Russ Knight Oral History

Dublin Core


Russ Knight Oral History


Hanford Atomic Products Operation
E. I. DuPont de Nemours and Company


An audio oral history interview with Russ Knight for the B Reactor Museum Association. Knight was a Power 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


Gene Weisskopf


Russ Knight


Russ Knight

Audio Interview by Telephone

October 8, 1999

Interviewed by Gene Weisskopf, BRMA




            WEISSKOPF: This is the October 8, 1999 interview with Russ Knight about his experiences in the separations process at Hanford back in the early days.

WEISSKOPF: If there’s someplace you’d like to start. Otherwise, do you want to go all the way back to what you were doing in World War II and sort of segue into how you ended up at Hanford?

            KNIGHT: I could do that real quickly. You bet.

            WEISSKOPF: Basically, last time we talked you told me what you were doing, the top secret kind of work, you had a clearance during the war.

            KNIGHT: That’s right.

            WEISSKOPF: Well, how about that?

            KNIGHT: Okay. Let me say this. I originated out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and joined the Army Air Corps, because they were taking fellows in with a little bit of education. I say a little bit. High school, minimum.

            WEISSKOPF: Right.

            KNIGHT: And from there, why, I went through the training, and then was assigned to the Eighth Air Force. And very shortly thereafter there was a big push to get personnel into what was called the troop carrier command then. And I went into the first troop carrier command, and during my stay there, training pilots, and we were then ‑‑‑ well, after I had been in training for about 14 months training pilots, decided that I’d like to get a part of the war effort, too. So I volunteered to go into the war. And at that stage I was assigned to a troop carrier unit that was to go overseas, and again was requested to submit to special training. At that time I was trained as a pathfinder. Part of that training took place at MIT, the electronics training, and the field training then took place at Pope Field in North Carolina, Fayetteville. And from there, why, I went over to the European theater of operations.

            WEISSKOPF: And what year was that?

            KNIGHT: That was in 1943. Late ‘43. And from there I participated in the war, and of course the top secret clearance type thing took place at my training at MIT and also in the field training at Fayetteville, North Carolina. So then I came home in December 1945. And at that time I came by the Richland area, because I had met some real good people and had some friends here. And everybody, during my visit, said “Oh, you better sign up and go to work here at Hanford, because this is the future of mankind.”

            WEISSKOPF: You had actually felt that this was something new happening?

            KNIGHT: That’s right. And so I said, “Oh, I don’t think that they would want me, but I’ll go down and submit an application.” Because I came from the East Coast originally, as I stated, and I had been offered a job by one of the officers in the Army to work for Standard Oil of New Jersey. And I thought, well, that was close to home and be a good opportunity, so that had been my original plan. But after submitting my application at Hanford, why, with my background and with the military clearance and just out of the service within weeks, why, they gave me my exam, gave me my clearance the same day, and told me to report to 100 West area the following morning.

            WEISSKOPF: They were happy to have you.

            KNIGHT: It was really strange, because the people that knew me said “That’s impossible, Russ, they can’t do that. They’ll stop you before you get out there. But anyhow we’re happy that you did sign up.” So the net result was everything went the way that I was told that it would when I signed in.

            WEISSKOPF: This is probably early 1946 at this point?

            KNIGHT: That was in January ‘46. January 14th, to be exact.

            WEISSKOPF: Well, okay, great. That was the first day you showed up for work?

            KNIGHT: That’s correct. And so in doing so, I got on the bus, and at that time the bus rides were free, and the bus depot was fairly close to town. As a matter of fact, it was almost on the corner of Williams and Thayer, about a block to the west. So I went to the bus area and got on a bus like they said. It was labeled to the 200 area. Now, these were small military type buses. They were even painted the OD color. And I got on this thing and started out, and when we got to the 300 area, there was the major barricade across the road. Now, this was manned by military personnel. And when I looked over at the 300 area to my right, why, there was guard towers all around the area. And it was hard wire fencing and barbed wire at the top. And low profile barracks type military style construction. And I thought, Uh-oh, I don’t recall the looks of that. But, anyhow, on we went. And the reason that I make this comment was I had just, on my return to the United States ‑‑‑ I had been stationed just outside of Munich, Germany, and they had Dachau concentration camps just 17 miles out of town, and I had visited that prior to coming home. And it had a very similar position in my mind, that, hey, this is another concentration type of thing, and what in the world are we doing here? So I didn’t feel too comfortable, the 26 miles on out to the 200 areas. And as we came up the hill closest to the 200 East area and flattened out, I looked over to the right and here I could see this real long concrete building and a large smokestack, or at least a discharge stack of some sort, 200 feet in the air, and I thought, Uh-oh, no windows in this facility, and I was really getting very uncomfortable. And I thought, Well, I don’t know whether I like this or not, I don’t want to be a part of something that’s like the concentration camps where...

