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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Russell Stanton’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Russell Stanton, a civil engineer, arrived at Hanford in October 1943 after working at various DuPont plants across the country. At Hanford, Stanton was tasked with constructing the 105 buildings that housed the nuclear reactors, including the B Reactor. Later, Stanton worked on making side shields for the piles and even helped construct a fish hatchery for the study of the effects of radiation on wildlife. Stanton discusses the incredible logistics required to coordinate work at the site and describes the hard-working attitude of many workers. Stanton also explains how project managers were able to meet rigorous wartime demands in such a short time.

Location of the Interview:


[Interviewed by Cindy Kelly and Tom Zannes.]

Tell us your name.

Russell Stanton: I’m Russell C. Stanton. R-U-S-S-E-L-L, C. for Crom, S-T-A-N-T-O-N. 

Tell us about yourself.

Stanton: Well, I was born in Elephant Butte, New Mexico. My father was an engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation and they built a dam there. I was born in a wall tent at the site, as was my sister, and that was back in on August 1 in 1915. 

I graduated from the University of Delaware in 1937 with a bachelor of science in civil engineering. I went to work full-time at DuPont—I say full-time because I did work part-time during summer vacations with DuPont. Lost my train of thought. 

The work that went into full-time, I was on various plants for the DuPont Company, ranging from textile plants to ammonia plants to war projects for the government for powder and nitric acid, that type of thing. 

My introduction to atomic energy work was actually, unbeknownst to me, was—in those days you got instructions to report here, report there, and along the way you might find out a little bit about why you were going, but usually you had to wait until you got there and find out for yourself. But I had trips to Oak Ridge, which—our part of Oak Ridge was called Clinton Lab. And there we had an air-cooled semi-works, you might call it, of a pile for production of plutonium, which I had relatively little to do with, except to see what was going on.

My big project there was what they called an SMX, and I never did figure out what the S stood for. But it consisted primarily of what turned out to be a couple of B blocks, as we called them, and the equipment in order to push high volumes of water through the tubes to measure pressure drop, to measure how big the tube needed to be, how thick, heavy the wall, and so on. That actually required very little time, but I still didn’t know what it was all about.

I got instructions all at once to report to Wilmington. Was told I was going to report to Hanford, and given tickets and wound up in Pasco, Washington by train at about four o’clock in the morning. And I was one of the lucky few who had a reservation at the hotel in Pasco, which mainly amounted to being a place where you met a driver who would take you to the offices at Pasco, where I was at—before eight o’clock. I never really—I don’t know whether I ever saw the room, but anyway, I had a room, which is unusual. And that was the last time I had a real room for almost a year. 

And when I got there I found out that I was—the assignment for the—my assignment was for the building of the 105 buildings there, and the 105 Building is the reactor building and when I say, build the 105-B reactor buildings, that means not only the structure which housed the reactor but the reactor itself. Very few people realize that there were no reactors per se. You had to make your own reactor, and as it turned out later on, it was fortunate that it could be done that way.

My introduction to the job—I met Gil Church who was the project manager; he had an assistant, Dale Pearce. He [Pearce] had an assistant for field work, who was Grant Bub. There was another assistant for the building the barracks area; it was a field superintendent, Les Grogan. He [Grogan] had an assistant, Bill Redmond. He had an area engineer who looked after all the hundred areas, and then I came in and had the 105-B areas, which put me number seven from the top man at the site.

Each of the hundred areas, other than the 105 buildings, had a division engineer assigned for all the other facilities that were required to make the reactor work. The only facility that existed when I got there—and I got there very, very late in the job because the first six months of being—everybody could be hired and there was a very extensive recruiting force in the field. It was used to build barracks, so they could build some more barracks and they finally reached a point where they could spare somebody off the barracks to do other work and from then on, of course, the job blossomed out. 

