Ralph Sansom Oral History

Dublin Core


Ralph Sansom Oral History


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


An oral history interview with Ralph Sansom for the B Reactor Museum Association. Sansom was a Process Operator 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


Tom Putnam


Ralph Sansom


RALPH SANSOM INTERVIEW- Recorded on 8/8/92


I heard about the project because I was working for Dupont in Salt Lake City. And uh, they interviewed quite a number of us and I signed up to come up as an operator and I got to this area on December the 3rd, 1943, and the uh, bus from the project met the train at Hinkle, Oregon and there were two other fellas that I worked with for a while and knew quite well. One name was Rod Thackeray; and Rod had kind of an interesting thing that became of him. He saw all this desert up here and he was very, very disgusted and he moaned and groaned for 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 days and a couple of weeks I guess. And finally he got in touch with uh, the reactor down in Tennessee. They had interviewed him in Salt Lake and he had a chance to go down there but he decided to come up here. He asked em if he could still go and they said yes so he went back to Salt Lake and worked the uh, through the war in Tennessee. And uh, this other Remington? man who’s name I can’t recall right now, he worked here I guess as long as I did. Cause he was about the same age.




Well uh, dates I can’t but uh, we were taken around the various parts that were being constructed but we headquartered at 300 area. And uh, they cordoned off three lathes, the ones that was that were up here. They filtered in, you know, this day and that day and by Christmas time there was quite a number of em. But we used those three lathe to practice uh, the uh, cutting the slugs that were to go into the reactor. And I worked there for I can’t remember how long. But when they got ready to recruit for B area I went out there and I helped them to load the reactor and uh, uh, was there when they started it up and got the first reaction.




No, I don’t I don’t think that’s right. There was there was a building that was being constructed and I can’t tell you for sure but I think that the reactor itself the core and everything was built and then the building built around it. Don’t you think that’s right?




Yeah, yeah it was going up simultaneously is more correct because there’s an awful lot of concrete that has to go around that for protection, you know. Concrete is pretty dense and they need that for protection from the reac from the reactivity.




Well uh, very little. As a matter of fact, we working down there in the 300 area would get some of these chips in our shoes. And uh, occasionally you’d walk down the street and hit a hit a rock or something and a spark would fly from your shoes! Because this uh uranium was, that was in the shoes. Oh, we got to thinking it was a bomb and we got to thinking it was a explosion. I don’t think any of the people in my category knew about it until, uh, till we went out to the area to the B area and started working on the reactor. And even then uh, uh, we didn’t know too much. You know they just fed us a little bit at a time but once we, once we got the reactor up and started to uh, uh, operate it all the time why of course they expected us to learn as much as we could and they, they’d didn’t uh, we knew what they were gonna do with the with the material then.




Well it was a water cooled reactor. And the pile was built, it’s a, a....a lot of tubes that hold these 8 inch slugs uranium slugs and uh...




Well it’s a, they call it a pile and that’s what it is. It’s a pile of uh, of uh, tubes that hold these uranium slugs and at that time the first of em were 8 inches long eventually they started using 4 inch slugs. But uh, these are inserted in the reactor and uh, oh as the reactor goes up they put rods that have uh, boron that are inserted both from the top and from the side to control the reactivity and uh... It’s made of uh tubes and it has uh, what they called control rods and safety rods. The safety rods were vertical and they were made so that uh if anything out of the ordinary anything that went out of normal happened that they would just automatically drop in and kill the reactivity. And then the control rods, were they went in from the front and the operator would sit at the board and when the pile was ... (FLY BUZZING AROUND HIS HEAD) When the uh, operator would sit at the front and control these uh, uh, rods by insetting em and if the reactivity got a little too high in one place they would insert this rod a little bit into that area. As I recall there was 18 or 19 control rods, I may be wrong on that because it’s been so long. But that’s uh, that’s how the reactivity was controlled was by these boron uh, rods, rods. Of course the water cooled the uh, tubes so that they wouldn’t melt the metal, as you might have heard, got real real hot, I’ll tell you Dantes Inferno probably was....