            WEISSKOPF: Yeah.

            KNIGHT: So on we went to the 200 West area. When I got off the bus, why, I had the real strong feeling that I wanted to go back to town. So I went in the batch house and I asked them what time the next bus went back to town. Because there were no private vehicles at that time. And they said oh, there wouldn’t be another bus, there’d be a shuttle bus later on, that I might be able to ‑‑‑ they said, “By the way, who do you want to see?” And at that time I was asked to get in touch with Randy Fenninger (phonetic) of DuPont. So they said, “Well, here, we’ll get him on the phone.” So they called Randy, and he answered very quickly, and he says “We’ll be right up to pick you up.” So in just a very few moments, here came a car, a company car, and again it was in the OD color. And I got in the car, and they started down, and I told them, I said, “I’m really uncomfortable about this.” And Randy says “Well, you needn’t be, we’ll explain a few things to you as we go.” So he started telling me a little story about ‑‑‑ and, of course, the news on what was going on at Hanford had already broken and had been published in the papers. That was one of the reasons that I came home very early. So the story continued to be, “All right, we’re going down to the laboratory, and this is the 222-T laboratory, and we’ll start here and give you a little bit of an insight.” But they said “Bear in mind that everything that is on the site is very much in the high security type activities. Anything related to processing is strictly on a need-to-know basis.” So that was the beginning and the start of my introduction to Hanford. And I got into the laboratory and immediately met some really fine people and started working. And then after I had established myself in about three or four weeks, why, they said “We need your type of help over in the 200 East area also, same building, same type of activity, for B Plant operation.” So I worked a half a day in T Plant and a half a day in the B Plant laboratories.

            WEISSKOPF: In the same day.

            KNIGHT: For several years.

            WEISSKOPF: Oh, between the two?

            KNIGHT: Yes. A half a day in each. And that was kind of interesting. But then we got into what was happening and the processing. And, of course, the process at that time was what they called bismuth phosphate processing. It was a batch type process. They had the cells in the canyon building, which was a long concrete structure, approximately 800 feet long, and was equipped with 40 in-ground cells from ground level and deep into the ground 28 feet. And the cells were equipped with the necessary processing equipment, and all the processing equipment in the cells were stainless steel.

            WEISSKOPF: Let me ask you this: You had a pretty good technical background just in general technical issues, but why did they take you to a laboratory for strictly chemical process, do you think?

            KNIGHT: As I look back on it now, Gene, my only thoughts were that the whole process then had to be hinging around chemical operations. And that would be an ideal spot to start out and really learn the processes from the ground up.

            WEISSKOPF: Okay. Yeah.

            KNIGHT: And I was very fortunate, because that was the case. The more I started learning about the process, the more intense my desire to learn. It grew and grew to where it was really exciting, because the more I learned about the process, then the more I understood about it. And the more I understood about these things, the greater the “awe” effect became, that My goodness, they’ve done all these things in such short periods of time, such as building a complete facility in 17 months, building a tank farm to support that facility in the same time frame, and at the same time doing a lot of research along the way to actually assure themselves that the process would actually work. Because most of the work initially was done on a very small scale to begin with, and then it was blown up to be a full-fledged process in a large volume plant.

            WEISSKOPF: So by the time you got there, at least it had already been proven that the process, the entire Hanford process, works.

            KNIGHT: That’s correct.

            WEISSKOPF: At least you got to step in saying Oh, whatever they were trying to do actually works. Now we can go on from that point.

