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Keith Klein’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Keith Klein has worked for the Atomic Energy Commission and the U.S. Department of Energy since graduating from college. In this interview, he recounts the timeline of his tenure with the AEC and DOE. He held positions on their Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor program, nuclear waste disposal, and with Tritium production. Klein was active in the efforts to clean up the Rocky Flats plant site after the FBI raid in 1989 and coordinated the opening of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico. He oversaw the DOE’s cleanup effort at Hanford, and was fundamental in establishing DOE’s Office of River Protection. Klein speaks to the current debate and myths surrounding nuclear waste cleanup, the challenges that remain and the progress that has been made, and his vision for the future.

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


Cindy Kelly: Okay. I’m Cindy Kelly. I’m in Richland, Washington, and it’s Monday, September 10, 2018. I have with me Keith Klein, and my first question for him is to say his name and spell it.

Keith Klein: Keith Klein, K-l-e-i-n.

Kelly:  Terrific.

Klein:  I passed, huh?

Kelly:  Good job. Any rate, I’ve known Keith for a long time, which has been really fun. But I’m going to have him start at the beginning, before I knew him. Tell us a little bit about himself and where and when he was born, and something about his education and how he got to be here in Washington.

Klein:  Oh, thank you, Cindy. It’s obviously great to see you again. It’s been a long time.

I was born in Morgantown, West Virginia. Grew up in the ‘50s. That was during a time when, as a schoolchild, we were doing the duck-and-cover drills.

There was the great Russian menace, Soviet menace, and things nuclear were—at least from the eyes of someone that’s growing up and in grade school and so forth—something of mystery, of awe, of intrigue. I think, at least subconsciously, therein kind of the spark of what ended in—for me—a career in dealing with things nuclear.

From there I ended up going to Cornell University as electrical engineer undergraduate. Then signing up with what was then the Atomic Energy Commission—the Atomic Energy Commission, which still, I think, just resonated in my gut—with a program that was going to create more fuel than it used.

It was the Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor program, and they actually had an intern program that was very appealing. I did not come from a wealthy family, and they would agree to pay for continuing education. Which essentially resulted in a Master’s degree, be paid a salary, be assigned with a contractor, you get to work in D.C., and I would in turn owe them several years of work in exchange for what they would be investing in me. 

I worked for a year in the Washington, D.C. area. I should say, this is following the Atoms for Peace initiatives. “We’re going from atomic swords to ploughshares.” Nuclear energy was a good thing and it had the promise of what was—at least in my mind—clean, secure, indigenous source of energy. The idea of it making more fuel than it used had a great deal of appeal. Working with the Atomic Energy Commission on breeder reactors and being able to continue education and so forth had a great appeal to me. I ended up going to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. [I] got a degree in nuclear engineering, a Master’s in nuclear engineering there.

I had an assignment out here at Hanford constructing the fast-flux test facility. I was actually assigned to a contractor. My supervisor was a contractor. It was out in the field constructing what to me, as a nuclear engineer, just a very beautiful machine, both physically and from an engineering standpoint. Oh, it was beautiful, polished stainless steel. All these workers coming together, coordinating something coming up out of the ground. Huge pieces of equipment, just finely precision engineering and design, controlling this very concentrated source of power. It was a very exciting time for me. 

I worked here [Hanford] for over a year, and then was back to Washington, D.C. and working in the [U.S. Army] Corps [of Engineers] branch for some fellows that you knew were there during the birth. I worked for [Admiral Hyman] Rickover and others that were harnessing this power. Dixy Lee Ray was Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and she lived in a trailer in a parking lot outside where the Atomic Energy Commission headquarters were with these two Irish wolfhounds. You’d see them walking, or the guards walking them. It was a fascinating time. 

I never thought I’d really make a career working for the federal government, but the opportunity to work with people that are in on the ground floor and to learn from them, to see them, to be a part of this. “You’re working at the Atomic Energy Commission!” It just resonated. It felt good. I felt good about what I was doing with the breeder program. 

Of course, as you advance and learn more, socially and otherwise, your perspectives change in so many different ways. The breeder program—the anti-nuclear movement was starting to rear up. Three Mile Island happened, and other things that ended up greatly curtailing the dream and promise of commercial nuclear energy and demand for nuclear fuel.

Which then came back to the breeder program, as well as concerns about reprocessing and proliferation of this nuclear technology. Because breeder reactors depend on separating out plutonium from the fuel and putting it into new, fresh fuel rods. That’s how it bred more fuel than it used. But that technology, separating plutonium, can also be used by rogue nations or whatever to construct nuclear weapons. 

But in any event, I had a good foundation—education in nuclear matters, radiation, some health physics and so forth. I remember it was Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and the breeder program basically took a dive. Prospects of that [the breeder program] continuing diminished. I started thinking, “Well, maybe this is a good time to leave the government and start doing some other things.”

But as it was, another opportunity found me there. It had to do with deep geologic disposal, and this would be disposing of the waste that was coming out of the commercial reactors as spent fuel. I said, “You know, that could be an interesting thing to do before I make my exit. 

I got involved with that, which was again a keenly interesting education. Because you’re working with geologists and looking at a number of different sites across the country, and how can you isolate these wastes for thousands of years. Still a noble cause. This is another good thing. It appealed to the Boy Scout in me.