Hanford became the third largest—Hanford and its barracks—the third largest city, or country, or town in the state of Washington. And there were organizations to build the complete infrastructure and railroad tracks, power lines. The rest of the hundred areas were for producing sufficient water to cool the reactions going on in the 105 buildings.

There was a village there that was being built, a commercial facility in the village, and following the 105 Process Building, which was 200 Area, which was an area to separate plutonium from the other products of the nuclear reaction and separate out the plutonium. For the first run on the thing, they produced enough plutonium that it was the size of your fingernail and could be carried down to Los Alamos for them to start their work in somebody’s vest pocket that had a little envelope or something in it. From then on, of course, the shipments were bigger. All of the other parts of the Hanford Engineering Works were there to be able to run the facilities if the 105 Building produced the plutonium that it was supposed to do. And I think you’ll have other people here that will talk on this.

The chronological start, which I mentioned in one of my letters, was a letter from Mr. Greenewalt, Crawford Greenewalt, reporting the results of the initial atomic reaction in the facility under the stands of Stag Field at University of Chicago. And the output of that facility was very minute. He later described it as—where normal plant scale-up was on the basis of 100 to 200 times—the initial facility at Hanford, the scale-up was a billion to one. I’d never heard that number ‘til just recently, but that explains why the 105-B Building was built in such a short period of time, because there was no information from which to build it.

I didn’t get there until October of 1943—yeah, Mr. Greenewalt’s letter of December 2, 1942—I got there in October of ’43. Other than getting the equipment to manufacture the things that were known to be needed, there was nothing else. There was no other design available to start work in the field until—well, the initial work for grading, general grading, was in October, and the actual information for putting in foundations, which were twenty-eight feet deep for the reactor, didn’t come until early November probably. 

But the core of the reactor at Hanford was graphite. And there were only three sources of graphite at the time. I can’t remember all of them, but all of them were in the business of producing electrodes from graphite. And the process involved an extrusion of material, which was essentially pure graphite. But there were other impurities that they couldn’t keep out as a major mixture, and extruded it and then cured it in a very, very high temperature, which left the surface of the bar that we got covered with carborundum-like materials, which were extremely difficult to do anything with it, and particularly to get machined off. So we had the problem of refining what amounted to be woodworking joiners into a piece of equipment.

What were you first impressions of Hanford?

Stanton: A question’s been raised that—what was it like to walk into a barracks area, like was being built at Hanford? And I can honestly say that I very strictly stayed away from ever having to go into the barracks area, except for general services such as a haircut. They had I think fifty chairs, barbers, set up there, and my first experience was with a superintendent that I brought in—had brought into the site. And he walked up and down the line and picked a spot and watched one of the barbers and said, “Ah, ha, that guys a mechanic! I’ll have him cut my hair.” So Jake was a real knowledgeable mechanic, and that’s where I got my haircut, too. But otherwise my association with the barracks was very limited.

I had a procurement supervisor who came from Chicago. I hired him through the employment office on site, which you do by walking in—you put your requisition in and wait to have somebody be interviewed, which never happens, so you go up and see what’s going through and what they have on file. And Leo Franzel happened to be the fellow that looked like he’d be most qualified. And Leo came from Chicago and heard from Bob Burden, who was the assistant manager on the site for building the barracks, that things were going pretty good, except there was a lot of unhappiness among the people that had to live there because there were no sweets, no candy, no bars—that sort of confection that they were normally used to. 

So Leo asked them, “Well, would you like to have some?” 

And Bob said, “Sure, I’d be happy to get some.” 

So about a week later Bob got a call; there was some candy for him out at central shops area—wherever all the freight came in. So Bob says, “Okay, send it over.” 

Well the fellow called him and said, “Well, there’s two carloads of it.” [Chuckle.]

Bob said, “Two carloads?” 

And got a hold of Leo. “You’d said you’d take all I could get.” 

So Bob said, “Well, that will be fine for a while.”