            KNIGHT: That’s right. And they were constantly in the experimental stage to improve their capability and abilities as to what was going on. Now, I mentioned initially that the canyon had 40 cells in it in the initial startup and operation of the facilities, and we ran that way for a number of years with using only 20 of the cells.

            WEISSKOPF: Okay.

            KNIGHT: And then as we continued to forge ahead, and the needs and the operation continued to grow and became more and more interesting as to what happened in the process and how they could improve their abilities to produce at a higher rate. They put the second series of cells into play, and this was called parallel operation.

            WEISSKOPF: Oh, okay.

            KNIGHT: And we increased the output from the plant. Because, bear in mind that as this process went, it was very slow and very meticulous and very tedious in getting the maximum amount of plutonium out of the uranium that was being processed. And it was very strange, because the initial volume of material that was put into play, the uranium was in the tonnage levels, and the extracted material, the plutonium, was in the gram phase.

            WEISSKOPF: Right.

            KNIGHT: And that was tremendous, to run through large volumes of processing in a tank, two, three, four thousand up to as much as six thousand gallon vessels, and continue to control this, and make sure that you knew exactly what you had and where you had it in a given time in the process. Very unique. And, of course, that’s where the laboratory came in. It was actually called the process control lab. And in order to adjust and maintain the process, why, samples had to be taken at each step during the processing. As the material went from one phase of extraction in the separation to reduction, oxidation reduction type phase, why, you had to sample at all stages. And not only did you sample for the product, but you also sampled the waste streams to ensure that none of the product was going out in the waste streams. Or if there was any going out, it was an absolute minimum allowable.

            WEISSKOPF: Let me ask I think what is probably always going to be there, but because it was such a nationally critical material, the faster you guys got it processed, the better; and the faster you could do the sampling, the faster you could make the chemistry go, the better it would be all around?

            KNIGHT: That’s correct.

            WEISSKOPF: Okay.

            KNIGHT: Now, the process was all designed to accommodate those needs. And this was another thing that was just amazing, to know that here was a brand new introduction to a ‑‑‑ this type of energy that we had never even considered that would be available to us on a daily basis. And to have started all of this with instantaneous construction, building, and putting the buildings into what we call a turnkey operation to begin with, once it was built, you would turn the key and open the door and went in and started the processing. That was amazing. And since the construction of the process facilities was done in such a secretive manner that the construction workers that were assigned to do certain phases of putting in interconnecting piping and whatnot were moved from time to time, and that was usually on a day or every-other-day basis, so that they never really had a true configuration in their minds as to what was being done and how the system was being built and what it would be used for. So all of those things were highly, just mind-boggling.

            WEISSKOPF: How did that affect your job? You said they were introducing you to the entire process, the best way to learn was in the lab. How did security impinge on your knowledge of at least the separations process? Did they limit you in any way?

            KNIGHT: Oh, yes. They had a very large technical manual that was available at that time of the whole buildup and the history of what was taking place in this technical manual, but you didn’t have full authorization to take the technical manual and sit down and read it at that stage.

            WEISSKOPF: Oh, okay.

            KNIGHT: That came later, that they made the technical manuals available to almost anyone that worked there after a period of time.

            WEISSKOPF: Did you know where the fuel was coming from, or how it was processed before it got to you guys?

            KNIGHT: They started telling us this early on, that the uranium was put into a process mode and put into the reactors. And at that stage, why, it was being transmitted ‑‑‑ transmuted, I should say, to make the plutonium.

            WEISSKOPF: And what about within your process itself? Did you know when ‑‑‑ the material that you were processing ended up leaving the building and going to the concentration building. Did you understand that whole leg of the process, too?

