fission products would go with the precipitate but the plutonium would not. You would repeat that. By this kind of a cycling you got rid of most of the fission products and our goal, which was achieved at Oak Ridge and also at Hanford, was to reduce the radioactivity by a factor of ten million—ten to the seventh power.

Now once that had been achieved, then we had plutonium and we had the carrier, the bismuth phosphate, and so the next step, which was called a crossover, was to get rid of the carrier. So it went through a couple more chemical processing steps to get the plutonium separated from the carrier, and then we had a solution of pure plutonium nitrate, which we could then concentrate to a very high degree of concentration. And that was poured into the containers and it solidified into a kind of—like a jelly. And that’s as far as the process went, the DuPont process went.

That was what would be shipped from Hanford to Oak Ridge but at—I mean, to Los Alamos. At Oak Ridge we were able to get grams quantities of plutonium from the separations process and that was the main purpose of the reactor: to generate enough plutonium so that we could use it to carry out the process development with real plutonium. As I said, at Chicago the amount of plutonium we had was so tiny that it was just barely there, just barely discernible, 100, 200, 300 counts and like that. But in Oak Ridge we had it in gram quantities. I could actually see it, see the plutonium nitrate, and we could work with that and test out the process, measure the yields and the decontamination factors and so on. So that’s what we did at Oak Ridge. And as I said before, was frustrating—it was exciting and it was frustrating.

The reason it was frustrating was because at the level that I was working we had—the people at my level—had no access to the results we were getting. We were doing the work, we gave the results to somebody, somebody was looking at them and presumably plotting them and telling the people at Chicago what kind of yields we were getting and so forth. I knew nothing of that. I didn’t know whether we were succeeding or failing. I assumed we were succeeding, because we kept on going. But throughout the whole thing I had this feeling—on the one hand, really could not believe that this whole system was going to work because there just seemed to be so many things that had to happened that I just couldn’t imagine would happen. The first was, you know, starting from the beginning, that they were going to have these piles of graphite and uranium and for some reason, which—

Let’s take a break.

Kamack: For some reason, which I couldn’t at first understand—in this pile neutrons were going to be created on a self-sustaining basis, as they say, and generate a new element called plutonium, okay. Why? I don’t know. Then okay, admitting that maybe this somehow was going to happen—as I finally saw at Oak Ridge, everything did happen—then for another reason I couldn’t understand: if enough plutonium was put together into a little ball so big, it was going to explode? And why it was going to explode was the—I didn’t understand that either, up until a lot later. 

On the one hand, I just saw that there were so many things along the way that it all had to happen and for which it didn’t seem to be, as far as I could tell, that anybody really had any proof that it would happen. So that was on the one hand. On the other hand, I could not imagine that such a stupendous project would be going on at the scale we were doing—and especially by the time I saw what was happening at Oak Ridge and then later on at Hanford—I just could not imagine that this kind of thing could happen [chuckle] without succeeding. So I couldn’t believe it would work, and I couldn’t believe it could fail. That was the way I felt about it. 

At any rate, we worked at Oak Ridge that way for about a year. And let me tell you one other thing about the secrecy.

I was frustrated by the secrecy aspect. You know, on the one hand, from my point of view, I knew the overall scope of the project and in a general way how it was going to be done. And I knew exactly what I was doing, but I didn’t have any idea whether what I was doing was contributing at all.

I mean, I still—really, I still do not know because there has been so little ever published about this aspect of it, I still don’t know. At first I was only just doing exactly what I was told to do. Later at Oak Ridge I pleaded to be able to do a little work of my own, and I did, but whether it was useful or not I don’t know, and the same thing at Hanford. After we’d been at Oak Ridge for a year, then in October—oh, coming back to the secrecy. 

A lot of it I think was unnecessary. Certainly the details were—they didn’t want to divulge. But most of it was just keeping things from the American public, which maybe was necessary because I think if Congress and the taxpayers ever got wind of the money we were spending and so forth, I don’t think it could have gone on. So maybe it was necessary from that standpoint. But there are all kinds of giveaways to anybody that had any knowledge. 

I remember in Chicago, there was an article came out in the Saturday Evening Post, I think. The headline on the article was, “Where are they now?” And it had photographs of Compton, of Fermi, of Dr. [James] Franck, of [Eugene] Wigner—of all these famous scientists, most of them were immigrants, and who had been at different universities, Fermi was Columbia and so forth, and where are they now? And it went on in the article to explain what these people had done and they were physicists, but nobody knew where they were. And of course, they were right there where we were. So that was one thing.

We weren’t allowed to let anybody know we were working for the DuPont Company, but every week there was a long line of us at the bank getting DuPont paychecks cashed. I remember when we were still in Knoxville—before we got to Oak Ridge—I went into a bookstore one day and there was a table, they must have had a couple hundred copies of this Pollard and Davidson Applied Nuclear Physics on the table. 

I went home from Oak Ridge to Atlanta for Christmas that year and my father said to me, “I’m not going to ask you about what you’re doing.” I’d been allowed to tell him I was doing research work at the University of Chicago. He said, “I’m not going to ask you what you’re doing, but my guess is that you’re making an atomic bomb.” And so I just kind of laughed like that was a ridiculous idea and changed the subject. Like I said, people that had been reading newspapers in the 1920s and the 1930s weren’t—wouldn’t be all that surprised.

