Don Lewis

Dublin Core


Don Lewis


Hanford Atomic Products Operation
B Reactor National Historic Landmark (Wash.)


An oral history interview with Don Lewis for the B Reactor Museum Association. Lewis was a Process Supervisor at the Hanford Site during the Manhattan Project.


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


Don Lewis


Interviewer: --just telling us your name and what your position was during construction, or how you—what your job was. And then tell us how you were recruited. And as—[VIDEO CUTS] If you can, it helps us a lot.

Don Lewis: Sure.

Interviewer: Okay, just a second. Okay. Go ahead.

Lewis: My name is Don Lewis. I was a shift supervisor at the B Reactor startup in September of 1944. How I got here was I was an employee of the DuPont Company. Joined them at Carneys Point, New Jersey, in the smokeless powder plant they had there. And was in training for their military explosives program, and went to Charlestown, Indiana, where I was a control chemist in the laboratories there. Eventually worked into being a line supervisor in the acid and organics part of the plant. During that time, one day I was called into my superintendent’s office, and he indicated to me that he had another assignment for me. He didn’t know exactly what it was, but he sent me to the service superintendent of the plant’s office. I was told that I was going to the TNX project. This was supposedly a super-secret project that we’d heard about but didn’t know anything about. And even the superintendent didn’t know anything about it. But all he told me was that they had train tickets and reservations for me to go to Knoxville, Tennessee from Charlestown, Indiana where I was working. And I went within two days of getting the word. We went, and we were to report to a certain address in Knoxville, which we did. It was just a nondescript storefront. But inside were very many people like myself, plus all kinds of secretaries. We started in filling out forms, and signing our life away, and identifying ourselves. After we got through that for about three hours, why, they loaded us into what was known as a stretch-out in those days. It was sort of a large sedan made into a bus with an elongated body. And took us out to what they called Clinton Laboratories outside of Knoxville, out in the hills out there, and said this is where we would be working. We stayed in the hotel in Knoxville for a couple days until they had accommodations for us out at the Clinton Laboratories site. It was the Oak Ridge site as they call it; it was built around the town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. So we were moved into dormitories and began our training there. We were told that we were in training for a production plant out in the state of Washington. We heard several names—we heard Pasco, we heard Kennewick, we heard Hanford, and we didn’t know what they all meant at the time. But we stayed there in Oak Ridge at the Clinton Laboratories in training to operate an atomic pile. After our clearances went through, why, they revealed to us what we were doing—the kind of work we were in. It was considered to be extra hazardous work, because of the unknown nature of it. But most of us were not too concerned about the hazards involved, because of our association with the DuPont Company. DuPont has an excellent safety record and excellent safety philosophy, and having worked in a dangerous chemical and smokeless powder manufacturer, why, we were all used to that type of thing. We stayed at Oak Ridge, at Clinton Laboratories, learning how to operate the X-10 Reactor, which was the second reactor made. The first one, of course, being the Chicago Pile—reactors were called piles in those days. About three months later, we came out here. I got here on May the 11th of 1944 and got set up in a dormitory room, and was immediately assigned to the 300 Area as part of the operating crew for the Hanford Test Reactor, or the Hanford Pile. This was a pile that tested uranium fuel elements and mostly graphite that was being machined to be used in the construction of the B, D, and F Reactors. From May the 11th until July the 5th, I worked down there, and then I was transferred out to the B Reactor site, which was under construction at that time. While out there, we were schooled in the operation of the plant—the pile itself. We followed construction and tried to learn about this strange new industry that we were associated with. When we came out, we were told that we could expect to be assigned out here for about two years. Then they felt that the war would be over within the next two years, if our venture was successful.

Interviewer: And at that point, did you know—you then did know that it was nuclear-related or atomic-related?

Lewis: Yes, yes. During the time we were at Oak Ridge, we had quite a few people come in and talk to us, especially—the most memorable man I recall was Dr. Paul Gast, who was one of the pioneers in nuclear physicists. He was also much more practical and could speak our language. We learned an awful lot from his lectures about it.

Interviewer: How much was known about atomic energy at that time?

Lewis: Oh, quite a bit. I was amazed at what they did know, because when I went to school—I was a major in chemistry—and all we knew was that there was uranium and thorium and radium, and they disintegrated in a series of radioactive elements by radioactive decay. That’s all we ever spent with radioactive elements in school.