            KNIGHT: Yes, we did. Because that was all in ‑‑‑ well, within a stone’s throw of the canyon building was the laboratory, and next to the laboratory was the first phase of the concentration. It was the first phase through the operation. And once we got the plutonium in the rough-cut stage, I’ll put it that way, then it was moved from 224-T Building down to the 231-Z Building, which was the final concentration and purification operation. And the ‑‑‑ all of this was controlled, as I said, through the laboratory, and samples had to be taken in the processing facilities. In the canyon facility they had to keep the canyon in prime clean condition, because in order to get samples the way the system was built then was to take people right in on the processing deck with all the cells closed, and they had sample systems that they would go in and turn on what we called the air circulation, which was a circulated process, solution out of the vessel up through a sample receiving cup and back into the processing vessel. Well, they would circulate this for a minimum of ten minutes to ensure that they have gotten a representative sample out of this large vessel. And then they had special equipment that they inserted down into the sample cup and pulled the sample into it, and the high activity samples in the early process we used what they called a shielded trombone sampler. It was an all-stainless unit, and it had a release on it that lowered the actual sampling tip down into the solution. Then they used a syringe to pull the solution into a pipette that was at the bottom of this sampler. And those pipettes that were used on the bottom of the sampler were calibrated to a ½ or 1 ml. And the real hot ones, of course, we only took a ½ ml. And then the unit was retracted up into a shielded portion of the sampler, and then we had a shielded container called a doorstop that was placed very close to the sample port that was immediately transferred then into the doorstop. And at that point the sample pipette was disengaged from the sampler assembly, and then the lid on the doorstop was closed with a handle that clamped down and held the top of it sealed so in the event that it was tipped over it didn’t spill. And then they carried that by hand to a wagon. In the early stages, we didn’t have the wagons to begin with, and they would carry these then from there to the building, and that was to the 222 T Building, where I was. Then when the samplers came in the door of the 222 laboratory, they had a special window right inside the door on the right-hand side as they entered, and they rang a bell, which was a push-button bell at the window, and then they set the sampling equipment up on the dutch door type platform on top of the ‑‑‑ at the bottom of the window.

            WEISSKOPF: So they wouldn’t actually have to come into the lab?

            KNIGHT: They did not. Then we’d open the door and pull the sampler equipment in and set it down on the stainless steel benches.

            WEISSKOPF: Would you pull just the doorstop, or all the trombone and everything else?

            KNIGHT: Any sampling equipment that they brought over at that time. Sometimes it would take two or three samples while they were in the building, or in the canyon, and would take the process samples that contained the product. And that’s what it was always referred to, we never talked about it being plutonium. You always spoke of the product. And then they would also take waste samples, because, as I said, as they processed from stage to stage in the canyon building, they would take the sample of the product to ensure that they still had it, and the volume and the condition of it as far as isolation. And then the waste that came off of that, they took samples of those waste streams and brought those over to the building. And naturally as you’re processing this way, wastes are very important to get out of the building. Otherwise they’d back up and fill your vessels, would shut you down.

            WEISSKOPF: Right.

            KNIGHT: So that’s kind of the way the process always emanated and controlled, and it was really very interesting.

            WEISSKOPF: What was your job actually, then, you know, a few months after you got there? What was your daily routine? You were in the lab?

            KNIGHT: In the lab. As soon as they found out that I could use the pipetting equipment, because, again, college chemistry, if you remember, taking samples, everybody used to draw the sample up into the pipettes in college labs by mouth. And this was an absolute no-no, and you didn’t do that sort of thing. So the way we done it out there was we had these small syringes, the same type that the medical profession uses to inoculate you. And different sizes. The smaller volumes that you were going to work with, the smaller the syringe that you needed, down to where ‑‑‑ but you couldn’t go too tiny because you were going to hold this in your hand. And attached to the end of the syringe was a small piece of intravenous tubing that we used, and then the pipette was placed into the intravenous tubing to actually get a sample, especially the waste samples, were by hand.

            WEISSKOPF: If they took just a 1 ml sample, would that be enough for you guys to work with, then?

            KNIGHT: It was enough to give us at least two complete analyses. If we ran an analysis and it didn’t meet the expectation that we anticipated at that phase of the process, then we were asked to verify the analysis, so we had enough sample to run it again.

            WEISSKOPF: Okay. Let me ask you this: If you took that sample early on in the process so it was hot, how close could you get to it and how long could you be near it?

