Interview with Maynard Plahuta
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Douglas O’Reagan: Okay. My name is Douglas O’Reagan. I’m conducting an oral history interview with Maynard Plahuta on Thursday, I guess it’s—sorry, what is the date today?
O’Reagan: Is it the 28th? Okay. April 28th, 2016. This interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. I’ll be speaking with Mr. Plahuta about his experiences working on the Hanford site and living in the Tri-Cities. To start us off, could you please pronounce and spell your name for us?
Plahuta: Yes. It’s Maynard Plahuta. Maynard is M-A-Y-N-A-R-D, and Plahuta is P-L-A-H-U-T-A.
O’Reagan: Thank you. Just to start off, could you tell us a little bit about your life before you came to the Tri-Cities?
Plahuta: Okay. Well, I was born in a little old farming community in Wisconsin—a little dairy farming community. Big population of 200 people. Then I grew up there on the farm most of the time and went on to college. Went to the University of Wisconsin, first got my undergrad work, and then later I went back and got my master’s in business administration. In between those two times, I worked for General Motors, the AC spark plug plant in Oak Ridge—not Oak Ridge, I’m sorry—Oak Park, Wisconsin, which was the Titan missile program for the Air Force, the guidance system—the gyro system. So then I went back to grad school and then joined up with the Atomic Energy Commission and was assigned out here at Richland.
O’Reagan: What attracted you to the AEC?
Plahuta: Well, I think part of it was the interest in kind of science and industry and all of that sort of thing. The people from Argonne Lab at the Chicago Operations office came to interview at the campus there. I and another fellow were invited to then go back to Argonne for a further interview, and I was one of the two that was selected to join. At the time, I didn’t know where I would be located. They asked, well, if you had a preference. We aren’t going to pick particular places, but if you had a preference, list the three sites that the Atomic Energy Commission was at that I would enjoy. So I said, well, of course, the first one was at the Argonne Lab, close by home there. And I don’t remember which I put second or third, but it was either Richland, Washington or Schenectady, New York. I ended up being in Schenectady for a while basically. But I was assigned out here at Richland, and it was interesting because he says, well, you know, this is not the western—this isn’t the Evergreen State. And I said, well, I learned that by looking up a little more information on Hanford out in the desert. So I came out here with the idea that probably these assignments would be for one year. Because we were on what they called the technical and administrative intern program. So, I was selected on that intern program, and said probably be there a year, and probably no longer, because we’ll probably assign you somewhere else. Well, I came, and I was here until ’71 and then I went back to Schenectady for four years, and came back and was here ever since.
O’Reagan: What sort of jobs were you working on then?
Plahuta: Well, initially—my graduate work was in labor relations and in personnel management and that sort of thing. At that time, they didn’t call it human resources, they called it personnel management. So I was, first year out here, probably in the personnel department for about a year. And then that’s when the whole diversification program started here in 1963 or ’64. And I was assigned to look at the unique use permit and work for a fellow by the name of Paul Holstead who had the responsibility for all the lab operations as far as the Atomic Energy Commission was concerned. That was very interesting. So that was all start of this whole arrangement with Battelle being selected to operate the Pacific Northwest Lab. Now, at that time it wasn’t called a national lab yet; it was just Pacific Northwest Lab. And they had that particular use permit, which is no longer in existence, but it was a real ideal situation. And then that led into what they called the Consolidated Lab where they could do private work as well as the government work and all of that. So I administered that contract, then, for a few years, or until I went back to Schenectady. Then I was back in personnel management in Schenectady, though—labor relations area, under Rickover’s program, and that was very interesting. Then I came back here again in ’65 and was in personnel for a while but then back at the laboratory for a while. And I worked on that for—oh, gosh, quite a few years, because I had a total of 35 years in. But most of the time was with the laboratory, but then later on, I was asked to take over the responsibilities for the DOE—at that time was already DOE—and the site infrastructure. You know, the roads, the utilities, the sewer plants, the warehouse buildings, the railroads, the—all the utilities, just like running a whole city. It was not the operations of those infrastructure; it was more the capital improvements and the projects that needed to be done. Either new roads or new utilities or whatever it might be. That was for—I don’t know—four, five, six years. That also included some of the relationship with the tribes in the cultural resource programs and that sort of activity. But then the other manager asked us, jeepers, you know, I would really like to set up something we never had here at Richland before. That was sort of a governmental relations program. So he asked if I would be willing to do that. So the last—oh, probably about the last six years of my career, I was in what they call governmental-congressional relations, dealing—almost daily basis with congressional staff. Primarily congressional staff, some within the state government as well, and the local government, particularly in those sorts of things. So I retired doing that job in ’98.
O’Reagan: Great. Let’s back up. Could you tell us about this diversification program?
Plahuta: Yeah, yeah. That was really interesting, because what the idea was—that is when General Electric decided not to continue with their contract. Up until that time, General Electric had one contract for whole site operations. So the idea was two-fold. GE was not particularly interested in continuing doing that particular work, and the community was going through—yes, they still are—the diversification and further economic development for the community. So, there was a big effort there to break up the whole big contract into—I think it was five or six different segments. It was all up for bid, and various people were bidding for it. The laboratory, though, was separated as one of those segments. That was the first one to be authorized, and Battelle came in then operations in July of ’65. But up until—during that whole year, I was kind of working on part of the bid package going out and working on that. But not extensively. But then after the bid was accepted from Battelle, and they put an operation in, it got into this matter of doing this. The diversification program itself was dependent much on what these bidders would propose to supplement the economy here in the Tri-Cities. In fact, that’s how this WSU campus—you may be aware—was part of one of the contractors’ business, that they’d build this facility. Up until that time, GE had a little building down where the bank is—the National Bank down there by the Federal Building—and that wasn’t built either yet—to service the program that they established, their educational program, which is very unique because there wasn’t really any nuclear engineering classes in universities—or very few. So they really brought tech people in and really gave them a good background and education in nuclear operations and so on. Now, I said the Federal Building wasn’t built then. It was built then. It was in the process of being built when I came out here in ’63. So that diversification was the spinoff of a lot of new types of business here in the Tri-Cities. I mean, Exxon Nuclear, which now later is now part of AREVA out here at the site, the fuel fabrication. That started out a spinoff from some of the activity there. There was just a great amount of enthusiasm at that time, because, I think, there was worries that the government will fold up and the city will kind of dry up and blow away so to speak. So that was a very interesting period. There was some very interesting discussions, very interesting foresights of what might happen. A number of those didn’t survive. There were some things—isotope development was one at that time that was a little bit ahead of its time, I think. But there was—the airport was improved by that. What’s now the Red Lion in town, but the Hanford House, it was called then, I think it was—no, Desert Inn. The Desert Inn at that time was a brand new building they put up at that time. So it was a different time, and rather unique type of activity that was going on in this community at that time.
O’Reagan: Were these discussions going on in the newspapers, or just sort of hand-shake meetings?
Plahuta: Well, they were pretty well open discussions about what they wanted. And there was quite a bit of publicity about the fact of what some of these contractors—potential contractors were offering. That was exciting for the people, because some of these were new developments. Like the whole campus here, an original building that was part of one of the contractors’ bids. And the hotels and the stockyards over in Wallula over there, that was another one. And, gee, I can’t remember all of them, but there were a number. I know the isotope development thing—the isotope separations, I could really say, was one that didn’t quite make it. But anyway, it was a period of time when people were looking forward into the future and what might come, and looking at different types of work, and not so dependent just on the government here. Now, of course, we’re still quite dependent on the government here, and that’s been—what, 30 years—oh, more than that. That was 1965, so that’s been a long, long time ago. But a lot has progressed, obviously, from that time. I remember coming here—I wasn’t married at the time. I met my wife here. But, gee, if people wanted to go shopping, they’d either go to Walla Walla or Yakima or something. You know, there was nothing here. The mall out there wasn’t developed. It was—very little here to—and about the restaurants, you’d go over to Prosser to the Red Barn or something if you wanted a good meal. You could always find a hamburger shop here or something like that, but it was quite different then. Of course, my wife grew up here. She was only five years old when her parents came from Schenectady, New York with GE. She can remember—gosh, when hardly anything was going on, and families would just get together because they were from—god, all over the country. So many of them didn’t have any family here, so they created their own families, so to speak. But, yeah, that diversification effort was a great effort. There was much success, much success. I think a lot of what was learned there has been helpful and useful for the community. And I do have to give a credit, though, to Battelle and some of the forward-thinking that they did on what their operations were, very successful. And this Consolidated Lab which most people even in this community don’t understand or recognize, but it was very unique. There was a fellow that was with GE, went over with Battelle, of course, when they took over, by the name of Wally Sale. He was their finance director. Tremendous guy. He and Sam Tomlinson and the DOE—or AEC—I call it DOE, but it was the AEC then—were both very, very instrumental in getting this unique idea established and working there, where it was a fair amount of discipline and very good audit-type processing and very excellent means of determining that everything was legitimate, so to speak. That the accounting was very precise. It was a unique situation.