Greg: Can I ask a question?

Interviewer: Sure.

Greg: You mentioned you knew of—


Interviewer: Okay, go ahead answer.

Lewis: All of us that were associated with the reactor—with the piles themselves—knew. The top management of the other areas, like the water plant, the maintenance, knew. But it was sort of a need-to-know basis. So the people that ran the power facilities, the water plant facilities, the maintenance facilities, they didn’t have to know about what we were doing. As the plant got built and started to operate, then you had to bring the maintenance people in and they were schooled on what it was. Except—the only thing a lot of people were told was they were dealing with radioactivity. It was what they call a hazard disclosure that they gave everybody. But that didn’t come until later. But those of us who were trained at Oak Ridge to be operators of the reactors and the separations plant and the fuel fabrication facilities and the radiation protection, or health instruments people, were all in the know on what it was. But we had two operators on our shift when we started at B Reactor. They didn’t know anything. We didn’t tell them anything, but they were able to work, and later on, they found out what it was about.

Interviewer: I’d like to know a little more about DuPont—I mean, I think that one of the points that’s certainly been made is that DuPont’s expertise and ability as a company—the management techniques and all—was absolutely critical, and as an extension of that, the ability and capacity of American industry as a whole was very important. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Lewis: Yes, yes. In retrospect, after I’d been in the reactor business for a couple of years, I was amazed at the foresight that the DuPont Company showed in their design of these plants. There wasn’t a thing that they put in that we didn’t have a use for. They just thought of every contingency. For instance, in 1948, we started to get fuel elements that stuck in the process tubes of the reactors. And lo and behold in the warehouses, DuPont had a whole set of tools for extracting stuck fuel elements from the reactor. I guess the most famous thing about DuPont is the fact that the reactor was supposed to operate with 1,500 tubes. And one of the engineers with DuPont said we’d better prepare for a contingency. And they designed it with 2,004 tubes. As it turned out, because of the xenon poisoning problem during operation, why, the 2,004 tubes were utilized, were required. Of course, DuPont they assigned their—


Lewis: And of course this is hearsay from me, because I don’t know firsthand, but they told us that Oak Ridge, when we were in training, that these were the latest prints they had. But when we got out there to Hanford, there’s no telling what it would look like, because the design was holding everything up. Getting the design complete—and really the construction people were really pushing the designers. It was that close.

Interviewer: Because they were waiting for the blueprints to work, huh?

Lewis: That’s right. What I was going to tell you was—the summer or ’44, during the completion of the B Reactor construction, we had seminars and training sessions a couple times a day in the office building over there. We had the chief design engineers for each of the components of the reactor come out and talk to us. They gave us the detail and the background on their design criteria that they had to work with, and how they went about designing their equipment. For instance, the guy that designed the control rods and the safety rods was out here. It was really a liberal education for me that summer, to hear these guys talk, because I learned more about mechanical equipment design from them. The fellow that designed the charging and discharging equipment was out there. As a matter of fact, when we first discharged fuel, he was out there, to watch it work. As turned out, his design—it was a perfect engineering design based on what he was told, what his criteria were. But the things that they told him were so conservative, that it was almost—it wasn’t impractical, but it was very slow. We eventually threw out most of that very conservative design and went to—we had our own people design our own fuel handling equipment.

Interview: Logistically, what was involved in the Project? I mean, I know that most people around here worked here know about what went on. As someone from the outside, not having much of a physics background at all, I know almost nothing about—well, I’m underselling that. I know something. But a lot of people know almost nothing about what is involved. In the pile some graphite locks together, and put in some uranium and then pull the rods out and there you go. Logistically, what was involved? What had to be done to begin to—there’s the magnitude of the scale, just from the very small pile coming up. But what kind of industrial capacity was necessary? What types of the graphite? Graphite machining, the aluminum, all that—what was involved in the—