Well the graphite is what what uh, makes the uh, uh, the reac the neutrons yeah, bounce off of the graphite and uh, that’s what makes the activity the reactivity goes is because it uh bounces these neutrons on in back into the pile and uh and keeps the reactivity going. I know that uh, Ted Lewis and some of those guys that I worked for would probably have a fit if they heard me explaining some of this so clumsily....




As we mentioned earlier, in the very beginning very few people knew what they were about, you know; and uh, as a matter of fact, here’s a little sidelight that might be interesting. Uh, got here on the 3rd of December as I said; and it was a dreary cloudy day like we’ve had, are you from this around here? Like we’ve had from time to time in the winter. And, we didn’t see the sun until Christmas day. It came out for, oh, couple of hours and then back again. And the scuttlebutt amongst uh, the peons and everybody was that that was a camouflage to the, that they had put up so, you know, to hide this - but it was just good old Washington weather and like I say from the 3rd of December to the 24th of well until Christmas day, I didn’t see a peak of the sun. (CHATTER) Nearly everybody had that as a theory.




Well yes, but they knew pretty well what they were gonna do. I, they built a reactor in Chicago I think it was. Wasn’t it in Chicago? yeah and I believe that this reactor was uh, uh, the B reactor was just like that model that they built only to scale, you know bigger. So they knew it would work uh, or they figured it would work but they didn’t know if one of that magnitude would work. And uh, when they first pulled the control rods out to start it up, why uh, there was several little things that happened that they thought things weren’t going right but they solved all those problems. I tell ya there was some smart people that uh, that worked on that reactor. And one uh, woman - do you remember her name? She, she was a scientist and I’ll tell you she could tell you just what was gonna happen - when, where and uh, what it would be if you did this and it was just it was just about like a prophecy so to speak. But she knew what she was doing; as did most of the, well I would say all of em.




No I didn’t. I missed him by just a little bit a couple of times. But I wasn’t fortunate enough to be at work when he was there.




No, I was, I was doing some outside work connected. Because you see they had to really train us and most of the when they when they were getting the thing to start up most of operation was done by scientists, you know they, so it was some time after they had they had gotten it up before I was uh, privileged to sit down at the reactor; at the control board.




Yeah. Well, I can’t remember how long it was before I went on the shift work but most most of my time out there was spent on shift work. Days, graveyard and swing. And uh, uh, I worked mostly in B area but then I worked I worked in all the areas. And uh, I did a lot of holdover work and as such I worked in most all of the other areas. F, C, (?), and uh my last I can’t remember exactly when it was but when they shut B area down I went to uh, K area and that was where I spent the last uh, before uh retirement, K area.




Well, you have all of these uh, when you’re sitting at the control board you have all of these instruments that tell you where the reactivity is the highest. What they like to do is uh, is to make the reactivity flat. So it’s even all around the pile. And uh, they try to what seems to be the natural uh, course of things is that it gets hot in the center and they want to show that they will uh, get all of the slugs reactivated uh equally. They put control rods in where it’s hot and uh, to drive the heat up to the corners. And as a re, sitting at the control board you had to check, they would run a map - and they would tell you the map would be, have a , look just like the front of the reactor and it would tell you where the heat was and uh, then you were to put uh, insert these control rods in the area where the heat was and drive it where it was cool and...




Cook it all equally, yeah. And then of course uh, there was what they call a 115 building, that was uh, the uh, gas they had, gas went through the air through the reactor too to cool it. Uh, uh, yeah, one oh, one week you would work over to 115 and then you would come back over to the control room and then uh, there was a lot of good old hard common labor of uh, cleaning up the uh, the messes after they had an outage, you know. And of course before, whenever they’d have an outage we would run these uh, uh, discharging machines or charging machines if you will. And the way that worked uh, the machine was hooked up to a to a tube and uh, these slugs were placed on a tray and this machine would come and shove the raw slug into the reactor and out of the rear would come uh, uh, slug that was already done, you know, and ready to be sent over to the 200 area and be separated. And that was just a, well it was quite an interesting job, but it was just a job of labor and ya, (CHATTER) and then, yeah, and then when they, when they uh, were discharged they were discharged into a basin about 20 feet of water and you could just go in and uh, and just see them glowing down there! But they were picked up with uh, oh about 20 foot tongs that were activated, just like an ordinary tong that you close it and a thing would open up and grab a hold of a slug and then they would put it into a bucket. And eventually it was loaded onto a train and taken over to 200 area and separated.