But working with geologists, and recognizing that this is a lot depending on the science of being able to predict what’s going to happen thousands, tens of thousands of years into the future. Considering what’s a swamp now can be a desert later and vice versa, a lot’s going to depend on science, technology, modeling that really hasn’t been developed yet. Geologists, in my mind, were still trying to figure out what happened in the past, let alone getting them to predict what’s going to happen in the future. It was going to take longer than I had patience for, at least at that point in my career. 

I was getting ready to leave, and then another opportunity arose. This had to do with at-reactor storage and things like monitored retrievable storage, given that the timeline for developing geologic repository was going to be quite long. I said, “That could be interesting, about transporting nuclear materials and waste and other good things.”

I ended up getting involved in that, and developing technologies for dry storage at reactors. I set up a demonstration at Virginia Power and Duke [Energy] and others that basically led to these dry storage casks and other things that are around, and some ideas for how you could capsulate them in these dry storage casks that eventually get transferred to a repository. 

After I said, “Okay. I’ve done that for a few years, it’s time.” Then I did a little stint in new production reactors, and that was to replace the tritium reactors, tritium production. It was national defense, and I still had these roots in nuclear engineering and fascination with that. A position was actually with safety and quality, so it’d be overseeing the safety and comparing the safety of a few different reactor designs. I did that for a couple of years. 

Then again, saying, “Okay. It’s really time to move on here.” I really ended up spending a lot more of my professional time in the government than I had ever anticipated or actually wanted. But then environmental management happened. I progressed from the Office of Nuclear Energy to—which was controlling the waste situation—the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. To what was to become NNSA, National Nuclear Security Agency, and then back to the Office of Environmental Management—where I met you, Cindy.

First, I had a job in the safety aspects of it, the Office of Safety and Quality and there were a few other things in the title there. Or maybe it was even the storage and transportation [Nuclear Fuels Storage and Transportation], a few different positions there. But eventually, after a few years, I was asked by Tom Grumbly, who’d been named Assistant Secretary [for Environmental Management], to be what wa affectionately known as EM-3. It was like an executive officer, chief of staff—not the deputy, but the third person. That’s where I got to know you [Cindy] and a number of others, [0:12:00] and develop a respect for Tom Grumbly. And kind of see how things operated at that level of the government, where Tom had come from, where he was an aide to Al Gore when Al Gore was a senator. 

Lots of fascinating insights into how things worked on the [Capitol] Hill, the dynamic between the executive branch and the legislative branch. The agencies, budgeting, policy, politics—the whole interface between society, technology, and dealing with things on that scale. That was another fascinating learning experience. I got to meet a number of interesting, good people who brought in—like you, Cindy—and a number of others. 

Then Rocky Flats happened. There was a raid at Rocky Flats [by] the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] in the late ‘80s. They were struggling to go from a production mission, producing the pits, to a cleanup mission. The Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board had been established, and had been very critical of a number of things that were happening at Rocky Flats. Mark Silverman had been named the manager out there, and there were just a lot of issues.

Being as close as I had become to Tom Grumbly and others, he asked me to go out there to serve as Silverman’s deputy and help try to sort through and resolve a lot of these issues. My deal with Tom was, “Yeah, I’ll be glad to do that, but if Mark and I hit it off and it goes well, I’d like the option to be able to stay and continue out there.” Basically, “I’ve been here in D.C., creature of headquarters, for all this time. I really want to go out in the field and get some experience on that end, and then probably end my federal career.” 

He agreed. I became the deputy out there at Rocky Flats. I was there four or five years. We were dealing with stabilizing plutonium and dealing with regulators and any number of management, technical, political issues, labor, just the whole panoply of things. Secrecy, coming out of secrecy. A lot of very dangerous materials. Plutonium in an unstable state is very reactive and pyrophoric, and it was in liquid states, solid states, you name it. If not managed correctly, things could go critical. 

A lot of safety, health physics, nuclear safety, fire, you name it. The buildings were not getting any younger, obviously, too. You’re constantly dealing with seals degenerating, people not knowing necessarily where things are, losing some institutional knowledge as people retire. Regulators putting more and more pressure on, and budget challenges and so forth. 

Long story short, I was there for four years. Jessie Roberson, who was named the manager at Rocky Flats when Silverman retired, she asked me to stay on as her deputy, which I did. We developed a good working relationship. Then in late 1998-1999, it came to a point where there was limits to what we could do cleaning up Rocky until WIPP [Waste Isolation Pilot Plant] got open.

George Dowes had left WIPP and there were some issues there, operational issues. Obviously, legal issues were continuing. Jessie and Consultations to the Headquarters folks ended up volunteering me to go down and be the acting manager at Carlsbad [New Mexico], and try to get this thing over the finish line and open it up, so we can ship transuranic waste down to WIPP. They did it with my agreement. Another good thing to do and an interesting challenge, so I did that. 

I’ll never forget that night when we got the first shipment in. It was 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. We ended up having to delay it the night before because of fog. There were TV cameras and antics by the opponents of WIPP. They’re putting things in the road outside of Santa Fe, and last-minute attempts through the courts, including naming Bill Richardson and myself as a public menace in the State of New Mexico, because we wanted to move this plutonium out of Los Alamos. We had to send lawyers out at midnight to deal with filing for an injunction to stop the shipment. You can’t dream these things up. 

