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Oral Histories

Health Physicist Carl C. Gamertsfelder, Ph.D.


Short Biography

Education and Early Employment

Position at the University of Chicago

The First Reactor, December 2, 1942

Tenure at Oak Ridge and Move to Hanford

Health Physics Monitoring and Early Exposure Standards at Hanford

Biomedical Research at Hanford

Nuclear-Powered Aircraft; the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program

Health Physics Response to Accidents at Hanford

The Green Run

General Electric Takes Over the Hanford Contract (1946)

Human Experimentation at Hanford

Environmental Monitoring at Hanford

Emergency Preparedness

Work on the Apollo Project

Accidents at Hanford and Idaho

Cancellation of the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program

Current Environmental Concerns at Hanford

More Memories of December 2, 1942

The Genesis of Health Physics and Occupational Radiation Standards

Reflections on Herb Parker and Karl Morgan

Tenure at Oak Ridge and Move to Hanford

YUFFEE:How long were you in Chicago with—
GAMERTSFELDER:Just short of a year.
YUFFEE:Just short—so that would bring you to 1943?
YUFFEE:And where did you go from there?
YUFFEE:And did you all travel as a group to Oak Ridge?
GAMERTSFELDER:No. I was—Jim Hart and I went down ahead of other people.
YUFFEE:What was your purpose?
GAMERTSFELDER:Oh, we were the original nucleus for a larger health physics organization. That's what all. And then [Karl] Morgan came down, and he was to run a school to train people. We got five people from Du Pont to train, and I'm glad I don't remember their names—
FISHER:Oh, why is that?
GAMERTSFELDER:—but they were totally unacceptable.
GAMERTSFELDER:I think they all thought they were going to be plant managers inside of two, three months. And we sent them packing and talked to Du Pont, and they sent us—this time we got 12 people, and we got 12 good ones.

For at least our purposes. Jack Healy was one.26 C.M. Patterson27 is an other. They were all useful people we got. I may have their names if you really want to know what they are.
YUFFEE:That's okay.
GAMERTSFELDER:But I've forgotten some of them.
YUFFEE:How long were you at Oak Ridge at this point?
GAMERTSFELDER:About 11 months, or maybe 10. And on the day I got on the train to go to Hanford, Washington,28 I was on the Du Pont payroll. I had been on the University of Chicago payroll at Chicago and at Oak Ridge.
YUFFEE:Why did you go to Hanford?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, because they were having, going to have, a health physics group there, and Herb Parker was going.
YUFFEE:So did you decide to go because Dr. Parker was going, or—
GAMERTSFELDER:It's not Dr. Parker, it's Mr. Parker.
YUFFEE:Oh, Mr. Parker.
GAMERTSFELDER:He was very firm in insisting that he was not [to be called] "Doctor."
FISHER:I'm still a little bit curious about some of the work that you were doing at Oak Ridge with the [X-10] graphite reactor there.29
FISHER:You were there in the room when that—
GAMERTSFELDER:I was there when it went first time.
FISHER:And that was a vast improvement, of course, on what was going on in Chicago.
GAMERTSFELDER:Oh, yes. It was—well, it produced some [useful amounts of] power. And it produced—instead of micrograms of plutonium, it produced grams. So they had their reactor, and they had a separations plant.30 They had quite a chemistry lab. We had our physics kinds of things, and the physicists had some other things to do.
YUFFEE:Did you have a choice about whether you could stay at Oak Ridge with that health physics group?
GAMERTSFELDER:Yes, I could have stayed. Dr. Wollan, who was at Oak Ridge, had—well, let's see—yeah, he was the guy who actually hired me at Chicago [and was the leader of my group there].31 He had gone down to Oak Ridge, and he made a—he wasn't a forceful man. He invited me to stay there. But to me, the reactors were more enticing.
YUFFEE:At Hanford?
GAMERTSFELDER:But I find out later that his assistants got the—this is just this last year—got the awards for that Swedish—
FISHER:The Nobel Prize?
GAMERTSFELDER:Nobel Prizes. And that Dr. Wollan wasn't considered because he was dead. But, essentially, he would have—if they had done it earlier, he would have been one of those. And if I had worked for him, I might have been one of them.
YUFFEE:I think, when I spoke to Dr. Morgan, he mentioned that the work that Dr. Wollan had done had led to a Nobel Prize and that the people who had worked with him recognized that fact, that Dr. Wollan was one of the people that really deserved it.32

