Interview with Alex Smith

Dublin Core


Interview with Alex Smith


An oral history interview with Alex Smith conducted by the B Reactor Museum Association.


Hanford History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities


Those interested in reproducing part or all of this collection should contact the Hanford History Project at, who can provide specific rights information for these items.

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Alex Smith


[Start of Interview]

Weisskopf: Today is October 27, 1999. And why don’t you give us your name and spell the last name.

Smith: Alex Smith, S-m-i-t-h.

Weisskopf: Did anybody know you by a nickname when you worked here?

Smith: Smitty.

Weisskopf: Smitty? Okay.

Smith: In the early days. Later on, they didn’t.

Weisskopf: And why don’t you start out, let’s talk about what you were doing before you were assigned here and how you came to Richland.

Smith: I was working at Remington Arms in Salt Lake City making 30 and 50 caliber cartridges. And the first year in operation we made enough cartridges to shoot 200 rounds at every Axis shoulder and civilian. And we made so much, and there were three other plants besides the Salt Lake plant. And we drained all the coppers all the countries’ copper stockpile, eventually had to start drawing them from steel. Naturally, they were obsolete ammunition used in World War I, so a lot of them were never used after the first year, so they closed the Salt Lake plant down.

Weisskopf: Where were the other two plants?

Smith: There was one in Kansas City and one in Oklahoma. And, of course, back in Remington Arms main plant.

Weisskopf: Okay. So they were going to close the plant you were working in?

Smith: Yes. And since Remington Arms was a subsidiary of DuPont Company, and DuPont Company was doing construction of the plant at Hanford, those who wanted to go were given opportunities of being transferred up there on a job if they had qualifications of what they needed up there. So in a very short time after March or April sometime, 1943, by the time I got there in December the 9th, they had assembled some 60,000 workers from every state in the union. At that time there were only 48 states. And they sent recruiters out all over.

Weisskopf: How did they present the job to you before you went out? How did they tell you what it was?

Smith: They told us nothing. They told us the interviewer says he found out I had some machine shop experience, he said if we were to be called upon to design a shop of course, later on I could tell, after I saw the shop, I saw he was trying to get people who would know how to make a layout for mass production, to machine a product, is the way he put it, to set up the machinery. And he referred to most of it as carpenter machinery. Around the room, how you’d have it designed and have your assembly lines and machining lines to get the best results. That was about the only thing that he told me. I mean, anything that had any relation to the job I was to do.

Weisskopf: And did that sound better than what was your other option, if you hadn’t taken him up on that?

Smith: He didn’t have one. He was specifically looking for somebody to work in the 101 Building, I suppose.

Weisskopf: Okay. When did you have the interview versus actually arriving in Pasco? What was the time lag, do you think?

Smith: I was on my way in about three days.

Weisskopf: Did you drive out?

Smith: No, they put us on a train. They paid our transportation. There was quite a I would say there were probably about 50 people came up with me. Some of them didn’t stay very long. Some of them left in a hurry. There was a the whole desert was torn up, had the first windstorm of course, this was the 9th of December, and it was cold. I remember we had what we called the cattle cars with a big semi-trailer, and it had benches on either side, and the windows were all frosted up, you couldn’t see out. When we came through Richland, they had started constructing the houses, but you couldn’t see anything. You could try to scrape a thing. And at the time I came here, construction people, the engineers and people, they were DuPont employees, would get a house in probably three or four months. They had top priority, before us. The thing went along, and they started building, they of course built three reactors first. But I guess as they knew more of what they were doing, they decided that they didn’t need that many, so they concentrated on B and finished it first.

Weisskopf: And you got here in December of ‘43.

Smith: Yeah, December the 9th. I remember the date.

Weisskopf: How many days later was it before you showed up on the job and they were

Smith: I showed up the next morning. And I was taken out to 101 Building. I already apparently had enough clearance, because there was no delay in getting in.

Weisskopf: You mean the basic clearance.

Smith: Yeah.

Weisskopf: Not a secrecy you didn’t have a real clearance?

Smith: No.

Weisskopf: But you were good enough for the job. They didn’t have to investigate further.

Smith: Yeah. Well, I think they anybody that worked in the arms department had to have some kind of clearance.

Weisskopf: Okay.

Smith: Had to pass a security test. Because they had gone out to people in high school, college, university.

Weisskopf: Was the 101 Building up and running when you got there?

Smith: Yes.

Weisskopf: It was producing already?

Smith: No, they had a yeah, they had one assembly line up.

Weisskopf: And it was milling graphite?

Smith: Yes. It was very crude, and of course it wasn’t anything like the one we finished up with. I think there was it was two or three lines, I can’t remember for sure.

Weisskopf: Let me ask you again: The 101 Building, at least then, was only used for milling graphite?

Smith: That’s all.

Weisskopf: That was the primary purpose. Okay.

Smith: Storage. Had a big storage area for raw graphite that come in un-machined.

Weisskopf: And when you went in there, what did you do the first or second day? How did they orient you to ?