But in any event, we finally got the shipment in, and it was just one of those moments that’s seared into my memory. I’m on the phone coordinating things after midnight, early hours of the morning with the state patrol and the governor’s office and other things like that.

We finally got things coordinated. The shipment was on the road, and is approaching Carlsbad. The mayor of Carlsbad and myself got into one of the local police vehicles and met the convoy with the first cask of transuranic waste outside of Carlsbad. We followed it, or I think maybe led it into the town. I don’t recall which.

But the people in the City of Carlsbad were out there on the streets at 2:00, 3:00 a.m. in the morning, clapping and cheering and holding signs. We went through the town and then drove out to the site in this convoy. There the workers at WIPP were all there, and they’re clapping and cheering. They’d been working on this for 20 years. It was an achievement of something that had just been so many years in the making. I have the picture at home with me and the mayor and the city fathers there, clapping and cheering. It was an awesome, awesome thing. 

From there, Secretary [of Energy] Richardson ended up asking me if I would come out and be the manager at Richland. It wasn’t something I had thought about, but considering that I had worked here in the early ‘70s building FFTF [Fast Flux Test Facility], I was somewhat familiar with the town. Of course, there were all sorts of issues about Hanford.

I didn’t know what was true, what was not, what was going on. But it was viewed as the toughest site in the environmental management complex. I don’t remember which act it was that ended up creating a separate Office of River Protection just to do with the tank waste.   

Just to backtrack a second, when I was asked to go to WIPP from Rocky Flats, I said, “Well, I would be interested in doing it, but I don’t want to stay down there indefinitely.”

They said, “Okay, well, just get it open and find a replacement, and all’s good.”

“Okay, I’ll give it my best shot.”

When I was down there and getting it open, the next thing became, well, replacement. That’s where I was talking to a number of people, including Pete Lyons, who was on Senator [Pete] Domenici’s staff and so forth. The name of Ines Triay came up. Of course, Ines has since made her mark, but I met her in a hotel in Santa Fe. I interviewed her, and this was obviously a very, very smart lady.

She was the one that worked at the Los Alamos end to make sure that the first waste coming into WIPP had no RCRA [Resource Conservation and Recovery Act] constituents. We do it clearly under the Atomic Energy Authority Act and not have to involve the state and all the permits and the things that went along with their authority under RCRA to regulate mixed waste.

It was a key part of our strategy to get it open was, “This first one is just going to be pure, simple.” Ines was responsible in Los Alamos end for doing that. I knew her by phone and some other things, working with her to get those first shipments ready for shipment to WIPP.

Ines was named to be the permanent—my successor at Carlsbad, and did a fantastic job then getting that production ramped up and started getting those cask shipments, transuranic waste in there like clockwork. 

Back to Richland. My job at Richland, according to Bill Richardson, was—again, not a whole lot of instruction. It was, “Figure out what the problems are, fix them, and help set up this Office of River Protection. Tell me what you need.”

“Okay. Here we go again.”

I came out here. Did my homework. I learned a number of things between Rocky and WIPP, worked with Tom Grumbly about how things work. Richland was—Hanford—indeed a very complex place. A lot of history. My goodness, you look at what was done here and timeframes and the workforce, and just the politics of Hanford. It’s just amazing. Going back to my Atomic Energy Commission roots and so forth, the first full-scale nuclear reactor, B Reactor, is out here. There’s a few holy grails of nuclear technology out here. 

I came with a deep respect, appreciation for what was done here, good and bad. I don’t think you do things that were done here without—particularly under the pressures of world war and things like that, where things are just moving fast. There’s a premium on action, and you don’t have the luxury of maybe analyzing things to the degree that we do now. I can talk some more about that later, if we want to talk about challenges of getting on with dealing with these wastes.

We set up this Office of River Protection. Dick French was to be my counterpart as the first head of the Office of River Protection responsible for dealing with the tank waste. Obviously, that was a major part of the issue here, and to me that’s, “This is good. It makes the rest of the job more manageable, someone else just focusing on tank waste.”

But the site is very much integrated in terms of labor agreements, people, just even physically. It can be hard to just take something and say, “That’s totally separate.” A lot of interfaces there, things that need to be worked together. 

Not to mention, there’s still very significant challenges dealing with things besides tank waste here. There was the spent fuel, which had issues. 2,000 tons of spent fuel that was just left in limbo after they stopped reprocessing in the late 1980s, ’88, I believe. That was deteriorating and crumbling in the spent fuel pools.

Just as at Rocky Flats, plutonium that was in the production line, various stages of production—liquids, solids, you name it—several tons of plutonium that needed to be dealt with. It didn’t get the same attention as the tanks, maybe because of security issues on classified and so forth. Then obviously, so much contaminated liquids had been poured into the soil column. There was solid waste buried in various places and stages during the history of Hanford. 

Obviously, a lot of regulatory concerns. This is the late ‘80s, and I’m sure you’ll hear from others and Michele [Gerber] a little more detailed knowledge on this. But the environmental laws put into place a new consciousness and transparency into the weapons production complex. Both what had been done, right and wrong, and what needed to be done to clean things up and to come into compliance with more modern-day environmental standards.

Here, there was an agreement put in place called the Tri-Party Agreement signed in 1989, that provided a framework for basically coming into compliance with RCRA and CERCLA [Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or Superfund]. I’m sure you’ll have heard more from people, the regulators or experts on that. There were timelines, timeframes established in this agreement, which was backed by law and the courts.

