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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Steve Buckingham’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Steve Buckingham, a chemist, worked at the Hanford site beginning in 1947. He explains how the B Reactor worked, and applauds the ingenuity of the designers of the T-plant.

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


[Interviewed by Cynthia Kelly and Tom Zannes.]

Tell us your name.

Steve Buckingham: Steve. S-T-E-V-E. Buckingham. B-U-C-K-I-N-G-H-A-M. (Question off camera)

I thought I’d discuss this a little bit of why this location was chosen as the Hanford location, was chosen for the Manhattan District. DuPont was asked to design and build this facility but DuPont was accused of war profiteering during World War I. So DuPont was very reluctant to take this job on, but the department of the Army Corps of Engineers kind of twisted their arm a little bit and they finally convinced DuPont to take on the job of designing this facility. 

They decided—they said they would do it for cost plus $1. And because they were able to complete the job under the time estimate and under the cost estimate that the Corps had—Army Core of Engineers had calculated—I understand DuPont only received 80 cents for their effort here.

But Colonel Groves, the head of the Manhattan District, asked Colonel Matthias to find a location to build this new facility, something that had never been done before. And Matthias had essentially four requirements: one, it had to be some place out west, because they didn’t want the two plants, the isotope separation plant and this plant to build this new material, anywhere near each other, so it had to be out west somewhere. 

It had to be in somewhat of a remote area because this was new technology; had no idea what was really going to happen with it. Three, it had to have a lot of water available because this process created—generated a lot of heat and they had to have some way of dumping this heat. And four, there had to be a lot of electricity available because—for pumps and so forth. Well, Matthias looked at several places out west. He looked down around Las Vegas, he looked in eastern Oregon, he looked in—down around Idaho—

[Stopped because of lots of background noise at tail end of answer.]

[Changed location.]

Tell us that story again about the location.

Buckingham: I thought I’d mention a little bit of why Hanford was chosen as the location for this facility.

Look right at her.

Buckingham: DuPont was asked to design and build a facility to make this new material that was later called plutonium that Glenn Seaborg had found out at the University of California. So General Groves asked Colonel Matthias to find a location to build this facility. And he had four requirements: one, it had to be someplace out west because Oak Ridge was where the isotope separation was going to take place and they didn’t want the two facilities anywhere near each other. Two, they needed to be in a remote area because this was something new, they didn’t know what was going to happen, so they didn’t want to be near any population centers whatsoever. Three, it had to have a lot of water available because this facility generated—created a lot of heat and they had to have some way of dumping that heat. And four, there had to be a lot of electricity available to pump the water.

Well, Colonel Matthias looked at several places around the west here. He looked down around Las Vegas. At that time Las Vegas was just a railroad stop, wasn’t the big metropolitan it is today. He looked at eastern Oregon. I think he looked at someplace down in southern Idaho. But this area at the horn of, what we call the horn of the Columbia River had all the requirements. It was out west; it was a remote area; the nearest city of any size was Spokane 120 miles away. They had the Columbia River, one of the purest, most pristine rivers in the world, and there was a lot of electricity available because the government had just finished building Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dam and we were halfway between the two, so there was lots of electricity available. So this was why Hanford was chosen as the location. There was only about, oh, two thousand, twenty-five hundred people living here, so it was just a small community, really. Small town of White Bluffs, probably, 500, 600 people—Hanford, about the same—Richland, about the same, and then the farmers that were living around here.

Now the Corps of Engineers asked DuPont to design and build this facility, but DuPont didn’t want to have anything to do with it because during World War I they were accused of war profiteering. But I think the engineers— Corps of Engineers—twisted their arm a little bit and they finally agreed to do it. They said they would do it for cost plus $1. Well, because DuPont was able to design and do this—build this facility under the cost estimate, and under the time estimate, I understand they only received eighty cents for their effort. [Chuckle] Which—that was a very patriotic thing to do, and they did get a lot of knowledge building this facility.

Well, they opened—the people who were living here were given thirty days to get off their land because it was—they didn’t know exactly what was going on but they it was important—they were told it was an important war effort. And the rumors of what was going on here were rife. Some of them are really quite hilarious. One of them—that it was a camp that servicewomen who got into a family way could come here to have their babies. Another one is they were making campaign buttons for Franklin Roosevelt’s presidential campaign, so all sorts of interesting stories about what was going on.