            KNIGHT: All right. For the real hot samples in the laboratory, we had a breakdown facility ‑‑‑ I say breakdown; actually, a dilution-type facility ‑‑‑ and it was called the Rube Goldberg, where we actually set the doorstop in behind this leaded shield window, and then we had a remote pipetter that we put a fresh pipette in, and then we would open the doorstop, and just turn it. It was on a swivel, and we’d turn it, put the pipette down into the doorstop sampler that contained the real hot stuff, and then we had a 10 ml flask units that we used to set in adjacent to that prior to opening everything up. You got everything in position before you opened the doorstop. And then you would take a minute amount, like 100 ml, of this half ‑‑‑ we had ½ ml to begin with, and then we would take 100 lambda of that and dilute it in this 10 ml vial that was almost already full of solution. And then after we done that, then we would close the doorstops and take these small vials and then dilute them to a calibrated mark so that we could make back calculations as to what volumes we were working with.

            WEISSKOPF: Right. Okay.

            KNIGHT: So this was very, very important that all, when you pipette it out of the doorstop, you pipette it up to a given line on the ‑‑‑


            KNIGHT: ‑‑‑ to get it right on the ‑‑‑ get the meniscus right on the mark, and then transfer that into the 10 ml flask. And that was the way we worked the hot ones. That was quite routine, and it became ‑‑‑ people became very and highly proficient in doing these operations, and without getting themselves into any kind of an exposure problem.

            WEISSKOPF: And when you took a sample, was the process basically stopped at that point before they would transfer the materials on to the next step?

            KNIGHT: No, no, they always waited for the results to come back before the material was moved to the next step.

            WEISSKOPF: It was. So the process would be held up while you guys were doing your work.

            KNIGHT: That’s correct.

            WEISSKOPF: And what was the pressure for you guys to get it right if for some reason you didn’t find the numbers the way you wanted?

            KNIGHT: Well, they had pretty good time frames as to how long it would take the laboratory to make an analysis for them. And the only time that they really got outstandingly pushy against the laboratory was when we would have a result that they didn’t felt met the criteria for the batch that they were moving. And if that be the case, then they’d call for a re-sample, and that meant the samplers had to come back, run over and take a sample out of the canyon, rush it over to us, and that was put on what we called the rush category, and that had to be done immediately.

            WEISSKOPF: How long would that take, do you think? If you got the word that you needed a new sample until you actually had the sample in hand, would it be minutes, or an hour, or...?

            KNIGHT: Well, they could have a sample to us in 30 minutes. And in most cases that would always be the situation. However, if they were going to be working in another cell in the process, like a leak or something like this, why, they would have, if they were going to have a cell block off, they normally did not let anybody in on deck when that was happening. So they would have to put a cover block back on before they could do that, and that would take ‑‑‑ by the time that they knew that they had to take a sample, they’d already told the crane operator that they had to close up because they had to take a sample.

            WEISSKOPF: Okay. And the crane operator was theoretically the only one in the canyon while things were going on?

            KNIGHT: That’s correct. And he was behind a shielded parapet wall. And from his position in the crane cab, which was behind that parapet wall, then he was in a solid steel cube. Actually, I say solid steel cube, it was a cube with an operational area in it that was heavy 8-inch steel all the way around him. And then we had modified Navy periscopes, the same type that they used on the submarines, that had been modified so that they could project on a horizontal plane out, and the magnifying heads could be rotated to give him views down the canyon or straight down. And it had a three-power configuration where he could change his magnification when he was up above looking and moving, and then go down closer. And then when the cell block was off, actually get right down to where he was seeing in the cell with very good visibility.

            WEISSKOPF: Where were the lights for looking down into a cell?

            KNIGHT: They had lights on the crane itself.

            WEISSKOPF: That would shine straight down?

            KNIGHT: That’s right. As well as ceiling lights in the canyon. But the crane operators always used, naturally, the lights on the crane because they were a high intensity spotlight type thing. And they had four or five on each side of the bridge, as I remember, and they’d shine straight down so that his work areas were highly lit and visible.

            WEISSKOPF: If the crane operator was doing his job right, everything went, if something went wrong, there wasn’t anybody on the canyon floor to correct what he was doing or to make it easier. An awful lot of it fell on his shoulders.

            KNIGHT: That’s correct. And if it was a really touchy job that he had to do, why, it was a very common practice that someone from the operations building would actually go up and ride with him when he was doing that particular job.