Lewis: Okay. Well, nothing in the form of great quantities of uranium had even been mined. Then the refining of the uranium and then learning how to machine and work with the uranium to make the fuel elements—there was a lot of engineering development had to take place there. The graphite, also—what, 250,000 tons of graphite or—I don’t know what the—the magnitude of the graphite problem was terrific. And the design of the graphite moderator in these blocks about four inches square and about four feet long. And the drilling of the holes in the graphite, the sizing of the graphite. Graphite was very soft, easily—pieces were easily chipped off of it, and it had to be very carefully handled. The people that worked with the graphite, their sweat had to be kept out of the graphite. The graphite itself had to be extremely pure. It was purer graphite than had ever been made before. The development in this short period of time was astronomical. I know the graphite in the B Reactor was not as high quality as the graphite in the D Reactor, which was not as high quality as the graphite that was used eventually in the F Reactor. And they came online within six months of each other. But the techniques were evolving that rapidly. The cleanliness and the precision with which the graphite was laid was absolutely outstanding in my book. They used surveyors’ instruments with very great precision. They put a layer of graphite in and it had to meet certain tolerances, within several mils, I think, of perfection. And then they’d bring another layer of graphite in and do the same thing. When they ended up with that stack almost 40 feet high, there was less than a quarter of an inch difference, I think, from perfection, from being absolutely perfect.

Interviewer: How about aluminum?

Lewis: The aluminum also had to be extremely high purity, because of the different elements that are normally found in industrial products. Even minute traces of them in a reactor would poison down the reactor and make it inoperable. They learned how to purify the aluminum and also to extrude the tubes. They had several different tube designs, and they ended up with a two-S aluminum tube as the best—

Interviewer: So with the welding and the whole—it was an enormous variety of skills and technology.

Lewis: Well, not only that but radiation shielding, too. Of course they knew that concrete was a good radiation shield. But I thought it was rather ingenious—they made the outside biological shields of the first reactors with laminated slabs of iron and Masonite of all things. Masonite with a high hydrogen content and would help moderate neutrons. So with enough iron and Masonite, why, they could capture all of the neutrons and the gamma rays of high intensity that were generated within the reactor.

Greg: I think it might be of interest if you could briefly mention how the uranium got here, what was done to encapsulate it, and how it got out to the plant and then into the reactor. And then what happened?

Lewis: Okay.

Camera man: But before that, if you could maybe sit up a little, again—you’re starting to lean back a little and I get a flash—

Lewis: I’m relaxed!

Camera man: I know, that’s good, but I get a flash in your eyes, the reflection I’m getting. Okay.

Lewis: As far as I know, the uranium came out in billets from wherever it was made back east, I think around in Ohio someplace. And the billets were then extruded into rods. And the rods were then machined into individual—machined to the tolerance for fuel pieces, and then the rods were cut up into individual fuel pieces. All these, of course, were very precisely dimensioned, and checked, and cleanliness was of paramount importance. And then they had to can these fuel pieces, which were a little over eight inches long, a little over eight inches in diameter, inside an aluminum can. And because of the heat generation that would take place in the reactor, the aluminum can had to be metallurgically bonded to the surface of the uranium slug, so that you’d get good heat transfer through the metal into the cooling water which ran outside. The reason for the can was that uranium and water reacted at high temperatures under radiation. The uranium would hydride very rapidly, and the fuel piece would be destroyed. So the can was put on to protect—to shield the uranium from the water. Also, you had aluminum, water, aluminum and no electrolytic couples there that you might have with aluminum and bare uranium.

Interviewer: Had any of this ever been done before?

Lewis: No.

Interviewer: Was this all new technology?

Lewis: As a matter of fact in Chicago—where they made it, I don’t know—but part of the summer, we spent testing fuel elements that they had made in Chicago that were un-bonded. They were just a canned element. They were going to be used in case they couldn’t get the bonded fuel element development in time. Because they weren’t going to hold up the startup of that reactor. That was the hardest job we had that summer, was spending numerous hours autoclaving at a high pressure, in a high pressure autoclave—no temperature, but with high-pressure helium, to check these fuel elements for any pinholes they might have in them. And then we’d put them in—one at a time, we’d put the fuel elements, after they’d been for 48 hours under high helium pressure, in a vacuum mass spectrograph, and we would draw a vacuum on them and see if we could detect any helium, which would mean that there was a leak in the can.

Interviewer: So overall based on the—

Lewis: So they were going to use them in case the development of the bonded fuel element in the 300 Area didn’t pan out. But the bonded fuel element did get—I guess—the first good fuel piece they ever made down there didn’t occur until after the 4th of July, 1944. Rumor has it that a slug—that a shift came in after a long change, all hung over, and in very surly shape, and they got in there and all of a sudden, it was like the dam broke. They started turning out good fuel pieces. [LAUGHTER] They caught on to it I guess. But there was a lot of trial and error in that, that summer down there, with the fuel. But once they got it down, it was all right.