Now, DuPont—they had to recruit people and the War Manpower Board dictated where you could recruit because—wartime, you just couldn’t go over to the coast, say, and recruit people from the shipyards of the Boeing over there. So a lot of recruitment was done down south because the South wasn’t highly industrialized in the 40s. That’s why so many southerners live here and they were given—they were given a railroad ticket and I have to always kind of laugh because the trains came through the Pasco where the railroad station was located about two o’clock in the morning, and I’m sure if it’d come by during the daylight hours they wouldn’t have bothered to get get off the train, [chuckle], look at this desert! Because the recruiting posters were really funny. “Come to the evergreen state of Washington. Sparkling rivers. Snow-capped peaks. Wonderful fishing and hunting.” What do they come to? They come to a desert. 

Trains were met. They were given a place to sleep for the rest of the night. The morning they went through employment, thrown on a bus, and driven the forty, fifty-some odd miles from Pasco out to this huge construction camp, out here at the old Hanford town site. 

At the peak of employment there were 55,000 people. It was the fourth largest city in the state of Washington. People lived in barracks, dormitories. The women’s barracks was on one side of the camp surrounded by a barbed wire fence and because they were recruiting, you know, manpower was so short, they were recruiting girls right out of high school to come here to work as waitresses, secretaries, clerks, anything, you know. So they decided they needed to do something to kind of protect these girls so they hired a Mrs. Marris. She was dean of women at Oregon State College and she came up here and established what she called the women’s division. And she did such things as organize all sorts of clubs to make life a little bit more—human [chuckle], civilized here for these young girls. The girls’ barracks, the women’s barracks were surrounded by a barbed wire fence to keep them in of course.

[Question off camera.]

Buckingham: Mrs. Marris was in charge of women’s affair and she organized a lot of things like sororities, scout clubs, all sorts of organized clubs and that type of organization. She’d organize shopping trips for these women, because here they were living out here in the middle of nowhere and the nearest store of any reasonable thing was eighty miles away or things like that, so it made life a little bit more tolerable. And they did a lot to try to make life more tolerable out here.

They built an auditorium, it held 5,000 people, it took seven days to build this auditorium. Big name bands came here and played. Jimmy Dorsey played here, Ted Weams played here, Kay Kaiser played here, and several more. They also—they built a big tavern. At that time the only thing you could drink in the state of Washington was three-two beer, 3.2% alcohol. They opened a brewery over in Walla Walla to make beer for the Hanford project. Pioneer Beer wasn’t all that great but it was beer. At that time, also in the state of Washington, you had to sit down to drink. You couldn’t pick your glass up and move it to another table, a waitress or a waiter had to do that. So people would get off work, they would rush to the tavern, claim chairs and then auction their chair off to the highest bidder. Somebody was always trying to make a buck somehow or other. 

Many people who came here had never received a paycheck before. Their board and room was taken out of their paycheck, and they left here with thousands of dollars of uncashed paychecks. Everything was paid for essentially, so it was—it was an interesting life. But now I’m going to talk a little bit about B plant now. 

You’ve covered the B Reactor where the fuel was irradiated. Now, the fuel was about—it was uranium metal, it was approximately eight inches long and about an inch in diameter and was canned in an aluminum can. Now after the fuel was pushed out of the reactor, it stayed in the basin for, oh, up to thirty, ninety days depending, to allow short-term—short-lived fission products to decay away. It was then put into a—what we call a cask car. Now this was a large, essentially, a large tank of water. There were three divisions in the tank, and the fuel was placed in those, it was on a railroad car, a flat car, and then moved by rail up to T-plant, where the chemical separation took place.

Now because—it was usually moved at night because that, even for the water and the lead shielding around the cask car, it was extremely radioactive and they’d have to barricade the roadways as the train passed because this from the radiation from the—and there’d be three or four blank cars between the cask car and the locomotives, so the locomotive crew would not get irradiated. It arrived up at T-plant which was our first separation plant; it was moved in through a railroad cut into the T-plant building.

Now T-plant itself was a marvel of design. It was approximately 800 feet long, it’s about eighty feet tall, about seventy-five feet long, and the cells in T-plant, where the separation process took place, are about nine feet thick of reinforced high density concrete. 

The fuel was pulled out of the cask car and put into a storage cell, and then later it was moved into a dissolver where the aluminum jacket was removed and then the uranium that was left was, what they called active metal, was then dissolved using nitric acid. Now back in the 40s the—when you dissolve any metal with nitric acid you release a lot of brown fumes so these brown fumes would go out the stack and you could always tell when we were dissolving because there would be a brown haze laying on the—around on the horizon. 

