Gardner Clark "G.C." Blackburn

Dublin Core


Gardner Clark "G.C." Blackburn


Hanford Atomic Products Operation


An oral history interview with Gardner Clark "G.C." Blackburn conducted by Gene Weisskopf for the B Reactor Museum Association as part of an interview series focused on the T Plant and writing a Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) document for the T Plant. Blackburn was a carpentry foreman in the 200 West area.


B Reactor Museum Association


Hanford History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities




Those interested in reproducing part or all of this oral history should contact the Hanford History Project.







Oral History Item Type Metadata


Gene Weisskopf


Gardner Clark "G.C." Blackburn


Richland Public Library, Richland, WA


Interview of G.C. Blackburn
on audio tape (not video)
at the Richland, WA, Public Library
November 17, 1999
by Gene Weisskopf, BRMA

WEISSKOPF: Today is November 17, 1999, and we're with G.C. Blackburn. And please tell me what the G and the C stand for.
BLACKBURN: Gardner Clark Blackburn.
WEISSKOPF: People knew you as G.C.?
BLACKBURN: G.C. Part of the time I was called Blackie. I worked on the Mississippi River on the dams, and I used to work for, when I was a regular carpenter, I worked for a boss. They called him Whitey. Because I was Whitey before. So then they called him Whitey, I had to be called Blackie.
WEISSKOPF: And why did they call you Whitey?
BLACKBURN: I don't know. My hair was always light, light-colored, and I guess that's probably why.
WEISSKOPF: What projects were you working on in the Mississippi?
BLACKBURN: Well, I worked on two different dams as a carpenter, and then I worked for DuPont. We built a plant in Ioway *(phonetic--is he saying Iowa?), and that's why I knew --- of course, DuPont was the same thing down in Oklahoma. I worked down in Oklahoma there. We made stuff for the war.
WEISSKOPF: And you were working for DuPont at that point?
WEISSKOPF: And doing construction?
BLACKBURN: Right. I was sort of a layout carpenter down there. I didn't have to go out in the mud and the water. I worked out of the main building.
WEISSKOPF: So where were you in 1943 when DuPont wanted to send you out here?
BLACKBURN: When they found me, I was business agent for the carpenters in --- gosh...
WEISSKOPF: Were you working on a project?
BLACKBURN: No. I had a regular office and everything. When I got a call from Oklahoma job from my business agent in Savanna, Illinois, wanting to know if I wanted his job. And I said "Well, it's close to home, my family's there and everything," so I quit that job and come back up there. And he retired, and I got elected by full vote. So I was there about two years or so, maybe three, and this recruiter come along for this job out here. And he said "I'm looking for carpenters." He said, "And by the way, maybe you want to go out." And I said I would as a foreman, but not as a carpenter. So he said "Well, we need foremen, too." So I had three carpenters that come out with me. I drove out here from there. I didn't ever see the West like this before. And we got out here.
WEISSKOPF: And about what time was that? In October?
BLACKBURN: That was about the last --- in the last three days of October, I think it was.
WEISSKOPF: Now, you said you had a family. They were still back in ---
BLACKBURN: They were still back there, because I had bought a house in Savanna.
WEISSKOPF: Savanna, Illinois.
BLACKBURN: Yeah. So they stayed there, and I come out here. And the first thing they said to me when I got to their office the next morning was I'd have to work with my tools for a week before I could... And I said, "Well, who's the manager?" And they told me, and I said "Well, by God, I know him. I better go see him." I went and seen him, and he said --- shook hands, and he said that --- he was the top dog at the Oklahoma job when I was there, so he knew me from there. And I told him, I said "Somebody's wanting me to work with my tools." He said "You don't have to work with your tools, you've been in DuPont too long, you know all their safeties and all that."
WEISSKOPF: Do you remember his name?
BLACKBURN: I can't --- there's a lot of names I can remember.
WEISSKOPF: What was he in charge of at Hanford?
BLACKBURN: All the carpenter work. All the carpenter construction.
WEISSKOPF: Okay. So instead of picking up your tools, you were a foreman.
BLACKBURN: Yeah, I was a foreman right off the bat. He gave me, oh, about fifteen guys and three or four helpers. And the first day I worked right in Hanford. We were building the places to eat, and stuff like that, you know.
WEISSKOPF: In the construction camp?
BLACKBURN: Yeah. And before the day was out, why, a guy come around to me and said "I understand that you're a heavy construction worker." I said that's all --- I knew more of that than I did this kind of work. So he said "You pick out about five of your best men, and tomorrow morning hit the bus to the area, West area." So I did, and I got out there, and they had me another 15 carpenters, and I had 20 carpenters, and about 8 helpers. And T Plant was just a big hole in the ground. A big hole in the ground.
WEISSKOPF: Had they even started pouring concrete yet?
BLACKBURN: Seems to me that there had been a little concrete poured in the basement.
WEISSKOPF: I think one of the things I read was that they started it well before then, but very little work was done ---
BLACKBURN: Yeah, very little.
WEISSKOPF: --- because the reactors were getting a lot of the materials ---
BLACKBURN: Well, they were getting attention.
BLACKBURN: Also, they were making blueprints in Chicago, and we got new blueprints about every day.
WEISSKOPF: Revised, or just more of them?
BLACKBURN: Well, some of them were revised, some of them were --- as we went along, that's the way it worked.
WEISSKOPF: But every day did you have some specific part of the project that there were blueprints ---
WEISSKOPF: --- and it was laid out?
BLACKBURN: I was foreman over the 224 and 221, both carpenter crews. There was probably about five at that time, in the plant there were about five, or maybe four, carpenter foremen, and each one of them had a crew there. So we put that building up pretty fast.
WEISSKOPF: And I guess was a lot of the work just doing concrete forming?
BLACKBURN: Most of it was forming and stuff. Like I said about our blueprints, they had the blueprints all in a little house, and we could come in, the foremen could come in there and get out the blueprint and take measurements and all that different stuff, and put that on a piece of paper and go out again. But we couldn't take the blueprints out.
WEISSKOPF: How many times a day would you have to go back in there?
BLACKBURN: Oh, about twice, I guess.
