Interview with Jack Rhoades
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Northwest Public Television | Rhoades_Jack
Robert Bauman: Okay. We'll go ahead and start. And if we could start by having you say your name and then spell it for us.
Rhoades: Sure, my name is Jack L., middle initial for Lewis, Rhoades, R-H-O-A-D-E-S.
Bauman: Great. Thank you very much. And my name is Bob Bauman and this is October 16th of 2013. And we're conducting this interview on the campus of Washington State University, Tri-Cities. So let's start with, if you could talk about your family's background. What brought them here? What brought you and your family here to the Tri-Cities, and when, and that sort of thing?
Rhoades: Sure, well my dad worked for DuPont in the early '40s--like '40, '41, '42--in a TNT plant for the war effort, and he had a college degree in chemistry. So when the Manhattan Project kicked off in late '43, he was one of the people selected out of DuPont's Joliette Plant to go down and train on the chemistry of plutonium at Clinton Works, which later became Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It was located in Oak Ridge, probably an Army Depot at the time. And when he was transferred to the Clinton Works, why, my mom and my younger sister and I—I would have been about four then—went back to the ranch in Colorado and lived with her parents until my father got transferred up here to Hanford in like April of '44. And we finally got a house, or were on line to get a house, by August '44. And so what I can remember--I mean I was a young kid, but this was pretty traumatic, all the excitement of the war effort--but my mom got a telegram, which was hand-carried out to the farm by the postman. And it just simply said, go to Denver, get on train such and such. There'll be a one-way ticket for you waiting, get off at Hinkle, Oregon and the government will take care of you from there. So it was amazing because the train had some servicemen on it, but the preponderance of people on this train were women, just like my mother, headed to Hanford with two or three screaming kids. Everybody was trying to carry a couple suitcases, trying to carry a kid or drag a kid. We got off the train in Hinkle, Oregon—which is out like the armpit of America—and it was dark. It was probably midnight. And the Green Hornets, or the old Army buses, were there with a bunch of MPs. And the soldiers were really great. They helped all the women get their luggage off and loaded us all up into buses and drove over-- course we had to go the long way around Wallula Gap to Hanford. And the parking north of the Federal Building was all administrative and dormitories. So my dad had actually been in a dormitory there with a roommate for six months. And so he was out front waiting when the bus got there, along with tens of other guys. And so his roommate had gotten moved to another room, so there was like two cots in there. And my mom and dad had one cot, and my sister and I had another cot. And we lived there for several weeks until his name came up and we moved into an F house on—it's Jadwin now, but it used to be Goethals—down in the 300 block. There used to be Campbell's Grocery Store across the street. That's the way life started for us. I was five at the time, but my birthday was in late October, so I started the first grade in Lewis and Clark, which was one of the first schools that was occupied by students because they were still building the houses toward the north. I think maybe Marcus Whitman was in place, and later on Jefferson was built. But there were so many kids that when my mother took me to school, I was assigned to go to school from 6:00 AM to noon. And then other kids came in and went from 1:00 to like 5:00 or 6:00 at night. And so nobody had a car. You just were on foot. And then of course, the government had the Green Hornet buses for transporting people around town to a limited extent, but mostly for transporting workers out to the 200 Area. My dad was actually was the first plant manager of T Canyon, which was one of the two bismuth phosphate plants for producing uranium from the fuel from B Reactor. He later became the manager of 231-Z. When they first started processing plutonium, the end result at Hanford was plutonium nitrate, and they had to reduce it. It would come out of T and B Canyons as a fluid liquid. And so 231-Z then condensed it down to like a green Jell-O, and that's what they flew to Los Alamos. And then Los Alamos actually converted the green Jell-O to the metal which went into the first Trinity explosion. And even though everybody knows about Nagasaki because of the plutonium there, there was actually a third pit that was available. And after Hiroshima, Tibbets flew back to the United States to get the third pit in case it was needed. But, fortunately, the Japanese surrendered. So after the war was over, my dad got promoted up to what was called an area supervisor. He managed all of the plutonium activities because they'd started a new building that was called 234-5, or Z Plant. And Z Plant was the plant that produced the pits during the Cold War, and that's the nuclear core. So what they made down at Los Alamos for Trinity and Nagasaki, they transferred the production and the production line up to the building in 234-5 and he was a manager of that. I remember, in later years, my dad talking about the building was divided into two parts. There was the top secret half and the secret half, and the workers didn't know who was on the other side. They had entrances from different directions and they never communicated. And the whole building had—the doors were like a bank vaults, not three foot thick, but they were steel bank vault doors. And he said he had to memorize over 100 combination locks in the building. And to him, that was one of the more challenging tasks that he had to do.
