Interview with Everett Weakley
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Everett Weakley: And there I worked in the lead process for years. And then I moved over later—
Douglas O’Reagan: My name is Douglas O’Reagan. I’m conducting an oral history interview with Everett A. Weakley on January 13th, 2016. Interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. And I will be talking with Everett, or Ev—would you prefer Everett, or--?
Weakley: Just—yeah, Ev or Everett. Either one.
Douglas O’Reagan: Okay. About his experiences working on the Hanford site. Okay, well thanks for being here. So—you were just telling me while we were having some camera issues—I’d love to hear about sort of how you got involved with the Hanford site, what you were working on that brought you here, and then your sort of early years, what you were working on here.
Weakley: Well, they came up to University of Idaho and recruited people. And I was one of the ones they recruited. So I came down here, and they put me on work at the tritium program extraction process. So I was a process control engineer at that time.
O’Reagan: Do you know why they recruited you? Were you working in physics?
Weakley: They were after engineers, especially chemical engineers at that time.
O’Reagan: I see. Did you know anything about nuclear science specifically?
Weakley: Oh, no. We didn’t know squat. [LAUGHTER] Of course. Because we were up at University of Idaho. But it was a lot better than being drafted and sent to Korea.
O’Reagan: How much were they able to tell you about the job before they hired you?
Weakley: Very little. Very little. They didn’t tell us what was going on. They came down here and they put some people—engineers in this job, some in this job. I was selected for tritium extraction.
O’Reagan: Mm-hmm. Could you tell me about your first experiences on that job? What sort of the first month or two like? Do you remember?
Weakley: Well, they put us on shift work. I think it was called XYZ shift. And it was only five days a week, but it was—changed. So they were going 24 hours a day, but only for five days. It was a glass line at that time. Tritium was extracted and then you had to send it—you had to pump it out through palladium windows—that’s the way they got the hydrogen out, and the tritium and the deuterium. And then we had to collect those in glass containers. It was all hooked up to the system. And then we were designing one for a metal one. So I went in on the metal designs also. And most of that work was done in the shops down in—oh, what do they call it—the old Hanford site. They had a lab—or a place down there, and they did most of the work—construction work. And then they assembled it all. It was interesting work, actually. Because they kept me out of the Korean War, also, so I was happy about that. I didn’t want to go over there.
O’Reagan: Part of what we’re trying to get an idea about is sort of—what was it like working on the Hanford site? Is there anything that sticks out to you about the way things worked? Or the structure, or anything like that?
Weakley: Well, since I was a single guy, they put us in the dorms. They ran out of dorms, so they put us—there was two dorms that were down in the women’s dorm area. So they put us in one of those dorms down there. I remember there was a—what the heck street was that? Anyway, those women’s dorms were right close there, too. And then we’d go up and eat at the Mart, which is still here, but it isn’t called the Mart now. And we’d walk through this field of—I think they were prunes or plums or something like that. And you’d go through there and you’d get attacked by the birds. [LAUGHTER] They would actually attack you during the daytime. So it was a lot of things going on. For dorm club, we’d go down to—oh, the Blue Mountains, and we’d go up to Mount Hood, and hunting and fishing was always what I did. It was a good place. Lot of people. It was interesting, because everybody was new, had come in. It was quite the exciting time to see all these people from all over the United States.
O’Reagan: Did you live in the dormitories long?
Weakley: Oh, let’s see. I lived in there until I got married in ’53. Then we got a B house on Van Giesen Street—one end of it. And I wasn’t the oldest tenant, so I could not buy that anyway. I wouldn’t want it anyway. And then they started selling houses; I got a H house, south end of town and had to remodel that. Had to dig out the basement and all that. By that time, I had several children, so I kind of had to make room for all these kids. Took out the chimney. My wife did not like the coal-burning stove down there to heat the place. So we put in electric baseboard heat. Swamp coolers on the windows. Re-put new—took the chimney out. Had to put new roofing on. All that sort of thing. And later on, we moved to where we are on Pike Avenue now. Then we had more kids. [LAUGHTER]
O’Reagan: Keep you busy.
Weakley: That’s right.
O’Reagan: What was life like in Richland in the ‘50s?
Weakley: Well, it was kind of—there was always something to do. Mainly, down along the river in the park. We’d go down there for entertainment in the evenings. There’d be dances. And then I took up square dancing, my wife and I. So that was in different places, but mainly at the end, it was down in the—what do they call it, down there now? At the park. Oh, community house. It’s still going. I think this is their last year. We used to be on what’s now a hole in the ground, on the south end of that building, was where they used to have a structure. That’s where we danced, it was in that. And they had a kitchen in there; everybody’d bring food. It was a nice time. Had a lot of fun.
O’Reagan: So you said—do you feel it was easy to get integrated into the community, to be a part of the community at that time?