WEISSKOPF: That's all?
BLACKBURN: At noon, morning and noon.
WEISSKOPF: And you were able to take enough notes that could ---
WEISSKOPF: How was that different from a regular job? How might you deal with blueprints on a regular job?
BLACKBURN: Well, we could carry the blueprints when I worked in Oklahoma, and stuff like that.
WEISSKOPF: Wouldn't you be referring to them many, many times a day?
BLACKBURN: Probably quite a bit. Especially on some certain jobs.
WEISSKOPF: So how were you able at Hanford just to look at this huge set of plans twice a day?
BLACKBURN: Well, it was such a large job. And when you put in one deal for concrete, why, it took piles of concrete to fill that up.
WEISSKOPF: So you said "We have to make this set of forms this morning," it might be 500 feet long, or something like that?
BLACKBURN: We made an awful big plan, and used the big rigs. And at the same time we were building that one, why, we were building the 24. And I had men in each place.
WEISSKOPF: What did they tell you the building was going to be?
BLACKBURN: Nothing, at that time. All we had to do was guess, because we had so much concrete.
WEISSKOPF: You were starting to get a feel for how big it was?
BLACKBURN: Oh, yeah. Gene, it was a big one. And I knew it had to be some explosive, but I didn't know what kind.
WEISSKOPF: It was DuPont, and it was the war.
BLACKBURN: See, I was a carpenter on the plant in Savanna, about six miles out of Savanna, where we made the regular bombs and everything like that, so I got to see how they were made, and packed, and painted, and everything like that pretty well, because I was up there during that time.
WEISSKOPF: Were you surprised at how thick the walls were?
BLACKBURN: Oh, God, yes. On the dams, we had walls, oh, a foot and a half, two foot thick, and got out here and run into six foot, seven foot walls, so I knew something had to be an explosive. But they --- we never said anything. We didn't dare tell our families, or anything like that, what was going on.
WEISSKOPF: When you were forming up, say, walls, and you started from the bottom and you realized they were seven feet thick, did you form them all the way up, or what was the work ---
BLACKBURN: Well, you formed one set about, oh, around 18 foot high, and then you poured concrete there, and then you went from --- you'd pull the vans* up, and you go up, keep going up.
WEISSKOPF: And the rebar would continue on up?
WEISSKOPF: So you started well below grade, then, right?
BLACKBURN: Oh, we were right --- a big hole. A big hole. I'm just guessing now that the hole itself was 35, 40 foot deep. It was pretty --- they put a (inaudible)* in the bottom of it. Because that had to be deep concrete underneath the cells in there, you know, and the cells are all down under the ground.
WEISSKOPF: Were they calling them cells at the time, when you were forming up all these components?
BLACKBURN: I don't know what we called them.
WEISSKOPF: Because, on the one hand, it makes it real easy if everybody refers to everything in the same way, but if they're not allowed to tell you what the real name is, then everybody might end up using a different name.
BLACKBURN: Using everything. That's right.
WEISSKOPF: So you were working with rebar inside the walls, but at some point as you got up there was a lot of piping, too.
WEISSKOPF: And were you dealing with that with your forming?
BLACKBURN: Carpenters didn't deal with piping. There were piping people that was putting in there before we poured concrete.
WEISSKOPF: But who was cutting holes in the form and making sure the holes were in the ---
BLACKBURN: We cut holes in the forms and stuff.
WEISSKOPF: Was that pretty straightforward?
BLACKBURN: Some of the same forms we could use for a lot of different cells. See, really, 221 was built, well, in a way a little bit sloppy, but each cell was pretty much the same as the other.
BLACKBURN: Until you got down to where we brought in the metal, and stuff like that. (Inaudible)* and stuff like that down there. And then, of course, we had to build a track. Tracks come in the ---
WEISSKOPF: For the train?
BLACKBURN: Yeah. I guess you could call the east end, the east end of T Plant, I guess. And the tanks and a lot of all the equipment practically come into the deal through the railroad and through where we put the dissolvers afterwards. Big tanks. There was no way of putting them in through the doors. I had two guys for several months, all they done is build the entrance to the canyon. And after the first months using the blueprints, after that we didn't need a blueprint, we knew just what they were doing. They were all the same, and along about every hundred feet we put an entry into it. And the entry was a level at the top of the settles. So everything from there was down under the ground, see.
WEISSKOPF: And the entries you're talking about were on the smokestack side of the building, that went into the canyon itself?
BLACKBURN: Entries were all on the --- let's see. That was east, that would be on the south side.
WEISSKOPF: Southeast side?
BLACKBURN: South, yeah, of the canyon, the whole length.
WEISSKOPF: And on the other side of the canyon, the long side, the gallery side ---
BLACKBURN: That's right, the gallery.
WEISSKOPF: They had their own entrances.
BLACKBURN: Oh, yeah. We had the offices, all that on that side.
WEISSKOPF: On the entrances that went into the canyon, do you remember how those were built up?
BLACKBURN: Well, they started out like this. And we put steps up to here, and then we put steps this way, and then we put steps into the canyon, and that's where the doors were.
WEISSKOPF: And those were also thick walls.
BLACKBURN: So that anything from inside would not affect the outside at all, the radiation or anything.
WEISSKOPF: Was the door anything special? Did you ever see the door? Were you around for that?
BLACKBURN: Them doors, it's just heavy wood, stuff like that. They were thick and heavy, I remember that.
WEISSKOPF: Back to the building of the forms for a 7 foot wall is in itself no big deal. But do you remember how precise they asked you to make the forming?
BLACKBURN: Oh, the forming, they wanted it just as close as possible. The forms inside, and then they made all the covers for the cells outside. That was a different game.
WEISSKOPF: I've seen pictures of that. But you were forming up the cells themselves?
BLACKBURN: Oh, yes, on the cells themselves. And we had to have them just almost perfect according to the engineers in order for these big tops to fit in just right, see.
WEISSKOPF: As a matter of comparison, what were your tolerances on other jobs for DuPont, when you were just building a normal type of a factory?
BLACKBURN: Well, probably half, three-quarters of an inch on a lot of work. But this one here, we tried to be underneath the half-inch.