Bauman: And how long did he work at Hanford?
Rhoades: We left in '50, and it ultimately caused his demise. But he had, according to the health physics people, he ended up dying of stomach cancer. And so there was a 50-50 chance that it was caused by working at Hanford. But he had developed really severe ulcers. And they eventually had to cut out half of his stomach because it just perforated and he kept almost bleeding to death. And so we moved to Texas and he went into business with one of his brothers in Odessa, Texas selling real estate and insurance. And later moved back in about 1960 and he then worked for United Nuclear, and he was a manager of extrusion press for N Reactor fuel. And then later on was hired by DOE and was a director of safety for DOE.
Bauman: And what was your father's name?
Rhoades: Paul Gordon Rhoades.
Bauman: And so during the war period when you were in first grade, did you have any idea of what your father was doing? What he was working on? What his job was?
Rhoades: No, absolutely nothing. And he was absolutely paranoid about the secrecy aspect. I can remember that vividly. And I can remember when news of the bomb was released on the radio, and my mother called him on the phone out at the plant. When she said, did you know that the bomb they dropped on Japan was made in Hanford? And he slammed the phone down, wouldn't even talk to her. He viewed working at Hanford as the same way a marine would view going ashore in Iwo Jima. It was his duty. In fact, he was not really for going after the compensation stuff that I think was voted in in 2000.
Bauman: Did he at some point then talk about what he was doing out there? What he--
Rhoades: Not much really. I mean, he did have anecdotes, like talking about the Green Run, when they released iodine-139. And one of the things I remember him talking about was arriving at work in a bus. And ruthenium is something that can't be filtered out in the sand filters on the plutonium processing plants, and so it would condense on the side of the towers because the chimney was so tall that it would cool off and then it'd condense on the inside of the--Well, every once in a while there'd be a change of conditions and this stuff would flake off, and go out the top of the stack, and be like snowflakes falling on the ground, and they have a short lived half-life. So the guys would get off the bus. They'd have to put on gauze mask and booties and everything, and walk into the building, and then get decontaminated before they entered the building. And then that was the start of their eight-hour shift. But there was no question that production was paramount. And there's no question in my mind that what DuPont did with the knowledge that was available in those days for designing the canyons and the reactors, was nothing short of brilliant. And even though people are upset with the environmental contamination--because we basically have got five square miles--or five by five, 25 square miles that's contaminated from the soil to the groundwater out there in the 200 Areas. But compared to what they did in Russia, which was dump it straight into the lake that fed out under the Arctic Circle, DuPont took advantage and was farsighted beyond belief in my professional estimation. I just marvel at how DuPont did on designing the reactor, and designing the canyons, and having them work safely.
Bauman: You say your father didn't really talk about it a whole lot--his work—did he ever express any concerns about safety at all or was he--
Rhoades: Never. In fact, DuPont was--as I grew up, and then as I worked later and they were down at Savannah River, and when I was working at Hanford--DuPont probably had the highest reputation for safety of any large organization in the nuclear industry. At Savannah River, if a guy climbed up a ladder, and did something stupid, and fell off and broke his arm at home, and he came to work and they found out that he had been unsafe at home, then he had time off. I mean, he was punished for what he did on the weekend because he was not thoughtful in his safety process. But DuPont, I held them in extremely high regard, high reputation. And they were, when you think about it, they did this for a dollar. They definitely were part of the war effort that sacrificed for the good of America. They weren't in it to make money or anything like that. They just were doing what they were paid to do. And they got out as soon as they could. And then they came back and did a second stint when they were asked. They were the only company that the government trusted. So they built Savannah River.