Weakley: What do you mean?
O’Reagan: Well, I’m just thinking in terms of your—you’ve been describing a very interesting social scene that people can get into. I’m just thinking, there were a lot of new people coming into town. How—you yourself, of course, experienced this—what it was like to be a new resident in Richland.
Weakley: Well, mainly you were in dorms. So, you were all right out of college. Here you are, a bunch of college kids, here—men, and then college women right next door to them. So there was a lot of dating going on. Then we’d go over to Pasco, to the Elks Club at that time. And on Friday nights, they always had a fish dinner. We’d go over there and dance and eat. That was a good time. That was ballroom dancing, it wasn’t square dancing. That was later.
O’Reagan: So returning to your work for a minute, I guess to some degree you’ve done this, but could you sort of describe a typical work day, and did that change over the long course of time that you were working there?
Weakley: Well, when I went out there, I had to work shift work. XYZ shifts. You’d work daytimes, evenings, and nighttime. I didn’t like that too well. Then when I went to 300 Area, I was all daytime, which I liked.
O’Reagan: How much did the work you were doing change as you got these successive promotions, as you got the new jobs?
O’Reagan: Yeah. I mean, when you were an engineering assistant, was your—I’d assume—if only because it’s decades earlier—how different was your work than when you were principal engineer or senior principal engineer?
Weakley: Well, the added responsibility, of course. And I spent a lot of time in the old reactor fuel and then I wrote a lot of documents on how to—the canning process. And that’s probably in here—I’m pretty sure it is.
O’Reagan: I noticed here, it says that you are an expert on fuel manufacturing environmental issues. I wonder what—when did that become a priority? The environmental issues, was that something that was always part of your work, or did that develop over time?
Weakley: Environmental issues—you worried about what was going out the stacks, especially in 313. We had slug recovery—we’d take the aluminum—the ones that were reject—and they would dissolve the aluminum cans off in caustic, and they always had this exhaust going out. If you didn’t watch it, it would suck out quite a bit of moisture with it, and that would have caustic in it. We had trouble with the women walking by—their nylon hose would disintegrate. And they didn’t like that. I don’t blame them. And you could feel it—you could feel it on your face. They had to fix that up, of course.
O’Reagan: Were safety issues or the environment ever something you were concerned about working there?
Weakley: Oh, yeah, I was always worrying about—And then at the 306 Building, making fuel elements for the N Reactor, I was involved in that—a lot of things. I had to make trips to the aluminum companies that made aluminum products for us. Bought them back east, and some of them in California. So I did a lot of traveling, going to these different places, trying to get improvements made in aluminum ore, and later on, Zircaloy-2. That was Wah Chang made that down in Oregon—made Zircaloy-2 for us. That was interesting. So you’d take a drive down there and visit their plant. And then you’d go to these other places and visit those plants.
O’Reagan: These were to get components for the fuel manufacturing?
Weakley: What’s that?
O’Reagan: Were these trips to get components for the fuel manufacturing?
Weakley: They were making components for—
O’Reagan: I see. How much—let’s go with this. Could you describe the ways in which security and/or secrecy impacted your work?
Weakley: Well, you couldn’t talk about what you were doing, and we knew that. I made a lot of trips—I went to National Lead Company in Ohio at Fernald. That’s the ones that we would get our uranium cores from, for the old reactors. Then I’d go down to Mallinckrodt in Weldon Spring, Missouri, and that’s where they started making the billets that they’d send up to—on Lake Erie. There was a place that’d take the big billets and make smaller billets for the N Reactor. So I was always traveling around. Then at the same time, I was going down to the Savannah River plant and checking on what they were doing, because they had the same people. Like me, engineers that were busy and they’d get together and compare notes, and try to get the lower prices on some things. Especially aluminum components for the old reactors. Nothing much you could do about the Zircaloy: it was pretty well fixed. The only plant I never go to was the one that made the braze rings for the N Reactor fuel. That was back in—and it had beryllium in it. And I never had gone to there. I don’t know—I just plain missed it for some reason. I don’t know why.
O’Reagan: Was it easy to communicate with all the engineers and workers at these plants, or did the secrecy ever sort of inhibit that?
Weakley: Oh, no. If you’re buying, say, Zircaloy stuff, you go right down here in Oregon and talk to them. And that’s what we did.
Weakley: Same way back east on the aluminum plants. Did a lot of traveling. My wife didn’t like that, I don’t think, but we had to travel a lot. And it was old airlines at that time. [INAUDIBLE] had an airline to go to Spokane. You could catch a plane from there, it takes six hours to get into—now takes just a few hours.
O’Reagan: Was it unusual that you were traveling that much? Did other people also travel that much from the Hanford site?
Weakley: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, a lot of people were traveling. It’s hectic now. I won’t get on an airplane anymore, so heck with them. [LAUGHTER] I’m retired; I don’t do that.