WEISSKOPF: And when you were forming the cells, did they have metal forms or premade forms?
BLACKBURN: We had premade forms that stuck in there. I can't remember what they were made of. I think they were metal. We used them in every cell, the same ones, just moved on down the cells.
WEISSKOPF: Did they have the holes for all the fittings that came into the cells?
BLACKBURN: Yeah. There, we put in plugs, what we called plugs, and they had to go through the concrete. And some of them come from the other cells, and some of them come in there up where we added chemicals and stuff down through there. And electrical deals, to put electric lines and like that, a lot of that stuff in there.
WEISSKOPF: Were you there when they poured concrete?
WEISSKOPF: So you were there from building the forms and taking the forms down later on.
BLACKBURN: At the same time. Most of the forms, like I said, when they poured up to this level, why, then you just pulled the forms up with the big train heads*. And we used some of the same bolts that we used to get the bottoms in, and we'd use the same thing up at the top.
WEISSKOPF: The cells were what? Twenty feet deep, something like that, plus the thickness of the covers. They were very deep.
BLACKBURN: The cells were all at least 20 foot deep.
WEISSKOPF: You didn't pour those in one pour, then, that depth? I was wondering how you used those reusable forms.
BLACKBURN: Some of the forms was pulled up inside, too. I think they were pouring 15 to 20, almost 20 foot concrete. We had a big machine set up for concrete. You didn't bring trucks in. The trucks just put it into the big machines, and the machines come and we pour the concrete, why, it was just a steady stream.
WEISSKOPF: It was pumped in?
BLACKBURN: Yeah, pumped in. And fellows worked in there in what we used to call --- I can't think of what we used to call them.
WEISSKOPF: To tamp down the concrete?
WEISSKOPF: Were they vibrators?
BLACKBURN: Well, that's what they were, but we had names for them.
WEISSKOPF: How did you stick a vibrator down into a 7 foot thick wall that was just packed full of piping and conduit and stuff like that?
BLACKBURN: Well, you could do that. We used both kinds. One vibrator was about that big.
WEISSKOPF: About three inches across?
BLACKBURN: Well, not quite three inches. Probably two and a half. And long, about like that, you know.
WEISSKOPF: Two feet?
BLACKBURN: And then we had what we called a pineapple that roared when you put it in concrete, and it just has it all over. Had both kinds.
WEISSKOPF: And if any of those pipes had been bumped or knocked or dislodged, it would have been real trouble. Was everybody extra careful, or was it in there ---
BLACKBURN: Oh, I'm sure it was. We didn't seem to have any problem that way.
BLACKBURN: See, a lot of the pipes themselves, if I remember right, we put in what we called jockeys for these holes, and then the pipes was put in some of them afterwards.
WEISSKOPF: Oh. Through channels in the concrete?
BLACKBURN: Yeah, that's right. Then afterwards they put these heads on these lines so that the crane could bring in a pipe, all different rods, and put it on to there and then tighten it up.
WEISSKOPF: Uh-huh, I've seen pictures.
BLACKBURN: Our biggest problem was the gaskets. When they started leaking, why, you had to pull off the jumper, we called them jumpers. You had to pull them off and put in a new one because they would be too hot, some of them would be too hot. If they were chemical jumpers, you could bring them out and redo the deal. But the whole system for 221-T was very simple. Very simple. All we did is bring in the slugs and take the aluminum coats off that we had put on in 300 area. Because, see, I worked a few weeks in 300 area also on making those slugs before I was chosen to go out to 231 Building.
WEISSKOPF: Is that where you first met Roger Hultgren?
BLACKBURN: Hultgren, I believe I didn't meet him until I got out to 221 for (inaudible)*. See, some of them guys didn't come out during construction, I think they come more or less when it was about ready to start up.
BLACKBURN: I think he come from Chicago, too, I believe, if I remember. But I knew him well.
WEISSKOPF: Well, let's maybe change gears for a minute. Let's jump to the end of construction. Did you leave 221 after it was completely finished?
BLACKBURN: Practically finished.
WEISSKOPF: You stuck with it most of the time?
BLACKBURN: Yeah. Well, yeah, I worked till almost October.
BLACKBURN: Yeah. And then my whole crew was laid off. In fact, we had that part all done, and then 24 was done, so that was my deal. So they talked about our whole crew was going to be laid off. Well, I decided maybe I'd go into operations. So I signed up for operations, but most of my men all went home. They went back to Illinois, and different places like that, where we come from.
WEISSKOPF: Because there wasn't any work on the rest of the site, because it was getting finished up, too?
BLACKBURN: They were finishing up on the other plant right down below that was supposed to do the same thing the T Plant did. It never did.
WEISSKOPF: That was U Plant, I guess.
BLACKBURN: U Plant. But they never did. They never operated that. Later on, they used that for uranium.
WEISSKOPF: The recycling.
BLACKBURN: On T Plant, wasn't made for uranium at all. All we did is (inaudible)*, put it in the tanks, wash it with different chemicals, and then let it settle. And the uranium went down and plutonium come up. Then we sucked the plutonium off and moved it on and set the uranium through a big tank. So we did that. We just did that after several, and each time we had the plutonium down to smaller, smaller, and smaller. And then we sent it across to 224. And there they made it smaller and cleaner, and smaller and cleaner. And each batch ended up, oh, probably three gallons or three and a half gallons, and we put them in five gallon stainless steel. I forget what we call them now. And that's the way we transferred in the 231 Building, put them in big deals.
WEISSKOPF: So, in October of '44 the construction was winding down, and that's when they sent you to the 300 area?
BLACKBURN: That's when I hired out for operations, I went through all the dope. And I had my clearances and everything anyway, but everybody went through 300 area while they rechecked your clearances and everything. Even though I had clearances for practically everything in construction, they still needed more clearances about your life, and all this and that. So they sent you to 300 area for a week or so. The first couple of days you didn't even get in where the slugs were, you waited till they okayed you.
WEISSKOPF: When you went from construction into operations, what did you think you were going into?