Bauman: I want to go back to talking about when you first arrived and you were five years old, do you remember any sort of first impressions that you had, or early memories of first arriving in Richland?
Rhoades: Oh, it was, of course, for a kid in the first grade, it was exciting because everybody was the same. They were all on foot, and they were all new. In fact, that kind of curiosity anecdote was on the first day as I was walking to school with my mother, and we got about half way to the school. And another woman who's coming in on a side street, and she had a little boy. And my mother just about passed out. It turned out it was her college roommate, who they hadn't seen since she graduated from college. And they both had gone their separate ways and it ended up that they are actually living in the house behind us. And they renewed their friendship from college and it went on until they both passed away.
Bauman: You mentioned that in first grade, you started at 6:00 AM. There was so many children that was a way they could serve the needs of all the families with children. How long did that last? Did that last through first grade or--
Rhoades: Yeah, it probably did last the first year. But by the time the year had gone by and as a year progressed, they were building hutments out alongside the school. So basically, the first grade was about the only time I went to school inside of a building. And maybe the sixth grade up in Jefferson, I went inside a building, but the rest of time I was always in a hutment. There were just more kids than there was space. But yeah, that was sparse. I mean, you didn't have a car. The only entertainment was playing bridge and softball. They had a very organized adult softball league, so that was the entertainment. There was no stores to buy Christmas gifts or anything. You ordered whatever you wanted out of Sears and Roebuck in July, and it got back-ordered, and you got it in the following July. But when Griggs opened over in Pasco that was a big thing because when I wanted a bike. And when my dad bought me a bike, basically, he had to borrow somebody's car. And we drove up to Yakima, and then he came home and assembled it, and turned us loose. For kids, the basic entertainment was skating. And they had concrete tennis courts up by Lewis and Clark--on the south end of Lewis and Clark--and so that was the only surface that you could roller skate on, because you had those old clamp on roller skates that you tightened with a key that just hooked on to your heel and the sole of your shoe. And so we were just constantly roller skating. There wasn't other entertainment. There was just recess at school.
Bauman: Were there any movie theaters, anything like that?
Rhoades: Yeah, there were. There were two movie theaters. And every weekend your dad gave you a dime. And you could get in for a nickel, I think, and get popcorn for a nickel or something like that. Probably everything you stood in line for—I mean everything—there was just a line beyond human belief. Like when it was haircut time, the only barbers in town at that time were down at the Allied Arts, down below Jackson's bar. And so, I don't know, they had two or three barbers in there. So Saturday morning, the boys and their fathers would show up to get their haircuts. And so there'd be a line of 100 kids. There wouldn't be no adults. They were all up at the bar playing pool and having a beer while the kids stood in line waiting to get a haircut. But when Ganzel’s came in was like night and day. Even shopping at the grocery store, you had to become friends with the butcher. If you didn't know somebody in the grocery store, and they befriended you and gave you a heads up that, hey, there's some marshmallows coming into town, why, you just did without. You ate a lot of canned fruit and vegetables and stuff like that. And people were always doing their own chickens and putting them up. But it was just pretty spartan. They gave you a house. I don't know if my dad even paid any rent. Basically, they gave him grass seed. They gave him coal. We just had a real nice house. And my parents had borrowed somebody's pickup, and they'd driven up Yakima and bought some furniture, and brought it home one piece at a time. But we lived down there on Goethals for, probably, from '44 to '49, or something like that. And then we moved up on McMurray, and then we left in '50 and went down to Odessa, Texas.