Smith: Well, that was in the engineering department. It was a separate they worked they reported directly to DuPont. As I remember this organization, DuPont was the construction engineer, and they furnished all the design, and the equipment, and the engineering reports, write-ups and everything, how things were to be done. But this Washington, being a strong union state, why, each craft worked for their own particular craft and they were hired out of the union hall. And there was, for example, Newberry, Chandler and Lord was the electrical contractor. I can’t remember the pipefitters. But the millwrights of course was another contractor. They all reported to their separate supervision. It was a very cumbersome organization and hard to work, but the very fact that it was a war, it would never work in peacetime, but the very fact that people loyalty was at stake, and everybody cooperated and bent backwards to try to get along and work the best they could. And DuPont Company itself, they were a pretty smart outfit. They’d been through a lot of wars, ever since the Civil well, Revolution, I guess.

Weisskopf: So what were you doing the second day that they showed you the room, the building?

Smith: I spent two or three days with engineers, going over the whole plan, showing us from the very beginning out to the raw storage shed place, and followed everything through. And I was going to be see, at that time they only had one shift. And I spent a week in orientation. And then I was put in charge of the swing shift. And, of course, I had a lot of people that knew what they were doing that worked on days.

Weisskopf: Back then, if it wasn’t top secret, if you were to come home and describe to somebody what your job was, or what the purpose of the building was, how would you have described it? Secrecy didn’t matter, what was it that the building was doing that you were there to do?

Smith: We were there to machine graphite to a lot of different shapes and sizes to very precise dimensions. And we at that time knew nothing about what it was for, what we were doing.

Weisskopf: Were you familiar with graphite at all before then?

Smith: Well, yes, in a way. My background was mining geology, and of course we had a lot to do with the raw materials and stuff like that.

Weisskopf: And did you know you were on a war effort? That must have been pretty obvious.

Smith: Oh, yes. That was made very obvious. Everybody knew.

Weisskopf: Have any clue what they were going to be using graphite for?

Smith: No. Not a clue.

Weisskopf: Did you know how much was going to be run through there, the quantities?

Smith: No idea. At that point I had never seen a reactor, never seen the place it was going.

Weisskopf: Okay. So they started you as the guy running the swing shift, you said?

Smith: Yes.

Weisskopf: And what was that like the first few days that you did it? What was the routine?

Smith: Learning for several weeks. I had a lot of here again, everybody had the spirit of cooperation. There was no jealousy, no anything as far as the fact that the others had been here the only thing I could figure out was the others have been here long enough to make several mistakes, and I hadn’t, and that was the reason I got the job. Of course, the fact that I was a shift supervisor in the arms plant, I don’t know when that was. But I do know that I had a lot of good, intelligent individuals working for me, the engineers. A lot of them who weren’t engineers but were, you know, within the limits of their background and knowledge, they were doing engineering work. There was just nothing but good cooperation on their part to help me learn my job.

Weisskopf: What were some of the things that you were told that were really, really important about the graphite?

Smith: Each piece of graphite has a particular place to go, so they have to each of them has to be accounted for, and we have to have a method, and they had already worked out this method. Apparently it was very much a success, because you can imagine what would happen if one of those pieces of graphite that was in the center of the pile was one that was supposed to have the receiver rod, the pipe, tube, was in there, and you shoved that in the blank, in order to keep that place cool, they had no idea whether they were going to be able to do the job or not, but certainly they would never have started up if they discovered that that would happen. So everything had to be in place.

Weisskopf: Did they give you a list of sizes and pieces?

Smith: Yes. They had drawings of everything. I can’t remember, but it was between two and three hundred different sizes and shapes of blocks.

Weisskopf: And other than the sizes and shapes, what were the other things that they emphasized was critical about the job?

Smith: Well, like I say, those that required holes drilled the length of the block, which was was it three and a half or four feet long?

Weisskopf: Four feet, I think.

Smith: Four? Yeah, four feet.

Weisskopf: And you tempered the edges?

Smith: Yes, all had to be tempered.

Weisskopf: And you didn’t know why you were doing that, it was just part of the specification?

Smith: Yes.

Weisskopf: Were there small pieces, too?

Smith: Yes, there were small, just two or three inches long, some block. It was different sizes. Mostly they were they weren’t much shorter than a foot, as I remember, make everything come out even, I guess. And then there was, over those blocks, there was blocks that had instrumentation that went into the center of the controls, and they were very special, too.

Weisskopf: And you were milling them down to the finished size?

Smith: Yes.

Weisskopf: Till they were ready to be used?

Smith: Right. They were…We had to stack them in very precise piles, all labeled, and they were to leave, to be loaded in a certain order, taken out. And one of the things that came up early on was the fact that we were we had practice runs with running the ones for 305, for the little reactor in 300 area. So we had a lot of practice in getting things done. Went out and laid that pile up.

Weisskopf: You were doing that as well?

Smith: Yes. It was yeah. They had already if I remember right, they had already started shipping it out for the 300 area. It wasn’t very long till they had.

Weisskopf: Before they laid the graphite in the B Reactor, I know they talked about they laid up like 10 or 15 rows to make sure it all was exact, and then they’d take it out and put it into the pile. Were they doing that at the 101 Building?