O’Reagan: So you were still working with the AEC while you were working on that?
O’Reagan: Okay. So they were—even though they weren’t sort of a bidder, or in direct—
Plahuta: No, no.
O’Reagan: They were still involved—
Plahuta: Yeah, they were the organization or the entity that was accepting these bids and proposals going out and diversify the area. That was—I should also mention, that was a lot to do with some of the local community leaders here, though, too, was pushing this idea with the government that, no, we got to depend on more than just the US government to keep this economy going. So there were guys like Sam Volpentest and others—Bob Philips and other people—who were working closely with our two senators. They were actively involved. Magnusson and Jackson—Scoop Jackson and Maggie. Very, very obvious. And they both held very high level positions in the government at that time. I mean, they were—there was some thought for a while about Scoop Jackson even running for President. So they both were elevated in the structure of the politicians in the DC area. So, there was a great support there from our local state senators, particularly.
O’Reagan: Mm-hmm. Right. So, while we’re still in this early period—you said you’d done some research before you got here. Did it match your expectations?
Plahuta: Well, yeah. I didn’t really have a whole lot of expectations, really. I mean, I knew that eastern Washington was quite dry, but I didn’t know quite a lot about it. I can remember, I was interested in geography when I was in elementary school, even, and knowing the Plains and the desert area, generally, and the wheat-growing area here, and that sort. But not too much—very extensive. Yeah, I think I surprised the AEC people out of Argonne when I says, well, yeah, I realized it was dry and a desert. They said, well, jeepers, most people think of Washington as just being green, you know, the Evergreen State, and don’t even think about it possibly being a desert out there. And when I would talk to some of my friends back in Wisconsin as I was going out, the common words were, oh, you’re gonna be out there in the mountains and you’re gonna be out there in the greenery and all the evergreens. I say, no, no, I’m gonna be out there where the wheat grows in eastern Washington. Really? So I think that’s a misconception a lot of people in the eastern US have of Washington—eastern Washington, you know. They’re correct on the western side, but not on the eastern side. Yeah.
O’Reagan: What sort of housing did you live in when you got here?
Plahuta: Well, I roomed with a fellow by the name of Holland St. John. He was a teacher at Chief Joe Junior High here, and the tennis coach there. So I did that until I met my wife and got married, and we then lived in a B house—you know, the government B house, the famous [UNKNOWN], with the landlord on the other side—very friendly people, people originally from Tennessee, I believe they were. Just great, great folks to be with. We rented that until—because we got married in ’67—until I went back to Schenectady. And then when we came back, I bought a home here in North Richland. Now, currently live in a house that my wife basically grew up with. It was an H house. We remodeled the whole thing so it doesn’t look anything—all that was remained the same was the four outside walls and one wall inside. And we added on. Anyway, it was one of the government homes that I was originally renting an H house with this roommate. And then when we got married, I rented a B house. And the original H house was—Holland St. John was one of the fellows, and the other guy was Sherman. We had the three of us, three single guys who were using that part where they—again, the landlord was on the other side. Wonderful people. That was kind of unique, because when I first came and went looking, I thought, this A house, B house, that are for rent. I was like, oh, what’s an A, B or an H house, C house? But it didn’t take long to figure out, okay, that’s just the nomenclature that was being used for these various types of homes.
O’Reagan: Right. How did you meet your wife?
Plahuta: It was actually through church. There was group in our church—it was the Christ the King Catholic church, and it was a singles group. That’s how I met her. So we got married and we’ve had four children. They’re all grown adults now, of course. And we have seven grandkids. Six of them are girls, and finally the one that came along is a boy—the last one. But my two daughters—two of my daughters live here in town with their family. And I got a son in Seattle and another one just south of Portland in Tualatin—suburb of Portland. They all—I’m very proud of—they all went on through college. One has got a PhD, the other two of them got a master’s degree. One—and probably the one that’s doing the best, financially, has got just a master’s degree. But the three girls and a boy, and my son has got his master’s out of Purdue in engineering. My one daughter, the youngest one, has got her degree out of Gonzaga in engineering. The other one’s got her PhD in gerontology and the other’s got her master’s in early childhood development. So they’re all doing well. So I’m quite proud of them—of course, as most parents are. You know how they are, parents. They always think their kids are the greatest in the world. So anyway, that’s kind of where I came from—Wisconsin, and all the way out to the west coast and had not been really in the northwest prior to coming out here. I had been in California and some of those areas, but not in the northwest. You know, it’s an enjoyable place to live. But as a lot of people, as you know, here, some of them came for just a short time and they remain here forever. I married here. So that’s probably the same for me. Yeah.
O’Reagan: Part of what we’re trying to document is sort of the social life around the area, too.
Plahuta: Oh, yeah.
O’Reagan: Were church activities sort of a large part of your social life at that point?
Plahuta: Yeah, quite a bit. And I was also involved, though—that was before I even met my wife, Yvonne. The little town I grew up in was quite a little interesting town as far as baseball. The area back there in these little towns would have their teams, and they’d play each other. So I was most familiar with baseball, and I had played baseball as a kid. So I helped one of the fellows who, just by coincidence, was also from Wisconsin, from the Milwaukie area. And he was coaching his kids in Little League baseball. So I helped out on that. Then later on, when my kids got going in the youth soccer program and that was when youth soccer first started, I was quite active in getting it into the high schools and so on, because that was not very popular, not really—like the case of much soccer in the area. So I’m on the Hanford High School support team—what do you call it? The—hmm, I can’t think of the title now. But anyway the supporters have their support efforts to keep them going. So the social life was pretty much tied in with the church, but not exclusively. Then we—there’d be these events we’d have. We’d go over to the coast or do things together, as a group—hiking. Not as much hiking, probably, as visiting various locations and sightseeing and that sort of thing. So that was kind of pretty much—but the housing was interesting, too, because you hear these stories of people going, and when they get home from work, the earlier days, before my time, going into the wrong house because they got the wrong place. But I can understand that. I mean, it was quite unique. My wife has some interesting stories about how she grew up and talking about what was family life. Their family was way back in New York. They went back once when she was about five or—no, I think seven, she said. And she had, at that time, four sisters—I mean four siblings, and another one with her mother on the way in her pregnancy. And took all the—tied into the car and drove all the way back. Spent more time going and coming than they did back there. But it was a case where she—in the case that they got to know your neighbors well, it was friendly, it was safe, everybody—kids all played out. Where we’re living now, we’ve got just that little funny park in front of our place over by the river there. Her father was an accomplished skater, so he decided when he had an opportunity to get the house along the river here, that’s the one he wanted to take it. Not realizing that not too many winters where there’s ice on the snow. But he was the state champion in New York City on ice racing. So he’s got quite a bit of medals and stuff. So she talks about the farm—I mean, the families that would get together on holidays and whatever. It was just a different type of lifestyle. I didn’t experience that myself, but it’s interesting just hearing her talk about those things.
O’Reagan: Yeah, we’ll have to bring her in at some point. We’re trying to get as many people who sort of grew up here for that as well.
Plahuta: Yeah, she was only five years old and she came in ’47.
O’Reagan: Okay. Yeah, we’d definitely like to interview her at some point. Okay, so let’s see. You were working on the diversification stuff and then you went back to Schenectackey—Ss-
O’Reagan: Schenectady, yes. And then you came back in—I have it written down here.
Plahuta: ’75, I mean. I left in ’71. April of ’71, back in ’75.
O’Reagan: And at that point you were working on the—let’s see here—the DOE site infrastructure stuff, or was that later?
Plahuta: Well, that was much later. I was on the laboratory stuff.
Plahuta: It was shortly after. About the first year or so was more in the personnel and that area. But then when this whole diversification effort came forward. I think my master’s degree in business and all this kind of led into—and I did have quite a bit of educational experience in contract management and contract administration, too. I have that—I don’t know if that played a role or not, but it helped me, I know, in terms of—and it was a whole new type of contract relationship that this Consolidated Lab and the use permit and all that had. So it was unique and interesting just from that standpoint alone. So yeah, at that time up until ’71, it was there, and then came back, worked in the personnel area, in the Rickover program. That’s an interesting story, too, because Rickover was a unique individual, very unique. But his staff was made up of military men, contractor people, and DOE or AEC at that time. And there was no distinction. I mean, you would have a contractor person right along with you and so on. He considered it all just one. It was very unique, in terms of the contractor and working relationships. But yet, what was so familiar—you could have these working—I shouldn’t say one by one, it would be even offices or something. But yet, he was very instrumental in saying, I don’t want any social activities between you. So as much as going to the cafeteria at noon, there was a section where the AEC people sat, and another whole section where the contractor people sat. And the military guys could be with either one, but they would—the military people were associated with AEC office—the civilian people. So in that office, there was no distinction whether you were military or a civilian. But in the contactor side, of course they were all civilians.
O’Reagan: Is that an anti-corruption effort, or--?