No, no the uh the discharge would be uh determined by the amount of activity that the various uh, tubes received. And uh, most of the time, I mean most of the of the discharge you know of course would come from the center because that’s where most of the heat was. But like I said before, they wanted to get it even so that they could discharge all of em, you know eventually the just keep em going in and out all the time.





Well yes, sometimes you’d, if you got to much reactivity it would cause the reactor to scram and the control rods and the uh, uh safety rods would just go in and shut the reactor down.





Well uh, you can lose electricity which would happen sometime and of course the safety rods were just by gravity, they didn’t need uh, electricity to insert them that was the way they were inserted. But uh, sometimes they would have leaks in some of the uh, uh, system, get a leak in a pipe or something and and uh, the water pressure go below a certain figure and just things like that. Most of the time once you got the op the uh, the reactor operating it was quite uneventful. For long periods of time, you know, you’d just sit there and just watch the gauges; but mostly it was the things that they were afraid of was the water pressure going down or anything that lost control of the of made you loose control of the rods or the water was the things that you had to watch all the time and you’d check those gauges and they would run these maps to see how the heat was and uh, quite a bit of the time was just watching those gauges and very infrequently did something happen. That was that was surprising to me, you know they that the first reactor of that size that was in existence and that it did operate so well. Didn’t it surprise you too?




Yeah, yeah that’s. Everybody felt like uh, like it was, you know, very important and I think most of the people that worked there had that feeling of uh, of urgency and felt like that they were making a contribution to the war effort. Uh, I don’t uh, I think the uh, plutonium for the Nagasaki and uh, what’s the other Japanese place? I think it came from uh, B reactor, I’m pretty sure it did. (CHATTER)




Yes, yeah it was run 24 hours a day until shutdown, you know what I mean. Shutdowns would, oh I can’t remember for sure, sometimes they’d last 3 or 4 days uh, sometimes just if they’d scrammed then you get back up before uh, when it scrams it causes xenon to uh to that poisons the reactor and unless you get up uh, real fast - why then you have to stay down for I think it was 24 hours I’m not sure, but a longer period of time. But it was possible to uh, recover from a scram, an inadvertent scram, uh, like one time uh, the first time that I went into the control room and one of the supervisors, I think it was Ted Lewis I’m not sure, he’s dead now, but there was an instrument there and he said now uh, you do this and this and this and was showing me how this instrument worked. He says uh, “If you run it all the way up it’ll scram” and he turned inadvertently turned it up and scrammed the reactor. If you run it all the way up you might scram the reactor! I laughed I’ll tell ya. I used to kid old Ted Lewis about that. But uh, it was they kept a the supervisors and the scientists kept a pretty good eye on it and uh, uh, I think most of the reactor operators were efficient.




I don’t think that people actually at the time the bomb was dropped, I don’t think people of the United States, this is just my opinion, I don’t think they really realized just how much damage the bomb could do, how forceful it was. And uh, as a matter of fact I saw a television show just recently some of the people from Nagasaki telling about what happened and you know you just can’t believe some of the things that how how things would just - it was here and then it wasn’t - you know, and they were still alive, you know a lot of em and uh, yet they didn’t you know, it was just mystifying to me; I and I don’t think that many people realized how powerful the bomb was. But I think that most everybody on the project felt that it was necessary to keep it going and uh, I don’t think they felt that it was an unworthwhile project, uh.




Well uh, when I first came up here I lived in the barracks, uh, there in Richland. And my wife and family came up uh, oh in February or March I think. And we lived uh, first at uh, 94 Van Guessen in a B house and then we moved in l948 up on 408 Sanford in what they call a precut. And I’ve Iived I’ve lived there ever since.




