Nuclear Museum Logo
Nuclear Museum Logo

National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Richard Foster’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Dr. Richard Foster was the fish laboratory supervisor at Hanford. He talks about inspection of organic matter in the Columbia River prior to and after the construction of reactors at the Hanford site. Foster describes DuPont’s central role in taking necessary precautions, highlighting their professionalism and efficiency. He discusses how any leaks were primarily into the atmosphere rather than into the water. Also, he brings up research done at the University of Washington regarding X-ray radiation and its effect on fish. The extent to which safety and environmental harms were taken into consideration, according to Foster, was advanced for its time. The state of Washington, and the country as a whole, had very little awareness regarding the concept of ecology or water pollution control.

Date of Interview:
September 12, 1986
Location of the Interview:


Richard Foster: This is Dick Foster.

S. L. Sanger: Hi, this is Steve Sanger in Seattle. I wrote you a letter a few days ago after my conversation with Hanford. Did you get that?

Foster: Yeah I just got home yesterday evening.

Sanger: Do you have a few minutes? I guess I explained what we were doing in there. We are trying to put a book together for the U.W. Press on Hanford during the wartime period and we are talking to various people who were out there. We are not really pursuing any great detail, but we thought we should mention or go into some detail about the radiation monitoring, etcetera, and effects on the fish and air. Actually, there is a summary that came at the beginning of the DOE documents. It is not too bad; it is not very detailed, but it is almost good enough. I would like to look at this report. It probably would be helpful. Is it safe to assume that as far as the wartime period was concerned – which is all we are interested in really, to the end of the war – there was no serious emissions leak or accidental whatever into the water, as far as you know?

Foster: Into the Columbia River?

Sanger: Yeah.

Foster: The larger-scale types of releases – unplanned, shall I say, although some of them were planned, really – were mainly into the atmosphere. During the wartime period, there were occasional element ruptures in the reactor, which resulted in the plant being shut down –  at least various plants being shut down – as soon as they were detected. But in the meantime, there were more than normal releases that went into the Columbia River.

Sanger: Was that a slug ruptured, doing something like that?

Foster: Yeah. I was not going to use the vernacular, but you know slugs ruptured.

Sanger: What would that have released, in that case?

Foster: Fission products, as contrasted with the normal activation products.

Sanger: Were they very long-lived, any of them?

Foster: Some of them, sure. It would have included the cesium and strontium, the usual spectrum of fission products, which does include the longer-lived elements. You also have to bear in mind that the shorter-lived elements, including the iodine isotopes, were resulting in greater doses. The general thing about the fission product releases—I would say almost without exception, the longer-lived stuffs tended to become attached to particles [that] settle out in the sediment of the bottom of the river.

Sanger: Does that more or less put them out of harm’s way, or not?

Foster: Yeah, as a matter of fact.

Sanger: When you got there, when was that? When did you get over there for the fish lab?

Foster: In June of 1945.

Sanger: Do you know how extensive the monitoring was before then?

Foster: Environmental monitoring?

Sanger: Of the river.

Foster: Yeah. There were Columbia River water samples being taken, sediment samples being taken, and algae samples which were being taken.

Sanger: There are stations above and below the plant?

Foster: Yeah.

Sanger: I understand. I talked to a man named John Healy. Do you know him?

Foster: Sure.

Sanger: He mentioned that DuPont was fairly cautious and conservative, and they were interested in keeping it as safe as possible, even before, when the wartime urgency was going on. I guess that is when the monitoring stations were installed, in 1943, before the reactors were operating.

Foster: Yeah, the first measurements on the river, I would have to guess, but I would say were probably taken in the early 1944.

Sanger: That was to provide a basis of comparison, or what?

Foster: Yeah, but also you have to recognize the site was not selected until 1943, and that the construction of the plant was not started until early ‘44. As far as the water is concerned, probably the earliest work which was done on the water was really relative to the quality of the water, relative for use in the plant.

Sanger: I see. You mean temperature and purity and so on?