Plahuta: Well, yeah, and I guess avoiding any kind of potential conflict of interest and friendships, so that you got pretty soon with somebody, well, I’ll do you a favor, and vice versa. Very, very, very strong on that sort of thing. But yet, he himself seemed just one team. It was just like a football team—you’re the receiver and you’re the lineman. You’ve got different jobs. It was unique, and there’s some interesting stories about Rickover, too, but I won’t get into those. But those are very interesting times.
O’Reagan: Did you ever get to know any of the contractor people?
Plahuta: Oh, yeah. You would know them on the business side. Definitely. Oh, yeah. You’d work with them every day. Some more, because if it was in your area of responsibility, certainly, you’d be working with them. But, boy, not socially. There was no—I mean, that was a voodoo if you had any social-type activities with the contractors. That was not to his liking. That makes sense, I mean, it would just avoid any possible conflict of interest and that sort of thing. It was an interesting time. But it’s kind of like a lot of people say. I went into military, I’m glad, but I’m glad I’m out. It’s kind of that sort of same analogy. But it was a great experience.
O’Reagan: What was Rickover’s title?
Plahuta: Rickover? Admiral.
O’Reagan: Admiral, okay.
Plahuta: Admiral Rickover, yeah.
O’Reagan: So what was his exact sort of authority within the—
Plahuta: He headed up the whole nuclear navy.
O’Reagan: Oh, I see.
Plahuta: He was really up there. And in fact, when—I think—which President was it? Maybe it was Kennedy—no, it wasn’t Kennedy, it was after. Anyway, when he was giving some kind of address somewhere, he recognized—I know, I’m Rickover’s boss, but really we’re all—Rickover’s my boss. And that happened with Schlesinger, too, when he was appointed the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, when he was there. He says, oh, yeah. And he made the same kind of remark. I don’t know if it was those exact words. But Rickover was a very powerful individual in terms of his authority. He was kind of all by himself, because, again, the nuclear navy was unique, and so he was a brilliant man. There was no question about it. He would pick just the top-notch-quality technical people that he could to run his program. The safety was so important to him. The wellbeing of all the military people, and the people who were in the submarines and that sort of thing. So he was really great. But he had a unique way of operations, there was no question about that. He was a strong, strong individual.
O’Reagan: So this period you were working in personnel is also, I understand, the period where you started having more women and minorities being hired on at the Hanford area.
Plahuta: That is true. There was a big emphasis—the period—and following my part of the end there, but in that timeframe of particularly on the college campuses and recruiting minorities and women, which is good. But there was extreme interest in finding qualified minorities and women. There was certainly emphasized that it was—and that’s great. I mean, I go back and think in my thesis for my master’s degree in business administration, and I made some statement then, makes me sound almost like an anti-feminist now. But I was saying we really got to get more women into the technical side, but I wasn’t thinking far enough. We really think a lot—we don’t have many women technicians and stuff. So I was—at that time—thinking, oh, gosh, that they could be technicians. And not even thinking about being engineers, you know, getting their PhD in engineering. But at least, let’s—so I started out just—it wasn’t a matter of discrimination, where I said they should be technicians, because there were no—but I said, jeepers, let’s work on that. I had much of my emphasis—because my emphasis in my PhD was the shortage of technical people in the country. That was after Sputniks and some of those things going. We really needed development, work hard and see what we can do to get the people interested in getting into the math and sciences and that area. Some people kind of looked at me, you want women to be technicians or something? Yeah, but—you know. Now, I think, boy, I’d be discriminated—I mean, not discriminated, but considered, yeah, you’re very limited in your scope. You should be much broader than that. Yeah, that was a time when the Sputniks went off and these others, and we were quite behind and Kennedy wanted to get to the moon. And that, though, when I was in, was quite a bit later than that. Not quite a bit, but somewhat later, and the emphasis on trying to get minorities and women as much as we possibly could.
O’Reagan: Mm-hmm. So it didn’t—how—did it shape your work on personnel at that point, I guess--?
Plahuta: Well, I don’t know if it shaped it so much, but back to my word of emphasis, to see if we really seek out qualified people. And not that they needed, necessarily, to have had extensive training, but look at their overall education experience and how well they were doing in school. In other words, that they were capable of picking up some of the technical. And whether they had that already knowledge was not quite as important as looking at what’s their basic—I don’t know, I guess I could say basic intellect—but their ability to really take on some of these things. It was not hard to find that. I mean, that doesn’t—I don’t want to imply that the women or minorities didn’t have that. They certainly did. But I think a lot of them, maybe themselves, didn’t realize that they really could do that, that there was no reason why they couldn’t.
O’Reagan: I was speaking with a reactor operator in a previous interview who had a degree, I think, in forestry or something non-sort-of-nuclear, but was still able to become a reactor operator. Was that sort of common that you saw, too, people moving into new fields to get on the Hanford site?
Plahuta: That was not unusual, no. And that was particularly true—and I noticed you talk I was being on—with Rickover’s submarine program—we would hire then people who—and that happened out here awful lot—who had gone through the nuclear navy and were nuclear operators. We had a number of those people that didn’t want to stay in the Navy, but we hired on his staff—on Rickover’s staff—in our local office there at Schenectady. Now, that was a small office. The office was not very big. It was relatively small. But we hired a number of those people, and they were good, because they—and many of them had not gone to college yet. They got out of the Navy, they went to college, and then came back. I mean, I remember recruiting two or three or four of those types. And we recruited basically around northeast area, because we were in Schenectady, in some of the schools around there. Plattsburg, up in northern—which is a civil engineering school up in norther New York, and a number of areas there where we would find students who—not a lot of them, but who had gone back after they got out of service and didn’t want to make it a career, and got their degrees. Some would be in the technical fields; some would not be, necessarily. But most that we hired had degrees in some form of engineering or science or whatever.
O’Reagan: Okay. So you were working with the nuclear navy program after you got back from Schenectady—pronouncing it again.
Plahuta: No, it was at Schenectady I did the nuclear program.
O’Reagan: Oh, I see, I see. Okay.
Plahuta: It’s at Schenectady. So I was here, then went to Schenectady for four years—not quite four years—three-and-three-quarters. And then back here again. And that’s when the diversification effort came about, when I came—no, no, no, I’ll take that back. That was back when I got back into some of the other Battelle work again, after I came back. The diversification was prior to going to Schenectady.
O’Reagan: Okay. So then were you working for Battelle or were you still working for AEC?
Plahuta: No, I always worked for the government, always. It was AEC, and then a short period of time, it was—what did we call it, even? There was a two-year period between AEC and Department of Energy. Research and Development Administration, I think. Yeah, that was what it was called—Research and Development Administration. And then it became—Congress passed it and developed the Department of Energy. And when they developed the Department of Energy, it expanded a little bit and took in, like Bonneville Power out here was part of that, and a number of activities like that. More than just atomic energy, and that’s when it got a little more involved in the laboratories and other forms of—quite a bit. Whether it be climate—today it’s climate change, or climate sciences, as it’s called, and other types of activity. More than just the nuclear itself. But there’s a misconception, when I say nuclear itself, this, as you’ve probably learned and know, that there’s all kinds of work that dealt with biology and the uptake of radioisotopes and all of that sort of thing. And we had the animal farm out here with the smoking dogs and the miniature pigs—miniature swine, and all of that activity. And then when I was administering the Battelle program and the Pacific Lab, I was also involved in a lot of interagency work. So I was—in fact, one of my responsibilities there was working with all the other agencies in the interagency agreements. And that meant that works like NASA and National Science—although they didn’t have a lot—the NRC, and EPA and others would have work done at the lab. And that would be not DOE work or AEC work, but it was their particular responsibility. But they had the capability and knowledge out here to do that. So there was a lot of that. In fact, I was involved in the whole setup of the LIGO facility out here, working with the National Science Foundation. And they had no knowledge of this—had to kind of guide them by hand as to what kind of arrangements they would have between the two agencies for them to use the Department of Energy land out here and their facility and all of that sort of thing. So from very early on, I spent somewhat—a fair amount of my time working with the National Science Foundation to getting the establishment of the LIGO facility out here. That was rather a long interesting experience, too, and all the unique things that went on doing that. So I just have this—even though I’m not a scientist or engineer by training, I have this kind of innate interest in science and engineering. That was what was so exciting about administering the lab contract, to see the whole variety of activity that goes on out there at the lab. And even, I think, the majority of the citizens of Richland and Tri-Cities do not understand, fully, the broad spectrum of knowledge and exposure to all elements of the nature of science and technology that’s available out here to the lab, and what all these experts they have in those all wide spectrum of activity.
O’Reagan: In your experience, how kid of secretive was any of this work? Was it all kind of out there? Was it kind of compartmentalized?