            WEISSKOPF: Okay.

            KNIGHT: And that’s what I was going to say, that having had experience, some experience over the years of going out and working at the 100 B Reactor, for example, on a special project, and having been transferred out of the laboratory into the operations side of the business, and having worked in the tank farm operations over the years, why, it makes it pretty easy for me to talk about these things, Gene. Because when you’ve worked in all the different places, then you really can focus and get a good idea of all of the outcroppings and the work that went on.

            WEISSKOPF: Okay. You’ve seen the whole picture.

            KNIGHT: It kind of gives you the big picture, yes. That doesn’t make me an expert, say, in the 100 areas nor in the processing facilities, because we had people that ‑‑‑ well, we had the working groups available in the various facilities, such as the chemists were working, and most of them would work in laboratories, chemical engineering personnel in the facilities, and then we always had the process chemistry group, which were all the high technical process engineering ‑‑‑ or chemical engineering type people that were always constantly looking at what was going on in the process and tell you what adjustments had to be made to get us to where we wanted to be. So it was well-controlled and well-orchestrated in the way that they done business, even from the very beginning. And that was one of the reasons that the DuPont Company was chosen, I’m sure, because of their background in chemistry and their dedicated records, or track record I should say, for doing good work and working with explosives and various types of energy that way.

            WEISSKOPF: Right. And DuPont was still at Hanford when you came, right?

            KNIGHT: Yes, indeed.

            WEISSKOPF: Until almost the end of ‘46?

            KNIGHT: That’s correct. They left in ‑‑‑ well, they made the transition to General Electric Company in September of ‘46. And then they stayed available on an advisory capacity in high echelon positions until General Electric had settled in and had full control.

            WEISSKOPF: How quickly after you got there did your job all of a sudden change, or did they shift you around?

            KNIGHT: It was pretty much on an individual’s abilities and capabilities versus the availability of new jobs, different places. And, of course, we have to bear in mind that a number of things were taking place. There was more demands for not only plutonium, but we started having people in the high forehead area, I’m going to say, that were already looking at possibilities for utilizing some of the other radioisotope materials that we were discovering. There was constant research going on in a number of the colleges around the country that were included in the program, Berkeley being one. And those people were getting actual samples of some of our materials, and they were also doing a lot of research, and development was just coming and going as fast as you could ever want it. So at that stage it was pretty tough to really get totally on board as to what was happening because so much and so many things were happening simultaneously. But it was all going, and it was really exciting because you knew, you could just sense the high intensity of things that were happening. And I’ve often said that I hated to go home from work in the afternoons, and I couldn’t wait till I got there the next morning.

            WEISSKOPF: Wow.

            KNIGHT: It was really great. And, of course, that continued to energize and grow into what I call the Fabulous Fifties, when they radioisotope business became high reality, and separations were actually starting to separate specific isotopes that they found would have a need in the public markets for various things, up to and including the treatment of cancers that we’re still using today.

            WEISSKOPF: And I guess the prospects for nuclear energy itself were pretty darn high at that point.