Why don't you tell us about your early days at Hanford?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, I'm trying to figure out just how to get started.
FISHER:Well, I have a pet interest of mine. I'm very curious, with all of the people that we speak with that were there at the time, about what were the attitudes and the nature of the work; how it changed in this six-month period from the fall of 1942 to the spring of 1943, when everything that you had been reading about or all the academic research you had been doing suddenly was a reality, you were able to create a sustained reaction—
FISHER:—that might have had a special effect on the work you were doing.
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, yes, it was the source of my livelihood from then on, essentially. Hanford was being constructed when we got there. We did some back ground checking around the whole area, just to see where we were. We knew we were going to need more people than we brought with us. Well, besides the twelve I said were good ones, Du Pont brought in another batch of five who then specialized in the problems with the plutonium purification (after you get rid of most of the other stuff) and in the ways in which you did things to make the pieces that went into the bombs. And they had five people who were specialized in that.

And, let's see—it wasn't very much longer after we got there, a month or so, that they took the first reactor critical.
FISHER:Do you remember the month, what month that was?
GAMERTSFELDER:I don't remember the time. It was in the fall.
FISHER:And you arrived about September or October?
GAMERTSFELDER:No. We got there at the tail end of August.
FISHER:August. Okay.
GAMERTSFELDER:And the first two days we spent in TQ, the transient quarters. It later became a hotel. After that, my wife went out to—was put in a dormitory, a women's dormitory. And I and four other guys ended up sleeping in a house that had just been finished, into which they stuck some beds.
YUFFEE:So it seemed like a lot of sacrifices were being made, on—you know, personal sacrifices—on the part of the scientists.
GAMERTSFELDER:Yes. Well, it wasn't all that bad. That was a period of about a month we lived that way, then we got a house of our own. We got some GI [(Government Issue)] furniture—pretty nice stuff, actually.

The startup of the reactor was—well, let me tell you a little story about the design of the reactors.
GAMERTSFELDER:They were designed with shielding and graphite blocks and with tubes running through from the front face. And they had intended to have a cylinder going through the graphite.

And one of the Du Pont people, probably associated with Charlie Wende, said, "We don't know any of those numbers very well. Let's fill in the corners." And they did, except for, maybe, the last one or two. And so they ran a dry critical, and it went a little bit quicker than they had expected. They ran a wet critical, and it took a little bit more than they expected.
FISHER:Can you explain the difference between those two? I'm not familiar with that.
GAMERTSFELDER:It's just a—well, the reactor was water-cooled.
GAMERTSFELDER:And so they loaded uranium in it, and they ran a critical on it when it's dry.
GAMERTSFELDER:And the wet critical. They had water in it, but it wasn't flowing. It wasn't necessary for it to flow. It took a little bit more than what they had calculated. And they finally filled it out to the big cylinder and ran some tests. And they were checking coils and this and running it up megawatts and made more tests, on this thing and that.

Then they finally took it up to 10 megawatts, and were going to run a test to see how things went along. And slowly, they had to keep pulling the rods out. And they finally got the rods all the way out and the power [still continued to decrease]. They kept watching it, and then they started to get a little bit of power out of it. And, pretty soon, we knew what it was that was going on. That was the xenon.33
GAMERTSFELDER:And so they overloaded, went into the corners, and got up so they were running in the hundreds of megawatts.
FISHER:But that xenon poisoning really changed the way the reactors were de signed thereafter.
GAMERTSFELDER:Oh, yes. Well, they didn't change the design, but just knew how to run them.
FISHER:Oh, okay.
GAMERTSFELDER:Because the making of the manufacture of the parts, I guess was essentially: you had the parts, you had to put them together. I don't remember the time schedule, now, of the other two reactors that they got going fairly quickly. And then they started getting some fuel going through the processing plants. And we got the fuel, got some plutonium, shipped it off.
YUFFEE:Down to Los Alamos?34
GAMERTSFELDER:Down to Los Alamos. And Healy and I had a bet on when they were going to test it.