Smith: No. They didn’t do that on purpose out there, at 100-B. This is what I was going to tell you, that one of the sharp engineers that was there developed this method of measuring, so they didn’t have to they were going through before that calibrating everything, see? So in order this wouldn’t do in a mass production situation. So he had set up a machine and worked with that before it got up to speed and high production. He had this developed so he had sensors in three locations along the edge the length of the block. Three or four, depending on how long it was. And he could take this block and put it on a machine table, shoving it under those little lights on a screen I mean the sensors on a screen, it would position that when he shoved it under there. And that would tell us, if all the lights were green, it passed. If all the lights, or any one of them, was red, you had to pull it out and measure it by hand.

Weisskopf: So instead of having to make a dozen different hand checks, you just shoved it in the box and it had

Smith: Shoved it under there. It was done on a machine table, and you just shoved it in. And of course then you had to pull it out and turn one over, because you had to have two dimensions, plus the length. So there were sensors on the length, too. So it measured the length and the two sides with one push, and then you pulled it out and shoved it back in again, turned it over 90 degrees, and shoved it back in again. If it passed all dimensions, you would send it out. Well, what we weren’t sharp enough to foresee was the fact that if every if one went through just a thousandth on the high side, you multiply that by 14... And, so, (inaudible)*. Anyway, the majority of it was on the high side, but it was all well within specification.

Weisskopf: Let me rephrase that. Did specifications say plus or minus so many thousandths

Smith: Three-thousandths.

Weisskopf: three thousandths of an inch, you expect them to average out.

Smith: Yes.

Weisskopf: Some less, some more. But you’re saying they were all heading towards the plus size.

Smith: That’s right. So when we started to take them out, they rolled them out, take about 12 to lay them down in a pile that’s probably not the terminology that they used but anyway, that’s what we used. So by the time they worked up see, all the shielding block with the cooling water holes were already up to receive the aluminum what was that? The lining. Stainless steel.

Weisskopf: The tubes? The fuel tubes were aluminum, you had 2,000 of them.

Smith: Yeah. I wasn’t sure about that aluminum. I thought surely they’d be stainless, but they were aluminum.

Weisskopf: Had to be aluminum. Otherwise the stainless would have shut down the reaction too much, I think.

Smith: Is that a fact? Okay. All right, that’s why it was aluminum. All right. So when they shoved the aluminum tubes in, the 14th layer was the first one that had holes to receive the aluminum tubes, and they wouldn’t go in.

Weisskopf: This was in the reactor itself?

Smith: Yeah. It wouldn’t go past the shielding form. So the first thing somebody thought of, of course, or everybody realized that there was no control over so

Weisskopf: Let me ask you again: The first 14 rows up, the first row of holes for the process tubes, none of the tubes would go in?

Smith: No.

Weisskopf: Okay.

Smith: It was just that close. It was very close. It couldn’t have been if you had say if it was just a thousandth, it would be 14 thousandths off. They had to fit. They had to fit precisely. There couldn’t be air space or anything between the graphite and the aluminum tube.

Weisskopf: And that’s when they discovered that the error had been plus, plus, plus?

Smith: Yes. So we didn’t have to take it all out, but we had to take enough out and this is another thing, just keeping track of how they did a masterful job out there, and I don’t know how they did it, because I haven’t --- of keeping the of taking it out, keeping it in order, and sending certain layers I don’t remember how many they sent back, but it couldn’t have been over two or three and machined enough out to bring them down off of those, to distribute the error as much as possible, but it was down in a zone where there was no action at all, and so apparently a few thousandths off didn’t matter.

Weisskopf: And if the pile was what was it? 36 feet tall, and those blocks were about 4 inches, so that’s 3 blocks per foot, it was over 100 blocks tall. And they had to come out at the top, so that last process tube would go all the way through without binding or anything else.

Smith: Yeah.

Weisskopf: That’s amazing.

Smith: And they worked out a system after that, after that for the other reactors of course, they had to account for it for the rest of these, because there was tubing that had to go up every so often.

Weisskopf: Do you remember how you identified the blocks? When you were all finished with one, it met tolerance and you were done with it, and they stamped it, we saw them in the movie stamping it with an identifier, do you remember what those IDs were, letters or numbers were?

Smith: No. When you saw this, was this done you couldn’t stop them once they were all in this they had to be stamped before they were put in.

Weisskopf: Oh. It looked like they were doing it at the very end. But they did put an identifying mark on them, didn’t they, at the pile, when they were laying it up, they’d know which block went where?

Smith: Normally it depends on position on the roof, or how they took it out. There was four well, I don’t remember…

Weisskopf: You wrapped them in paper when you were done?

Smith: No.

Weisskopf: Just left them bare and stacked them?

Smith: We stacked them, but we covered them. We covered them all. They were always kept covered, and nobody was allowed in there. And, of course, there was no smoking in there, no chewing tobacco, or anything like that.

Weisskopf: Right. What kind of clothing were you wearing while you were inside the building working?

Smith: Well, they all I wore my regular street clothes, but if I was out, went out into the graphite area, I put on a pair of coveralls.

Weisskopf: It was separated from the rest of the building?

Smith: Yeah.