Okay, so getting back. We went to Hanford in October of 1944. At that time the construction was really past its peak. I think there were about maybe forty thousand construction people there, there had been more than fifty thousand. And the first reactor, which was called B, like in boy, B pile, was—well, it had already been started up, I think. But it had run into some problems in start-up that I don’t think I need to get into, but it was completed. The first canyon was about half-completed, and I saw that. I was able to take a pretty good look at the insides of the canyon before it was all closed up. And then rather amazing to me, about three weeks later it was ready for use.

What did you see?

Kamack: When we arrived there—I remember this very well—the train stopped at Pasco, which is about fifteen miles from Richland, at three o’clock in the morning. Three o’clock in the morning, I and several other people got off the train, and there was a man on the platform—

You’re clicking your thumb.

Kamack: There was a man on the platform saying, “DuPont people this way.” We followed him to a building across the street, and they loaded us out onto a bus and they took us to Richland and put us in the transient quarters there. It was a hotel in downtown Richland. It was very nice. And so we stayed there for a while in the transient quarters and then we went into dormitories. 

And the place where we worked was about ten miles from there, which was called the 300 Area. And the 300 Area was where all the office and administration and laboratories were located, and also the canning operation—putting the uranium into the aluminum capsules was done there. And the actual—the rest of the plant was about twenty-five or thirty miles away. The reactors were thirty miles away.

There were three reactor buildings on the banks of the Columbia River, about five or six miles apart, and then there were two big separations areas called 200 East and 200 West, and they were about twenty, twenty-five—oh, about twenty miles, I guess, from the 300 Area. And to get to them you went in a car or a pickup truck across the desert. It was just desert. And when you looked at it [the T-Plant], it was just a typical construction site with this huge—I mean, the concrete went up six floors, but the building was mainly below level. It was these huge cells—later with the tanks in them. And then after it was all built and you could see it from the operating side, it was just this long series of instruments and pipes and valves, just 800 feet of it.

Now the main construction floors were in the village of Hanford, which was a village that had been there before the project so they used it, but the village was really invisible. I only saw Hanford once. Not long after we got there, because once the B pile—or not the B—the F pile was ready to start up, they had to evacuate Hanford because it was right next to it, and moved everybody out. But at the time that I went there before that, what you saw was just an endless series of barracks and Quonset huts—all painted olive green, the Army’s favorite color. And the center of it was a kind of a shopping area with stores and office and mess halls or dining rooms. 

The dining halls they said could feed ten thousand people at a sitting. And the way that it worked when we ate there was, you filed in, everybody filed—everybody filed every place, both at Oak Ridge and Hanford—we filed in, and there were great long tables and you sat as you came in, in a bench along the table. And there were great big bowls of food on the table which were passed around and you helped yourself. And when a bowl became empty, somebody would hold it up and there were these workers, mainly women, running around—they’d grab it, put a new bowl down on the table. And soon as you finished eating, you got up and moved out and they would grab the place, the knives and forks, and put down new. So it was an assembly line. It just worked very well. And the food was very good and plentiful. 

So that’s all I saw of the Hanford construction. So most of the time that we spent at Hanford was in the 300 Area, where we were actually—we weren’t doing all that much, because by the time we left Oak Ridge we had the separations process all worked out.

Of course I didn’t know what state we were in but, as I later learned, we had the decontamination factor achieved and we had the ninety percent yield achieved, so all that there was for us to do for when we got there was to check that it was still going, everything was going, and to be available in case anything went wrong. And that became obvious because even before we left Oak Ridge, the senior people began to leave, going back to their old jobs. So by the time we got to Hanford we—the ones that got there—were put into a different group under John Willard called process chemistry. And I was working for a man named Len Dreher, D-R-E-H-E-R, and he was a very experienced chemist. 

Oh, I should have pointed out that at Oak Ridge—our group in Chicago was all DuPont people. And we were there because the DuPont Company wanted to get some DuPont people in and find out—to begin to learn something about the process, because we were going to be part of the technical group for Hanford.

Now then, when we went to Oak Ridge, they also sent Met Lab people—scientific, academic people—so we were a mixture of half and half. And when we got to Hanford, then as I say, a lot of the DuPont people went back to their old jobs, especially the senior people, and us junior people were mixed in with the chemistry people under John Willard. And the head of our particular group was Stan Thompson, who was a real high-class chemist. In fact, Stan Thompson was the person who invented the bismuth phosphate process that we were using. I didn’t know that either at the time.

Anyhow, so I was in a group of really senior chemists, and by that time about three quarters of them were Met Lab people—scientists, not DuPont. They were all gone—everybody at Hanford was on the DuPont payroll. That was one of DuPont’s requirements, that they want everybody to be a DuPont employee. But they were all people that were really thinking of themselves as scientists and they were going to go back to scientific work after the war. I don’t think I want to put in what one of them said to me once about the DuPont Company. Anyhow it was interesting—it was a very obvious cleavage.

Now I want to say this, we were on very friendly terms as individuals. They were nice people, I liked them, and as far as I know they liked me, we worked together very well, we didn’t have any arguments. But it was just as plain as day that they lived in a different world from me and from the other DuPont people. Anyhow, like I say, we didn’t—didn’t have any real—

Let’s do that again.

I got a little opportunity to see the reactor area and other areas that I had no business to be in, which was fortunate for me because later on I did become a nuclear engineer and did work on Savannah River project. At one point our group—there was a corrosion problem with the Hanford reactors and so our group, being mostly chemists, was asked to come out and see if they could help on it. So I just went with them, and we did go into one of the pile buildings and see the actual operating face of the pile, which was very impressive. And also in the course of work, Len Dreher and I used to go out to the isolation building, which was the last building in the 200 Area, where the plutonium was isolated and put into the shipping containers.


Copyright 2013 The Atomic Heritage Foundation. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.