Well, you’d go in if you were gonna be uh, uh, a reactor operator you’d go in and you would talk to the person that was uh, operating the reactor at that time and you’d look over his charts and so on and uh, then you would just sit at the board like I say if that was your job as a reactor operator, uh, and you’d sit there for 2 hours and then another operator would relieve ya and when he’d relieve ya you’d go and you’d read all these gauges the that were around in the control room - Did you go in the control room? You saw this myriad of gauges. The they had to be read uh, at least once an hour, and sometimes if they had a special project goin on why uh, oftener than that. But basically that was uh, the control room operators job (CLOCK CHIMES) to read these uh, gauges and then operate the reactor. Uh, and there’s one job in reading the uh, water pressure on this board and that would take two people and one person would uh read the gauge and the other would record it and of course you they had to be within certain limitations and if one was out of order they’d call the instrument man and if the instrument was okay and if it was something that was way out and it was not a malfunction of the instrument sometimes they’d even cause a shutdown. Not very often, but uh, that was what they read it for to see if, if any And then the next time that you would be on outside and that would if it was you was goin to work after a shutdown then probably you’d go in and start uh, go uh, back to the where the slugs had been discharged into the basin and pick up metal and put it in these buckets they called em and they would be loaded into the car; but that was uh, that was the three basic jobs of a control room, of a of a reactor operator was in the control room or reading the in the control room sitting at the board or reading the gauges or out on the outside picking up the slugs uh, and shipping the metal to 200 areas and then in the when you was in the 115, the week you was in the 115 building you’d have to check the gauges over there and uh, see that the gas was coming as it should over to the reactor and uh. But mostly uh, it was either hard work or just uh, or just reading gauges and something very very simple.




Well uh, it was probably quite a bit later because the ruptures were the result of of uh, operating at a higher level. By comparison, I can’t remember the numbers but, the level that we were operating when in the first uh, months and year of the reactor, they got up eventually 2 or 3 times as high as that. And when we got up to those higher levels that was when the ruptures came. Uh and, they weren’t too frequent for the... I guess we had quite a few but I didn’t think they were too frequent for the level of operation that we were....




Well uh, the uh the rupture was when the a slug the covering of the uranium slug was aluminum would the slug itself would disin start to disintegra - swell - burst this aluminum covering and then of course that puts this uranium all through the water system and everything and what had to be done then was to discharge that column of slugs and they would get the find out the rupture in the scientists would check it over, I don’t really know what they did there. But, sometimes it would swell and stick the so that you couldn’t discharge the metal with the normal charging machine. Then the maintenance people would come and they had tools and things that would put extra pressure on the on the slugs so that they could discharge it. Sometimes they would have to replace the whole tube and other times just replace the slug that was ruptured. But I, I don’t uh, as I recall, It wasn’t too frequent that that happened, but as you said it was later on when they started in more frequent was when they raised the power levels up.




Well as I recall that, that was just to try to go up and hook the charging machine to that particular tube and charge it with the, they would up the pressure the normal pressure but the quickie part of it was to see if it was not stuck so that they could just get the ruptured slug out and then get it back up because that way they wouldn’t have to be down so long, you see. But if it goes into one of these where it’s necessary to replace the tube when it’s stuck and everything then I think the minimum down time then even in everything else went fine was uh, a couple of days.




Yeah um uh. Just get up, get the crew up on the on the front face and hook up the charging machine and try to get it out of there as quick as they could, like he said within 20 minutes or so.




Yeah, they’re in a basin they call it. A 20 foot basin. The, it’s just a matter of pickin up the, you can you can see in the wa the waters clear you see and they have a underwater lights to show you down there; to shine on the metal. Uh, and it was just like a big long tong and you open it up and get it get the jaw on that uh, slug and raise it up and put it in the bucket. It’s just a matter of using, operating those tongs which are very simple. It was a crude crude way actually, but that was about the only way that they figured that they could do it.




Yeah, oh yeah. Yeah, the buckets were under water. They would, the storage area back there was a, these buckets would hang on a rod and go there was a aisleway that the rods, that these rods that were connected to the bucket could go through and then up on top was a rail with wheels and you could just slide that bucket and uh put it in these rows and put it down on the bottom and disconnect it from the bucket and that was where they stored the stuff in this 20 feet of water.




Oh yeah, as he said this water was so pure it just looked like there wasn’t any water there if you didn’t see the movement of the wa, caused by any activity that was going on in the water, it just looked like it was just clear, and uh, yeah those light uh, it was kind of amazing to me that they that they didn’t un, you know, that it didn’t drown em out but, short em out! But it was, cause the wa, there was no uh, mineral in the water at all you see. CHATTER There’s gotta be, that’s where the conduction of electricity through water is, the minerals in the water. Yeah, you can just put a light bulb down in there and it would just burn.