Plahuta: Well, there was a lot of secret-type stuff, but there wasn’t as much of that, I don’t think—now, I didn’t get involved too much in the production—in the plutonium production. Because the laboratory wasn’t so directly involved in that. That was the big load from the local office, was producing the plutonium, getting that back, and doing all of that sort of thing. The lab was supporting that, and doing that in the nuclear aspects of nuclear science, but there was a lot—an awful lot of work that was not secret. Now, they also were, though, heavily involved in many of the secret-type stuff. That relates primarily to their strong capability in detection—detecting things. I mean, you’re probably aware that the first moon rocks that came from the moon were here at the site, at the lab, to analyze those, to look at them, what was all made up of? The very first, first exposure to the moon rocks was right down here that Federal Building, anywhere in the United States that they were shown. That was quite a deal, too. So they have this tremendous capability. The labs were one of the first—this lab—the first to detect that Saddam Hussein had used chemical warfare for the Kurds back there, and that was way back time. Tremendous, and some interesting stories of how they collected some of this stuff and how they got these samples. I don’t know if we want to get into it. It was really, really interesting activities in that sort of stuff. Some of the things—it’s not classified anymore, but the people out at the lab or some of these guys would go over to Hong Kong, and they’d just brush against somebody to get a hair off of somebody that [UNKNOWN] just get a sample. Or a little dust and dirt came off their shoe, they might pick it up or something. Just the most minute quantities of things, and being able to analyze and determine. This laboratory out here was the first to decide how big the bombs are that China was dropping, to get the size of those through the air samples and all of that. There’s just this broad knowledge, or capability, I should say, in detection activities out here. It’s just amazing. And they’ve kept that up in the same way with their radioisotope program—the medical isotopes program. So much of that that many people don’t realize of all the spinoffs and benefits that have come from the knowledge that they gained. The first CD was developed out here at the lab. Much of that. I’m really interested in reading, now, Steve Ashby’s reports bimonthly in the Tri-City Herald about some of the activities going on at the lab. And I miss that. I used to get real knowledge about what they’re working on. Of course, it’s been 18 or 20 years since I’ve done that, but that was always fascinating, some of this advanced science and some of this stuff that was really—and a lot of it was development and a lot of it wasn’t. But they’d run into some dead-ends. They’d later on pick it up again, somebody would discover something else, and they’d finally go forth with it.
O’Reagan: When did it become a national lab? Do you remember?
Plahuta: God, I don’t remember the year that was. God, I should know that.
O’Reagan: I’m sure we can look it up.
Plahuta: Yeah, we can look it up.
O’Reagan: Was that while you were working?
Plahuta: Oh, yeah, yeah. It was—god, why should—because that was a big event. And we were pushing quite well at the time to try to get that done. Yeah. Golly, that just escapes me. I’ve got to—now that you mention it, I’ve got to go back and check that out and see when it was.
O’Reagan: What was involved in that?
Plahuta: Well, it was basically—I don’t want to call it a political decision, but it was basically, I think, recognizing the scope of activity that the labs were involved with. There wasn’t a great urge by the Washington, DC people or any to readily accept that title. I mean, it means a lot. So it was really a lot of background in what their involvement, and what type of work were they involved with, and what depth were they involved with and what types—and really focusing a lot on the basic science and that sort. And that’s where I think this lab was a little later than others, because this lab, up until the later times, was more of a support lab on production activities and not quite so much in basic. Now there was some basic on the real basic physics and something to deal with reactor operations. But they evolved and grew into this more basic science in a broad spectrum. I think that was one of the criteria. Now, I wasn’t involved in that decision at all. But my understanding is one of the criteria of establishing is that they got a well-established basic science capability. It’s not just specialized in one area or something. That’s where I think this lab was one of the later ones to be recognized as a national lab, because they built that up. And one of the things, too, that there wasn’t much knowledge of, because the production was such a secret thing, that that didn’t get much publicity or get papers written about it, and so on. So unfortunately the people that were working on that didn’t get the opportunity to have their findings and whatever presented to the whole world at national conferences and things like that. And that was also true, by the way, in Rickover’s program. Rickover was very cognizant—he was so afraid that the communists had this and that. So that was one of the real issue—there was basically almost the technical people at the capital laboratory, the Knolls Atomic Power Lab in Schenectady, almost unionized because they really felt that they were being shortchanged. They couldn’t give papers at technical conferences and stuff because Rickover was always afraid that you might reveal something that was highly secret about how to run a reactor and all that kind of stuff. So I think some of that same sort of information or background was kind of holding this lab back, because they just didn’t get the publicity in the scientific world, that their discoveries and their knowledge and their experiments and so on were well-known. And I think that helped, because the people in DC who were more knowledgeable of that found that to be a quality that was great for being recognized as a national lab. But a national lab, again, was the idea with broad spectrum of research. So that’s my take of it. You may talk to somebody else and they probably have a whole different presentation in terms of why or how and what was all involved. But just being on sort of the sidelines when that happened, that seemed to me to be what was the key point in helping determine. But there was some political push, no question. I mean, Maggie again, and Scoop—I think that was when they were on, and some of those. Why are you shortchanging us out there in the northwest? And we don’t have—that was the other thing, there was no national lab in the northwest. There was Livermore down in California, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Brookhaven. But why are you guys leaving us out in the north? And that was more form—not the science or technology, but, well, don’t treat us as second class citizens. Our lab up there is as good as yours. So there was some of that out there, too.
O’Reagan: Did it impact your work, when it changed?
Plahuta: No, I don’t think so. Well, I shouldn’t say that. One of the things that did happen in that regard—and I mentioned earlier about these interagency agreements and the capabilities of the lab—that stimulated more of that. Because I think being—once you’re recognized as a national lab, it just goes along with the credibility that might be associated with the work they’re doing. So I think that resulted in more of this interagency work with the various other government agencies. What it also did—and that was probably the most key element—is bringing in the tie with universities and so on. That was really—and locally, here, that was one of the interests of the people with the lab. They would really have liked to get more—and by the fact being recognized national lab, allowed the universities, and particularly some of the ones heavily involved in the science and engineering, would tend to favor going to a national laboratory. And the research that they were doing in cooperation with the lab itself was more significant, more meaningful to them. So I think that was probably one of the biggest benefits of becoming a national lab. Yet Battelle as an organization back in Columbus and others, they had a good reputation already of working closely with universities and so on. I mean, they were a research organization. And I think that also helped, too, because Battelle was operating this, and so the people who made these decisions realized that you have a topnotch research company—foundation there, that that’s their whole world. So I think that also helped in getting it. And certainly the lab pushed for that. There was no question about it. They wanted to be recognized as a national lab. So there was a combination of these things, I think they all kind of helped and worked together and made it happen.
O’Reagan: So when was it that your work with PNNL shifted over to the next role?
Plahuta: Oh, yeah. Well, let’s see. That was probably in more the early ‘90s. Where—yeah—because—yeah—early ‘90s is when I start going in there. So most of my career was with PNL and some of the labor relations. But early ‘90s, when I got into the infrastructure deal and doing all of that, and then later the last five years in the congressional and governmental relations activity, yeah.
O’Reagan: Could you tell us about the infrastructure work?
Plahuta: Yeah, that was quite interesting. That was frustrating. And by frustrating I mean, there was always—well, let’s not fix it until it’s broke. Oh, gosh, we used to have some—because it was still working. And particularly that was more emphasis as the role of the site here of not producing plutonium anymore—well, then do we need to keep it? Let’s see if it can limp along. Well, what it ended up, in my opinion, a lot of times, we paid a lot more by trying to fix things afterward. We didn’t really have a good preventative maintenance program. Finally got sort of a preventative maintenance, but—it was tough. Because there was always this thing—there was always a great need of doing this thing, and jeepers, we can’t use the dollars there; it’ll still work for a while. I didn’t have the responsibility for the day-to-day operations of it. That wasn’t mine. Mine was the upgrades and the capital equipment and all that. Whether we need a new fire station or whatever it may be. And jeepers, the thing was just limping along on a thread, and something would break. But then we ended up spending a whole lot more. That was somewhat frustrating. And the guys that I worked with on the contractor side had the same experience. But some managers were a little more cognizant of the need to do that than others. And safety—the way we could get things done—[PHONE CHIMES]—was safety more. Because if we could show that there was safety-related issues that went along with it, it was easier to get it appropriated or funded, rather than say, well, it’ll still go along. And that’s the way we often would get something funded, was, could show that we really don’t want to jeopardize the safety of the employees or the workers and that sort of thing. But it was not simple. It was pretty difficult. It was always kind of bucking the tide for funding.
O’Reagan: Right. That reminds me—so, you were still working at PNNL when the—
Plahuta: Well, I wasn’t at PNNL; it was DOE.
O’Reagan: Right, yeah, okay. But back during the time when sort of the reactors were shutting down and the transition to sort of amelioration and cleanup got started. Is that correct?