Weisskopf: Okay. Just sort of a clean room for its day?

Smith: Somebody’s sending a fax.

Weisskopf: So you normally just wore a suit and tie, or how dressed up were you?

Smith: No, just casual clothes. See, it was too hot to do that. The only one I knew that wore a shirt was always the staff, he was the department manager, and he was the son of one of the DuPont engineers. One of the big shots. But he was sharp. He wasn’t there because of his it was because he did a good job.

Weisskopf: How long do you think you were there milling, you know, working with the graphite? You started in December ‘43.

Smith: Fourteen months.

Weisskopf: Really? So you did all three reactors, then?

Smith: Yes. I finished I was one of the last construction workers to leave. Because I wasn’t going to leave, and they kept me here as long as they could. And I was identifying equipment. All this equipment was needed elsewhere. Navy had first priority on it, and the Army had second, and DuPont had third. So we would get up and then there was other organizations lower than that. So you’d go out each morning I’d go into the office, receive a teletype from either Kansas City or some other plant, either someplace in mostly in Minnesota. I can’t remember where all the DuPont plants and they would tell me what they needed, describe it. And I’d go out searching the whole field for these. And I had tickets to put on there. Well, if it was somebody from the Navy or Army, they’d come along, they wanted to rip that ticket off. By the time I got a construction crew ready to go to load it on the freight car, why, it would be gone a lot of times. So I worked out of course, I being one of the ones that was there, the Navy and the Army personnel was a little arrogant about the things, and so they were very happy to accommodate me and let me know that they had ripped that off, so we’d load it on and take it. Told me that was legal. And I don’t know whether the Navy needed it worse than we did or not, but

Weisskopf: So 14 months from December would be like February or March of ‘45?

Smith: Yeah.

Weisskopf: All the reactors were up and running.

Smith: Yes.

Weisskopf: The whole plant was running at that point. Okay. And

Smith: Well, I don’t think well, they’d have to be.

Weisskopf: Well, B Reactor started in September ‘44, about nine months or ten months after you started, and

Smith: It wasn’t very far behind.

Weisskopf: No, a couple, few months. I think by March they were all up and running.

Smith: I can’t verify that one way or the other.

Weisskopf: I’d have to look it up. So that was the last part of your job at the 101 Building was decommissioning it, getting rid of the milling equipment and everything got distributed to other people at other places.

Smith: Uh-huh.

Weisskopf: And then where were you left after that was done?

Smith: Well, on my rounds around the plant I became associated, not friends but associated with the maintenance superintendent of 100-F. And we were on a first-name basis and everything. I told him I was wound up here, and they were looking for a place to either get rid of me, send me into the Army, or I wanted a job in operations. And obviously they had planned on three more reactors and two more separations plants, and they had one of the two built. They had four planned, and they only ever finished and operated two of them. One is still a hole in the ground. As far as I know, it’s still out there.

Weisskopf: C Plant, I think, in the East area.

Smith: Yeah. Let’s see, the two were built in 200 west, but one was never started up.

Weisskopf: That was U.

Smith: U. It was finally converted to a waste processing plant. So they did the same for operations, they hired, shipped in a lot more people than they ever needed, so jobs weren’t that easy to get in operations. So he says I can’t remember who this manager, apparently he had some kind of they thought the other superintendents thought he was getting all the breaks. So when I they hired me, he sat me down, he was going to make some kind of a junior engineer or something, so I was glad to get anything. So I went down there, was interviewed, sent out to 200 west. I thought I was going out there, some kind of engineering job, and they said “No, you’re going to be an area mechanic.” So I was an area mechanic for about six months before I finally got a promotion. But that proved invaluable to me when I got back in the engineering department, having had that experience.

Weisskopf: Dealing with the day-to-day

Smith: I got a chance on hands-on with all the equipment, at least in the 200 areas.

Weisskopf: As opposed to just working with blueprints and specifications and things like that.

Smith: Yes. So I had served as a machinist apprentice until the depression come along, and me and everybody else, I went back to college. So it was really a good thing later on, because I was picked for certain jobs. Of course, when the engineering department and the maintenance department divided up into two different… why, the superintendent, who was then the superintendent of both, was going to be superintendent of maintenance, and he came and I was working in town then, in the Federal Building. It wasn’t the Federal Building then. He said he was going to send me out to 200 east, and so I went out. He didn’t tell me. He said “You’ll know why I did this later on.” Of course, three weeks later they announced the separation, and I was out in maintenance. So that was another good break, because I’d had enough practical experience. Here again, it was the spirit of cooperation, being put in charge of a maintenance crew, not having been a craftsman myself, but I’d had a good background. Well, I was, really, I had that experience, it worked out fine.

[Tape changed]

Smith: Through conjecture, they didn’t know either. I don’t think there were over 50 people on the plant, both AEC and or was it still the Army no, it was AEC then.

Weisskopf: 1947 I think AEC started.

Smith: Well, then, it was still under the Army, wasn’t it. Well, of course, a lot of the Army knew about it, high brass, I’m sure. But I would venture to say, then, there wasn’t over 100 that knew it until the bomb was dropped.