Foster: Chemical content, yeah, and those sorts of things. There was no great incentive for doing background radiation measurements up to that time, because you almost did not have any crew there for doing such things.

Sanger: In this comment you made, I take as accurate, you say, “What we did back in those days was pretty fantastic as far as health and safety, considering lack of information. To initiate a program under the stress of war is unusual.”

Foster: Yeah. You have to realize, the state of Washington had only the rudimentary aspects of a water pollution control organization for the state. At that time, it had withered down to virtually nothing. It really had not actually been established officially by the Legislature yet. The word “ecology” was only recognized by a few of the people in universities, an offshoot of the biology/ecology stuff. There were a few organizations in the country like the National Wildlife Federation that were concentrating mainly on getting water pollution and air pollution recognized in the national Congress. That was only the very early beginning. Most of the successful efforts that were being made were merely a recognition, rather than any action or laws that had any kind of teeth in them.

Sanger: This introductory chapter you are talking about in the Columbia River book, that, as you say, goes into the wartime period?

Foster: Yeah, it starts out by mentioning the effort at the University of Washington.

Sanger: You mean the X-ray?

Foster: Yeah.

Sanger: Incidentally, I have heard a lot about that. Frankly, it has never really been clear to me exactly what the purpose of that work was.

Foster: You really ought to be talking to Loren Donaldson.

Sanger: I know, we do plan to talk to him. You had something to do with that?

Foster: Yeah, I was a charter member. I was one of about four or five original guys that worked with Donaldson on that. The original purpose was in relationship to the Columbia River and the salmon resources.

Sanger: That was because X-rays are similar to gamma rays, it might have been in the water or what?

Foster: Yeah, radioactive materials had not yet, but when the site was first recognized, it was known that radioactive materials were going into the river, and fish would be exposed to the radiation from them. Well, at that point, if you were going to expose anything to radiation, it virtually had to be X-radiation because that was the only source. You had not manufactured any radioactive materials for quantity.

Sanger: So you could not use that, since you did not have it?

Foster: Yeah, in those days that was the only practical source of radiation.

Sanger: How long did you work on that?

Foster: I worked on that from day one until I transferred to Hanford to set up the laboratory there in the spring of 1945.

Sanger: At the beginning, I understand you did not know the purpose of it. You thought it was to eliminate fungus or at least experiment with that. Is that right?

Foster: Yeah, we knew that fungus was the blind. We knew that the work at the university was associated with that Hanford Plant.

Sanger: Oh, you did?

Foster: But we did not know what the Hanford Plant was going to be creating.

Sanger: I see. Were you told that, or did you gather that it was connected with Hanford?

Foster: I do not remember for sure, but I would say we were told that. Donaldson was more knowledgeable.

Sanger: Yeah, we are going to talk with him. Then later on you were told, I guess, what the story was?

Foster: At Hanford, on the day that the bomb was dropped.

Sanger: I see.

Foster: When it was released.

Sanger: When you went over there to run the fish lab, were you aware of the plutonium connection yet or not?

Foster: No.

Sanger: You figured, I suppose, there was something radioactive going on?

Foster: Well yeah, this was obvious because we were dealing with the effluence from the reactors, and those were radioactive. We did not know what was being created or why at that point.

Sanger: What is your recollection of what it was like over there in general when you got there in June of 1945?

Foster: When you say what it was like—

Sanger: Well, was it busy, chaotic, terribly frenzied, or was it fairly low key? Do you recall?

Foster: When I got over there, this was at the time that the third of the original three reactors was just being started up.

Sanger: Yeah, that is where you were?

Foster: Yeah, and let’s say established continued operation of those reactors was not yet assured, although at that point the first reactor, the B Reactor, had in fact been operating for several months. There was a lot of good professionalism on the part of the DuPont people, who had built these reactors and started them up in making sure that things were going to behave and do their job. There was a lot of scurrying because of the urgency of getting the plutonium produced for the bomb, but I would in no way characterize this as being helter-skelter or anything.