BLACKBURN: When I got into there, I still didn't know what the slugs was for, but I knew where they were going, I knew they were going to the reactors.
WEISSKOPF: Did you know they were reactors, or you just knew they were plants?
BLACKBURN: I think they called them plants or something at that time. But we took the uranium and made slugs about 8 inches long, about an inch and a quarter through, and had them up to 14, 15 hundred degrees, and then we'd shove them up there for just so long, we had clocks. And then when that was ready, we transferred them over into the aluminum. The aluminum was terribly hot, too. And we had these shields, aluminum shields, a little bit longer than the slug was, and that was in this stuff. We pushed that thing down in there, and then we had a cap that we capped it off with, and brought it out, cooled it all down, and then welded the cap with a welder.
WEISSKOPF: How many slugs at a time would you be dealing with? At any given hour, how many slugs went through your hands?
BLACKBURN: We put, on a shift, on a shift, see, I think that we were running two or three hundred on a shift, if I remember right. Each shift kept track of what they were doing.
WEISSKOPF: A shift being maybe eight, nine, ten hours?
BLACKBURN: Eight hours. Eight-hour shifts. Yeah. And three shifts around the clock. And then we put them all in carriers, and that's the way they were sent to the reactors.
WEISSKOPF: So in October of '44 the first reactor had already started up?
BLACKBURN: Oh, yeah.
WEISSKOPF: Okay. So your slugs were needed very much, to keep it going.
BLACKBURN: We were still making the full-length slug with the new pipes. You know the pipes afterwards got messed up in the reactors. Then they started making small --- I didn't, not while I was there, but afterwards they had to make these slugs smaller so they could get around the...
WEISSKOPF: The graphite in the reactors was expanding?
BLACKBURN: Yeah. I was about a month in 300 area, and I was picked to go to 231 because they were just getting some material to 231, plutonium. And I was picked as chief operator, and I was the first chief operator in 321 Building.
BLACKBURN: 331 Building.
WEISSKOPF: Wait, 231.
WEISSKOPF: And that was to go in from the 221 Building, the big building, to the 224 ---
WEISSKOPF: And from 221 to 224 was piped over?
BLACKBURN: Yes. We pumped it.
WEISSKOPF: And how did you get it to the 231?
BLACKBURN: With trucks.
WEISSKOPF: You put it in a container and carried it over.
BLACKBURN: We contained it, and then it went with the trucks. And so then I went down there, and we had two cells down there, and I was chief on both and had about three operators in each cell. And everything was into last deal, cells down there, you know. We put it in, and drop it, pick it up, drop it, clean it, and...
WEISSKOPF: So you didn't have to be a chemist to do the job, you had to be able to follow the procedure.
BLACKBURN: We had chemists, too, in the building.
WEISSKOPF: So, in a sense, you were like a foreman ---
WEISSKOPF: --- managing ---
BLACKBURN: I was the foreman.
WEISSKOPF: --- the actual process.
BLACKBURN: That's right. I think the chief is supposed to be foreman. He takes care of the help, and then we had the manager of 231, and he had a supervisor, too. Anyway, I was transferred to 231 and run both areas then. And I think, and I won't bet on this, but I think I loaded out the first plutonium to the Army.
BLACKBURN: And they come and backed up their truck to the back door, and I opened the door and looked out here, and here's rifles sticking in the air all around. And we loaded them on these pineapples. And I was going to tell you about the pineapple. That was the last thing that we --- we have this three and a half gallon stuff worked down to so many deals, put it in the pineapple and cooked it. We cooked so much, so many deals off from that, and then that left practically a gel in the pineapple, and that's the way we shipped it.
WEISSKOPF: Did you know you had to be cautious with it?
BLACKBURN: We had to be exact on the amounts. We thought, anyway. We had to be exact on the amount of the liquid that we took off that deal, because we had to weigh that, and weighed every piece.
WEISSKOPF: Did the word criticality come up at that point?
BLACKBURN: Oh, I'm sure it did, because everything had to be just on the seconds. And when we boiled it down, why, we had to be very careful, just exactly the amount that we took off, the liquid. And we had to weigh everything and make papers out of everything.
WEISSKOPF: Was that first shipment the equivalent plutonium from the first batch of uranium that went through?
BLACKBURN: I think it was. I think it was. And ---
WEISSKOPF: It wasn't a combination of four or five batches, or part of a batch?
BLACKBURN: Oh. Oh, yes, it was more than one batch. See, every one of these deals that we brought down from 224 turned out to be one pineapple. And I think the first shipment, I'm just kind of guessing now, we loaded up 20 pineapples. About 20 pineapples. And we understood, I'm not sure they did, we understood that that Army took that truck and went all the way down to New Mexico. But afterwards we loaded it and they put it in flatcars.
WEISSKOPF: Oh, okay. Once the system got going?
BLACKBURN: The Army went right in the train and stayed locked in there.
WEISSKOPF: And that was probably in the spring of '45 you were doing that?
BLACKBURN: Yeah. Yeah. Actually, it was either early November or the latter part of October that I went to 300 area.
BLACKBURN: And then I was there about a month, maybe a month, when I was made a chief in the sense of 231.
WEISSKOPF: You think that was already in '45 when you went there?
BLACKBURN: It was probably December. I'd say probably --- could have been December. Some of these dates are a little bit funny. But, anyway, I was at 231 Building for about two and a half, three years. And we got a new manager in, and he stayed there about six months, and he knew that I was the carpenter foreman up in 221, and he was trying to get as much experience as he could. So he was all done with 231, and he wanted to know if I'd go up to 221 with him. And I said "Hell, yes. I know that building pretty well." He said "That's just why I want you to go along." So I was put on a shift up there as chief.
WEISSKOPF: What was your title?
BLACKBURN: Chief. And I was up there, I would guess, six, seven years. Maybe even more than that. I can't remember just how long. I stayed on one shift all the time. And he was the manager up there.
WEISSKOPF: Who was that? If it comes to you.