Weisskopf: Did you know anything more after you’d been there for six months? Any feeling for what you were doing? Before the bomb was dropped, did you have any inkling of what was going on at the plant?

Smith: No. No. We had a lot of as I say, I talked to enough engineers in the field, this field and that, and mostly, of course, they’d mostly be scientists, like physicists and that, but I had friends, but they didn’t know.

Weisskopf: Did you know of radiation?

Smith: Oh, yes.

Weisskopf: You knew about that.

Smith: We had to take all the precautions.

Weisskopf: And they called it radiation?

Smith: Yes. Every craftsman knew that. They had a whole of course, they still got them, the radiologists, what do they call them now? I can’t remember.

Weisskopf: You’ve got your health physicists.

Smith: Health physicists, yeah, it was the health physicists. Of course, they were very good craftsmen. Like I told you about that incident that the pipefitter that worked in my organization, an operation supervisor and an operator went in to prepare this cask for another load of waste, of cesium, of strontium I suppose, one or the other, I don’t know what it was. But, anyway, they went in and opened the valves, and the cask was supposed to be clean, at least drained and flushed. And he opened this drain, and some of this greenish stuff rolled out. And immediately the supervisor hollered “Get out!”. And he left, and the operator knew enough to get out. But the pipefitter, he decided to be a hero and put a stop to it.

Weisskopf: Turn it off?

Smith: Turn it off. Not turn it, put the plug back in. And, of course, that didn’t fit the way it did, and they yelled at him again and he finally left. Well, of course, he had gloves, rubber gloves and everything else, whatnot, and they washed him off as soon as they could. And everything of course, he was done, made all kinds of tests. The darned thing didn’t manifest itself until the scalp started coming up on the outside, and this probably was so the radiation, the damage was deep, but it came to the surface. So then I had to drive him to the University of Washington, medical. And then after that, why, we had to send him over once a month, until it healed up.

Weisskopf: Was it strictly localized on his head?

Smith: Yes. He must have taken internally quite a jolt, too, but apparently he didn’t, because actually I guess the radiation limits we were told were, I don’t know, a fraction of what there was any danger of damage.

Weisskopf: What year do you think that was, give or take?

Smith: Yes. It was in B Plant, and it was after B Plant had no, it was in T Plant, because it was when they were no, won’t say that. I guess it was B Plant. Because I had the pipefitters in both areas. I think it was the B Plant. And it would have to be 19... Let’s see, when did B Plant start? It would have to be about 1970. Give or take five years.

Weisskopf: Okay. So let’s go back to 1945. You knew of radiation before the bomb was dropped, you knew that the plant had something to do with that, but no indication as to what was going on. So tell me what you thought when you did find out, when the bomb was dropped and the news came out. Did that make you look at Hanford in awe or in a new light?

Smith: It wasn’t till later we found out that bomb was actually made at Oak Ridge. It was the uranium bomb.

Weisskopf: Right.

Smith: And the one a few days later was plutonium, I guess. So we found that out. Of course, we were claiming credit right away for a day or two till it got straightened out.

Weisskopf: And did that kind of make your job seem much more interesting?

Smith: Oh, yes. But the other thing is, is the atmosphere was here, this is a wartime project and the war is over now, are we all going to be out of a job? And there were all these homes here, and people with was paying 37 dollars and 60 cents rent. Should have saved a lot of money, but I don’t know if they did or not. And they were making good wages, and what we were going to do. This is going to be a time of readjustment, and all the industries geared up for war, and we’re and there was a so that was why I told you about this big red permanent building going up in the center of town, DuPont looked at it as a great morale builder, and I believe it was. People here are donating a lot of money. This is the first time the church ever built a building on leased land.

Weisskopf: Which one was that? Where is that?

Smith: That’s the one in the center of town, over on the big hill, overlooking when they started building that church that was the uptown district was a swamp.

Weisskopf: Are you talking about the one on Jadwin?

Smith: Yes.

Weisskopf: Jadwin and Symons, up in that area?

Smith: Yeah.

Weisskopf: Okay. Yeah, I live right near there.

Smith: Oh, do you?

Weisskopf: Yeah.

Smith: See, that was just a swamp area down in there.

Weisskopf: Oh, by the creek that runs through, maybe.

Smith: Yeah. It was four feet of water there. It was just a swamp. They had to have four feet of landfill in there to build that up, to build that store. I was coming through there one day, back ally on a cold winter night, and one of the owners of six of those buildings was in he came in here before the war and started a plumbing business in Pasco, Braden Plumbing. And here he was in that Japanese or Chinese restaurant there, fixing the plumbing. I said “What in the world are you doing this for?” He’s probably a millionaire. He said “I like to keep my hand in the work. I don’t want to ever lose this ability to be a plumber.” And he was fixing that up. He just come in there, I guess, and they needed help. And I thought that was the oddest thing. He owned six of those buildings.

Weisskopf: So, you heard about the bomb being dropped

Smith: Yes.

Weisskopf: the 6th of August. Another one was dropped on the 9th of August. The war was over the 14th, or something like that.

Smith: Yes.

Weisskopf: So literally a week after you learned what you were doing there, your job might have been done, theoretically.