Bauman: What about institutions like churches? Were there churches for people to go to on Sundays in those early years?
Rhoades: We didn't. It wasn't because my parents didn't believe in God, it's just like we didn't go to church. I mean, we'd have had to walk. I'm not even sure where--I honestly do not remember where the closest church would have been. I'm sure there were churches, though, because the government set off areas for parks, they set off areas for schools, they set off areas for churches, very thorough.
Bauman: What about any community events that--
Rhoades: Not much. They had Richland Days. They had like the polio March of Dimes drives. Actually it was probably after—between, let's say, '45 and '50—when Camp Hanford really had gotten established and they had moved in missile people. This was just a sizable number of soldiers up there in North Richland, but they had much better facilities for entertainment--movies and all--it was just built newer. And so even though my dad didn't serve in the service, he had a lot of friends that had been in the service, and so we could go to movies up there. And they had outside entertainment that came in that you could go to. We never did live out at Hanford or anything like that. My ex-father-in-law actually came here and he lived out at Hanford for a while.
Bauman: So you said your family then moved away in 1950, and then came back in 1960? Your father came back?
Rhoades: Yeah, about ten years later he came back. I'm not too--
Bauman: Did you come back at that point also?
Rhoades: Well, I was in college, so I came up here after I graduated in '61 and went into the—they still had the draft at that time—so I volunteered for the Navy, and ended up flunking a hearing test and flight school. So I got washed out of flight training. And Vietnam hadn't started to build up yet so they weren't desperate for pilots. So after I got out of the Navy, I came back up here and stayed for a short while and got a job. I had a mining, engineering and geology degree, so I got a job in Colorado in a molybdenum mine, and worked there for a couple of years, and decided to go back to college and get a degree in metallurgy. And so I went to WSU and graduated from there in '65, went down to Kaiser Steel in California. By then, my dad had moved from working for the contractor into working for the AEC. Now, I'm not too sure—I'm sure he just probably just wanted me and my wife and their grandkids closer to them—but anyway, he told the people in personnel that I had a metallurgy degree. And one day I got a call from Wanda Cotner, that was the branch chief over the personnel hiring, and she asked me if I'd come up for an interview. And she said that she could give me a nice raise if I'd think about joining the AEC. So I ended up accepting the offer. And when I got my Q Clearance, I moved up here in July of '67, and worked for DOE as an individual contributor over PNLs. It was a Hanford lab. PNL, I guess, had taken over by then. They had a number of very important metallurgical programs on understanding how plutonium reacted, especially in the reactor with neutrons hitting it all the time. So I advanced very nicely. And by the early '80s, I was assistant manager for--it was then ERDA or AEC--for all the compliance programs at Hanford--that'd be safety, and QA, and environmental, and security--so all the compliance structure at Hanford. Then, probably, in about '84, I guess, I moved me over and I was assistant manager for all the nuclear operations at Hanford. So I had the 300 Area for the fuel fab for N Reactor. And we still had N Reactor running. And FFTF was starting up, we had PUREX running and T Canyon. I probably had a billion dollar budget back in the '80s just for all the nuclear operations here at the site. So we did the first comprehensive EIS that was ever done in the Department of Energy for the tank farms, built the last double shell tanks that were ever built.
Bauman: And how long did you work at--?