BLACKBURN: I can't remember his --- anyway, he replaced the manager at 231, because he was that guy's manager when he went to the Navy. And when he come out of the Navy, he come right back to that building and replaced the manager there. And then he was trying to get information on the whole thing, because he moved back to Chicago afterwards. He was a very nice fellow. He was a Navy --- I forget what he told me he was. He was way up, something pretty good in the Navy.
WEISSKOPF: One of the important moments at Hanford was in August of '45 when they finally dropped the bomb and it made the newspapers. Why don't you describe where you were working then, and how it affected you and your job.
BLACKBURN: I was still at 231 when they dropped the bomb. Of course, I think the general bunch of us pretty well knew what was going on there. But we didn't dare tell our families, or anything like that.
WEISSKOPF: But you didn't know if it would work, though, either.
BLACKBURN: No. I don't think they did until they set off the deals there in...
WEISSKOPF: In New Mexico.
BLACKBURN: New Mexico.
WEISSKOPF: So as I understood it, the news came out and immediately everybody told you that Hanford was involved with it?
BLACKBURN: Oh, sure, right away. We knew right away when it exploded. And then, of course, the papers was full of stuff, and things like that. In the hospital, at Kadlec Hospital, they got a lot of stuff along the walls up there. That's the new hospital, that ain't the old hospital but the new one. They've got a lot of good stuff for guys like me that wander through there and read it, and things like that. That was good.
WEISSKOPF: So did it change the nature of your job, once everybody knew what you were all involved with?
BLACKBURN: Well, the only thing was from then on there was a little more hurried. They knew what we was doing, and we could hustle it up a little bit more. And I worked in T Plant then, until PUREX was just about ---
BLACKBURN: PUREX. When PUREX was just about ready to start putting tanks in, then I was transferred over there. And soon after I got over there, I was a specialist. I was made a specialist at that (inaudible)*.
WEISSKOPF: How did REDOX fit in between?
BLACKBURN: There was a gang down there, and to tell you the truth I know very little about what they were doing. We knew some of the guys that worked there, but ---
WEISSKOPF: T Plant was still going while REDOX was going?
WEISSKOPF: They kept you both going?
BLACKBURN: Yeah. How they handled their work down there, I don't know. But I knew a lot of the operators, some of them that went and transferred down there, some of them that worked with me in 231, and stuff like that.
WEISSKOPF: Do you think you could describe a typical day at T Plant during operations?
WEISSKOPF: If you knew a batch was coming in on the train at 8:00 a.m., how would your day revolve around, before, during and after that?
BLACKBURN: Well, the crane operator would take the slugs and put in the dissolvers.
WEISSKOPF: And let's say if that happened at 8:00, how long before that would you be ramping up for?
BLACKBURN: Oh, that particular metal probably wouldn't for the next day, maybe two days. When they got a batch ready, they had tanks to put that in. And we took it as we could take it, in batches, which is how we moved it into the tanks. We didn't exactly take it right off the dissolvers. The dissolvers went into another tank. The first thing they had to do was take the aluminum covers off.
WEISSKOPF: Okay. Well, let's go back to the crane operator then and his job. At 8:00 the cask car is down there, and he's starting to put it into the dissolver?
BLACKBURN: Yeah, in the dissolvers.
WEISSKOPF: Okay. And what are you doing while that's happening?
BLACKBURN: Well, we're going on with the other material.
WEISSKOPF: Because there's processes happening farther down the line?
BLACKBURN: Oh, yeah. We were going all the time.
WEISSKOPF: How many different batches might there be in the building at any one time? You know, from beginning to end?
BLACKBURN: Oh, I could say four, five. At least.
WEISSKOPF: Interesting.
WEISSKOPF: And the idea being, you only deal with one batch at a time, but once one is started and moved down the line, you could start another one.
BLACKBURN: Another one right behind it. See, I had so many operators and so many utility operators. I had an operator on each of the boards, what we called a board. And any movement from one board to --- one tank to another, I had to go unlock. And we were all locked up there. And that was the old-time, I forget what we called them. Anyway, the steam went to them for jetting, and then the air blowed them out to cool them off, and then we locked them up again. So I had a lot of walking.
WEISSKOPF: Because it's 800 feet long. Was there a, quote, gauge board for every section down the way?
WEISSKOPF: For every two cells?
BLACKBURN: I think it was about two cells, because the operator could move from one tank to another. We did a lot of settling work, so the plutonium come up and uranium went down. And then you washed them both, and then of course uranium was --- it was wasted for us at that time, and the plutonium was what was really after there. It was very simple.
WEISSKOPF: Were you the top of the heap, then, when operations were going on? Were you the one who had the final say about how the process went? Not chemically, maybe, but just as far as ---
BLACKBURN: No, I had a supervisor. Only he sat in the office most of the time. Of course, he would talk to the operators, and things like that. But I did all the running, had the keys, and had to write a book at the end of a shift, and everything like that.
WEISSKOPF: The log sheets that I've seen that people would fill out that have the steps listed, and the numbers.
BLACKBURN: Yeah, we always had a log.
WEISSKOPF: Was the person standing at the gauge board filling that out?
BLACKBURN: No, that was me.
WEISSKOPF: Okay. But if you had a board ---
BLACKBURN: Each area where they had, they had a book that told them just how long to settle, just how much chemical to put in there, and what chemicals to put in. And then the operator had to put in that he did this, and he did that, and he did this, did that. That's the way we run that.
WEISSKOPF: And would there be a sheet, then, at every gauge, every panel?
BLACKBURN: Oh, yes. It was a book. Actually, it was a book, really. It was, oh, like you see in schools, several pages inside of a book that opened up.
WEISSKOPF: Was it difficult keeping track of multiple batches in the building? You might be dissolving one at one end, and ---
BLACKBURN: Seems like we had a deal in the office that as it moved along, we moved this thing in the office showing exactly what position we were in all the time.
WEISSKOPF: What was your title as you were doing that?
WEISSKOPF: Chief operator?
BLACKBURN: Chief in T Plant.
WEISSKOPF: Of one shift?
BLACKBURN: Of one shift, yeah. We had four chiefs.