Smith: Yes. We were just wondering what we were going to do. We had a certain amount of debts, we had started to one very interesting thing, the car I had was a ‘39 Chevy coupe that I had before the war. Of course, you couldn’t buy one. So I drove that all the way until I could buy a new car. In 1949, ten years later, I sold it for $15 more than I paid for it in 1940.

Weisskopf: Really. Sharp businessman.

Smith: Yeah, sharp businessman. I kept it in good shape.

Weisskopf: Were your kids already born before the war was over? Do you have children?

Smith: No. Yeah, oh, yeah. There was only two. This is another interesting little thing. I had a secretary out at work, and she was a good Catholic, and she (inaudible)*, and I only had we had these two children, and the youngest one was five years old. And she said “How many children have you got?” I said “Two.” “Two!” So she didn’t say anything about it. I says, “Well, my wife had such hard labor the last time, she said if we had any more I was going to have to have them.” So years later she came to some kind of a bazaar of some kind that we had at our church, and she came in, and she was married then. And I was towing two little kids around, one in each arm. And she looked at them and she looked at me and says “Did you have a hard labor?” Get back on the subject, but I guess that’s one of the things that happened, though.

Weisskopf: Yeah. I was just curious, that transition between wartime effort, you learn what the job is about, and then a week later the war is over. How much time was there before you felt like you were back in the loop of having a real job with DuPont?

Smith: Well, DuPont didn’t want to stay here themselves, and they never did push this. But once GE came in here and said this is the industry of the future, they started talking about power reactors and peacetime use of this product was far greater. It’s unfortunate that it had its bad example with the production of the bomb. But the idea of peacetime reactors is to get as much mileage out of a few elements and create as little waste as possible. And, of course, the weapons program generated all the waste, all the high level stuff and whatnot. So it’s unfortunate that this is how atomic energy had its introduction. It was an invaluable method of generating electricity. It could be cheap, too.

Weisskopf: What were you thinking way back, like, say, 1948, ‘49 and ‘50, about where we would be 50 years later with atomic energy?

Smith: I guess I didn’t have that much...

Weisskopf: I mean, did it seem to you also that it must be the power of the future?

Smith: Yes. Oh, yes. I felt, well, we’ve got a career right here. I’d always thought I’d get back in the mining business. Even after I’d gone to work for DuPont, I’d gone to Denver to train how to make ammunition. And the superintendent of the tunnel that I worked on came there to buy equipment, and he looked me up, and he wanted me to go to South America. They had a mine there, in Chuckacumada and they were going to drill a tunnel way down low and bring the ore out without hoisting it way up and up the mountain. Be a lot cheaper. Of course, they can still get it out. I guess they drilled, put the tunnel in the mountain. So I said “Well, the minute I leave this job, I’ll be in the Army,” they’re not going to let me leave the country. I was married after Pearl Harbor. So I went and helped him buy some equipment, whatnot like that. And he knew a lot about mining and tunnel equipment, and he was sent over there to buy it by Anaconda. But, of course, we’re off the subject again.

Weisskopf: That’s all right. Well, let’s change subjects, then, too. Working on this history of T Plant, you were in the separations area on and off. Do you have any remembrances, stories about the crane equipment in either the 221-T or E Plant?

Smith: Yes. I told you about the rotating hook.

Weisskopf: Yeah. What I didn’t know is when was that and where were you at the time.

Smith: I was at REDOX.

Weisskopf: That was REDOX? Okay.

Smith: And that was the only, really, only separations plant. It was before PUREX was on line. And PUREX initially didn’t have the capability of dissolvers to take in the E metal.

Weisskopf: To take what?

Smith: E metal. Enriched.

Weisskopf: Oh, right, which came along in the later years.

Smith: So for a while, during the early part of the Cold War, the only weapons plant, separations plant that was running full blast was REDOX. And it was designed originally, initially, it was secret before, but it was originally designed for four tons. In order to keep up with the production, we were going to have to do 14 tons a day. So we had a bunch of good, sharp instruments, and with the help of I had a small engineering crew. With the help of them, we designed each panel was run separated by an operator. So instead of the big control rooms, like they have now and like they had in PUREX, it was just individual boards, just like the old bismuth phosphate plant. So these guys were sharp enough to redesign that and locate three control locations. And they made a lot of other improvements, a lot of the times with this rotating equipment. The coarse material was eating out the graphite bearings. So we went over I went back to Lawrence Pump and I saw one of these big sludge pumps, and there was an opening in the tank. Ordinarily we had the deep well turbines with the graphite. We tried glass bearings, which lasted longer. But we were changing out these $125,000 units every shutting down to do that, about every two weeks or less. Sometimes they’d last a week. We tried different bearing material. So I went back and got Lawrence Pump to build one along the designs that just a regular New York sludge pump that they used for their sewer, and made it small enough so it would go down through the big opening. We installed that, one pump, and made an extra one. We never they closed the plant down 18 months later, and we still had the original pump in there. It had some drawbacks, because we had to have so much liquid in the tank before it would start. Had a siphon tube down to the bottom of the tank, because it wasn’t long enough, and it wasn’t practical to redesign or build one, so we put this suction. And, of course, as long as it kept it running and everything going, kept the tank a certain level, there was no problem. But if it did happen to go below, they just had to add water and fill it up so it would prime itself.