Oh, the counterbalance they had uh, a counterweight because those slugs weighed eight pounds , the 8 inch ones and uh they had a counterweight and as you picked up a slug it would be, you know, the weight would drag down and help you pull the tong up out of the water so that you could put it in; they were quite maneuverable for a great big clumsy thing that they were. But uh, without that counterweight uh you’d soon get so tired you couldn’t do anything. I know because once in a while you’d get a hold of a pair of tongs that were that wasn’t working. Actually, what it was just a uh, one of the ways they had was just a container that was around this a rod that the tong was made out of that had air in it and it would float, you see, its tendency was to come up and float and of course that helped ya..




Well, I thought I, it was my thought that we were really careful and I’ve heard a lot of these people uh, whistle blowers and so on. Maybe there was some things that they did that they shouldn’t have done but I I’m positive that there was nothing done in the interest of speed. All the people that I worked for were safety conscious. And uh and it was not, to my knowledge, there was there was no one out in our area that was injured. I think there was a couple people in the 200 area that got an overdose. But to my knowledge I don’t know anybody that got an overdose of radioactivity.




Oh yeah, that’s right. It uh, there’s a lot of it, well there just was no uh, uh, no precedent, you see. The history was made as you went along and they uh kept track of all these things to, whenever they would find out an effect, or what seemed like was gonna be an effect then they would uh, uh, they always cut the uh limits, if the limit they came up with was say, 5 rem uh, a day they would cut it at least in two. And to my knowledge they’re still doing that. I’m not, of course I know that now they uh, it’s been l5 years since I retired and there’s been a lot of new things found out. And uh, so maybe they found out that some of the things they did weren’t just exactly what would have been best. But I don’t think that there was anything intentional in any of that.




Well uh, I always felt, now you mentioned the uh urgency of continuing on after Nagasaki and these other tests that they made. I always looked at this as a peace time situation. I I’ve looked at nuclear energy as being the salvation of a lot of countries because a... well I don’t think there’s any better way of making electricity that uh with the nuclear reactor. And I’m surprised, personally, that there has been somewhat of a lessening of the of that idea. A lot of people feel that there’s other means of electricity. Of course, water we know uh is the ultimate one. If you’ve got plenty of water and you’ve got it all the time why sure that’s an easy way to make electricity. But uh nuclear energy, I felt, is a greater peace time uh thing that war time, that’s what I’ve always felt.




Right, right. I think that uh, uh that the United States, generally, I say generally because I don’t know how some of these other areas evolved with the uh nuclear age, but uh I think they uh have come up with good answers to the problems of using nuclear energy for peace time. Then of course medical medically there’s a lot of uses for reactivity in medicine.




Oh yes, yes, it was, that was quite an interesting time as a matter of fact, when we lived in the in the barracks uh and uh ate in mess hall up there. I tell ya you could you could hear most any accent any time of the day. You know, a Southerner, a Easterner uh it was quite interesting. There was a lot of different people and they were noticeable. Uh, we as Westerners have our peculiarities uh and Southerners have their peculiarities and Boston folks uh, it was very interesting to see that uh hodgepodge of people here at that time.




Well yes, well I think one of the main things was the, number one in my estimation is the area that was necessary to build it and the availability of a securing that, you know, for the government. They had its, there’s a lot of land that’s been taken out of normal service and put in to the uh, to the nuclear age so to speak. And uh, another thing is the uh, uh dedication to the people that were recruited. There was a lot of a lot of know-how that was that was looked for from the Dupont people in Salt Lake and other areas uh, Denver, the Denver people - a lot of them came up here. The, I think it was just a matter of all those things coming together in the right area and with the right people at the head of it that made it possible.




Well uh, certainly it has had more impact on the people in this uh world than the man going on the moon so far now eventually, I don’t know maybe another 50, 80 years the uh that something from that feat will evolve. But, to date in my book it’s much it’s much bigger than that.






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B Reactor Museum Association, “Ralph Sansom Oral History,” Hanford History Project, accessed April 16, 2024, http://www.hanfordhistory.com/items/show/4686.