I would say, a lot of those agreements and plans were agreed upon without things being thought out in detail. “How are you going to do that?” As much based on faith as plans, as detailed, realistic plans in terms of what funding is going to be available, when it’s going to take place. We typically are optimistic when we think out how long it’ll take to do something. It’s more like, “What it should take,” rather than, “What it actually will take.”

We think can do it for a lot less that it ends up actually doing. Face it, when you’re dealing with all the “unknowniums” that we deal here with Hanford, you don’t know the existing conditions. Oftentimes, it’s not until you get in there and explore and—for lack of a better term—play with these things that you really understand what needs to be done to either stabilize them, to treat it, to package it, to move it.

There was a lot of reconciliation that needed to be done between the promises established under this Tri-Party Agreement, these commitments, and reality. A lot of parties involved. Therein comes, in my mind, one of the biggest challenges of dealing with nuclear waste at a place like Hanford. It comes down to communications and alignment.

The Tri-Party Agreement is an agreement between three parties: the Department of Energy, the Washington State Dep artment of Ecology, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The way the environmental laws work in this country, on the federal side, the Environmental Protection Agency has lead responsibility. In some cases, for some categories of waste, they can delegate that responsibility to the states. The Comprehensive Environmental reclamation, liability—CERCLA, Comprehensive Environmental Response—

Kelly: And liability.

Klein:  —Liability Act. There’s another C in there, I think, Conservation, maybe. Environmental Response, Conservation and Liability Act. Anyway, it establishes a framework that includes designating sites as being on the national priority list and naming responsible parties for who’s to clean up all these sites. Not just nuclear, but chemical, toxic sites around the country. So, that was the EPA’s main authority. Hanford was named one of these four sites on the Superfund list, this national priority’s list.

The Resource Conservation Recovery Act, RCRA, deals a lot with the treatment, storage, and disposal of chemical waste. That primary authority ends up with the states to implement, and the states have their own laws. The Atomic Energy Act, the regulation of nuclear materials was reserved for the federal government. Therein lay part of the problem.

For example, at Rocky Flats, that was all done under the cloak of secrecy. Of course, it was all nuclear weapons and sensitive nuclear materials. You’re dealing with tons of plutonium, when all it takes is pounds to create a weapon. You’re guarding and safeguarding not only sensitive information that could be used by malefactors or the bad guys to create weapons, or countries to create weapons. You’re also dealing with quantities of special nuclear material sufficient to create hundreds, thousands of weapons. Obviously, a great need to protect this, both the information and the materials. So, a cloak of secrecy around that.

But that kind of goes counter to then oversight of, “How are you conducting your processes, in a way, and how’s that affecting the environment?” Again, this is during a time when it’s an enlightened consciousness in the impacts of man’s action on the environment. Whether it’s air pollution, water pollution, chemical pollution, you name it. How do you bring these nuclear weapons and industrial complex into the sunshine and compliant with these laws—recognizing it’s been operating all these years under its own kind of internal laws and priorities? 

The states in some cases—in most cases—designated an authority to deal with the lower levels of activity of waste. To regulate within their boundaries the low-level waste and some of these mixed wastes, where some of these wastes have both a radioactive or nuclear waste constituent as well as a chemical waste constituent that is clearly under the jurisdiction of the state. 

You have the EPA, the Washington State Department of Ecology, and the Department of Energy, each with some responsibilities and authorities, liabilities for cleaning up these wastes. DOE is obviously the performer, the one that needs to do it, and the EPA and the states are the ones with the hammer saying, “If you don’t come into compliance in a certain timeframe, the hammer’s going to come down on you. Our responsibility is to enforce.”

We’re reconciling the need for enforcement, and coming into compliance with decades of doing things without the kind of structures and laws that were put into place to safely treat, store, dispose and remediate these sites, facilities, and materials. 

That in a nutshell is what the Tri-Party Agreement was about. It is an agreement between the three parties of how we’re going to do this over tens of years, basically. There was a fair amount of optimism built into this that I came to appreciate and understand. 

Coming here, I sought out people that I thought could advise me well as to who are the key players, what are their concerns, how does this place work, what’s in the way of progress, and what constitutes success. Obviously, the Hanford area had become socioeconomically quite dependent, too, on the work out at Hanford.

The Pacific Northwest National Lab is a lab that was developed to support the work that was done here. Sciences like health physics did not exist. What are the effects of radiation on cells, human or animal? How do these radioactive constituents move in the environment? How are the transport of these contaminants? What does it take to stabilize, to protect?

The Pacific Northwest Lab was kind of the science research arm of a lot of these efforts while the weapons and nuclear materials were being developed and produced here. It became an entity in and of itself, and went on to become, in its own right, world-renowned and doing research in a number of areas—energy, national security, biology, mathematics, computer science, so forth—a lot of things that kind of grew out of the technologies, things that were done here to produce weapons material.

I came here, doing my homework, talking to people, trying to understand the lay of the land, the priorities, challenges. One of my lessons learned at Rocky Flats was—even though most of us in the Atomic Energy Commission that came up through it, or I’d say a lot of us engineers with technical backgrounds—the challenges dealing with cleanup go well beyond the technical. Unfortunately, there’s a tendency of us technical types to think you can solve anything with a new widget, new technology and other, so forth.