Weisskopf: Okay. Now, the first six months you spent in maintenance, early on? You said they sent you out to the 200 areas?

Smith: Yes.

Weisskopf: What kind of work were you doing in there?

Smith: In those days, there was no union, and there was no differentiation between pipefitter, and millwright and machinist. I worked in the machine shop for a while, and then they put me on the shift and I’d go out to the various buildings and worked on mechanical equipment mostly.

Weisskopf: Did you ever go into the canyons?

Smith: Oh, yes.

Weisskopf: What was the typical job where you might be sent into one of the canyons?

Smith: Well, when they first started the T Plant, they just got hot, a couple of them. I had a problem with a jumper, and they couldn’t get it to fit in up there, so they put a couple of us down in the cell. We had a very short time limit. It hadn’t gotten real hot yet. We went up and tried that jumper so we got it to fit in place.

Weisskopf: What would they have done if it had been hot? What could they have done?

Smith: They probably had to take the thing out and well, we couldn’t have gone down there. They’d probably take this out. In those days, we had later on, of course, we had a decontaminator, we had the capability of doing that, but we didn’t then. Wouldn’t even suggest it. They’d have sent it to the shop. We had superintendent later on, this is now. They’d have gone back to the shop, pipe shop, and got another one built.

Weisskopf: Okay. And just replace the whole jumper?

Smith: It was very interesting thing that might be interesting now. There was two different theories here. At Hanford, we built the jumpers very rigid. They had they didn’t bend very much. They had to be right, and they had a lot of stiff framework on them. And one of the big improvements over the bismuth phosphate plant was that they were a flat surface to surface, or the seal was, but the ones later on were oval, concave, so they could be tilted a little bit, and you could get away with that, see. Well, going back to Savannah River, of course I must have known in the back of my mind before this, but I got back there and found out they make them [jumpers] as flimsy as they can. They put one end down and then can bend the other one into place. Take the spare hook or something like that if it didn’t fit. They just didn’t depend on a good fit. They made it out of schedule 10 pipe instead of 40, and when they put them on there, why, they could draw themselves they didn’t have that oval head like we had, but they didn’t have to sit straight, or anything else, they got away with this.

Weisskopf: The original design was a flat connection?

Smith: Yes.

Weisskopf: And where was the oval used at Hanford?

Smith: At REDOX.

Weisskopf: REDOX, Okay. They improved the connection.

Smith: Yes. They improved that here.

Weisskopf: But at T Plant, the connections all had to fit precisely?

Smith: Yes.

Weisskopf: When you laid it in there, it had to line up and then just

Smith: Yeah.

Weisskopf: fit perfectly.

Smith: Yeah.

Weisskopf: How did you get down in the cell for that job when you

Smith: Well, we had ladders then, put them off the top of the tank. But something went wrong and something got out, you see, and I don’t know how they even I wasn’t there when they corrected whatever was wrong, because we were told to scram out of there.

Weisskopf: Were you dressed in whites, coveralls?

Smith: Oh, yes. Coveralls. In fact, we had the plastic suit.

Weisskopf: Were you impressed at the size of the place?

Smith: Oh, I saw that I think the T Building had an extra length, they had an extra operation.

Weisskopf: The laboratory. The semi works that they had.

Smith: Oh, yeah. I think it was 900 feet long.

Weisskopf: Just about. Almost. Its 965, something like that.

Smith: Is it?

Weisskopf: Yeah 865.

Smith: And I couldn’t believe that. Plus the fact that the walls in places were 8-foot thick. Big concrete blocks on top of them. One interesting thing, on the crane, the REDOX crane developed this problem of going around, down the track skeewampus. There was no way it was so hot in those days, you only had 30 seconds to go up there and look. Something like that. Now, this was when I was maintenance manager with REDOX. And it was wearing the rail out and everything else. All kinds of problems. So Andy Eckert and I went up, and we got allowance to take I don’t know how many, a year’s supply of radiation, something like that. Went up there, and it so happened on those old-fashioned cranes, they had one big motor in the center, and they had a flange on either side that drove the wheels, both sides, the motor too, worked from both sides. That was right in the center. And Andy noticed down there a big nut laying on the got looking there, and that crane was being powered from one side, and the other all gores were either sheared off or laying around there. Those bolts. Nobody had thought of that for two or three weeks.

Weisskopf: So it was always skewed as it went down the track?

Smith: Yeah. Every once in a while we’d have to go down to the end and bang it against the end to straighten it out again. And they did that so much, once they broke the rail on one.

Weisskopf: That’s funny. Did you ever work on the cranes at T Plant or B Plant?

Smith: Yes.

Weisskopf: What types of things would you be doing with those?

Smith: Oh, actually, most of the things was electrical. But we had to go up and lubricate the thing. And then... well, let’s see...

Weisskopf: Let me ask you this: There were two periscopes that the operator used.

Smith: Yes.

Weisskopf: Do you remember there being television, a little closed circuit television in the cab?