FISHER:Really? Who won?
FISHER:You did?
GAMERTSFELDER:"Listen," I told him—I saw him, oh, a few years ago, and he said, "It was a five-dollar bet." I think it was a quarter.

GAMERTSFELDER:The main thing—it was an "I told you so" bet. And I don't really remember which way I bet. The date was the 15th of July, and I won.

Well, the thing is—the security was arranged so that the people in the pile areas ("100" areas, we called them) didn't know what was going on in the 200 areas, which was the separations plants. But Health Physics was a small group, and we needed flexibility. We needed people to be able to fill-in here and fill-in there, and we had clearances for everything. So we had access to a little bit more information than most people around the place did.
FISHER:How many folks were in the initial group? It was you and Healy?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, it was—there was Herb Parker and me and the 12 people from Du Pont. And I guess the other five got there fairly quickly.

One of the early things we did was start training people for some of the other jobs we were going to have to have. The people who already knew the instruments had to have more people around. We called it the—what the heck did we call those guys? [Inspectors.]
FISHER:Well, they would be the technicians?
GAMERTSFELDER:They were essentially technicians. And they were people with high school educations, and not just out of high school. They had working experience of one kind or another, and were married and had responsibilities.
FISHER:Was it effective in the early days? Do you think that you did a good job with those resources?
GAMERTSFELDER:I think so. See, we only had one reactor to start with.
GAMERTSFELDER:And there wasn't all that much stuff [(plutonium)] around.
FISHER:What was the framework of authority? You had—Du Pont was running Hanford, and then you had Groves35 here, certainly.
GAMERTSFELDER:They fought a battle about that. Herb Parker was very insistent that he didn't want to work for anybody whose responsibility it was to produce plutonium.

FISHER:Boy. How did he get around that?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, they ended up by putting us in the Medical Division.
FISHER:Run by [Stafford] Warren36 or [Hymer] Friedell?37
GAMERTSFELDER:No. No, Dr. Cantril at—out at Hanford. Cantril wasn't part of the operation; he was a consultant.

It was a Dr. [W. Dag] Norwood who was the head of the—and Dr. Norwood was a medical doctor, but he had had an engineering degree before he went into medicine. He sort of delighted at being introduced as "Doctor" and, in a meeting, showing some sense in terms of things that are [of a] scientific nature in other fields.

Health Physics Monitoring and Early Exposure Standards at Hanford

YUFFEE:But you were on the Du Pont payroll?
GAMERTSFELDER:We were all on the Du Pont payroll.
FISHER:But in the Medical Division? That was very important to Mr. Parker?
GAMERTSFELDER:Yes. He—and there was, I think, good reason for it—he wasn't compromised by the feelings of getting something out, quite to the same extent.
FISHER:But those difficulties weren't solved once and for all once you were in the Medical Division.
GAMERTSFELDER:Oh, no. There was always give-and-take. The first fuel that was dissolved was cooled,38 probably 35 days. And from then on, for a while, they were running fuel of about the same magnitude of cooling. And an awful lot of iodine [was going out of the] stack.

As soon as we found out how much iodine was going up the stack, Herb Parker started lobbying for getting some longer cooling times. And eventually, it went up to 45 days, 50. Finally, we got it worked up to—it finally ended up about 80 or 90 days, something like that. That cut down the iodine quite a bit.
FISHER:And who would be fighting Parker? Would it be the Du Pont people? Would it be Groves, looking for increased product?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, that I don't know. I don't know where the arguments were. They were above my head. Parker was involved in the meetings that our general manager had, and he presumably reports to Groves. I don't know, it was just—what I saw was what, in the end, happened.
GAMERTSFELDER:I wasn't privy to all of the arguments that were made to stretch it out.
YUFFEE:Was there a concern at that point that the amount of iodine that had already been released was of a danger to the population?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, no. It was—well, the general philosophy was trying to keep the doses as low as you could. Going back to [my days at the Met Lab in] Chicago, I remember Ernie Wollan and Herb Parker talking about the radiation levels they would have to have in the plants, when they got to running.