But at Rocky Flats, I learned that it’s really not the case. To my mind, it’s people that clean up these sites, it’s not technologies. The technology part is actually, in my mind, the easy part. It’s getting people aligned for some common objectives and goals that they can understand, they can feel good about doing, that can be rewarding, and can meet their personal needs as well as their ethical, moral needs. It’s very hard to achieve that alignment. People come into these things with their own—in some cases narrow—interests. In some cases, there may even be other agendas at play.

There is lots of money involved, and whenever there’s lots of money, there’s just lots of issues and other things that come into play. The department operates these activities, these sites through big contracts—multibillion-dollar contracts, with big incentives for getting things done or there are fees to be paid and big penalties if you don’t do it well.

This can result a lot of pressures, good and bad. How the contracts are designed can have a huge bearing on how work is done or not done. Similarly, the concerns and needs of the regulators need to be kept in mind constantly, their needs to come in compliance. We don’t have an open checkbook. The government is constantly needing to manage its resources to prioritize. 

I’d say that there is clearly a lack of uniform perspective on the risks of the various facilities, materials, and conditions out here. Depending on your background, education, experience, etc., you come at this from different perspectives. It’s very easy, in my experience, to build on the fear of what people don’t understand and to sensationalize, to dramatize, to scare people. It’s very understandable. 

As a nuclear engineer, I’m far less concerned about plutonium and radiation than I am about chemical and biologics, because I don’t understand them. But from my standpoint, the nuclear materials are easy to detect, predictable. Detection and monitoring is a big part of managing these things. You need to know what you’re dealing with, where it is, what kind of timeframes, how reactive and so forth. You’re basically dealing with three, four kinds of radiation—your alpha, beta, gamma neutrons. We’ve developed a lot of personal protective equipment, procedures and so forth to deal with that. 

But from the outside world: these are nuclear wastes, these are million-gallon tanks filled with dangerous nuclear materials that can last forever. Plutonium, the stuff of nuclear weapons and bombs—of this, that and the other thing. Of course, the popular media loves the drama and the sensationalization.

We saw it at Rocky Flats, Building 771, billed as “the most dangerous building in America.” I was there at the time, and I’d never thought of it as being the most dangerous building in America, but I could see how ABC News or whatever could characterize it as such. Who’s to say otherwise? I certainly don’t know what other buildings there are in America, what kind of hazards there are.

A lot of different perspectives and dynamics that drive the cleanup. You get the press, the media involved, lawyers, emotions. This translates to pressure on our elected officials, senators, congressmen. They raise it up to the highest levels, the Department of Energy. Next thing you know, the hammer’s coming down, “Why are you doing this, and what’s that about, and what’s going on?” You spend a lot of time trying to communicate and put things in perspective. But it’s hard. 

So again, the challenge of cleanups in my mind, a lot comes to aligning people up on the objectives, what the priorities should be. Contracts incentivize the appropriate behaviors of people and particularly as it translates down to the workers on the ground level. In my mind—physically, you want to clean these places up, it depends on the people that are out there in the field. The workers that know the facilities, that understand the materials. I learned this at Rocky Flats. The lesson learned there is, if we look out for them, they’ll look out for us. If they don’t think we’re looking out for them, they’re going to protect themselves, as any of us would. 

It was not until at Rocky Flats that changed the nature of the contract, such that it allowed the alignment with the workforce and included alignment with the regulators. It was a different environment, so it was in some cases easier to do it at Rocky Flats than it is here. But we’ve seen similar contracts at Fernald [Ohio], and talking about the river corridor here because I think we achieved it here with the river corridor.

But getting the contracts right can have a dramatic effect on how people behave and the ability to align all the people that need to be aligned to do these jobs safely, efficiently, productively. Without all the sensationalism and external influences that can just suck up an inordinate amount of management time and energy trying to deal with. Time and energy that really should be focused on supporting the workers in the field and getting the job done—a good return for the taxpayer dollars and making sure we’re protecting our workers. The more bureaucracy and different players and others that are involved, the greater the challenges in achieving that alignment. 

I can dovetail into some other kind of lessons learned here along the way of what it took to do things done and what has changed or is changing. This even goes back to the beginnings—when I think about how fast B Reactor was built, how fast T Plant, the reprocessing canyons and others were done under this wartime environment without computers, without cell phones. But with a lot of people aligned, because we needed to win the war and our troops were dying overseas. There were clearly evil forces at play, from our standpoint.

Amazing things done in amazing periods of time. But in hindsight, not necessarily the way we’d do things today. Environmental consequences to be paid is the result, and hundreds of waste sites, burial grounds, facilities to be remediated. But there was a concise, controlled command control structure with a workforce that was willing and believing and trusting for the most part.

Over time, much has changed. When I came here in late ‘90s, early 2000s, I felt good about the authorities that I had, the trust that was placed in me and the trust I had in my counterparts back in Washington, D.C. We had good communications, and I was authorized to take risks that I thought were reasonable and measured.

I would consult—I certainly wouldn’t do things unilaterally—but to get the spent fuel stabilized and moved, plutonium stabilized and moved, we had to move pretty fast. I did not have time to go through a lot of elaborate processes to seek approval. It’s so much easier for people to say no than it is to say yes, when you’re dealing with these materials, particularly if there isn’t an environment of full trust and cooperation. 