Greg: What was the sequence of events that led right up to the startup, as far as loading and all these kinds of preparations?

Lewis: Well, we kicked the construction people out of the reactor after they had essentially finished everything. We ran the rods, we exercised everything, and the reactor was going to start up dry, so we didn’t have our water system pumping water into the reactor. What they were doing over on the water side, I don’t know. But we checked all of the equipment out in the reactor that we could, and exercised everything, found out where all of the glitches were. And then we had the construction people come back in and finish up all of our punch list items. And then they went out for good. In the meantime, we were beginning to get the fuel out from the 300 Area in big truckloads. We’d get a truck, two trucks a day, I think it was for a while. There we did a lot of hard work, too—handling those fuel elements. There were six elements in a box and they all came in a nice little wooden box to protect them from being scratched or damaged. We got them, we laid them all out, we inspected every fuel element, and eventually we laid them all out on the work area floor in front of the charging face. The first thing that was done was Fermi and some of the other people inserted the first fuel elements inside the reactor. And also there were some special irradiations that went into the reactor, too, first. Then they turned it loose to us and we started loading fuel. They had all of the rods out of the reactor. They had the safety circuits all made up. And as we loaded fuel, they had proportional counter—sort of like a stethoscope—inside the reactor that was indicating the buildup of radioactivity in the reactor. There were a lot of bets on how many tubes it was going to take to bring the reactor critical, and also who—which shift was going to be on when it became critical. It was very frustrating for us operators, because we were really, really loading that fuel as fast as we could. But then the physicists would stop us, and they would run some tests to determine how close they were to critical. So we kind of bootstrapped our way up, and the closer we got to critical, the slower the process of loading tubes was. And it got so we were loading one tube at a time. I was on a four to twelve shift, and I thought that night we were going to make it. But we didn’t, and it was awful close. So we were invited to stay over after our shift was finished, and—I don’t know, 2:00 in the morning or something, it did become critical. So we were there for the dry criticality event.

Greg: What was the indication, and how many tubes were loaded at that point?

Lewis: Well, there was 300 and some tubes, I think. And the indication was on the proportional counter that—every time you load a tube, the proportional counter level of radiation would go up, would increase in intensity. After a while, it would level off. When it didn’t level off anymore is when you had your chain reaction without loading any more fuel. You usually had to wait about ten or 15 minutes before the leveling off process would take place. Then you’d load another tube and you’d wait another ten or 15 minutes. But finally, when it did go, it was pretty obvious. And we had everything set on the safety circuits. And so when the rising level of radioactivity showed that there was a chain reaction in place, when it got up to a certain level, then it automatically tripped the safety circuits and the rods went in to shut it down. Then they pulled them out again and checked it again and did a lot of folderol like that. The next thing was to put water on the reactor. That drove it subcritical again because the water was a poison. We had to get the water system all operable and going smoothly. And then we started to load the fuel, same way again, only with water on the reactor, and using our charging equipment as it was designed to use. Same thing took place. And of course this was history, because a water-cooled reactor never had existed before. And so the closer we got to critical there, why, the more people showed up. And of course, Dr. Fermi was there and Dr. Compton—Arthur Compton from Chicago Met Lab. All those people were there, many of which I didn’t even know who they were, but I knew who Fermi was and I knew who Compton was.

Interviewer: When it happened, was there a sense that this was a historic moment?

Lewis: Yeah, that’s when Fermi made his remark, a child is born.

Greg: Was there a figure on that initial dry startup as to what kind of level it would reach? Very low, but was there a figure tossed around there?

Lewis: Oh, milliwatts. Milliwatts, yeah. And the same thing happened with the wet reactor. And then there were a lot of physics tests. Then they’d load more fuel, and finally they loaded it up to the 1,500 tubes that they had agreed was where it should be. A lot more testing. And then finally they pulled the rods to start their—what they called the power ascension program. And heretofore, we’d only been up in the milliwatts range or watt range, perhaps. But now we were on our way up to the megawatt range. And when they got to eight megawatts—and they were going up in—bootstrapping their way up. When they got up there, to eight, I think it was around eight megawatts, why, they leveled off and the rods kept coming out—




B Reactor Museum Association, “Don Lewis,” Hanford History Project, accessed May 28, 2024,