O’Reagan: Do you feel the security or secrecy of the place changed much over the decades?
Weakley: Oh, yeah. When I started here it was really secret. They didn’t want the Russians to know anything about making tritium. But the secret got out, because somebody in Savannah River—or down at Oak Ridge probably told them. So nothing we could do about it.
Weakley: But oh, yeah, they tried to keep it secret.
O’Reagan: What were the most challenging and/or rewarding aspects of your work at Hanford?
Weakley: Ooph! That’s a tough one.
O’Reagan: It’s a big question. Any particular times that you were working on a project that was really stumping everybody? Any real challenges there that stick out?
Weakley: Well, there’s always challenges to make things safer and better, and don’t dump stuff out into the atmosphere, or down the drain out to the ponds. Because at that time, they ponds along the river. And it discharges—a lot of stuff went into that pond. They tried to clean that stuff up, but—oh, yeah. When you have time to go through this, you will find a lot of things in here that I worked on.
O’Reagan: Is there anything in there that you’re particularly proud of having accomplished? Or that sticks out?
Weakley: Well, I lasted the whole—until I got laid off. [LAUGHTER] That’s an accomplishment—I didn’t get crapped up with anything.
O’Reagan: Did you like your job?
Weakley: Oh, yeah, I liked it. Oh, sure. It was a challenging job. I wrote a lot of manuals. That’s one of the things I did, a lot of manual writing when I was out there. There are still some of those around on the processes of lead-dip canning process, and co-extrusion process. I did a lot of writing.
O’Reagan: Have the Tri-Cities changed much in your time living here?
Weakley: Oh, yeah.
O’Reagan: And how?
Weakley: Oh, yeah, since I came in ’50? Oh, yeah. There’s a lot of changes. They couldn’t even allow the blacks to live in Kennewick. They had to go over in Pasco, for instance.
Weakley: So we didn’t see too many blacks, actually. Now towards the end, they started hiring some people in that were blacks. I had no problem with them.
O’Reagan: Yeah, we’re trying to get a sense for how the community has changed over time. I know that’s a vague question. That’s certainly an interesting point about the demographics of it. Anything else about sort of the social life, the number of things going, anything else like that that sticks out to you on how the community’s changed over the decades?
Weakley: Well, I always had been hunting and fishing. So when I came here, I took up hunting and fishing again. Some of the people that I—I belong to the Rod and Gun Club—joined that many years ago, and I still belong, even though I got rid of my guns last year. I don’t go out and dig goose pits in the middle of the winter anymore. That’s too cold. I didn’t like to eat geese, anyway. [LAUGHTER] But I had a lot of good trips hunting down the Blues and up north of Spokane, up in that area.
O’Reagan: One of the things—well, okay. Let me go to this one next. What would you like future generations to know about working at Hanford and/or living in Richland during the Cold War?
Weakley: Hmm. That’s an odd one. Well, for one thing, we couldn’t announce what we were doing anywhere. If you could, you made sure you didn’t. If they said, hey, you’re from Hanford. But it didn’t bother me on traveling too much. Because I’d usually go on to aluminum vendors or Zircaloy-2 vendors. Or I’d go to Savannah River plant, which has got the same restrictions as we have. And it was a free exchange then when you went there or you went to National Lead at Fernald. It was free exchange with the people there. So that was just like being at work. So I had no really problem with it. I didn’t really like traveling that much. But there was nothing I could do about it.
O’Reagan: You were mentioning your collaboration people at Savannah River. Can you tell me more about that?
Weakley: What’s that?
O’Reagan: You were mentioning your training people at Savannah River, is that right? Or just trained people who eventually were at Savannah River?
Weakley: No, they were—I met one of them. But they sent people up in tritium extraction. Because they built that plant for tritium. The guy that was running the tritium extraction plant was one of them that I trained. And the last trip I made down there, I met him and went into the tritium extraction plant with him and talked to him. He gave me a tour of what it was like. It was a lot different than what we had out here, of course. Then they shipped their stuff again to Oak Ridge.
O’Reagan: Okay. So, I’m also interested in how people commemorate their community, how people celebrate the history, or try to remember the history. I understand that you’ve been involved in some of the historical groups around here. Can you tell me something about that? Why you thought that was important, why you got involved with those groups?
Weakley: Are you talking about the Richland Rod and Gun Club, for instance?
O’Reagan: Well, them and also the B Reactor Museum Association and so on.
Weakley: Well the B Reactor Association, I was one of the earlier ones, before they got the Indians out there. It was interesting, because I was on the ground floor with them. In fact, I was in a meeting this week with them. I still belong to them. Just like the Rod and Gun Club, I still belong to them, even though I don’t—got rid of all my guns because I don’t go out and dig goose pits in the wintertime anymore. So it was interesting.