But that was my second contact with the barracks. While I was there—when I got there, Jake and Stu and myself lived in what they called “tract houses,” where the people lived who sold their land to the government to build Hanford on that site. I think there were 550 acres—I don’t know how many—but quite a few acres, quite a few tract houses. So we were fortunate enough to get into a tract house that was relatively close to where we needed to be. And they were quite elaborate; if the bedroom was real big you could get two tiers of beds, and upper and lower, on both sides of the wall. If they weren’t that big, you only got one tier in. And they had enough blankets and things and essentially no closet room. And that’s where you I lived until there were houses available.

You worked on the building of B Reactor?

Stanton: I had all the 105 buildings and at that time they was building 105-B, D and F. And B, of course, was the first building that we started on and—did everything we could to get that building operable to make plutonium.

Tell us about the machining of the graphite.

Stanton: Yes, they came in pallet loads as they came from the facility that—I want to say, baked them, cooked them up—with their layer of carborundum on it. The preliminary work that had been done at the Clinton Lab had been on joiners, but it hadn’t been very successful because they could only cut two or three blocks, they had to put new blades in the cutting head on the joiner. So that was one of the first jobs. 

Well, let me go back—the 101 building had the foundations poured, the floor area poured. They were waiting for structural steel to finish the building. Part of the building had—it was only one-floored building, one-story building—had a roof on it. That had to be finished so we’d have a place to bring the—I can’t—joiner—.

[Tape switch.]

(Question off camera.)

Stanton: The other buildings we had to build, in order to make the materials that were needed to build a reactor, were strictly a temporary construction type of facility. And 101 was one of the buildings that was necessary, because there was seven hundred to eight hundred thousand pieces of graphite that had to be machined for all three of the 105 buildings. 

The other facilities that we made on site, or provided on site, were to make side shields for the pile. The two ends of the reactor had B blocks—what were termed B blocks—and they were very accurately made in machine, because they were the areas where the tubes were introduced into the pile, through the shielding, into the graphite, then out the other end through B blocks on that end. And these blocks had all of the fittings, were equipped—would take a lot of fittings for the introduction of water into the front and to the release of water on the back end. The shielding for the remainder of the pile was built on site, at White Bluffs, in shops, temporary buildings, where the plates to it—the shielding basically consisted of alternate layers of steel and hydrogen. The steel was steel plates, the hydrogen was—not plywood but a thin shield. Gosh, I can’t think of the name of it now. 

Anyway, there were bundles of that material had to be put together and be compatible with the matching sheets of structural steel. There was forty feet of shielding on both sides; one side had the control rods passing through the shielding. The top shielding had control rods and emergency rods coming down through it. They were all facilities that had to be made. 

At the initial planning, we hadn’t actually gotten very much started. We were told that nothing could be used in processing the material that would introduce certain strange chemicals. They needed to know what all the chemicals were, and in order to do this we had to indicate what the lubricants were going to be and so on, and wound up providing a laundry. We had to build a laundry that would equip every day—every mechanic that would be handling graphite or anything that graphite would touch in his protective clothing.

One other requirement that suddenly came in was that we needed a tube shop, because each tube coming in needed to be pressure tested and measurements taken to be sure that there were no weak spots in it. And if [there was] a quick flow, the tube had to be cleaned again to be sure that no foreign material had been introduced, particularly on the outside of it. They were the principal areas where we had to build facilities, make facilities, in order to assemble the pile.

What was the attitude like at the time?

Stanton: Yeah, this was—no other reactor, nuclear reactor, had been built. This was the first nuclear reactor that had been built. I think you’re referring to an episode or to a shock that everybody had when they attempted to start up the pile, which was in September, I believe. They pulled the rods and worked the pile up and watched the instruments, and could see the level of production—which is measured in kilowatts—rising, and then suddenly that evening the thing dropped and just stopped. And that was totally unexpected, and for a long time was unexplained. 