            KNIGHT: Extremely high. And, Gene, I have to say that we did not get off on the right foot with nuclear energy because it started out as a war born thing and initially was classified to have a 20-year life expectancy. And it was looked upon, every time you say anything about nuclear energy, the first thing they see is the big mushroom cloud, and the aspects of a war developed industry that was strictly to win a war. And that was so true at the time. But after we were into the thing for a while, then it became highly apparent that there was a lot of good things to come out of the system for the benefits of humanity. But it became a very difficult sell, because people had already been ‑‑‑ I won’t say poisoned in their minds, but had already been predestined to make decisions on the basis of it was a war type material and that’s all it was good for. And it’s a shame, because we know that we had ‑‑‑ well, I’ll cite the space program, NASA’s programs. In the early stages it was not too difficult for them to shoot a man up in the air and bring him back to earth in a short durational thing. But then they started extending their time in space, and they had to go to highly energized systems because everything was battery operated then, and they were using solar power to regenerate the batteries. And after we got up and starting orbiting, why, they got into some real close problems of not being able to bring personnel back, because when they got on the back side of the planet, the moon, this sort of thing, why, they were in the dark side, and they couldn’t solar energize batteries. And we were very close on a couple of occasions on return trips. And so during that phase, why, some generators were made, and Hanford played a major role in it, the Battelle Industries did, on building what we called snap generators. And they were used in space and still are, to my knowledge. So there were benefits in that light. And, again, from a medicinal standpoint, there were those benefits. And I guess the person that said it the very best in my book was Dixie Lee Ray, the administrator for the Atomic Energy Commission, and she stood before Congress and told them that the things that we were developing and using in the nuclear industry were no different than when things were developed such as electricity and people were injured and killed by misuses of electricity, but then we finally got it to where everybody now can walk into a room and flip a little switch and we have no problems with it. And I thought that that was an outstanding way to present something like that. And she said just think what it’s given the individual, the working class people in this world, when back in the days of the pharaohs with all of their money and magnificence, they did not have that type of control and services. And she felt that the nuclear industry was well on the road to getting us into that same category. And, to me, that just opened a whole new way of life for everybody, and I think that it still has that opportunity, and someday we’ll regret the fact that we’ve been so emphatic and vicious in shutting down our systems in this country.

            WEISSKOPF: Yeah, okay. To me, it’s like the discovery was made and it will always be there now.

            KNIGHT: That’s correct.

            WEISSKOPF: How we utilize it and what ways we put it to use.

            KNIGHT: And we’ve already demonstrated that under proper control and constantly upgraded maintenance programs, why, the systems work well to supply high energy needs. And unless I need to say too much more, Gene, I’m going to say that in my book, from what I know about the wars in history and our current wars and positions, that nations that have had energy and utilized their energies in proper perspective, were always people that were respected and controlled, or had controls, I’ll say. And as we continue to reduce our ability to have energies and be in control positions puts us in jeopardy, and I feel that very strongly.

            WEISSKOPF: Interesting. That’s very good. To have a perspective on that whole career that you had really, to me, it makes me realize that you were excited about it. It was something brand new, it was totally undeveloped, and you got to see it start from almost nothing to a thousand different industries branching out of it. It’s really great.

            KNIGHT: And I think that that was one of the reasons that I enjoyed, even after retirement, of staying and helping whenever I could. And I still feel very strongly that the industry still has its place and someday will probably utilize it a little bit better than we have.

            WEISSKOPF: Yeah. You never worked in the private sector?

            KNIGHT: I never have worked in the private sector.

            WEISSKOPF: Was it always within the confines of Hanford?

            KNIGHT: Yes, indeed.

            WEISSKOPF: Okay. You didn’t travel around the country doing ‑‑‑

            KNIGHT: Did not.

            WEISSKOPF: ‑‑‑ what other people did?

            KNIGHT: Oh, on a couple of occasions I did, Gene. But it was only because we had a specific interest in a given type function, such as ‑‑‑ and I’ll mention one. We were very interested in reducing waste volumes at Hanford, and the best way to do that would be to size the waste that you were going to put into boxes to be buried into the ground. And we were looking at setting up a sizing operation of our own in the plutonium finishing plant, and one of the other companies in the nation that was at that time at Rocky Flats in Colorado had let us know that they were already doing some sizing type work. And a couple of us were sent down to look at it. I say a couple. There was a number of trips made. And then from a health physics standpoint, because I was in health physics at the time, they sent people like myself and Bernie Sariffic (phonetic) down, and we made an observation as to what they were doing and whether it was compatible with the way we like to do business at Hanford. And it turned out that we had already put our oar in the water, so to speak, and the program that we had outlined for Hanford was going to be superior to the program that they had at Rocky Flats. So it was things like that that were also very interesting.

            WEISSKOPF: Have you ever seen any of the fuel processing facilities in Europe, or where they use them for part of their normal commercial stream?

            KNIGHT: Only from information and documentation that I had looked at here. Now, I did make a trip to Belgium in 1993, strictly a private type thing on the request of one of my sons-in-law to go with him, because he was looking at starting another little business of his own, importing pigeon feeds, because he’s a pigeon racer.

            WEISSKOPF: And while you were there...