After the fuel was dissolved, it went into a feed tank, and then batch-wise it was moved into—what we call the precipitation tank. And in the precipitation tank we’d have to adjust—add some chemicals, to adjust what we called the valence state of the material. Then we’d add—now because when you irradiate the uranium in the reactor, for every ton of uranium that went into the reactor we would only generate about a half a pound of plutonium. So it’s not much plutonium you’re making for a great, huge volume of uranium. So we had to add another chemical to the—to this dissolver solution to give enough bulk so we could precipitate the plutonium. So we added bismuth, which has similar chemical characteristics as plutonium.

Glenn Seaborg developed all this process in his laboratory using just a very few, actually, a few atoms of plutonium, which to me was amazing. And because we had such a very little time to do all this, they decided they would go directly to the design in the operation of T-plant, without a scale-up. It went to laboratory to full scale production—a scale of about one to one billion, which was an amazing gamble that paid off. 
So we’d add the bismuth and then we’d add phosphoric acid to precipitate bismuth as what—bismuth phosphate and that’s where we get the name the bismuth phosphate process. The bismuth would precipitate and we’d carry down with it the plutonium. Then the material was, from the precipitating tank it was injected into a centrifuge. 

Now this was a—you think of your washing machine that has—uses centrifuge to remove the water, but these were big centrifuge. They were about forty inches in diameter; they were called the verge centrifuge. They would jet the material through the centrifuge. The precipitate would collect on the walls of the centrifuge. And the thing that always kind of amused me and amazed me was the—they had microphones down in these hot cells and the operators could sit there and could tell from just the sound how the centrifugation was going. 

They could tell when it was finished and then they would use what we called a plow which was just kind of a scoop that we’d go in. They ran hydraulically from the control—from the operating gallery they would kind of plow the plutonium off and flush the plutonium out of the centrifuge. This was a pretty tricky process because it didn’t come out all that easily. They’d have to stop—start the centrifuge rotating very slowly, then stop it to kind of get a washing solution to get it off. Very clever though.

Well, this was what we called the first separation process. The plutonium was removed from the uranium, the uranium was then sent out to our tank farms, and it was a valuable resource. So even way back in the very beginning, we had ideas of how to recover that uranium but because of time constraint we had to get this done, so we went with the process that we had available. 

The plutonium was then re-dissolved and we went to another strike. This time we changed the valence of the plutonium so the plutonium would not precipitate, it would stay in the—in the supernatant liquor. So we would go through two of these strikes and every time we would go through one of these processes the plutonium would get more and more pure. And finally after going through, oh, about ten or twelve, we change the valence state and precipitate some things and precipitate the plutonium and discard other stuff, but every time we’d go through one of these precipitation steps we would get a more and more pure—fill of pure, plutonium.

And finally, down at the very end of the process, instead of using bismuth we used lanthanum and precipitated it as lanthanum fluoride. Now the reason we didn’t use lanthanum early on is lanthanum is a rare earth—and rather rare, rather expensive, so when we get down to a smaller volume then we were able to precipitate it like this. Then the material was—we then had to metathesize, that’s a chemical name you probably don’t know, it’s what we did is convert it from a lanthanum fluoride to a hydroxide by using potassium hydroxide on it.

Then this material was—then we converted it to a peroxide using hydrogen peroxide, the same stuff you use as bleach in—women use it to bleach their hair, at least they used to, and then the plutonium peroxide was then dissolved in nitric acid and we were able to concentrate it. 

The plutonium left Hanford as a paste essentially. It was about like library paste. And the first plutonium, when it went out here to Los Alamos, it was carried by a second lieutenant in a briefcase, padlocked to his wrist. The only thing he could get on the daylight that left Portland heading for Los Angeles was an upper berth, so there he had to sleep in that upper berth padlocked to this briefcase [chuckle] of plutonium, [chuckle] all the way from Portland, Oregon down to Los Angeles, where he then turned it over to a captain from Los Angeles. But that was the first plutonium that left Hanford.

T-plant itself was a very interesting design characteristic because everything had to be done remotely. You could not, because of the higher levels of radiation, you couldn’t ever get in and actually work with the stuff directly. So when they built the plant they built what they call these hot cells. There are forty hot cells in T-plant, they’re covered with cover blocks that are about seven to nine feet thick, and they’re stepped because radiation only goes in a straight line. There was four blocks atop of each cell and you had to take out the key block first, otherwise you’d have trouble getting these interlocking cell blocks off. 