That is something that seems to have evolved and changed with time. I’m not at all clear that the current people have the same kind of authorities that I had to do things, or if that constructive environment still exists. There’s always going to be tensions and debates and arguments, but usually, the way our government works—and God bless it—these things can get aired in an honest forum. People that are authorized to make decisions can make informed decisions based on a variety of inputs and considerations. You need to trust in their judgement and integrity in moving forward.

But it’s also important that the basis for decisions get communicated, understood and be supported. I found that if you just unilaterally do things, it doesn’t provide time to develop that alignment all the way from top to bottom.

One of the first things I did here in coming, is brought together leadership around and say, “Okay, what are we trying to do here?” That ended up with a vision that I went around the site—standing in the back of a flatbed truck or wherever there was. And God bless Colleen French, my righthand person helping me with it. Remember, I’m an engineer, so this is not the kind of thing that I would actually just think up on my own of doing. But given a good idea, I’m usually pretty good at recognizing it and taking advantage of it. 

What we came up with was, this group of leaders around the site—contract and others—was, “What we’re really trying to do here is recall the river, the plateau in the future. We’re trying to clean up along the river corridor. These are the areas that are closest to the river where things that get into the river, they get mobilized, transported. We want to get those things cleaned up. We want to transition the center portion of the site to basically long-term waste management area.

“That’s where the high-level waste tanks are, all the burial grounds, other things like that that are going to take decades to clean up. Depending on the large facilities, the waste treatment plant, others and so forth. We basically want to clean up along the river corridor, shrink the active footprint, clean up to the center portion of the site, and not lose sight of the future, whatever that is.

“We’re dealing with a lot of people here. A huge workforce, large socioeconomic impacts. These are the people we need to clean up the site. We need to take care of them, now and into the future.

We can’t just ignore that and think, ‘This is just a technical problem and we just need to hammer in technical solutions.’” 

That was the rallying cry I used in trying to explain, and I’d say it was well-received. It was pretty easy to understand, to visualize. I think it has endured. We were able eventually to carve out a contract that was focused on the river corridor, a contract that was patterned after Rocky Flats and Fernald that provided the right incentives.

I think it proved that we can do things here in a highly productive, efficient mode. If the work scope is defined, work with the regulators so you have records of decision, clear scopes and so forth. Basically, leave the people alone. Support the workers, and not try to second-guess everything that’s done, when it’s done, and how. 

We’ve made great strides in cleaning up the river corridor, and now there’s a new opportunity with the center portion of the site, how we deal with that. I’m hoping my successors are able to figure it out and put in a great set, a new round of contracts.

Klein:  The reality of the dangers at Hanford versus the perceptions of the dangers at Hanford: you ask a hundred different people, you’re going to get a hundred different answers. But I would say I probably have a somewhat unique insider perspective as to those hazards and perspectives. In general, I think a lot of the hazards have been overblown, over-dramatized to the detriment of actually getting on with dealing with them.

In some other cases, I think they’re underappreciated. When you’re dealing with risks, you really have to look at the full spectrum of risk, including the risk of inaction. In many cases, in my mind, the risk of inaction can outweigh the risk of proceeding with a good solution, even if it’s not necessarily the best solution. There’s always something that can be a little bit better, a little bit improved. The enemy of the good can be the quest for perfection, and basically paralysis by analysis, in which nothing gets done.

For example, I look at tank wastes. The waste in those tanks vary considerably from tank to tank. To try to apply a one-size-fits-all rule to those tanks is, in my mind, a prescription for greatly prolonging getting on with it. That if something is in a “high-level waste tank,” ergo it is high-level waste, is just not right.

A lot of the liquids in those tanks are not nearly as dangerous as what people think. There’s a lot of liquids. It needs to be dried out, stabilized and treated. But it’s not as dangerous as waste in some of the other tanks that are very hot radioactively, thermally, or that may have some biological, chemical, other constituents that could evolve hydrogen and present a different kind of hazard. That’s number one.

Number two is the risk to the workers versus the risk to the environment—risks near-term, risks long-term. In trying to compare those—yes, there’s some risk to leaving things in the ground. But there’s also, in longer-term, in trying to put that into perspective, how great are those risks? How is it going to get out? You don’t think it can, but we don’t necessarily know everything. You could have climate change or whatever, but so what if it does? Is that going to be catastrophic or manageable, or inconsequential even? Is that risk worth the risk of sending in workers to deal with this in the here and now?

One of the things that really pains me is spending what I consider to be extremely valuable worker capital doing things with marginal return from a risk-reduction standpoint. Particularly, with an aging workforce as we’re losing men and women with hands-on knowledge of what was done, how it was done, what this valve does, that type of thing, is a terrible thing to squander. We really need to maximize utilization of those folks while we have them. 

That’s very hard when you’re dealing with 66 high-level waste tanks and trying to treat them all like they’re very high-level. We could be getting on with treating a lot of those wastes and doing it in a much more expeditious manner, without trying to necessarily—I don’t think everything has to be put into glass, particularly if it’s a lower-activity waste. You look at how much we have to clean out of these tanks before we can close them and dispose of them. All these issues of risk versus risk. We’re trying to balance the cost and expense of what you’re doing in the near-term versus the consequences of not doing it in the long-term. 