And the reference you made in Mr. Greenewalt was—when he got into it from some experience that he had had, either in processing the data that was generated by the physicists, to information to be used by our design people—remembered that xenon was one of the products that was produced, and xenon in sufficient quantity or in enough quantity, was a poison to the reaction. Because the next day, even though nothing else had been done, the pile would come back up in level. 

And the answer to that was—the initial design that came out, had 1,500—well had 2,004 tubes, which is the way it is now. But when it was passed on for approval by the Met Lab people, they said, “You don’t need that many. You only need 1,500 tubes.” And I don’t know how, why or who, what the extra 504 tubes got provision for them—got built into the pile. We had B blocks for them. The graphite was machined to take tubes, so that when this xenon phenomenon occurred, all that was required was to load those extra 500 tubes with uranium and restart the reactor and everything has worked fine since then. So is that—

How in general did people feel? Did people believe the reactor would work?

Stanton: Well, the way the people were recruited, the way they were handled on site, and the information that they heard when they were on site, certainly—anybody that came in, that this was something very, very unusual. I don’t think there were one percent of the people actually working on the site that—journeymen, mechanics—that knew what it was all about. They knew it was urgent and important to get it done, and they worked that way. 

A lot of people have—being concerned with, “How did you overcome the usual problems that are associated with labor unions?” And we didn’t really have very many problems with labor union. But Fred Mackey, who was manager of construction there, had an excellent working relationship with all of the trade unions and was able to—we just didn’t have labor problems. The men, I guess, knew that what was being built was going to be delivered by air, because all of this was being done so we didn’t have to invade Japan. And they had a day’s pay to buy an airplane, and this was all voluntary effort on the part of the men that were there. Well, I guess actually the initial bomb had been dropped. But they contributed money to have a plane, buy a plane, and it has a name, I can’t remember now.

Can you explain that again?

Stanton: That happened, I think, probably after I left the job. I know it happened, but when I got the 105 buildings where they were all operable, I was assigned the job of building a fish hatchery, so I was kind of at the fish hatchery. I was off to the side. I do remember the publicity that came with the men on the plant, and there’s a picture of it, I think, in the history—not a history, but an investigation by Harry Thayer, in his book. I think he has a picture of this plane being given to the military with a name, and I can’t remember. I think it was “A Day’s Pay”. My memory—

Was the fish hatchery part of the environmental program?

Stanton: I guess I should say, for the 100 areas that was the environmental program and it came after the 105 buildings had been completed. And it was not a very elaborate facility, but it had to be a facility where they could get both the Columbia River water into the structure and the effluent water from the pile so that they could measure the difference in it. And they also had a place where they could make little fish, and all ranges of fish, exposed to this to see what happened to them. I imagine a lot of this was a protective movement and a very sensible movement, but it did come very late and it was not really that big. The money involved was very small.

Can you talk about the B Reactor more?

Stanton: That’s the one thing that throughout the job that we—the 105 area could never use as an excuse that they were short of manpower. From the time I got there, I needed to build a staff quickly because I was the last one in the management position to get on site. And I had worked over the few years; I was working full-time before Hanford. A number of people from Bell—where a lot of high pressure work was done—and other sites that I had a great deal of faith and confidence in. Jake Rufner, Carl Hasty, Stu Kline, Charlie Brossard, and I don’t know. Then by going up and being able to pick them out of the people being interviewed at the time, that I went to the employment office. I was fortunate in the people I picked there, that they all turned out exceptionally good. So I was able to build a staff very, very quickly. 

I mentioned I think one time that—there was no place to have headquarters. I had to make headquarters. So 105-B building, which—part of it had been completed enough that there was a roof overhead—I made my office in the office there. Furniture constituted planks supported by a couple of nail kegs, and the seats were the same thing. And we had to get phones in. Well, I could finagle that pretty good, but to get furniture got to be an almost impossible job because everybody coming in wanted furniture.