The tanks located in the—were located down in the tank in the cells and there was a crane, ran the whole length of the building. These crane operators were—boy, they were tricky. They could—they were using optics to view what was going on in these—these process cells, and they could go in and, I swear, they could thread a needle with those cranes. There were two or three hooks on the crane and a couple of impact wrenches that they connected what we called jumpers. The jumpers would connect to the walls, to nozzles on the walls, which would then take it to the next cell. And all the instrumentation came through these jumpers. All the liquid transfers, all the electrical supply for the centrifuges, all the instruments, and [cough] excuse me, all these kinds of things came in through these jumpers and it was a marvelous design. The design is still pretty commonly used in almost all—in nuclear facilities all through the world now. It was design—the design was developed here at Hanford, which we were very, very proud. The—

Explain the optics again.

Buckingham: Well, the optics, because—and the crane cab was located behind the parapet and it was a lead-lined cab, so the crane operator could not view directly into what was going on in the cell. So he looked into a—like a bomber sight that would—looked into a mirror that looked up and looked across and looked down, and they fixed it so it would reverse the image in the right way [chuckle] so he wasn’t looking at a mirror image all the time. And the crane was designed in such a way that he could move the optics and view what was going on in all these hot cells. And boy, I—my hats are off to those crane operators. They could just—you look in some of those hot cells and it actually looks like looking into a bowl of spaghetti, and they could go in and sort through all those jumpers and get the right jumper, the right piece of equipment or whatever they needed to do. But most of the operation, of course, that was only when something failed or there was something wrong that the crane operator would call in there.

Sampling was another big problem. We had several different types of samplers. One was called a door stop. Door stop was about, oh, about—six inches in diameter, I guess about this size, and about eight inches tall. It was stainless steel, it had—I think there was a lead lining in there someplace, too, I’m never—I’m not right sure of—how it was built. But that was where we had—where we’d put high-level samples. There was a little insert went into there and then we used a plastic pipette was about—three inches long and it would contain maybe—some of them contained one milliliter of solution, some of them contained half a milliliter of solution, and some of them contained three milliliters of solution. Because you couldn’t—you didn’t want to get a lot of these high level samples over to the laboratory because they were just giving too many—too much radiation to the lab workers. 

Then they used a contraption we called a trombone, which was just essentially a long tube that we put a syringe on the end of it to pull the material out of the sampling cups into the—and then transfer it into these door stops.
Now the sample cups were about—oh, they could have been thirty, forty feet above the tanks so you can’t, with a vacuum, you can’t pull the solution up that high. A vacuum will only go up about forty feet. So we had to use what they call an air lift in there. We’d bleed a little bit of air, we’d turn on the jets that would start pulling the material from the tank up and then we’d put an air jet in down below. And that would then help rise the solution from the tank up into this sample cup. 

And the sample cups were located between the cells and it was of course covered with other blocks and lead and all kinds of stuff to keep everybody safe from some radiation because that was a big issue, way back even then, to protect people from radiation. 

And the laboratory was—actually we didn’t have an awful lot of sophisticated laboratory equipment. We did most of our measurements by just measuring the alpha—the plutonium is an alpha emitter and we did most of our measuring of what was in the different solutions from the process by measuring the alpha in these samples that we’d get over into the laboratory. And it was new instrumentation. Everything here was new, of course. And it was new technology, brand-new technology. 

The thing that always amazed me, back then, because of times and straits, we didn’t have to go through a lot of red tape of getting approvals to do something. If something needed to be done, it was done, which was a marvelous attitude back then. It was very important to get this material made and out of here because we knew it was going to end the war, and it ended…[Tape ends abruptly]

[Tape switch.]

[Question off camera.]

Buckingham: I’d like to talk just a few minutes about DuPont and their safety attitude. Now DuPont was a munitions maker. They made gunpowder. So they had a very high safety—if you’re going to work with gunpowder you just—that has to be safe. And they translated that attitude to Hanford. Safety really was number one with DuPont and I will say this, you were actually safer at work than you were at your own home. We used to kind of gripe about, oh, another safety meeting. [chuckle] But those safety meetings were important because it did give us an attitude of how to operate, how to work safely, and of course, coming out of just a university attitude where you used to pipette with your mouth and never wear rubber gloves for handling with acids or caustics. 

It was a big cultural change to have to be able to use rubber bulbs or syringes to pipette, rubber gloves anytime you handled anything hazardous, any hazardous material, always wearing face shields. Big change but it was well worth it because the safety record here was just really outstanding. There were no—really no deaths from the operation. There were some construction deaths, stuff like that, which probably couldn’t be avoided. But as far as operations, this is a safe place to work. Safer than—well, safer than your own bed I suppose, [chuckle], if you want to put it that way. Now let’s see. What was some of the other things I was thinking of?