Smith: No. There wasn’t anything like that that I know. The first television we got put in, and we put one on before we shut down at REDOX, but it never was satisfactory enough to see what you were doing.

Weisskopf: At REDOX. So at T Plant and B Plant, you don’t remember TV being there at all?

Smith: No. No, there wasn’t any.

Weisskopf: Yeah. Is it possible they installed it and never used it?

Smith: No. Well, yes, later on in T Plant it became the main decontamination of the

Weisskopf: No, no, I mean in the beginning.

Smith: No.

Weisskopf: In the beginning, there wasn’t a little TV screen in the cab that they never used?

Smith: No. It wouldn’t be in the cab anyway, it would have to be out in the

Weisskopf: No, the screen itself.

Smith: The screen. Excuse me, I’m sorry. Okay.

Weisskopf: Okay. Well, I’ve heard it from plenty of people; it must be true. Did you ever talk to any of the crane operators?

Smith: All the time.

Weisskopf: Were they swaggering, like a fighter pilot? Were they cocky and proud of their job because they

Smith: They were proud of their job, but they were very humble, too, because they had so much at stake. The whole plant depended on them. The whole they were the one key but it’s amazing, though, how we would often schedule shutdowns for the top crane operator to be on shift, at least when we installed the equipment. Dismantling it was no problem. But when we started installing it, why, we...

Weisskopf: So you’d schedule it around his schedule, to make sure that the top guy was there.

Smith: There were very few that weren’t good operators. But there were a few that we just didn’t have any confidence in.

Weisskopf: How many hours would they spend on a shift inside the cab, working it? Would they be there the whole time?

Smith: No, no. They came out for something to eat, to take lunch. But they put in four hours, probably.

Weisskopf: Okay. Pretty tiring job?

Smith: Oh, it is, when they’re putting jumpers on. But most of the time, of course, they can only do so much, they have to get instructions on the process. Each operating department had an engineer working for the production. He was the production engineer, and he knew the facility very well, and he had all the blueprints, and he worked with the crane operator, told him this is the next jumper to use. They got to the point where they were pretty good at it themselves, but they had a certain order that they had to go on, because some were overlapping the others. You had to avoid putting one that was on top, and then it would have to be removed to put the other one in.

Weisskopf: Would they give them charts or something, or lists on how they were to go about?

Smith: I think mostly they worked by the telephone.

Weisskopf: Okay.

Smith: I don’t know. I can’t answer that.

Weisskopf: Did you ever hang out in the cab with them?

Smith: Oh, yes.

Weisskopf: What kind of stuff were you doing? What was your job?

Smith: Well, they would show me when you look down on that, I don’t see how in the world they ever operated.

Weisskopf: Looking through the periscope?

Smith: Yeah. It took a certain see, the order of promotion was that they put heavy equipment operators I mean, crane operators that operated outside cranes. But I don’t know what the percentage of them was, but there was a certain percentage that just, by mutual agreement, they weren’t going to cut it. But they did have a lot of pride in the job, but as I say, most of them were very thankful there was a being that was helping them, the chances of everything fitting in place. The jumpers had to be all fit. A lot of times we would make new ones completely in getting them all. And, of course, if one didn’t get on, why, we had to go back to the shop and get another one built. We had to call up people at night, get a crew up there and put a jumper together sometimes.

Weisskopf: There must have been some pretty extreme pressures to keep the thing running.

Smith: Oh, in REDOX, I’m telling you.

Weisskopf: Especially at REDOX?

Smith: Especially REDOX, because PUREX wasn’t up. You know, it was quite a while, we had had all the cold runs to do and a lot of other things. I don’t remember the timing. For a while, for whatever reason, none of the dissolvers had the analysts where you could put a concrete cylinder down the center, through the cavity. And they didn’t have the capability of doing this as E metal in Richland, and I don’t know, I guess it’s the enriched uranium.

Weisskopf: Which you didn’t have to worry about in the old days because they weren’t using any, right?

Smith: That’s right. All the old dissolvers would just dump they dumped the whole thing in.

Weisskopf: And the only time they worried about criticality was probably after it got out of the T Plant into the other buildings, maybe at the end of the cycles?

Smith: Yeah. There was a place in 233 in REDOX where we were worried about criticality, and we didn’t trust valves or anything. Whenever we had to use that line, we went in and we took a flange, it had two flanges, and took a line right out and molded blanks.

Weisskopf: Disconnected the pipe?

Smith: Disconnected the pipe and put blanks on. And then during this operation, we went in, and during that time, at one time it about got away. And we had to I had an engineer by the name of John I don’t know whether I should say the name or not. Dugan was his last name. He went in to try and save the day, and he took a big overdose of radiation, and he was never allowed to work in radiation after that.

Weisskopf: Took a lifetime dose?

Smith: Yeah. So he went to grape farming out in Benton City after. He went there for a long time. He’s got a grape farm up there, so he took his full time. But he didn’t come to work for me till after he was working for the engineering department then, because after that he came to work in maintenance, in our organization. And then he quit.

[End of Interview]


1 hour, 2 minutes, 27 seconds



“Interview with Alex Smith,” Hanford History Project, accessed May 28, 2024,