Rhoades: I worked for about 20 years for DOE, and the AEC, and then I took an early retirement in, must've been like 1988. So it must have been about 21 years I worked here. So I left Hanford and went over to Idaho Falls and was as a manager over their capital construction projects. And then I got transferred to Rocky Flats. After the FBI and EPA had shut down Rocky Flats, the Department of Energy terminated the contract with the contractor. And actually they didn't even compete the contract. They just, literally, gave it to EG&G, which is almost unheard of, to not compete a major contract. So I was in charge of—they had shut down Rocky Flats operations. And so when EG&G came in, our charter was to restart the plant. And so I was the project manager over restarting the plutonium operations at Rocky Flats. I got promoted up to being assistant general manager over environmental remediation. And then I got a call from Lockheed down in Houston and they were trying to break into the DOE business. And so they hired about 20 experienced people that had worked in and outside of DOE to put together proposals to run these big contracts, whether it be Oak Ridge, or Rocky Flats, or Idaho, or Nevada Test Site. And so then I worked for Lockheed and it then became Lockheed Martin. But I worked for Lockheed from like '93 to '96, and I was a general manager of one of their environmental remediation divisions. And I transferred back up here, which was probably about the sixth or seventh time I've been through this town. But when Lockheed Martin and Fluor won the Westinghouse contract in '96, I got transferred back to Richland. So I'd made a circuitous loop that had gone from Richland to Idaho Falls to Rocky Flats outside of Denver, down to Houston, the Nevada Test Site, and the back up to Hanford. But I ended up, after I retired from Lockheed Martin, I went to work for a small business here at ATL International. They currently run the 222-S Laboratory. I was a vice president for them over all their Hanford work. Eventually, I just decided to go out on my own. So I consulted from about 2004 to the end of 2011. And by then, I looked around and all my contacts had either died or moved to Arizona or Florida. Even today, I probably don't know two human beings that are still working for a living. But this place has been--and DOE has been—absolutely a blessing to me.
Bauman: I want to go back. So your family left in 1950. Then you came back in '67, roughly?
Rhoades: No, I came back in '61.
Rhoades: Just for a short period of time. Just long enough to enlist in the Navy. And then when I got ready to start flight school, I took a hearing test. And believe it or not, the physical requirements for all branches of service are the same. It's just that they check people that are going to be in the Air Force or in the Navy, they just check certain things closer than they do if you want to be a marine. And so I was just borderline acceptable in the hearing. And since they had an abundance of pilots and the Vietnam War hadn't escalated or not, they ended up giving me an honorable discharge and reclassifying me as 1-Y, which is, it has to be a national emergency to call you back up. I came home and then went to Colorado and went to work in the mine.
Bauman: When you came back here for the job working at Hanford, I was wondering, what ways had the community changed since you were here as a child going to school?
Rhoades: You know what, to me, at a macroscopic view of the Tri-Cities, the biggest thing that's changed is the number of people. Richland is still uptown and downtown. Kennewick is striving to open up that area between the two bridges along the river. But the biggest thing is now there are probably three times as many people. There was probably 90,000 people between the three towns early in the '50s. And now there's probably a quarter of a million people. And so the biggest changes is that the roads and streets haven't been modernized--or the stoplights--to handle triple the traffic. But the wine industry obviously is a major thing, because when I was a kid growing up here—When they talk about termination dust storms, they were not kidding, because I lived in eastern Colorado and my parents had lived through the Dust Bowl, and I knew what dust storms looked like. And when they hit Richland, your house—I remember my mother, she—when they vacuum--you've just got sweep broom and a wood floor, and your sweeping it up, and throwing it in the yard with a dust pan. But the irrigation changed all that. There's just so much more moisture going up in the air that the dust storms are few and far between. And the humidity has gone from like 10% or 15% probably to 35%. And the summers have gotten less extreme. When I was a kid, it was not unusual at all for July--from the first of July to the end of July--to be 110 to 115 degrees. I've seen it 117 degrees here. And now, just look at this last summer, we had a few days of 101 or 103. But the climate has mellowed out with the extremes. Like in '48, the Columbia River froze clear across from side to side. You could drive a truck across it. The same year as the big flood. So the extremes have gone away. And instead of the real dips and curves a sinusoidal curve, it's more shallow extremes. But the fact that they now have Meadow Springs, and they have Clipper Ridge, and West Richland, of course, has expanded from a nothing. When I was a kid there was just basically a few people that liked to have farmland lived out there. There was probably as many people living in Yakima as there was in Richland, because they couldn't build houses fast enough. And those that worked in the 100 Areas or the 200 Areas, it was just as close to come in from Yakima as it was to drive from Richland.