Could you characterize the material that came out of B plant? What material did you receive from B Reactor?

Buckingham: The material that we got out of B Reactor was what we called slugs. 

Look at her.

Buckingham: The material that we got out of the reactor, B Reactor, was what we call a “slug.” It was uranium canned in an aluminum jacket, or can, about eight inches long, about roughly an inch in diameter. These were extremely radioactive, and they came up to the T-plant in a cask car, which I described a little bit earlier. That was the material that we had. That was our input into T-plant.

And chemically, what were the properties?

Buckingham: It was just—strictly metallurgy. Aluminum, just aluminum, straight old aluminum can and uranium metal. Then there was a bonding material that bonded the can to the uranium and that was a rather tricky operation, as I understand. I’m not too familiar with the canning operation but you’ll get that tomorrow. Canning operation.

What was the first thing you did with the can?

Buckingham: The first thing we did when the material came into the plant as it was moved out of this container, this cask car, that brought it up into the plant, we put into a storage cell which was just a deep water tank full of water, and then from there it went into a dissolver. 

The dissolver was just a tank and—we could add—we added material into the tank to chemically remove the aluminum from the uranium. And this was a little bit of a problem area, too, because that off-gas was not particularly desirable. We had to handle it. It was moved out the ventilation stack. In the very early days the ventilation stack was just—we didn’t do—we did filter the gases but not really highly filtered. 

Then when we began dissolving the uranium, after we got the jackets off, and had to dissolve the uranium, we used nitric acid and of course when you dissolve metal with nitric acid you give off a nocuous fume called N-O-X. It’s a brown fume and this is stuff that environmentalists don’t like nowadays because it’s—damages the environment. We had no way of really recovering that—those NOX’s at that time. Later on we did put in to a facilities to filter these off-gases. We put in first—we put in sand filters and then later we used high-efficiency particulate filters called HEPA filters, to remove any particular matter that were in these off-gases. The—

Tell us about how new this all was and some of the challenges.

Buckingham: We used to kind of laugh a little bit in the fact that these full-scale chemical separation processes were the world’s largest pilot plants. I used to—I was what they call a process chemist. Monday morning, the process engineers and the process chemist and the operating people would get together to plan what was going on that week and somebody always had some bright idea how to improve the process, or screw it up. [Chuckle] Whichever way—whatever comes first. So sometimes they worked and sometimes they didn’t work. But it was—we were really a pretty close society back then. We worked very closely together, we communicated well, and we got a lot accomplished. Everybody was open to new ideas and even some of the—even some kind of nutty ideas.

Because it was all new. Brand-new. New technology. Just—a new instrumentation. It was something that’d never been done before. And we had to do it. And I just marvel when I look at the engineering that went on, designing both the B Reactor and the T-plant. How they ever had enough foresight to design in some of the things they designed it, and when something didn’t work, they designed in redundancy that allowed us to work around things that didn’t work. My hats are off to those designers. It was a marvelous job of designing. Because it worked. We did it. And I’m proud we did it. Anything more?

Give us a story about some jury rig thing that you did.

Buckingham: I [chuckle]—I’ve got to tell you about the Goldberg. [chuckle] When the sample came into the laboratory in the door stop, of course it was extremely radioactive and we had to find some way of removing the—this sample from the door stop so we could make a dilution of it to analyze what was in it. Then we came up with a contraption called the “Goldberg.” [Chuckle.] 

What this was is, we would place the door stop, which was pretty heavy, it weighed about twenty pounds, on this kind of a platform that rotated. And then we would swing it around behind. And then in front of it there would be a real thick-leaded glass shield with slots in it, and we had a device over here with—that had a pipette on the end of it that went up over the wall and we could poke it then in such a way that we knew exactly where that hole in the door stop was so we could find the samples.

Now remember we’re only working with half a milliliter at sometimes which is not a very large sample. Be able to find that hole that held that sample, pull it up using a syringe into a pipette and you’d have to then, with long tongs, you’d have to get in there with cotton swabs or cotton wipes to wipe that pipette down to level it to the level, proper level, and then transfer it over into a dilution flask to dilute the samples. So, then after you get it diluted it was—pretty well down to the point where we could work with it in—sometimes we had to continue to use lead bricks for shielding. We used an awful lot of lead bricks around in our laboratories and in the operating facilities. I think we must have had a corner on the lead market for a long time. Now lead is hazardous material unfortunately, but—that was some of the things we did. Some of the other jury rig material that happened in the plants? I can’t think of so much in the T-plant as I can in some of the later separation plants that we built later on.


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