Plahuta: Yeah, but that most of the time was with PNNL, still. But it was in ’89, is when the real decision was made. So it was shortly after that that I got into the infrastructure and that’s where it became hard then. Because we weren’t operating with the mission anymore. Yet you knew darn well that cleanup is going to be here for a long, long time, and why not get these things going so you don’t spend twice as much starting all over new, with something when you could just really do some work at that time to keep this thing alive? This thing, being—whether it be a sewer plant or whether it be a steam plant or fire station or electro distribution system or a railroad or whatever it might be. Because, at least I could see, it was cheaper because cleanup’s gonna last for a while and you need this infrastructure whether your mission is producing the plutonium or whether it’s cleanup. Soon we got some of the people saying, yeah, you’re right. But the guys who were doing the cleanup then, too, saying, oh, god, we’ve got so much work to do, we can’t afford to do this. It’ll last another year or two. Let’s fix it next year or upgrade it next year. The evaporator out there is a good example. They finally did it. But there was things earlier they probably could have done to increase its capability and do a better job. And finally they say, yeah, I guess that’s right, we should do it now because we’ll need that thing for god knows how long yet.
O’Reagan: What was it like living in this area around ’89 when the shift happened?
Plahuta: Well, it was a surprise, I think, to a lot of people. Kind of like, oh, gosh, here we go again. That’s when this whole activity—and I wasn’t involved in, but with the B Reactor Museum Association really got its birth when they were saying, we’re shutting down the reactors and going there. But the attitude was, or the feelings was that, jeepers, it was just doomsday basically. And not fully understanding the scope of work that needed to be done in the cleanup area. It was very little attention being paid to the depth of that need at the time. I don’t think there was much knowledge—excuse me—or basically understanding of how important and significant that’s going to be. So it was a change in times, it certainly was.
O’Reagan: Do you think a lot of—or were people sort of in your area worried about their jobs? Or was that, you felt, sort of separate from the plutonium production?
Plahuta: Well, I–yeah, I wasn’t too involved in that sort of aspect. But, yes, the community had a concern. And that kind of coincides with the big problem out there that’s now Energy Northwest, but the shutdown of those new power reactors. So that kind of came together at the same time, and that was really a shock for the community. It was—you know, a lot of people would leave and say, jeepers, I got to go find something else before I don’t have a job at all.
O’Reagan: Right. So in the last couple of years before retirement, you were working on the congressional relations?
Plahuta: Yeah, yeah, about five years.
O’Reagan: Can you tell us about that work?
Plahuta: Yeah, about five years prior to retirement. Five, six—something like that. I don’t remember exactly when. That was very interesting, too, and you got another scope of how things got done. I got to a point where I was having daily discussions with particularly Patty Murray’s staff and prior to that, Doc Hasting’s staff—staff members. Not that much with the senators or the congressmen themselves, but primarily their staff, and working with them. And somewhat with the state offices, but not extensively. And then more with the local communities—the mayors—the Hanford communities group there. That was quite regularly—and the emphasis that we placed then, I’m not sure still exists, but really wanted to tie in closely to having the local government—the mayors and commissioners and so on—knowledgeable of what’s going on out here at the site. So there wouldn’t be these sudden surprises. That was the role that John Wagner at the time was interested in, and that’s when he asked me if I would be willing to—it was a new position he was establishing. He just wanted to maintain a close relationship with what’s going on at the site, and I don’t know if that’s—I shouldn’t say—I don’t know if it’s the case now, but I don’t think it’s quite the same as what John had in mind and what I did for those five, six years. So when I left, then, they kind of—when I retired, it kind of was sitting in just ebbs there—ups and downs—and it’s probably back more to that way. I really don’t know.
Plahuta: But shortly after that, too, then, I got on the Hanford Advisory Board. So I had kind of a knowledge about what was going on at the site. So I was very active in the Hanford Advisory Board for quite a few years—for like 15 years or so. But I got so much involved in the B Reactor thing that I said, gee—I didn’t feel like to just go to the meetings and not really contribute a whole lot. So I thought I’d just give up and retire at that point in time, and I found someone who I know real well who’s capable to take my place. I was representing the county most of the time—sort of an alternate representative for the City of Richland first, but then later for the county most all the time. I wanted to be sure that—and I did find someone who was very, very, well-involved and informative to take my spot there for the county commission now.
O’Reagan: So Okay. So before we move on, can you tell me—what was the Hanford Advisory Board?
Plahuta: Oh, that was established—gosh, I can’t remember exactly when, but it’s made up of about 30 different entities—representatives of those entities. It’s statewide and it includes some of the Oregon people, the tribes are on it, most of the government—city governments and county governments are represented. There’s total—like I say, about 31. They’re a formal advisory group to the Atomic Energy—Atomic Energy? I’m really going back now—to the DOE to uncover and discuss various elements of ongoing work. And you probably see quite a bit in the paper that the Hanford Advisory Board meets on a monthly basis—no, I shouldn’t say that—about every other month. But then they’ve got committees underneath of it like the Tanks Waste Committee and the River Plateau Committee—there’s five different committees. I chaired a couple of those committees a couple times, and vice chair and so on. And they provide some advice—written advice to the—and it’s—oh, I shouldn’t say it’s just DOE. There’s three parties to this. It’s the State Ecology Department, the EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, and DOE. So the three agencies are involved in this. They provide—can be anything regarding to the Vit Plant out here now, the tank vapor things—so many different activities. They write formal advice and discussion. It represents all sides, basically. Those that are pro/con, what are the proper words, or whatever you want to say. But it’s a wide representation of the general—not local community necessarily, but the state concerns. And there’s people from Seattle on that, from down in Salem, Oregon, and around the area. That’s been in existence—gosh, I don’t remember when—it was probably around ’90 or something like that, ’91. It’s been—maybe not that long—but it’s been quite active for quite some time.
O’Reagan: That reminds me—I meant to ask, when you were working on the site infrastructure, you mentioned some work with the tribes and cultural resources. Can you tell us about that?
Plahuta: Yeah. I personally didn’t get too directly involved. I had a person working for me by the name of Charles Pasternak—he has since died. He was very, very knowledgeable. He was an archaeology-type thing, too, but he was a forensic expert-type thing, and was very, very closely working with the tribes. Well-respected by the tribes. He was invited into some of those longhouse ceremonies and that sort of thing. So he worked on that. He was the one that was the primary person for me. I got into a lot of the discussions and so on, but for the day-to-day activities, he was really tops. And would work with the SHPO office—the State Historical office in Olympia on stuff—on these writings and stuff. So it was interesting. But I didn’t get daily involvement there. I had enough in my other hands to take care of. But he was just ace number one on doing that. So I got familiar with the process and the operations and what the issues were and that sort of thing. But that was informative for me. He was sort of a mentor to me, to be honest, though, in that respect. Yeah.
O’Reagan: Do you know sort of how—one of the things I’m also curious about is the development of cultural resources and local efforts to preserve culture, preserve memory. On the DOE side, I know, today that’s done through a contract with the Mission Support Alliance. Do you happen to know when that sort of contracting began, or was DOE sort of also contracting while also working on it?
Plahuta: No, DOE was working primarily at the laboratory out here at Battelle. That’s where—and that’s partly how I got into it, I think, although I wasn’t administering to Battelle Lab at that time. But that all function was under the laboratory. It was after I left that Mission Support Alliance came into existence here. And then they took over a lot of that support type activity. But, no, the laboratory, and Jim Shatters was involved, Mona Wright was involved out there for the lab. Paul Harvey was—not Paul Harvey—Dave Harvey was involved in some of that out there, along with the history. And Michele Gerber on the historic—the Hanford history type stuff. So that was all with Battelle. And then that moved it, I think, when Mission Support Alliance—and that was after, basically, after I left. So that was there. But, no, there was quite an interest—not as much as there is today—again, that’s a fault, I can say, of us who were in the department at that time. We really weren’t on board extensively on the history protection stuff. Although the contractor, Battelle out there, and others were doing that. But I don’t think DOE was following. And then that’s when I discovered that, gosh, we really have a responsibility here. And that’s when I hired this Charles Pasternak who came over from GSA and had been doing that sort of thing down in Phoenix, Arizona. So I said, we really need—so I hired him. And as I say, he was—that was his livelihood so to speak. And that’s when I think we began then to pick up on that sort of thing. I had an extreme interest in doing it and I got to know Mona Wright real well at Battelle. Tom Marceau was involved in that out there. And Tom can give you the whole history there with the laboratory at that time.
O’Reagan: What sort of day-to-day work—was it Charles Pasternak?
Plahuta: Pasternak, yeah.
O’Reagan: What sort of work was he doing? Do you know?
Plahuta: Well, it was this whole cultural resources area. He was, as I say, an archaeology type and that was his training. So he did all of the work a lot with SHPO up there when we got into some of these areas where they needed—we needed to know the 106 process, and all of that sort of thing. So Charles was our main person to follow that. But I had the interest, also, of John Wagner, the manager, even though I wasn’t playing that congressional role at that time. Because he, too, I think, recognized that we needed to do a little bit more there. And in fact—I don’t know if you’re familiar—but he’s one of Cindy Kelly, who’s with the Atomic Heritage Foundation---he’s one of the board members there. He had really an extreme interest in preserving the history. As much as he tried, he couldn’t get headquarters people—they always told him, John, you go back and tell them we’re not in the museum business. And that’s what the people here would be hearing all the time. But John himself was really interested in doing all that. I sat in meetings with him at headquarters where he’d really push hard. And they’d push back, that’s not our—it was their responsibility, but they’d just, yeah, okay, but we don’t want to spend a lot of time on that. So that was—but locally, I think we did well. I think we did very well at pushing that along and I got to give contract—credit to people like Tom and Mona and others out here on the contractor site who even pushed us a little bit sometimes. Which was good. That’s necessary.