And I needed somebody to take care of things when I wasn’t there; I was out in the field. The 101 Building was maybe five miles from the nearest 105 building and when I wasn’t there people called. So I had to have, or felt I needed very much, to have a secretary. So I went over and interviewed the people that were in the employment picture at that time, and a young girl named Arlene Hinchey, I guess, had just graduated from high school business course or went to business school or something, but she was not very old, and she became my secretary. And because we didn’t have enough space in the 101 Building for the storage of all the graphite and machining and all the graphite, I had an office and Arlene had the same office. And the thing I was working up to is the—well, on people—the usual way of DuPont running the jobs, the plant manager and his assistant were the people on the job that called the shots.

Well, it so happened that at the stage—very early stage—one of the first things I had to do was establish require dates for what equipment was coming in from the outside. And even though we made the reactors, there were still a lot of equipment to be made outside and brought in. And somebody had protested one of the require dates that I had put on our equipment list. So one of the assistant plant managers called on me and said that we’d have to change that date and I said, “Well, that’s fine but I can’t change it.” 

And so it went round and round and things got warmer and warmer, and the poor gal just didn’t understand what was happening, so she had to get up and leave. But that was the way the organization was set up and run; if I had the people there that I needed to do the job—and for somebody sitting in a chair half a mile away to say that I had needed another date, a different date—I didn’t need that help and I couldn’t use the equipment that was coming in early and stay on schedule. So the ability to hire or to have or to transfer in people that you knew could do the job was a big asset.

Did you win that battle?

Stanton: Yes, ma’am. The next morning the gentleman showed, or called on the phone, and said, “Russell?” 

I said, “Yes, sir.” 

“That matter we were discussing yesterday just turned out to be just a discussion. I’ve told them we’ve got to go ahead as you have told them to do.” 

That was the last time that happened. 

Of course the other experience—we had to get rid of the nail kegs and the planks that became my desk. One of the people that I’d brought in, Charlie Brossard—I said, “Charlie, we can’t go in this way very long.” We had an order in for the furniture we needed for our staff to sit on minimum. And I said, “How about getting us some furniture?” 

And he said, “Well, how much do you want? How much you need?” 

I said, “You find a source and we’ll tell you how much to bring.” 

So he, again, got two carloads of furniture coming in and brought two carloads of furniture down. And we had a lot of storage area in the building and just took what we needed to give everybody a place to sit and work. Put the rest in storage because we had more coming. We had the offices out the area to equip with furniture. 

And I had another call from the plant manager, or construction manager, and he asked if we were having any problems for furniture. I said. “No, sir, we’re doing pretty good.” 

He said, “Well, could you help ‘so-in-so’ out?” 

“If that’s what you’d like to do, Gil, why that’s what we’ll do.” 

So we eventually reached a point where we never had a furniture problem, and as long as it lasted we were able to help other people with furniture, too.

Why did this work?

Stanton: I think that’s a good question. There’s a lot of people—Harry Thayer spent several years trying to find out, because the schedules that we made there had never been repeated, never been duplicated any place, and never even questioned after Harry made his investigation. But I think generally—we don’t take no for an answer. If this is what we need, this is what we do. And the responsibility of what we do had to be foreseen. You couldn’t get a job done and say, “Well, now what are we going to do next?” There always had to be something that was waiting to be done.

We couldn’t get structural steel to cover 105 Building and 105 Building is where all of our work centered. So we went out and met Steve, he was president of Union Bridge. And he understood but he said, “I can’t make the steel, but we’ll get it to you as soon as we can.” 

“Well, how long is it going to be?” 

“It’s going to be at least three or four weeks.” 

So what do you do? We were approaching a point where we had to—if we’re going to keep working on the building, we had to cover it. We had to have a place that we could do work and not have sand and any snow, if we happened to get it, coming in on top of us. So we built a building over the building—over that part of the building where we were working. And I think people were impressed by—that the job was important enough that we would go to that extent to build—put a shelter over it so they could keep working.