Bauman: You talk about a number memories from your childhood, are there any other things, events, or particular memories that really stand out from those early years in Richland?
Rhoades: You had to make your entertainment. And you had to wait in line for everything, including getting a car. Jeez, it must have been '48 before we got a car. And in the Sunday paper there was an ad that said, call a number in Seattle, and get on a list for a Buick. And so my mother did that. And about six months later we got a call and said come pick up your car. We got on a train over in Pasco that just had wood benches in it, and we went over Snoqualmie to Seattle, and got this new '48 Buick, and drove it home over Snoqualmie Pass. People from all over the neighborhood were kind of ogling this car because anybody else that had a car basically were driving some pre-1940 model, because during the '40s they didn't make cars. But that was a vast improvement for us to have our own wheels. But self-made entertainment. When we lived up on McMurray—of course, all these guys that came here from the '30s and '40s, all the entertainment they had as they grew up as kids was self-made also. So playing pool was a big activity. And so my dad bought a pool table over in Pasco, and we had it in the basement. And on the weekend, he and all of his buddies iced down beer and played kelly pool all afternoon, that was the entertainment. And probably that night those same guys, with their wives, had a little potluck at somebody's house and played Bridge. My parents played bridge all the time.
Bauman: I wanted to ask you, then, also about your working at Hanford. Hanford for so long focused on production. You mentioned that production, production. At some point, of course, it shifted to cleanup. I wondered if that shift impacted your work at all?
Rhoades: Well, by the time I left Hanford it was still in a reduced production mode. The writing was on the wall that environmental restoration was the future of Hanford, not production. We fought to keep N Reactor going because it was dual purpose. But especially when they passed the RCRA, or Resource Conservation Recovery Act, that was the first major commitment by the US Government for an environmental cleanup. And they sent that law, or bill, out to all the field offices and asked for the field offices to comment on what effect it would have on their operations. And Dixy Lee Ray was the commissioner at the time. And I must've been a director of safety at the time. So we got together with the contractors and we labored over this. And fortunately, I have a knack of being able to synthesize complicated things into a very concise statement. And when we got through reviewing this, I wrote a letter for the manager of the field office. And it was about this long, and it simply said, this will shut down nuclear pit production for the United States of America. And from that point on it was one lawsuit after another as Congress tried to extend its will on the defense industry. But at the time, like when I was a Rocky Flats, the reason they were so anxious to restart that plant that was the only plant in all of DOE complex that didn't have two--like there was Hanford and Savannah River, there was Los Alamos and Livermore Design Lab. So there was a duality in everything. But when they removed the pit production from Hanford, instead having pit production at Savannah River and Hanford both, they built a new plant at Rocky Flats. And it was the only plant that made pits. And so it was a choke point. And when the FBI and EPA shut that plant down, basically, we had nuclear subs that were out in the ocean with 20 missiles and there was no spear point on the end of the spear. They were not loaded because we were not making pits. So that was why the defense industry was fighting with Congress on the environmental cleanup was because we were not in a good defensible position nuclear-wise during that Cold War years if we had the boomers out in the ocean that didn't have a number of warheads on top of them. And that's why EG&G got the contract because DOE believed that they could restart the plant and start making these pits. So even though the environmental law was saying you should be shifting quickly to environmental restoration at Rocky Flats, the headquarters people over defense programs were telling you under the table, get this plant running. We need these pits for the defense of America. So it was real catch-22 for the management of the Rocky Flats plant. But eventually, it became obvious that they were never going to restart the plant and so everybody shifted into a full environmental restoration mode.
Bauman: During your years working here at Hanford, what would you consider some of the more challenging aspects of your job, the work you were doing here, and maybe some of the most rewarding aspects of your work?