O’Reagan: Could you sort of sketch out for us your idea of sort of the history of efforts to commemorate the site or the work that was done on Hanford? In terms of, up through the B Reactor Museum Association--?
Plahuta: Yeah. Well, my interest was, again, as I learned more about it, was let’s preserve this history of this site, because it’s very unique. It’s really unique. And I had to avoid sort of a conflict of interest of joining BRMA while I was an employee of the department. So I was interested, though, in knowing what they were doing and I was in agreement with them and was very supportive when I could be in some of their activities. But shortly after I retired, then—not immediately, but not too long after, I did join as a member of the B Reactor Museum. That was in—well, quite a while later, because it in 2005, so it was quite a while later that I actually joined them. That was—the more I learned and found out about the uniqueness of the B Reactor and its history and its knowledge and its importance, I really, really got heavily involved. And that’s eventually, here, like a year and a half ago—I finally got off the Hanford Advisory Board because I was spending so much time—more time on that—and not feeling I was really contributing a whole lot. I mean, I’d make my comments and so on at the general meetings, but with regard to drafting formal advice and all that, which I was quite active in earlier, then jeepers, get somebody else who has the time and so on, and I’d devote more time to the B Reactor Museum Association. But, again, I’m, as well as my interest in science and technology, although not being trained in that area, I’m sort of a history buff. As a kid on, I could list the order of the Presidents of the United States, I remember. Zing, zing, zing. I can’t do it any longer. I’d have to stop and think about it, get it mixed up a little bit. But history was another area that I was kind of interested in. I like to read a lot of history books and that sort of thing. I think that was stimulated by my second year in college in a class I took from a history professor who was just interesting. And what I found so interesting about him is he said you can read the book, but let me give you some stuff, some of the trivia-type stuff that he knew about some of the personalities and some of the things that he had learned through his research and understanding about the true natures of some of these people and what unique features or attributes they had. That, I think, stimulated my interests even more. But it was in existence prior to that as well, but it just enhanced it a bit. Yeah.
O’Reagan: What sort of stuff has BRMA worked on in the time you’ve been with them?
Plahuta: Oh, gosh. We have done extensive amount of work on some of the modeling to bring up some of the models that we have out there that can describe and portray better the actual activities in the instruments and the equipment in the area there itself. We did that. And of course our big effort was to make it a national park. That’s where most of our time, and that’s where I really got involved with and again working with the other two sites, Oak Ridge and Los Alamos with Cindy Kelly back in American—I mean the Atomic Heritage Foundation. We’d have monthly phone calls on proposing various kind of language that we’d like to see in the act and working with the Congress. My experience working with congressional staffers helped a little bit there, I think, but so did Cindy, who—and I first knew Cindy, basically when she was in DOE—worked for DOE in the headquarters in the cultural resource area and all of that area. So that’s how I got to know Cindy. And then later on, we kind of met again, then, when we were working on the B Reactor. So the biggest contribution, I think, was the effort from the very beginning. B Reactor was—not B Reactor, but the BRMA association—B Reactor Museum Association—was established formally in ’91, but was actually in ’90 or so when it began to formally—and how that all happened was that there was in existence here at the time—we called it the Tri-Cities or maybe they were Richland—I don’t know—Technical Society. And that was made up of all the various tech—whether it be electrical engineers, or civil engineers, the chemical engineers, nuclear engineers, the health physicists and so on. They had this net group where there was things in common and commonality. When the announcement was made that they were going to get out of the production business and was going to start cocooning the reactors, the guy says, god, we got to preserve B. The history that goes with it. And I wasn’t part of that, then. But they organized a committee then to discuss further. And that’s when they decided to establish this organization, the B Reactor Museum Association, with the sole purpose to preserve for future generations the history and preserve the facility itself for public access and—for preservation and public access. Well, our mission is basically accomplished by getting it into the National Park. That was really keen. And we still have interests; we want to go along and develop the park and do all of those additional types of things and perhaps even taking on efforts to preserve a bit of the history of T Plant as well. Because that is identified in the park, and of course the pre-Manhattan Project history there with the farms and that sort of thing. But that’s been the key emphasis all along, was to preserve and make it public access to B Reactor. So there was a lot of work and working with the Department of Energy and others to clean it up and get it in shape where you could have these tours. I think it was 2009 or something when they started the tours—the more public tours. But I was involved earlier in that. There was still tours, but the tours were maybe for special groups or activities or maybe a college chemistry class or physics class or something would be coming to see it. Or some of the elected officials or could be any special tours, I think. And then it got gradually working into recognizing that there would be—in fact, when I left in ’98, there was just a memorandum of agreement type between the BRMA organization and Westinghouse the contractor and DOE, what the roles and responsibilities would be. At that time, BRMA would be willing to provide docents—volunteer docents at the time, and do that sort of thing for these various tours. So I was sort of a tour coordinator then, to find out what audiences—there would be a difference between someone who was real knowledgeable about the reactor, and others who knew nothing about it—want to know what the audience would be so we’d pick the right type of tour guide and a person who was more familiar with it, who were comfortable with those kind of tours. So there got to be a fair number of those. But then it formally established, then, when the DOE started saying we will offer these public tours. In 2009 is when it really blossomed into much more greater things, when they announced the public tours and so on. These others were more tours where people would request and ask for them, we’d try to fit them in. And there were fair number—it got to be a fair number of those, and I think that’s what convinced DOE that we need to do something, maybe more publicly. And more recognition of its responsibility in Historic Preservation Act—you know, the Department’s responsibility there. So that’s what we did. But our efforts were then to, as I say, get the thing cleaned up, get it presented well, and have some of these displays and some of the models and someone that works close with Cindy Kelly at the Atomic Heritage Foundation who had this interest and this whole establishment she has, that foundation to preserve many of the history aspects of the Atomic Energy Commission and Department of Energy and its role in the Manhattan Project. So that was kind of where our focus was, was the preservation and public access and the models that help educate. And also, and we’re pushing more on that now, is educating students and so on. And we’re holding more and more tours for students, all the way down to the fourth grade, but particularly interested in high school and college students that want to learn more about that. That’s where we’re focusing more now, on interpretation and education and emphasis more on the T Plant. BRMA does the B Reactor Museum, doesn’t necessarily relate to the T Plant, but still, that all was part of the Manhattan Project. So our focus is more on the Manhattan Project itself and all of its elements. Which, T Plant is included—the first separations plant. Again, amazing plant and amazing work that’s been done there to get it initiated and started and working properly right off the bat, working. So that’s kind of the background there on my involvement. It’s been—the last three, four, five years has been heavily involved in primarily the effort on the Manhattan historic—the Manhattan Project Historical Park, to get it established, along with the other two sites. Some of the others in DOE, as well, the Dayton Project had decided not to really join pushing on that, but they—and we had meetings yesterday again with some of the Parks people to have things—a commonality—basic common understanding of the whole project and kind of presented the same way at all three sites. But then each site taking on its own specific role, ours being the specific—the development of the plutonium and B Reactor. Los Alamos, more like the weapons development and that sort of thing. Oak Ridge is supplying the enriched uranium and those aspects. They all have a more defined role in the broader picture of the Manhattan Project.
O’Reagan: Right. Did you ever get any sort of security—when you were making these models, I know there was a lot of sensitivity about export control and classification and all that, especially with models. Did you ever get any sort of push back on that?