People were dedicated, working long hours and seven days a week. DuPont had onsite essentially twice as many technical service, technical people, and supervisors than was really needed for the continued running of the plant to strictly handle any problems which came up during those early periods. The reason I was able to get a decent house when I moved to Richland in June of 1945 was, that happened to be the time when they were beginning to trim back on the extra people they had on hand for startup.

Sanger: Apparently, that is about the time that there was some tension, according to Walt Simon, who I have been in touch with. He said he went on vacation in June of 1945, he recalls, with his family. He figures some of the real frantic part was over then – the urgency in getting the plutonium going.

Foster: Yeah, they had already produced enough plutonium for the first weapon.

Sanger: Who did you work for when you were there in 1945?

Foster: For DuPont.

Sanger: And then what was your title? Do you remember?

Foster: I guess Supervisor of Aquatic Biology Laboratory, or something.

Sanger: Fish Laboratory Supervisor, that is what it says here in this one document. What is your doctorate in?

Foster: In fisheries, at the University of Washington.

Sanger: Okay. Then you stayed at Hanford then, I take it, for quite a while.

Foster: I stayed there until I retired in 1979.

Sanger: You are sixty-nine now?

Foster: Right.

Sanger:  Are you consulting for the Regulatory Commission?

Foster: That is correct.

Sanger: In ecological considerations?

Foster: No, I have two capacities there. One of them is as a consultant to a few subcommittees of the advisory committee on reactor safeguards, ACRS. The other one is as an administrative judge on the licensing board panel.

Sanger: I see. Also, was it your perception then in 1945 that DuPont was interested in minimizing any effects on the environment as much as possible?

Foster: Sure, that was why they – together with some people like Stafford Warren – were setting up these kinds of studies in the first place. They were not unaware of the studies that were being started at the University of Washington for radiation effects on fish. They were encouraging those all the way. For somebody that is operating a plant over there, as early as the time of site selection to be setting up the studies like those with Donaldson at the University of Washington, was pretty rare.

Sanger: Did you then work for GE?

Foster: Yeah, GE took over the contract from DuPont in 1946. They were a successor contractor.

Sanger: Later you worked for Battelle?

Foster: Yeah, that is when General Electric pulled out. The contract that General Electric had had was broken up into half a dozen contractors, and Battelle ended up with the research contract. That was the kind of work I was doing.               

Foster: Let me ask you what prompted you to start writing a book like this.  What is your background?

Sanger: I am on leave from the Post Intelligencer, and I have always been interested in Hanford ever since I lived around here. I found that a lot of people are totally unaware of its background during the Second World War, the Manhattan Project period. At the newspaper last year, I and another reporter put together a section about Hanford, I did the history, and he did the contemporary aspects. In the process of doing that, I ran into a guy named Robert Mall, who was doing a documentary of the Manhattan Project period over there. He and I became acquainted, and after it was over we thought maybe we should try to use some of the information we did not use for the newspaper and for his film, and put it into a book in some way. We approached the UW Press and they said yes they were interested and why didn’t we pursue it, and they would take a look at whatever we produced with an eye toward publishing it. That is what we are doing, and we would like to do it.

Neither one of us are scientists, so we decided one way we might try to do it is in-their-own-words approach to it with a number of people with sort of a narrative thread throughout. I have talked to a number of physicists across the country and also people at DuPont. I went back there a few times to Wilmington.

We have a fairly good collection of things. What we are lacking now mainly is blue-collar people, which are harder to find than scientists like yourself or physicists, who seem to be active forever. The blue-collar types are difficult. In fact, we never have found an actual out-and-out construction worker, they tended to be older men generally. And most of them are dead. We are sort of looking for them now, but we talked to a number of people who were technicians, reactor operators, that sort of thing. But that is the way it is going, and obviously we cannot put too much on the fish business – but it is worth going into, especially since UW was so intimately connected with it. 

Copyright 1989 S. L. Sanger. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of S. L. Sanger.