WEISSKOPF: And when the shift changed, you and all the people under you would move out and other guys would move in?
BLACKBURN: Went home, yeah.
WEISSKOPF: And you would have to tell them where you were in the process?
BLACKBURN: Well, yes, we always talked to the other chief when he come in. They always come in about 20 minutes to talk. And he could read what you had put down in the book. And if he had any questions to ask you, well, okay. And before we'd have to run out to get the bus to go to town.
WEISSKOPF: Could you describe what --- the gallery where the gauges were was the operating gallery? What do you guys refer to it as?
BLACKBURN: How big it was?
WEISSKOPF: Well, just what it was like working in there. For example, how many guys would there be all the way down the length of the building while you were processing?
BLACKBURN: Oh, we'd have about nine or ten operators, and we'd have two guys that was taking samples, and that would be twelve.
WEISSKOPF: Somebody in the crane?
BLACKBURN: Oh, yes, we had the crane operator.
WEISSKOPF: Was he under your supervision, too?
BLACKBURN: No, not necessarily. He was actually, at that time, when I was a chief, him and I was level as far as that goes. Once in a great while I'd go up there during a shift, fool around with the deal, and he'd laugh about it naturally. Them guys was good.
WEISSKOPF: You'd look through the periscopes and try to see what it was about?
BLACKBURN: Yeah, I hooked on a couple of times.
WEISSKOPF: Was it easy?
BLACKBURN: No. Not for me. Seemed like it was for them.
WEISSKOPF: Do you remember there being a little television screen in the crane cabin?
BLACKBURN: Well, everything was done with television. He couldn't see anything.
WEISSKOPF: Well, they had periscopes, too.
BLACKBURN: Periscopes.
WEISSKOPF: But what about television?
BLACKBURN: Didn't have television.
WEISSKOPF: Okay. Because I read --- and since you were there during construction, there's a couple of pages of descriptions of how DuPont went to RCA and ordered a closed circuit television system that they installed in the cranes in all the separations buildings, and nobody I know remembers seeing them.
BLACKBURN: I don't remember seeing them. I never knew there was such a thing as a television.
WEISSKOPF: It would have stood out, had you seen it, right?
BLACKBURN: Oh, I'm sure it would.
WEISSKOPF: Okay. I don't know what happened to it, but DuPont paid for it, and they sort of implied they installed it. That's funny. Okay. So you had nine or ten operators ---
BLACKBURN: Well, I had about ten operators.
WEISSKOPF: A couple of samplers.
BLACKBURN: Two. They were operators. One of them had to be an operator. And then we had people making up chemicals. One operator and probably two utility operators. And then ---
WEISSKOPF: Where would they be?
BLACKBURN: They were up...
WEISSKOPF: The same place?
BLACKBURN: No. They were on the same side that the offices were. And we had big tanks back there with all the different kinds of chemicals. Everything. We had nitric all the way from 60% down to 2%, I think it was. And then we had I think about two or else three operators in 224, and a couple of utilities there, too.
WEISSKOPF: Were they under your supervision?
WEISSKOPF: In the 224 Building as well?
BLACKBURN: 224 and 21. It was handled just like --- my same supervisor was supervisor to the 24.
WEISSKOPF: Well, how did you --- if you were unlocking and physically having to be in the 221 Building ---
BLACKBURN: Didn't have much of that unlocking over there. A couple times a night I went over there and checked out everything that was going on.
WEISSKOPF: Do you remember the process of sampling and how often that happened? How important was it?
BLACKBURN: Well, real important. The sampling was real important. The samplers, I remember one time when I and Hultgren went in the canyon and took a sample by ourself. Filled up a pot in order to send it. I think we sent that to New Mexico, too, I believe.
WEISSKOPF: For special analysis?
WEISSKOPF: And why did you guys do it versus the normal samplers?
BLACKBURN: Because we did it sort of out of --- we didn't do it with any RM* or anything.
WEISSKOPF: Oh. You sort of snuck in.
BLACKBURN: We did things once in a while that wasn't supposed to be done, probably, but we did it.
WEISSKOPF: If that was more or less typical, what did you do before you went into the canyon?
BLACKBURN: We all had to change clothes to go into the canyon.
WEISSKOPF: Wearing air masks then?
BLACKBURN: Yeah. Yeah. Oh, yes.
WEISSKOPF: Going back to a typical sampler, were there times that you always took samples at certain points of the process?
WEISSKOPF: So they would know when it was coming up.
BLACKBURN: They would know. Well, you could talk to them. See, a lot of times they sat by the phone on the outside of the building there, or in the hallways, things like that.
WEISSKOPF: On the canyon side?
WEISSKOPF: Suited up, ready to go in?
BLACKBURN: Oh, they were suited all the time for eight hours.
BLACKBURN: Because you never know, every time we got word from the other people of what was going on, why, then we could either move material or do some more washing in the same place.
WEISSKOPF: So how many times in one batch would the samplers need to go in, do you think, and take a sample?
BLACKBURN: Well, they would practically sample it in each tank.
WEISSKOPF: Oh, really.
BLACKBURN: I think each tank was sampled, if I remember right.
WEISSKOPF: So it would be many times.
BLACKBURN: Oh, yes, they took quite a few samples.
WEISSKOPF: So a batch took about 24 hours to go through, maybe less?
BLACKBURN: Oh, more than that.
WEISSKOPF: More than that?
BLACKBURN: More than that. I would say one batch would take more than 24 hours to go through.
WEISSKOPF: If it started Monday morning, it would be done sometime Tuesday?
BLACKBURN: Probably Tuesday.
WEISSKOPF: Okay. And in between they'd be taking a dozen samples?
BLACKBURN: I'm sure they would. I'm sure they would. They would sample every tank. And if something went wrong with the sample, why, we'd have to resample, like that, you know.
WEISSKOPF: And I presume there must have been some pressure on everybody, if you're having to resample?
BLACKBURN: Everybody, yeah. They used to hang out, the samplers used to hang out where they run the analysis and stuff, things like that. They didn't have (inaudible)* in the canyon, or anything like that.
WEISSKOPF: Would they have to undress, take off their overalls before they went in?
BLACKBURN: They had to take off one pair.
WEISSKOPF: One pair.
WEISSKOPF: But they kept the other pair on?
BLACKBURN: See, they generally had two pairs.
WEISSKOPF: So could you describe what it was like? When they knew they had to get a sample, what did they do before they entered the canyon and on in?