Plahuta: Not on the models. But what we did do, and that was a surprise, even to the local DOE, I guess they knew about it, but they should have—the reactor graphite that was left over, we claimed that. And thanks for thinking of Gene Woodruff, one of our members who’s a graphite expert, and I mean Gene can go and say, oh, that was made at Union Carbide. Scratch this one—that was made somewhere else. That guy. And I remember working with DOE in the laboratory—Gene was one of the top experts in the world. Again, we’ve got experts here—people don’t recognize—of the world. When there would be these international meetings or [UNKNOWN] Gene Woodruff was a guy to go all over the world talking about the qualities and the purities of graphite and how it’s made and all of that sort of stuff. He’s just top-notch. So anyway, Gene and a guy out at the lab—gosh, I forget his name right now, right off the bat—worked with our people in DOE headquarters’ national security to get us the—or to give us the excess graphite was there with the restrictions that it should be used for souvenirs and that we’re not to resell it. Of course, now there’s not quite the problem, but we didn’t want the Iranians or others to see how this graphite was made and all the purity and all that kind of stuff. Although I don’t understand, because you could still probably decide that if you had a souvenir made out of a piece of that graphite, anyway. But anyway that was—they just didn’t want a big block of this stuff given—sold or anything to someone. So we said, ah, well, we won’t—chop it up or use it in pieces or whatever. So we made that graphite model and that was done going through the whole national security system that said it was okay for us to have that, rather than dump it out here at ERDF—out in the disposal facility. So we got all of the remaining what we call old reactor—that’s the B, D and F—that’s the same type of graphite that was in those original three reactors. We got that as well as some processing tubes and we’re in the process of determining how we make souvenirs for the tours that come through in the park. And reminder, we already have what we call—we have these boron balls, too, that are used in the process to help scram a reactor if you need to. We’ve got those, and we’ve got the process tubes. So we also sell a little vial of these boron balls, and we collected the dust that we did when we made our graphite model and putting that into little vials. So it’s rather unique to this site. We’re looking at other ways to use some of these and what kind of doodads or gadgets can we make for souvenirs. Because we find that working with the Parks people is—oh, yeah, people, there’s something unique about the site, they’d like to take a souvenir back. So that may be some of our support, maybe, to keep continuing and give us our source of income there that—we’re not a great achiever of gathering a whole lot of money, but it does—and we work more on these models and stuff, working with Cindy Kelly and others on grants and that sort of thing to get our money to build these—make these various videos that we’ve made and these vignettes that goes along with when you’re visiting out there and that sort of thing. So that’s gonna be kind of emphasizing with the Parks people how we can best do this and how we can get that accomplished.
O’Reagan: Can you tell me about coordinating with the other sites?
Plahuta: Yeah. That’s—we’ve had several meetings with the other sites. There’s, again, another entity. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the ECA, the Energy Communities Alliance? That was established by the former city manager here, Joe King, who established that. And that—I’ll just talk a minute what that is. That’s made up of the sites where DOE has locations: Savannah River, Oak Ridge, Brookhaven—you know, all nine sites or so, that would go forth in more of a lobbying effort to DOE headquarters on funding and what the needs and the issues and problems are there, as far as the local communities. And many of these were in common. I mean, there were particular areas might be unique to one site or the other, but the others would all support that. But then also there’s things in common that they really wanted to get DOE to recognize that they got to pay attention to. So that was established quite some time ago. The other communities, then, kind of had a basis on which to start on this national park. And particularly Oak Ridge and Los Alamos. So we would get—the three of us would often have—and Cindy Kelly with Atomic Heritage Foundation would kind of coordinate these—it was almost on a monthly basis—telephone conferences. We’d be talking where we are and how we’re going and what we need to do. And so that was very helpful and it was a cooperative effort. It wasn’t a, well, we want that and you can’t have that. It was a system that we all want to work together. And we met last July again down in Los Alamos for a meeting on those three sites plus one or two of the other Energy Community Alliance sat in on some of that. We’re meeting again in August in Denver. This time at Denver because that’s kind of a convenient among the three sites, and it’s also where the interim superintendent of the National Park’s located, so that she can be here. That’s Tracey Adkins and she was here in fact yesterday. One of our local what we call our parks committee that’s not—made up basically the elected officials of the community here, the four mayors, the county commissioners of Benton, Grant and Franklin County, and then there’s, besides elected officials, there’s the Visit Tri-Cities, TRIDEC and BRMA is on that. We’re more of an advisory group than we are to the mayors. But the committee is an administrative committee and that’s where I and John Fox and BRMA and Visit Tri-Cities and others sit on for short-term. I guess I call that the working group who gets the work done and so on. And then we get with the mayors and so on. It’s kind of either up or down, you know, that sort of thing. But anyway, the working with the other communities has been a very cooperative effort, and we meet now on phone calls once in a while—not quite so frequently, though, not once the legislation has passed. But we meet like once a year or so, just—and now with the Parks, too. It was formerly just with DOE, but with the Parks people actually present and with the interim superintendent of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. So it’s a good relationship and I think it helps in the overall park and the Parks people are interested in working with the communities, too. They’re very—I find working with the Parks service very, very interesting and informative and they’re people who are very willing to listen and learn and likewise we try to exchange information and we learn what they’re process is and I think it’s been a very, very good relationship. And I want to give credit to Colleen French here at the local office has been extremely supportive of BRMA and all of the activities and go out of her way to have—like when we had the November 12th event out here raising the National Parks flag at the site and working with them. She’s been just tremendously helpful in getting that accomplished.
O’Reagan: What’s my question here? Could you give me an idea, if you know, of the sort of size of BRMA over time?
Plahuta: It’s small. That’s our real problem. It’s like most organizations, I find, you don’t find a lot of younger people joining. And that’s a—I think that’s kind of typical of our whole society now. Today, most of the mothers and fathers are both working, they’ve got the kids in school, they’re in soccer, they’re in baseball, they’re in football. Their time is very limited. And I find that in a number of organizations I’m in. So our group is very small. It’s—we only have about a total of about 70-some members. But our active members are probably 20 or something like that. And we have a fair number of people who are not in this community. They’re people who lived here or worked here before. One of the assistant general managers for DOE is still a member, living down the—not Los Alamos—but Los Alamos area and also a couple of them down in the WIPP site down in New Mexico. We find ourselves, I think—and we’re looking right now—what should the mission of BRMA be? And we’ve kind of—a couple of us got together the other day on—had a bottle of beer and sat in Hank Kosmata’s backyard on his patio and just kind of brainstormed a bit. I think we’ll say, for the next three, four, five years, however long, until the park is fully established, we’ll be working extensively with them on assisting in the interpretation activities. We want to emphasize more the education and working with particularly the high school, college kids but also the younger ages. We want to do more emphasis on the T Plant, which is a very key element in this whole process of plutonium and getting the plutonium that was needed for the weapons program. So those—kind of those three are the main activities we want to focus in and decide whether we morph into some other organization. Because the Parks are really interested in developing at each of these sites what they call Friends of the Park, and that’s a common thing among all national parks. It’s sort of a group that supports that local park and assists the Parks Department. And the Parks Department is not a wealthy department. They are very limited funding to all parks. They’ve got extreme backlog on the maintenance of all their activities. So they rely heavily on volunteer work, they rely heavily on these funding process of Friends of the Park, and they have a formal structure in developing it and authorizing and so on, because they, again, want to be sure that there’s precise accountability and all of that sort of thing on that if they’re gonna be associated with them. So we’re working this local community on this parks committee and so on of hoping we can establish that soon. Now, there’s a lot of competition so to speak there, because we’ve got a lot of other things in the community we really want to support. We want to support the REACH organization—they’re looking for funding. We’ve got the aquatic center, you’ve got the performing arts center, you’ve got all of these things. But nevertheless, there’s some people that don’t have to be members of this community that are interested in the Project history of the Manhattan Project and all of that, that you can get various grants and forms and that sort of thing from others. That’s something that we will probably eventually just go out of existence, because we don’t have a lot—I mean, I’m kind of the young kid on the block, actually in our organization, and I’m nearly 78 years old. We got a guy that’s the youngest kid—he’s 65! We call him the little kid brother. We’re losing people. The last two years, we’ve lost the remaining people who were there at startup of the reactor. So the history is kind of disappearing with them in some respects. That’s why I was interested, particularly these interviews that you’re doing here with some of these old-timers and some of the guys that were here, so we get that recorded, and we know what’s there and it’s so important. Of course, as you know, working with you on some of our early recordings that we had with some of our original people that are very, very informative and useful in terms of researchers or anybody that wants to use that information.
O’Reagan: So there’s also ways been a lot of interest among the public in the sort of more negative side of Hanford’s history. Has the down-winders and those sorts of groups influenced the telling of the history in your opinion?
Plahuta: Well, you know, we want to be accurate with our history. And we want to tell all sides of the history. That’s been sometimes a little bit of a problem internally, because, well, gosh, those guys, they just dump. But I say, that’s history. We’ve got to learn what the issues were and what the problems were. And the same—we get some people when the Parks people decided to have a few of the Japanese people sit in on the scholars’ group. I’m not at all opposed to that. I think we got to tell history. History’s got to be told accurately. And it’s important—we may not agree with some of that stuff, and we may not agree with their opinions or thoughts, but it’s only precisely true that we need to reflect what that history and what those events were. So I personally am not opposed. But there’s the real strong advocates in nuclear and there’s the anti-nuclear. We’ve got to show that as existing. We’ve got to recognize that. But I don’t think it’s given us any problem—the answer to your question—I don’t think it’s been an issue that creates difficulties or that we found is interfering with whatever we want to do. We’ve got to recognize it, we address it, and we think we try to address it in a very educational basis, in a very precise basis, and not in an argumentative or conscientious-objector-type—well, that’s not the right word either. But we just don’t want to be contrary to them necessarily. Just understanding that they’ve got a different point of view.
O’Reagan: Have you sort of followed that controversy in your time living in the Tri-Cities?