            KNIGHT: So we got a chance to look around a little bit. And at that time Belgium had one reactor in service, and was just bringing on the second, and had already started the process of building their third, which would have put them at 100% nuclear utilization. And, of course, then interest in other countries. The French, for example, were getting up into the area of about 70%.

            WEISSKOPF: These people have to deal, then, with fuel reprocessing and all the associated chemistry.

            KNIGHT: Exactly.

            WEISSKOPF: And it would be interesting, I guess, to see how they’re doing that.

            KNIGHT: Well, it certainly would be, because I know that we’re getting ‑‑‑ and I refer to it as constipated, because we’re not reprocessing any fuels now, and all of our power reactor people are having problems with backup storage of their spent fuel, and that’s going to catch up to us. As a matter of fact, it’s become a very, very real problem at this time.

            WEISSKOPF: Yeah. But in your experience, it would have been a really straightforward step up from what you were doing with separations to dealing with the commercial power plants around the country to reprocess their fuel?

            KNIGHT: That’s correct. But we had already made the studies, Gene, and had that information available. As a matter of fact, we had already started making some equipment conversions in the PUREX plant to accommodate commercial fuel reprocessing.

            WEISSKOPF: Okay.

            KNIGHT: And that’s all on record.

            WEISSKOPF: And I guess some of the down sides of that are you have to transport it around the country.

            KNIGHT: That’s true. But we’re still transporting wastes around the country.

            WEISSKOPF: Right.

            KNIGHT: And I think that will continue. As a matter of fact, I sat in on a very interesting discussion in Yakima here probably eight or nine years ago now, where they had people convinced here in Yakima that we should just absolutely refuse to let them truck any wastes through Yakima or any that fly over in Yakima. And during the course of the discussion, from inputs from people like myself and others, why, it became highly apparent that, hey, if you do that, you have to remember that you’re going to shut your hospitals down, you’re not going to be able to have the x-ray equipment calibrated from time to time like we have to do to make sure that it’s within bounds. And all of a sudden they said uh-oh, okay, maybe we’re trying to get the cart before the horse. And I think all too frequently we do that.

            WEISSKOPF: Yeah.

            KNIGHT: And it’s an understandable thing, especially when we’ve had such a tremendous training program where everything nuclear was war oriented.

            WEISSKOPF: Right.

            KNIGHT: It’s going to take a long time to phase out of that, and I think we’re eventually getting there. People are a little bit more friendly towards nuclear industry, and they’re seeing that we’re still building new cancer clinics everywhere and using isotopes to treat those people in dire need. And I think that we’ve got to really look at everything with a good strong sense of realism, that hey, go back with what I originally said about Dixie Lee Ray saying that we injured people when we first introduced electricity, and she also made mention of the fact that we’ve done the same thing with gasoline, another form of energy that we all use today.

            WEISSKOPF: Right.

            KNIGHT: We use very carelessly at this stage in our lives, in many cases.

            WEISSKOPF: Oh, yeah. There was a time when we were running out of gasoline. Somehow or other we’re not running out of it anymore.

            KNIGHT: It’s very strange.

            WEISSKOPF: Yeah.

            KNIGHT: Well, we’re buying now a lot of our oils and products from other countries, too, and this is another one of those areas that gives me concern is that we’re putting ourselves on the table and being dependent on everybody else rather than depending on ourselves again.

            WEISSKOPF: Yeah.

            KNIGHT: Especially in the forms of energies.

            WEISSKOPF: Hey, it’s been about an hour, and I maybe want to let you go before we drain you completely for this period of time.

            KNIGHT: I really appreciated the opportunity, Gene, and it’s a real pleasure.

            WEISSKOPF: Me very much so also. It’s great that you feel comfortable about remembering it. That in itself is a feat, I think, for all the experiences that you had over many years. It’s just great to have you laying it out like cards on a table. Would it be okay if I come up with specific questions for you that we do it again?

            KNIGHT: Absolutely. Absolutely. Anytime, Gene.

            WEISSKOPF: All right. Well, thank you very much, Russ.





Bit Rate/Frequency


Hanford Sites

T Plant



B Reactor Museum Association, “Russ Knight Oral History,” Hanford History Project, accessed June 21, 2024,