And the guidance that was available—there weren't any regulations, like would be put forth by the AEC39 now. But the guidance, which was provided by the ICRP40 and the NCRP,41 was that you could take 100 millirem42 a day, and with a provision that there was a vacation every year of at least a month and to be taken all at once.
YUFFEE:Oh, it was mandatory?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, that was the recommendation. Nothing was mandatory about it.
GAMERTSFELDER:I'm sure things were handled in different ways in different places and, probably, better in [the] Medical Department than in the Irradiating Castings Department.
YUFFEE:Was it, in your mind, a fair estimate, the 100 milligrams a day?
GAMERTSFELDER:They're nearly compatible, but not quite. Yeah. Well, at that time, we didn't know about the milk cycle.
FISHER:I'm sorry, can you say it again?
GAMERTSFELDER:And the problem was one of inhalation of iodine.
YUFFEE:Milk cycle.
FISHER:Oh, okay.
GAMERTSFELDER:Iodine tends to go through cows into the milk.43 And the milk goes into babies. And [for] babies, the diet is all milk, and they've got small thyroid44 glands. A baby can take quite a dose, [if one were to] give it a little bit of iodine.
FISHER:So did the Army, in their authority as, or in their position as the major authority at Hanford, did they respect the recommendations of the ICRP for worker standards?
GAMERTSFELDER:I don't know what they thought. These fights were someplace else. We didn't have contact with the military in that sense, at the time. There were military people around.
FISHER:So you dealt with Parker as the supervisor?
FISHER:And when did Parker arrive? Did he arrive with you in August of '43?
GAMERTSFELDER:No, but shortly thereafter.
GAMERTSFELDER:The timing is, sort of, slightly different.
YUFFEE:What would have comprised, basically, your day-to-day type of work at that time?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, at that time, I was assistant to Herb Parker, and we were trying to man the operation with people who knew what was going on. We spent a lot of time driving around the plant, going to this area and that area.
YUFFEE:And, at the time, were you monitoring people, soil, animals—what type of monitoring were you doing?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, we weren't doing so much of that at the time. We were—we did monitor vegetation (because it did pick up the iodine), primarily. We had a site-survey group. We had a lab that analyzed the samples, and we had our own counting room.
YUFFEE:And were they being analyzed for elements other than the iodine?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, some of it was just total—whatever it was we picked up. We would take vegetation samples and things. And we had filters running. Around each of the operating areas we had "614" buildings, which were essentially large telephone booths, and they had Victorine [detectors]45 in them. There was an ionization chamber, which was—either of you instrumentation people?
FISHER:No, I'm afraid not.
GAMERTSFELDER:They had a rotating part in them which, essentially, instead of measuring the dc current from the ionization chamber, gave you an ac signal. And those bearings in those systems weren't accustomed to the dust of the Hanford area. The bearings would wear out. They were out of business, maybe better than half the time. What we had—there was power available at the 614 buildings, and we also had some [of the] 614 buildings offsite, over near Kennewick and Pasco and Benton City. They were scattered around.
FISHER:Were you picking up significant readings, even in the early days?
GAMERTSFELDER:Not particularly, at that time. It was a routine we had to go through. We would get some stuff on the vegetation, but not much at the large distances.
FISHER:At that time, were you collecting people's readers [(film badges)] to see what type of levels—
GAMERTSFELDER:Oh, yes. People coming into the gatehouse showed a badge and picked up a—that is, a card that said they were cleared, and they got a badge which had a film badge in it. It had a filter over the major part of the badge so that the radiation recorded by the badge was—the response was essentially linear with respect to different energies of radiation.

And then they had some holes punched in the badge to make the number (employment number) so they could record things against his name when they read the films. Then we had—everybody got two pencil chambers.
FISHER:Why two of them?
GAMERTSFELDER:Redundancy. They weren't always perfect.
FISHER:There was a concern about them?
FISHER:They took [(used)] the lower of the two readings, didn't they?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, I don't know they did that, or whether they averaged them. Most of the time we got two readings.
FISHER:And who was interested in these readings? When your office was with Parker, you compiled these results?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well—well yes, everything. We had weekly reports, proof we were working, essentially.