Rhoades: Well, you know--[SIGH] I mean, rewarding is a hard thing to define because that was one of the primary reasons I took early retirement. Let me just use Yucca Mountain as an example. When I hired into the AEC in '67, the United States Government was looking for a repository for nuclear fuel in Lyons, Kansas. So that was '67, and here we are, 2013, and we're no closer to solving that national problem today than we were 40 years ago. So the satisfaction that comes with mission accomplished was always very difficult to achieve. It was more of a case of frustration on my part that the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence. If I was going to go any higher in DOE, I would have to go to Washington, DC. Because I was already an SES and that's as high as you could go without a congressional appointment. But the most challenging thing was that when Alex Fremling came in to be the manager of DOE, he brought a complete new, fresh environmental sensitive outlook to the plant. And so trying to deal with the public interface over leaking tanks—106-T was a big bump in my career. I went from a nobody to a branch chief just with one tank leak. [LAUGHTER] But he was very environmental conscious and he was very safety conscious. And so he ratcheted the whole system up, not just one notch, but numerous notches. Because when they built the nuclear industry, they did not have safety standards for the nuclear industry, because it was a brand new industry. So if you looked at the operation of the uranium side, then they used the safety standards of a steel mill and a blast furnace to do the safety standards for Fernald and these other uranium enrichment places. And if you look at the chemical processing in the canyons, they looked to the petroleum cracking industry for safety standards. And if you look to the waste disposal, which was the operation of the tank farms and the burial grounds, it had the same basic safety standards and the interest as a commercial landfill. And so it wasn't until the nuclear Navy was born and Rickover installed a completely different safety philosophy because he was going to have 200, or 300, or 400 sailor—lives were dependent on everything functioning perfectly. And Alex Fremling was bright enough and young enough to recognize that. And he brought that standard into Hanford. So there was just a real crash program on upgrading the operational procedures for tank farms and other waste disposals. Skin contaminations were accepted as—like a guy working on your car, he accepts the fact that his hands are going to get greasy. But Alex didn't accept that. He said, you know, we're going to have zero accidents. And we're going to have zero skin contaminations. We're going to be open with the public on any of these tank leaks. And the problem was we didn't have, really, the skill to measure how these tanks were doing—whether we're losing material or not losing material. And even though you could measure the depth, the interest of whether it was unacceptable to leak was not there. And the reason for that was that when the first tanks were built, they were built in 12. So there's four rows of three, and the separation process was simply a settling process. So the waste would come into the first tank and fill up, and the solids would drift to the bottom. And then it'd overflow into the second tank, another lighter batch of solids. And then it would flow into the third tank, and more solids would fall out. Then it would flow into the ground. And so if you're putting stuff in the ground for ten or 15 years, and using nine exchange properties of the soil to capture the radionuclides, then what's the big deal about a tank leaking a little extra waste? You've already put a billion gallons of stuff into the soil, what's another 100,000 gallons? So that was the mentality that Alex faced with the contractors when he came to Hanford. I give him credit. He single-handedly changed that. And he took on the challenge to do the very first environmental impact statement on tank waste for the whole agency. He was the guinea pig. He was the front runner, or the blazer, for the DOE on environmental issues. And so I honestly think that Hanford, even though, because of the design of the plants, there was no way to retrofit these plants to not discharge stuff to the soil, but there was a way to monitor it better and be more acutely aware of occurrences that you didn't want to occur. Whether it was stuff leaking on the ground on top of the tank, or whether it was stuff leaking into the ground through the bottom of the tank.
Bauman: So what time period are you talking about here?
Rhoades: This would have been in late '70s up to, probably, '87. And Mike Lawrence came in '87.
Bauman: And it's Alex Fremling?
Rhoades: Yes, Fremling.
Bauman: How do you spell the last name?
Bauman: So that's when you noticed a shift definitely taking place?