BLACKBURN: Well, they had to --- we had to call them, and they would pick up their samplers at the lab and go in and take the sample and take it back to the lab.
WEISSKOPF: How long would that take, do you think, between when they were notified to when they returned to the lab?
BLACKBURN: Oh, probably 15 minutes, 20 minutes sometimes.
WEISSKOPF: Was there ever a time when you sampled, and you resampled and realized that something was drastically gone wrong with the batch?
BLACKBURN: I don't remember much of that.
WEISSKOPF: Did you ever have to dump a batch because something had gone wrong?
BLACKBURN: Well, we had to rework a batch.
WEISSKOPF: You wouldn't dump it in the waste tanks and be done with it.
WEISSKOPF: You'd always send it back.
BLACKBURN: Send it back. You wouldn't want to throw away that plutonium.
WEISSKOPF: No. Did you get a lot of pressure when something like that would happen?
BLACKBURN: Well, what it did is held back everything behind it.
WEISSKOPF: And what other kind of ancillary jobs were there? We mentioned people at the gauges, people mixing chemicals, people sampling. People in the laboratories?
WEISSKOPF: Were they also part of your shift?
BLACKBURN: No. I didn't --- well, they were the shift, same shift, but they had their own supervision.
WEISSKOPF: So your people would take them samples, and they would give you numbers to enter into your logbook?
BLACKBURN: Had to come back to our office, our numbers.
WEISSKOPF: Okay. And those numbers had to be within a certain range?
WEISSKOPF: Did you have much leeway with those kinds of things?
BLACKBURN: I don't think so.
WEISSKOPF: It was all pretty much laid out.
BLACKBURN: Yeah. The only chemicals were all run through the labs, too, you know. The chemicals, they made chemicals upstairs in our buildings, and they would do it, each one was made up when you put the chemicals together with the book. And then they'd take a sample of that and send you to the lab.
WEISSKOPF: Would they make a whole bunch at one time and keep it in a tank, then have it for many batches?
BLACKBURN: Yeah, we had batches.
WEISSKOPF: So if you needed nitric acid at a certain level, they would make up a big batch, test it ---
BLACKBURN: Big batch, and we'd take just what we needed out of it. But there was so much waste at T Plant. That's why we got the PUREX.
WEISSKOPF: And when you say waste, you mean in any given batch.
BLACKBURN: The stuff to fill down, to fill the tanks down in the tank farms. I don't know for sure exactly, but I think that PUREX, our waste was about 10% of what T Plant. I'm just guessing that.
WEISSKOPF: Well, they weren't getting rid of any of the uranium, right?
BLACKBURN: And PUREX we wanted uranium and we wanted plutonium, both. So that wasn't waste. Our uranium went out into a tank, and then we loaded trucks, sent it to U Plant.
WEISSKOPF: And at T Plant everything except the plutonium was returned to the waste tanks.
BLACKBURN: To the waste tanks, right.
WEISSKOPF: Was there a lot of effort to conserve chemicals and to lower the waste as much as possible? Was there much you could do about that?
BLACKBURN: You couldn't do that.
WEISSKOPF: The process was fixed.
BLACKBURN: We went by what they give us to process, yeah. We didn't see much of the big-shots from Chicago until 231. They come out there an awful lot.
BLACKBURN: And then we'd have to clean up behind. They'd mess up our room pretty bad.
WEISSKOPF: Were they trying to just improve that last step of the process?
BLACKBURN: That's right. They were --- well, experimenting; let's say it that way. And they all had different names. They didn't have their regular names when they come.
WEISSKOPF: Fermi went under the name of Farmer, I believe.
BLACKBURN: Yeah. I don't know, they had all kinds of names that they come out there with. They were very smart. They knew what they were doing. We took their word for it, everything. But we had a lot of cleanup work to do after they left every time.
WEISSKOPF: They weren't quite so careful, huh?
BLACKBURN: No, not as we had to be. We had to be. And when we shipped everything, everything had to be checked out completely, you know.
WEISSKOPF: Let me ask you about the crane operator again, since that was such a key job.
WEISSKOPF: If you had a problem with some of the piping, say, that had to be replaced or adjusted, how long would it take, once you gave him the command of what needed to be done, how long did it take him to move up and down, take off the cell block covers...
BLACKBURN: Oh, we're talking probably an hour, half an hour.
WEISSKOPF: To at least get the process started?
BLACKBURN: Yeah. He would have to take off the deal. We had some regular cells in the east end of the building, or he'd have to take the deal and then pick up a new one there, bring it in on the flatbeds and stuff like that and take it up. I'd say probably somewheres near an hour, probably.
WEISSKOPF: So the pressure was on him, though, right?
BLACKBURN: They were pretty good.
WEISSKOPF: And what would you do with the equipment you took out, if it was hot?
BLACKBURN: Then it went into cells and stayed there.
WEISSKOPF: For how long?
WEISSKOPF: The cells were big enough to hold that kind of thing?
BLACKBURN: Oh, you could pile a lot of used stuff in the cells.
WEISSKOPF: Do you remember any of it ever being taken out and dealt with?
WEISSKOPF: Would they take it out on the train car that brought in the fuel?
BLACKBURN: No, no. They brought in flatcars.
WEISSKOPF: Into the tunnel?
BLACKBURN: Yeah. And we cocooned a lot of stuff before it went to burial. But for a long time all T Plant was operated and things like that, we didn't do any of that. We did more of it afterwards.
WEISSKOPF: Because in the early days, I guess, there was pressures to produce, and worry about the details later on.
BLACKBURN: That's right. Yeah.
*[Start of side A of 2nd tape, not as clear. Echoes. You might want to listen to your tape from this point.]*
WEISSKOPF: Describe again, then, about the dissolver. You said you didn't have to empty it between batches?
BLACKBURN: Never did. You always leave a bunch.
WEISSKOPF: I've heard the word heel* used. Does that ring a bell? Where they would leave something in there.
BLACKBURN: Yeah, we always left something.
WEISSKOPF: What was the idea of leaving something in there, instead of just finishing one whole batch and emptying it out?
BLACKBURN: I don't know why that was. But you always left --- there was always some slugs in there.
WEISSKOPF: The first dissolving was to get the aluminum off.
BLACKBURN: That's the first thing you did, yeah.
WEISSKOPF: And that was like a sodium hydroxide?
BLACKBURN: Seemed like we used ---
WEISSKOPF: It was like lye almost?
BLACKBURN: I thought we used sulfuric. I'm not sure.