FISHER:Mm-hmm, just earning your paycheck.
GAMERTSFELDER:[Proof that we had run] so many surveys. The people running the badge said—they had numbers of all of that. And along with that were statements of how many—what the results were, in very simple terms.

And that goes into Herb Parker's office. And Herb Parker has a weekly report that goes to the manager. And the manager has an assistant who goes through all of that stuff and condenses it down for the manager and writes the letter for the manager to send in to the Army, which says, "Everything's fine this week, and next week it will be better."


Thor—I just thought of his name. I tried to think of it the other—Thor Hauf. He was a—I think he was a chemist, but he got assigned to be a technical helper to the plant manager, and he was writing those reports.
FISHER:How often were badges read for a worker?
GAMERTSFELDER:Badges were [read], I think, weekly.
FISHER:And pencils, too?
GAMERTSFELDER:And pencils daily.
FISHER:Daily. I see.
GAMERTSFELDER:Daily. It was—you had to turn the pencils in. The badge was put in a rack in the gatehouse.
FISHER:And were any of the veterans that were stationed at Hanford, were they ever badged, to your knowledge?
YUFFEE:Or the soldiers, at the time, that were stationed?
FISHER:Well, yeah, the guards.
GAMERTSFELDER:I don't know where the soldiers were, if any.
FISHER:Well, there were actually quite a few, it turns out, from the very early days all the way through the '60s. They were manning antiaircraft guns all throughout the reservation.
GAMERTSFELDER:Never saw them. (laughs)
FISHER:Really? Never saw any soldiers there?46
GAMERTSFELDER:No. I never saw them.
GAMERTSFELDER:I don't—they could have been checked at barracks. But I thought all of that stuff was—as soon as they finished building the reactors, that stuff kind of just shut down. I don't know where they were.

Well, there were some that were just outside the 200 area, and then they were interspersed all around the periphery of the camp, the perimeter of the camp. And there were a couple of large gun emplacements through out. But of course, the place is so large that, during the course of your job, you might not ever bump into them.

Well, there was a time when we had a station on top of Rattlesnake Mountain we visited regularly. I never saw any [soldiers]. I was up there a couple of times myself. I rode up with my hand on the side of [the] jeep, running through dust, it was that deep.

FISHER:Not too much vegetation up there.
YUFFEE:During this time, was there was any biomedical research goingon?
GAMERTSFELDER:There was—well, from the very start, there was a fish lab. There were people [who] were concerned about the salmon in the Columbia River. That eventually was part of the health physics—well, we were [the] "Health Instruments" [group] at Hanford. [Dr.] Dick Foster was running that, and there were consultants from the University of Washington coming over every once in a while.
YUFFEE:And you were monitoring the level of exposure?
GAMERTSFELDER:Yes. And we monitored the readings of the water that was dumped into the river. Most of it was relatively short-lived, so—
FISHER:With radioiodine?
GAMERTSFELDER:Iodine would be one of the things, but most of the stuff we were measuring were things like sodium and other relatively short-lived things. And some of the gas was a little bit radioactive.

And we had monitors that monitored the water going into the ponds, and that took some devising. One of the things we finally ended up with was a Geiger counter over which clean water was running, surrounded by a veil of single streams of water that was contaminated. That kept the counter from getting contaminated, in itself.
FISHER:A lot of ingenuity went into these instruments in the early days.
GAMERTSFELDER:Yes. I—the organization changed—I ended up being the head of the scientific studies kinds of things. We had lots of different names for things. It changed with time. But I had people in the Physics Group, I had an Instrumentation Group. Under me was a Calibrations Group, which serviced the people in the plant, in terms of calibrating the instruments regularly and running test films through the operation to be sure that the badge systems were working right.

And I had a soil chemist, and ended up with a geologist. And then, eventually, they put the Meteorology Group under our side of things. We ran the routine meteorology. We had a group that gave advice to the people running the plants, as to whether it was a good time to dissolve the fuel or not. And we also did some research kinds of things, trying to figure out what the deposition velocities were, what particles were falling here and there. (laughs)

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