Rhoades: No question. I was a student of, that instead of resisting these changes, I embraced these changes and I was rewarded for that. But the mentality of the DOE—or it was ERDA at that time, but the mentality of the workers in ERDA were no different than the mentality in the contractors. I mean, we'd been doing it this way for 30 years, why are we changing? He conducted the first operational readiness review probably in the nation for startup nuclear facilities.
Bauman: How were you able to change that mentality I guess into the--
Rhoades: You know what, I'd say, probably, through the award-fee process. It's through the money. When I first got here, contractors had contracts, but there was never any real evaluation of whether they deserved their fee or didn't deserve their fee. So once we instituted an award-fee process in which we itemized the areas for improvement, then quantified A, B, C or D or F, you could then quantify. If they had $10 million fee that's up for grabs for this quarter or this six month period, you could quantify how well they did to meet those goals. So it was very intense and it was a steep learning curve, but it produced results. And we changed contractors, too.
Bauman: Mm-hmm, right. So this was when you would have been in charge of compliance programs?
Rhoades: First, yeah. After I was a branch chief, I was an assistant division director. Basically all of my career was in nuclear operations, especially with the tank farms. And even though I moved over to be the director of safety, and then on to be the system manager for compliance, you were just viewing operations from an independent standpoint. You didn't direct nuclear operations, but you did appraisals, and you did audits, and you did oversight, and you graded a contractor on his performance independent from operations.
Bauman: Was it during your time there, I mean, at some point of course there were a lot of questions raised about the tanks. And in terms of the public, questions about tanks leaking and that sort of thing. Did you have to deal with any of that sort of thing?
Rhoades: Listen, I spent—if I wasn't making presentations to the public or defending our actions to the public, I was doing so in front of Congress. There was constant barrage and it was difficult to communicate because by this time the environmental support groups were springing up to put pressure on DOE to perform and to clean up and to accelerate. And, of course, you control certain things, but you don't control your budget. Congress controls your budget. And so it was difficult at best, and it was contentious. It's constantly contentious because it was like I was speaking in English and they were listening in Greek. We couldn't communicate, because they were just totally upset with what the government had done to end the war. They forgot that what was the end result was stop the war and save millions of lives in the invasion of Japan. And they had forgotten that. And it was just on the bad things that have been done to the environment. And I'd be the first to agree to that--I don't think that in hindsight, if you went back and re-ran it ten times in hindsight, I don't think anything would have changed. Because the same pressure to beat the Germans to the nuclear bomb and the same pressure to end the war in the Pacific would not change. And so you'd only have the capability to do what your technology was advanced enough to do at that time and place.
Bauman: I wonder if there's anything that you haven't talked about, or I haven't asked about yet, either in terms of your years growing up here as a young child, or your father's work, or your work at Hanford, that you'd like to talk about, or think it would be important to talk about.
Rhoades: I would just simply say that I think that the people and the contractors in the government, as well as contractors, have always given 100% to do the right thing. And they don't get much praise. And they are constantly vilified because they're missing milestones and stuff like that. But there is just some extremely technically challenging work to be done out there. It's been a flywheel for this site since 1943, and it's going to continue out probably to 2075. But they'll never clean the site up, and they'll never walk away from it. They'll have some 25-square-mile pad out there that has all kinds of markings on it, don't drill here. But they're making tremendous strides in cleaning up the groundwater and removing the stuff along the river. I never dreamed in my wildest dreams that they could clean up all the burial grounds and trenches along the river and the buildings. Each one of those reactors had the facilities enough to run a small city, and now all that's left is a cube. You could paint dots on it or something like rolling dice across the prairie. But I just think it's been remarkable how much they've cleaned up and how safely they've done it. You don't ever read of anybody getting killed out there, or maimed out there, and they're still using a lot of heavy equipment. The safety standards are extremely high and it’s part of the reward, the carrot in front of the donkey. If you're safe and have a good safety record and you make progress, you get your fee.
Bauman: Well, I want to thank you very much—
Bauman: --for coming and talking to us today and sharing your memories and experiences. I appreciate it.
Rhoades: Great, thank you very much.