Plahuta: Yeah, to some extent. I can see both sides. I think we need—particularly, I can see the need to reflect on what effect it had upon the Japanese. I really think that’s essential. Some of our people don’t agree with me. They say, well—they’ll say, yeah, that’s true, but, boy, if we hadn’t done what we needed to do maybe a lot more would be dead. That’s true, too, there probably would have. We’ll never know for certain, but—we hear of people and know of people that had probably saved their lives by the fact that they didn’t have to go and invade Japan. We’ve got some of our own members who kind of fit in that category. But I’ll never forget Terry Andre tells the story when she was at the CREHST museum when it still existed and an elderly Japanese person came in one day and asked her: Are you an American? She said, yes, I’m an American. Oh, thank goodness. He put a big hug around her. She kind of says, well, what’s that? She says, I would not be alive today if you had invaded Japan, he said. Because I was trained in our—I think it was equivalent to the boy scouts—which we were to be suicide-type defenders. And we were supposed to be carrying these bombs, burying us in the sand, along when the Japanese invaded, and blow ourselves up and try to get as many American soldiers as we could—or Allied soldiers as we could. So that’s one side of the story. The others you hear, but people have really suffered when they dropped the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So those stories need to be told, and that understanding has to be there so that there’s the pros and cons. And another interesting thing is, when we had the docent training by the Parks people, they were saying, try to not reflect your own opinions. Give them the facts—that yes. And they did some role playing talk about when someone says, well, should we have dropped the bomb? And they were playing with all the different ways you might address that particular question. And try to say, if they took one position kind of say, well, that’s true, but did you think about this or something. Let them decide themselves, but bring it more forth. And I thought that was excellent type comments that the Parks’ interpretation people and their docents, particularly did the training, bring forth those sorts of thoughts. I’m in agreement with that.
O’Reagan: You mentioned this sort of pro- and anti-nuclear folks. Has that sort of politics gotten involved in the interpretation of Hanford’s history, do you think?
Plahuta: I don’t think it’s got involved in the interpretation. Now, there’s people who will be critical of the fact that either one side or the other hasn’t been displayed enough. And that’s an emphasis that I really respect the Parks to—I think they mentioned, they got issues in the North and South War—the Civil War. The things down in Andersonville, Gettysburg—these—and the Arizona, and they really understand how best to portray that. They’re the nation’s storytellers, and they really want to hone in on the fact that we aren’t going to try to change anybody’s mind; we don’t want to argue with them; we just want to presents the fact more and let them decide. But maybe if they’ve got one position, just kind of let them know what some of the other people are thinking, too, and vice versa. So I don’t really see it as an issue or a problem. It’s something we’ve got to address and it’s something that got to be recognized, but we’ve got to do it thoughtfully and doing it with some knowledge of where we’re coming from and how we present that.
O’Reagan: Mm-hmm. And you said that’s equally true for sort of the local health impact as well as the Nagasaki and Hiroshima?
Plahuta: I think so. But again, that’s my opinion. I think there’s a lot of advantages and there’s a lot of disadvantages. I mean, I keep coming back to some counterpoints and that is the whole medical isotopes, and the medical radiation program and so on. I mean, there’s over 20 million radioactive diagnostic procedures in the United States every year. And there’s a likewise amount throughout the rest of the world. There’s not as many therapeutic, but almost. That’s the positive side. Now, there’s the negative side—that, gee, if you get exposed to it, that’s not good either. So, like most issues, nothing is clearly right or wrong. There’s pros and cons and I think we got to stop and think about those, and each person make up their own mind to where they may fit in that spectrum.
O’Reagan: How have the Tri-Cities changed in your time living here?
Plahuta: [LAUGHTER] It’s been significant. I see the major growth in housing. Gosh, when I came here south of the Yakima River, there was nothing—none of that whole area. West Richland was small and didn’t go out. The shopping, as I said earlier—there was hardly anything here to do in that sense. The amenities of living in the community, the education of WSU here and various arts performing type groups—just—it’s almost like day and night in that sense. I just—just amazing me, and I’ve been here a little over 50 years. It was kind of like a sleepy town almost when you first come—when I first came, I should say. Pasco was the biggest, I think, town at that time. Of course, it’s got its history with the railroad and all of that sort of thing. The growth of the housing and you wonder, how could more people keep coming in? Where are they coming from, and where’s all this activity—what’s this base? It’s amazing. But I think the biggest thing I noticed is the shopping and the industry broadened quite a bit. I think most people don’t realize how many small businesses we really have in this community—various outgrowths, spinoffs of some of the lab work and some of the other activities. I think we had one golf course here at the time when I came over in Pasco. We’ve got a lot of that. The water sports. I mean, it’s—and the surrounding areas, the wineries and all the vineyards. Yet the one other thing I remember when I first came and we first married, we used to go out and pick cherries or whatever where all houses are now. We still go out to some of the places to pick some peaches and stuff, but a lot of that stuff—and pears—you hardly see around. I can think back in those early days that we did all that. We go now in French’s out there where they have you-pick for peaches I think is one of the most popular places in town in the summertime when it’s peach time that they’re just so busy out there. But it’s changed. It’s just—but you know, a lot of the cities and so on—we’re getting people moving from the rural areas into more the urban areas, and we’re no different, I think, than some of the other major cities much bigger than we. But we’re staying—following kind of that same pattern.
O’Reagan: Mm-hmm. Okay. So as we sort of wrap up here, there are probably—I don’t know—particular stories that leap to your mind from your time working at Hanford or living in the area, or any other sort of stuff I haven’t asked about that’s worth sharing?
Plahuta: Yeah, I don’t know. I think one of the things that comes to mind is my involvement early with the kids in the community in the sports area and then of course, when my own son got into some of that with working with them. The other thing that kind of comes to mind, I said, I remember Christ the King Church, but like everything a growing—I’m involved in the building committee and making that church bigger, tearing down the old government-built building, all on volunteer-type work tearing down, basically. And things of that that you tend to think of not necessarily unique to me, but for a lot of the members of this community, where you saw so much volunteer-type effort, community effort, where family didn’t have their own personal family right nearby. And I saw that. My wife can speak a lot more to that, but I saw that early in ’63 still existed, where you saw this sort of social-type gathering of—and I don’t think we see that quite the same anymore here in this community. If it is, it’s more like kind of an organized structure, or organized stuff. It’s not just like somebody drops by or you get a bunch of families together and oh, let’s have a Christmas party, or let’s have this, that or the other thing. That’s kind of what I witnessed early, and not to the extent—as I say again—as my wife did in her family. But I saw that, and I see that kind of disappearing here. Some of the interesting things at work is like—I mentioned briefly earlier about the moonrocks coming back, the smoking swine—I was heavily involved in when they decided not to have the—I should say the smoking beagles and the swine. The swine is one of the closest animals that’s similar to a human. Their skin and all that. So there’s so much testing on radiation effects. A lot of these swine that was just evolutionary and helped the whole medical field. Well, we excessed those, I remember, in the process of excessing, where should we give it to? And it ended up—I was quite heavily involved in that—we gave it to the University of Minnesota, because they had quite an extensive program on heart development and heart surgery and stuff like that. They could utilize these swine and they had made a good proposal how they would care for them and continue in breeding them. Leo Bustad was the guy that developed those, like a full-grown was 150 pounds, was close to a human being, and all those sorts of things. And I think back about those sorts of things, about uniqueness, again, of science, of technology, developing these animals so that they—and there, again, you’ve got the other side of those people that are—oh, gosh, you shouldn’t be sacrificing animals. There’s validity to that. And then you look on the other hand—but look at all the benefits you get on that, and you can do it in a humane way, and all of that. So those things. Some of the stuff, I can’t describe now. I was not heavily involved in classified stuff, but there was some of the work out at Battelle that once it’s unclassified, it’s just unbelievable some of this stuff that you learn through that sort of thing. Those things often come to my mind, but I still—taken the oath that I’ll keep those to myself. That’s about all I can say about—but I wasn’t heavily involved in that. I didn’t have a super—I had a Q clearance. That’s another interesting story. When I was hired by DOE, they said, well—at that time you had to have a Q clearance before you could ever come on work and it took about three months to get this Q clearance processed. So I was home back in Wisconsin for about a month, just waiting for the clearance, because I wasn’t going to drive all the way out here and for some reason to find out that, well, we can’t take you. I mean, I had no reason to believe that, but I just had to wait out the process. So that was, again—and that was difficult in hiring early on when we were recruiting college kids and stuff. That was when we still needed that—that everybody needed—well, not everybody, but 95% probably of the DOE and AEC—it was AEC then. People needed a Q clearance before they could get on board. Well, people are anxious, they don’t want to wait around three months. They’re looking for a job. So that was one of the difficulties that comes to mind when I talk about out those sorts of things. But there’s a lot of fond memories and associations with people that you’ll always have. And some unique activities that occurred. And, again, I keep thinking about working with Wally Sale at the Consolidated Laboratory and how unique and different that was and how innovative his approach—and he’s the one that really is the creator of that concept. So anyway, it’s been—it was an enjoyable career.
O’Reagan: All right, well thanks so much for being here.
Plahuta: Yeah, you bet. Thank you. And I appreciate--