I think that the reality is that there are lots of wastes already in the soil column at Hanford, above the water table. These are either purposefully disposed of, even the facilities that are being actively managed now, the Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility, ERDF. There are solid waste burial grounds, some liquid waste burial grounds. Each one needs to be looked at, but the intent is not to retrieve all those wastes.

You look at the mass of what’s going to be disposed at ERDF in the central plateau versus—well, what if we were to just get the liquids we can out of some of these lower-activity waste tanks, grout it and leave it there? Geographically, this place is pretty close proximity. You have this big mass in ERDF. In my mind, small amounts of radioactivity in these lower-activity wastes that would be left there.

Is it really worth the time and effort and expense of going after that last little bit? You reach a point of diminishing returns in dealing with these things. That’s where I think further alignment is needed with the regulators and the community and others regarding balancing the need to get on with stuff while we can, while we have the workers, while we have the money to get the most productivity out of this. 

Airborne radiation has always bothered me more than the stuff that’s already in the ground and stabilized. Taking down facilities, demolishing them, I think can easily be underestimated. Facilities deteriorating like the tunnels at PUREX and some things like that cast a light on things that need to be done near-term—should be done near-term. The tunnels were an issue. I think it was overshadowed by all the hype about the high-level waste tanks, when in fact, there are these other things that need to be paid attention to, that can and should be done. 

It all needs to be done, but we can’t do and don’t need to do it all, in a Cadillac sense. It pains me to see things get generalized in a way where the worst tanks or actions get generalized, as if that’s what’s all over. That just further slows down the process or puts pressure on the system to clean up things to levels that are not warranted. 

This comes down to that it can be easy to prey on fears of people that don’t understand and know these things, particularly by the popular media. There are constantly people that I think are in fact pursuing their own agendas for whatever reason, that I don’t pretend to understand. I see things occasionally and it just causes me to shake my head, “How can they say these things?” 

I feel bad, too, that a significant portion of the workforce seems to have become alienated, are not feeling cared for. There’s a lot of complex rules and laws out there covering things like Workers Compensation and health benefits and a lot of uncertainties, too. There are folks that have worked out here that are genuinely sick and that need help. They’re not necessarily getting the help and support that they need and deserve.

In part, because it’s not necessarily clear how or why they got these conditions. Could be related to Hanford, might not be related. But the facts are that they need help, and the system has let them down one way or another, falling between the cracks. Because of federal laws, if it’s not clearly demonstrated as a result of Hanford, then certain programs can’t come into play. But still, there may be other programs that can.

If we’re not dealing well with those things, and you have new people coming onboard onsite, they don’t understand this stuff. They’ve never worked with it. You can go on the Internet and Google a lot of these chemicals and other things that are ten-syllable-long words, and discover these ailments or possible ailments that no one ever heard of. You can breed paranoia, fear. It’s, “My gosh, I may be breathing these things, and it may be affecting me. No one can tell me that it is or isn’t. I don’t know what I’m breathing, it’s such low levels.” All these things. 

We really need to get on with it while we can. Things are not going to get better with time. I think attention should be really paid to the—more invested in getting the workers involved, even the community involved, and a get-on-with-it attitude, and the regulators. And recognize that the quest for perfection works against getting on with doing things. I’m convinced we have the technology and the wherewithal to clean up this place safely and effectively, and do it in a reasonable timeframe. It’s just people in the way.

Kelly:  Just people in the way.

Klein:  Just people. But that’s the hardest thing. People have emotions, they have feelings, they have perspectives, histories, and who’s to say that one’s right and the other’s wrong? We have processes and mechanisms for dealing with these things, but they all take time. I guess it comes down to leadership and vision and management and getting a sufficient alignment to move out on these things. My hopes and prayers are with the new administration, that they’ll be able to figure it out. It’s complex, it’s hard, it’s tough.

I have to applaud—I’m going to segue into something different here, but it’s some points I did want to make sure I had a chance to make before my time is up here. So many lessons learned here. So much that has been done that is just remarkable. From what can be done physically—people are aligned in a short period of time, wartime environment—to what it took to do that. The people that were displaced, impacts on the tribes, the folks that used to live at the Hanford town site and White Bluffs and so forth.

We have some of the most pristine shrub steppe environment in the Pacific Northwest preserved of what was going on here at Hanford. At the same time, the materials that were produced here were used for weapons of mass destruction. Things that happened here have changed history, changed the lives of so many people. 

So many lessons learned, good and bad, and that’s why my hat’s off to you, Cindy, and to the Atomic Heritage Foundation for capturing as much of this as you are, as you can, so that we truly learn from these lessons. I think being inspired by all the positive things that were done—some of the technologies that were spun out of Hanford, the good things that continue to be done here.

We can be mindful of some painful lessons learned, the negative consequences. Reflect on—we haven’t had another world war since World War II. Might that be because, “Okay, we have these new weapons that really make people think twice before going so far.” Yet, the forces that drive wars are still at play, the competition for energy, for natural resources, for land, for who knows what. We haven’t sociologically learned how to deal with that, with poverty, with clean water. 

So many lessons learned, so many impacts that you’d like to feel like they are being captured and people of the future, succeeding generations can learn from it. Again, I just certainly appreciate what you and the Atomic Heritage Foundation are doing to achieve that.

I really appreciate what you said about the workforce as well, and what position they’re in. Do you have any comments on the downwinders? I think you probably were out here when a lot of those studies came, or maybe it was before you got out here.