How about general statements about Hanford and the success that you had?

Stanton: Harry Thayer got involved in this, because he was with Kaiser Engineers and would go to engineering meetings. And the discussion would come up about schedule and people would say, “Ah, that’s a lot of baloney!” 

And Harry would say, “Well I don’t think so, I don’t think that’s right.” And for anybody that’s been exposed to construction work, and to listen to the time intervals that were used or occurred at Hanford, it is unbelievable. I guess if people knew anything about engineering they know that it’s very, very much out of the ordinary. 

Harry had gotten involved with people on some airfields. And in current times they were coming back and he was getting memos from them, where they were going to take two years to do something, or three years to do something. He sent them letters and told them, “What do you mean?” It was something he needed badly and said, “Here’s a way to get it done.” 

Mostly there was no government interference. I mean, I’m not trying to point the fingers at the government, but from the day I got there, or the first week, month I guess that I was there, a representative from the Corps of Engineers called on me and introduced himself and said that his responsibility to the Corps was to keep them informed and advised on how the reactor building was going. And I said, “Well, you tell me what you think you have to know and I’ll see if we can find somebody that can put it together.” 

He said, “Well, all I need to know is whatever you have to provide to your management. If you don’t mind, give me a copy of it.”

So that’s the way we handled the Corps of Engineers and that’s the extent to which we had any interference. We had no interference whatsoever with the Corps of Engineers, and I don’t know of any other government jobs that we were ever involved in—and we were involved in quite a few before then—where we did not have some government interference. But there, there was none. 

And in fact, they were very helpful in a number of cases when we just hit our heads against something. Frank Creedon is an excellent example. They go to Frank and say, “Frank, whatever they want, you get it for them.” Frank Creedon, I guess you know, is the manager of the production board for the government. He and his office allocated the short materials, materials that were not readily available. And he would issue an order, and that’s where they would ship the materials. Frank later became plant manager there, after DuPont had pulled out of their work at Hanford.

I ran into him when I was sent back. They needed to continue to be sure to always have an active reactor that could be devoted to making the initiator in an atomic bomb, and the initiator had a kind of relatively short life, and so the government authorized building additional reactors. And Frank got out and got started on this thing and just wasn’t getting anywhere in terms of meeting schedules like we had, so we were sent out—a short, small team of us—to work under Frank Creedon to build some additional reactors. I think information you already have. In any case, if there are nine there now, we dealt with three and then two more. So even since we left, they have built more reactors, but the time interval, the pressure, has not been on them.

Nobody had machined graphite before?

Stanton: Actually, you didn’t hear it right. I don’t think we had that much variation.

Tell me how much variation there was.

Stanton: Well, each block—our blocks came in four and three-eighths inches cross-section. Our lattice for the pile I think was four—I don’t know, four and three-sixteenths, eight and three-sixteenths. And so then we had to take off roughly an eighth of an inch of material. 

But to answer your question specifically of the, “How do you do it? How do we maintain it?” The first thing we had to overcome was the ability to make blades that we could put in the joiners. They were high-speed, of course, the joiner is a high-speed piece of equipment, and they turned through this graphite. The first cut of the graphite wanted to destroy it. Then we had to go on and find out, well, how sharp did we have to get it and how long did we need them, and we had supplies to change. We just changed the whole head and our tolerances were—our biggest tolerance was five-thousandths of an inch. Our boring tolerances for tubes was one-thousandth of an inch.

And that was a very intricate job to do, too. In order to not have the checking of the blocks become a problem, we scoured the field and found that there was an outfit made with what they called an electro-check. And the block would come off the joiner, be on a conveyer, go through the electro-check, which read—we actually set it to alarm if the tolerance went out of range. And we could set the range on the electro-check, whatever tolerance we needed for whatever. 


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