O’Reagan: I always find that there’s an awful lot of things that I don’t know that I should be asking. What could you—what would seem important or interesting that you might want to talk about, or think might be worth discussing that I might have not thought to ask? Anything that comes to mind?
Weakley: Hmm. Not right off the top of my head, it isn’t.
O’Reagan: Sure, that’s fine.
O’Reagan: Yeah. We’re just trying, as I said—we’re most interested in getting a feel for life in the Tri-Cities throughout the Cold War, up to the near present. And just how things have changed over time. What it was like to be a worker on the Hanford plants, how work on the Hanford plant changed over time, what it was like living in the community and getting to know people. So really, a broad set of things, but there’s always questions I don’t think to ask.
Weakley: Okay. Well, you might have some ideas when you go through this later on. They gave me this, had my payroll number on it and all that. My service dates, 6/19/50 is when I came here. And payroll number 51500 was pretty easy to remember, thank goodness.
O’Reagan: As you went through this, did anything—
O’Reagan: As you started reading through this again, did any memories leap to mind? Did anything about it sort of jog any fond memories or any surprises?
Weakley: Well, we always had surprises. We never knew what was going to happen. Item—let’s see, what is that? Item four.
Weakley: I would ship pyrophoric uranium Zircaloy chips and fines back to National Lead. And we had surprises there, because they were supposed to use metal pallets. Somebody brought in wooden ones. And they put all these things that we had full of concrete and chips and fines in it, and they had to take them over across the street into a building. And when they did that, they heated it up and it broke one of the containers, and it caught fire on the shipping containers. They weren’t supposed to use shipping containers. That was a hell of a mess to clean up. Because we had a fire, had to clean all that up then. But we actually shipped the stuff back there and they recovered the uranium and reused it.
O’Reagan: Well, I think that’s the written questions I have here. There are certainly a lot more interesting stuff here. Again, if anything comes to mind you would like to speak about, we would love to hear a bit more. Also, it mentions here that your historical knowledge of site activities, particularly in 300 Area, has been extremely valuable in the preparation of the RCRA and CERCLA documents and planning. Could you tell me anything about that initiative?
Weakley: Whereabouts are you?
O’Reagan: It’s number five, sub-point A.
Weakley: Oh, okay. I did a lot of document writing and preparations of these RCRA and CERCLAs documents and planning. And I worked with—what’s her name? Michelle Gerber?
Weakley: I worked a lot of work with her, as she was a kind of historian. You’ve probably met her, of course.
O’Reagan: I know the name, but I haven’t actually met her, I don’t think.
Weakley: You haven’t met her?
O’Reagan: I don’t think so.
Weakley: Amazing. I’m surprised you haven’t met her yet. Anyway. She needed a lot of work. I would find things in 300 Area when we were cleaning out for the old reactors, getting 313 cleaned out. We would find movies. I’d ship that out to her, and then she made a CD out of it, I think. It showed the canning process, which had never been done before. It was—
O’Reagan: Do you think the history of your job is going to be well-preserved? Do you think the records are still there that can reflect on your times, your work? That is again, sort of an open-ended question here. I’m just trying to think through how people will remember this time in history, and sort of the work that you were involved in. You’re mentioning you found this film and were able to get it out there. But probably some materials didn’t make it out, for security reasons or whatever else, or just weren’t preserved. Do you feel that people have an accurate memory of the time as you look through?
Weakley: Well, most of them, I think, do. I always rode a bicycle around, between the buildings out in 300 Area. I would collect lead parts that I’d see laying around and get rid of them—or pick up anything else. So that I would ride those into the building. [LAUGHTER]
O’Reagan: I saw—I was out at the DoE’s artifact collection—historical artifact collection. They have some bicycles out there that I guess were what you were describing, people traveling around the site. Was that common?
Weakley: What do you mean?
O’Reagan: You were using bicycles to get around the site?
Weakley: Well, it was in our area. Oh, I used it all the time. And it had a basket in the back wheels. I’d put something in there—I would collect lead brick or something like that, and put it where the lead’s supposed to be and kind of clean things up. Well, it was a pretty good-sized area, 300 Area, so if you had to go down to the south end for some reason, you wanted to get there and get back.
O’Reagan: Right. Okay. So as I said, I think these are the questions that we had prepared, sort of the general ones here.
Weakley: You might have some questions when you—well, you can use anything you want out of this write-up.
O’Reagan: Yeah, I think this will be a great help. This has been very interesting from my perspective here. We certainly thank you for your time. Yeah, I think that’s at least our first set of questions. But maybe if anything occurs to us, or to you, maybe we could send follow-up questions? Would that be okay, if any questions—
Weakley: Oh, yeah, you can always get ahold of me if I’m around. I don’t go travel too far since I’m 88.
O’Reagan: All right. Well, thanks very much. We appreciate your time.
Weakley: Oh, she’s still back there.