Klein:  Yeah. That was before I got out here. I think the courts have done a good job at parsing out the impacts and trying to deal with it. Although it took so much longer than it seemed like it should’ve, than it needed to.

Kelly:  24 years.   

Klein:  Yes, yes. Eventually we get there, but again, it’s another one of these, “Can’t we do better? Shouldn’t we be able to do better?” Well, what could we do differently in hindsight? We could be in some cases dealing with the same thing here with Hanford tank vapors where, obviously, a lot of concern.

How much of that is real versus perceived—it’s hard to say. I mean, the vapors are real. They’re in the tanks, and all the more reason to stabilize them and reserve the waste treatment plant as that comes online for dealing with the worst of it. But getting on with emptying and dealing with the residuals in as many of these tanks as we can.

Myths of Hanford: I’m constantly amazed at some of the questions I have been asked. I remember being approached by an eye doctor here locally, who was looking to recruit another eye doctor for his practice. This physician was concerned, was hearing about Hanford and, “Is the water here safe to drink? Is the air safe to breathe?” This is a physician! This eye doctor asked if I would be willing to talk to him to reassure him, and I did. The boogeyman is alive and well out there. How people get these impressions is beyond me.

Locally, I’d say our community—we all know people that work out there. We drink the water, we accept it, we understand it. We don’t seem to be as concerned about it as some of the folks in Seattle or Portland or other places. Lord knows what they’re hearing and believing, what information they have. It’s so much easier to scare somebody than it is to—it can take years and a lot of education. 

Even things like—well, they detected radiation on the air filters in some of the cars out here at Hanford. Well, there’s radiation everywhere, it’s part of our life, you need to put that into some perspective. But from the outside world, if that gets sensationally publicized, it’s like, “Gosh, there’s plutonium floating all around the air at Hanford and no one knows where it is, where it’s going.”

People may be thinking they’re sounding the alarm and doing us a favor calling attention to some of the problems and challenges out here. But it often just works against us. It just distorts perspectives rather than adds perspective. I know it’s not the job of the media to educate in these things. We’ve all seen how they’re more prone to dramatize, sensationalize, get viewership and so forth. 

But as far as I’m concerned, the boogeyman is alive and well and pushing the buttons in Olympia and elsewhere. Our elected officials, they react to the voices that they hear. They hear from ones that are vocal, that are getting attention, and maybe the loudest, squeakiest voices. A lot of those voices are not from here locally, yet they seem to have as much of a vote in what happens here and how it happens as anybody. 

I think there’s obviously very good people in the regulatory shops and the political offices and so forth. But it’s just a sign of our times. The country’s divided. People get their information from various places, and it’s easy to subscribe to conspiracy theories and not know who to believe and what to believe. 

To me, all these things are all the more reason that we need to really get on with cleaning this place up and doing it in a realistic manner. And doing what we can when we can as safely, productively, efficiently as we can. And, not let the quest for perfection keep us from getting on with what we really need to do.

One of the things I’d love to do, Cindy, and I’ve proposed it. Tom Fitzsimmons and I—he was head of Ecology—we initially butted heads. But the more we talked to each other, I think the more we understand where each other was coming from and what was driving us. The more we tried to put ourselves in each other’s shoes and think about, “How can we get our respective agencies past this and do some good?”

I developed a great respect for him, which continues to this day. He and I have talked about, if we ever had a chance to facilitate some meeting of the minds—like the regulators and DOE and others—to work through some of these issues. Like the definition of high-level waste, CERCLA—the application of CERCLA versus RCRA for some of these cleanup things. Tanks are cleaned up under RCRA. At some point, it really should be CERCLA, it seems to me. It’s an EPA authority versus Ecology authority, and they have different perspectives on these things.

There are a number inside baseball things that I think could help pave the way for getting on with cleanup in a more productive and efficient way. But so far, no one’s taken us up on that offer. I think it’s because most people, they understand the problems, they think they can deal with it, and hopefully, they can. I know there’s efforts relooking, I’ve heard some of Anne White’s recent talks. I think she’s on the right path.

But my experience is, good ideas are a dime a dozen. There’s lots of people out there with lots of great ideas, but people with the ability to translate that into action and make stuff happen as a result is much harder to find and deal with. Going from that good idea to reality and practicality is a big leap. I’d love to see some people get together and be able to do that in a different kind of form, come up with—it’s almost like, hit the reset button. We are where we are, we really do need to get on with this. If we were just starting from a clean sheet of paper, what would we do now with what we got? I think you could see some vastly different protocols and ways of doing things—a different kind of  .

Tom Wright set up some—we called it the Cleanup Constraints and Challenges Team. We had workers there—we had workforce, contractors, DOE, regulators. We talked, and it was facilitated. We talked about, “Why can’t we get this done faster? That done faster? What’s in the way?” The workers would come up with one perspective that management, some of them, “Really? We didn’t know that was going on.” Or, management would come up with something and the workers, the regulators would say, “Oh, we didn’t understand that.”

It’s just amazing, but it seems like from a management standpoint where we’re so Balkanized, and everyone’s in their own swim lanes. It’s labor, it’s the EPA, it’s Ecology, it’s DOE—even different parts of DOE. We need to break through that, and just draw on the basic inherent good of people that really want to do the right thing, if given the chance.

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