WEISSKOPF: And would you leave it in the same dissolver for the next step?
BLACKBURN: No, no. You jetted that off to the waste. We had to get that out.
WEISSKOPF: And what was left was more or less bare aluminum slugs?
BLACKBURN: Uranium slugs. Almost the same as we were running in the 300 area.
WEISSKOPF: Did you wash them in water or anything in between?
BLACKBURN: No. As far as I know, we just took this --- I think we used 60% acid to dissolve it.
WEISSKOPF: And once it was dissolved, then you had material to work with.
BLACKBURN: Yeah. It never dissolved them all, it just dissolved the top, you might say, and that's what we jetted, jetted out into holding tanks.
WEISSKOPF: Could you explain how those jets worked? They weren't pumps, right?
BLACKBURN: In some places we used pumps, but most of the places a jet, you had a suction line, and you got a jet here with a certain deal, and you run the steam through that. And when that steam runs through that, it sucks your material right with it.
WEISSKOPF: Did it add steam to the material?
WEISSKOPF: So you had to factor that in?
BLACKBURN: You had to factor that in, because that was part of your (inaudible)* afterwards. The more steam you used, the more liquid you come up with.
WEISSKOPF: How effective was that as a pump? Did it work pretty well?
BLACKBURN: Jet is wonderful. Jet is wonderful.
WEISSKOPF: No moving parts?
BLACKBURN: It just sits right there and you run the steam through your deal.
WEISSKOPF: Basically, you could only, I guess, pump so high, because you were working on a vacuum principle, you're sucking it out?
BLACKBURN: Just sucking it right out.
WEISSKOPF: Okay. Another issue was the dissolvers was where the really dangerous gases were let off. That was sort of the most toxic part of the process?
BLACKBURN: Probably.
WEISSKOPF: And they ran the exhaust directly out from there to the stack?
BLACKBURN: Went to a stack. Of course, all the cells were all made to...
WEISSKOPF: I was under the impression that the dissolvers had their own special jet pipes.
BLACKBURN: They could have. They could have.
WEISSKOPF: Were you also watching what was coming out of the stack during dissolving?
BLACKBURN: Sometimes.
WEISSKOPF: Was that your job, or was it somebody else?
BLACKBURN: That's not my job, no. We had people that worked in maintenance that were supposed to watch some of that kind of stuff.
WEISSKOPF: How about the weather report before you were allowed to dissolve?
WEISSKOPF: How did that come to you? When you knew there was going to be a batch coming in...
BLACKBURN: They had their own weather station at Hanford. Every night they sent up a balloon, stuff like that, to get directions and things like that. And we got all our deal right from the...
WEISSKOPF: Well, what would you do if they said the weather was going to be bad for two days?
BLACKBURN: We didn't do it.
WEISSKOPF: What did you do?
BLACKBURN: We just didn't. We could move material.
WEISSKOPF: The processes were still going.
BLACKBURN: We couldn't dissolve.
WEISSKOPF: Okay. Was there ever like a 10-day period when you weren't allowed to dissolve?
BLACKBURN: I don't remember anything quite that long that I can remember. But there was a lot of days that you couldn't dissolve.
WEISSKOPF: But it didn't mean you sat around drinking coffee.
BLACKBURN: No, no. We still operated the rest of the building.
WEISSKOPF: And you never had to wait so long that the building had no processes going on?
BLACKBURN: No. There were some times when we used to flush tanks, clean the tank out completely and bring the metal in. So we didn't dissolve every day.
WEISSKOPF: Did the crane operator do a lot of inspections to see that things were okay? How would you know that things weren't leaking, or rusting out, or...
BLACKBURN: We had things in our sumps and had a deal showing --- if we had a leak in a cell, a sump told us that we had it. He didn't have to worry about that till we told him.
WEISSKOPF: One cell, the supercell* that was real deep, or the collection of cells that was like (inaudible)* deeper than the rest.
BLACKBURN: That was a big cell anyway, because there was a lot of stuff put in that.
WEISSKOPF: And where would the stuff come from that went into that?
BLACKBURN: From the rest of the building.
WEISSKOPF: It wasn't from the tanks, it was from spills and things like that?
BLACKBURN: It was what we called connectors. It was connectors for stuff that we was transferring from one cell, from one tank to another, and from another cell into that. And if we got a leak, we stopped it immediately when we got a signal. And then the crane operator went and inspected it. (Inaudible)*
WEISSKOPF: Where the connector met the well* of the cell, that joint might leak.
WEISSKOPF: And liquid would go down onto the cell floor.
BLACKBURN: Right down into the sump, see.
WEISSKOPF: And a drain that went all the way down.
BLACKBURN: We always had sumps in there.
WEISSKOPF: Was there a drain from that sump down to that supercell*?
BLACKBURN: I believe that we were able to jet a sump out of there into a tank.
WEISSKOPF: Your discretion?
BLACKBURN: Yeah. Yeah. That's the only way we did it.
WEISSKOPF: The normal waste, the uranium waste, was sent out in a pipe.
BLACKBURN: All the way out, and just went right down to the ---
WEISSKOPF: Only if that pipe leaked would anything end up in the cell itself. The cells were to remain dry at all times if possible.
BLACKBURN: Supposedly, yeah.
WEISSKOPF: And did you hose down the cell if there was a leak?
BLACKBURN: They were hosed. They were hosed.
WEISSKOPF: Did guys do it or did the crane operator do it?
BLACKBURN: If I remember right, the crane operator did it.
WEISSKOPF: Would go hose out the cell?
BLACKBURN: Yeah. See, at that time we couldn't fool around regasketing anything. Didn't know how, I guess, to regasket. When we got to PUREX, we were able to regasket a lot of stuff. I don't know why, but the guys could do it.
WEISSKOPF: I could see either way, because taking off the gasket and putting one on doesn't sound difficult, but it depends, I guess.
BLACKBURN: It depends. At T Plant we didn't think you could do that.
WEISSKOPF: Do you remember near the end of construction at T Plant when they had to go through and replace a lot of gaskets before the plant started up?
BLACKBURN: I'm sure they did that.
WEISSKOPF: Supposedly they were using Teflon gaskets.
BLACKBURN: The wrong gaskets or something.
WEISSKOPF: And when the impact wrench tightened them down, it was too much for them.
WEISSKOPF: So they went to a different kind of gasket.
BLACKBURN: I heard about that. I didn't see any of it.
(End of interview)



Bit Rate/Frequency




B Reactor Museum Association, “Gardner Clark "G.C." Blackburn,” Hanford History Project, accessed April 16, 2024,