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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

Biomedical Research at Hanford

YUFFEE:Was there any biomedical research done on people earlier?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, there was some. There was a batch of goats on the plant, and one of our guys, Carl Herde, got interested in it. But they were monitored. We weren't into sacrificing animals at that time. [We] did end up, eventually, with a biology system, and they were doing research on, oh, yeasts and microorganisms and mice.
FISHER:Well, and the fish you mentioned, the salmon.
GAMERTSFELDER:And rats, and the salmon—that was always part of it. But that got to be part of the biology lab.
FISHER:Then later on, there were dogs and things that you were using?
GAMERTSFELDER:And they had dogs, pigs, goats. There was a—I don't know whether I'll tell you this story. You can delete a few things. They had some sheep, and they were feeding some iodine to them. And in order to keep things us able in the lab, they had some pens and living quarters that were covered with neoprene (artificial rubber, which was pretty tough), and hoofs wouldn't bother it, and it could be cleaned relatively easily. And they were fed radioactive materials. And they ended up having trouble with the rams mounting the ewes, because the floor was slippery.

GAMERTSFELDER:And so somebody got hold of some research on the general subject of experimental work with sheep. One of the stories in there was a batch of 100 ewes that were separated for a genetics experiment. They were going to breed them with very specialized sperm from several different places. One ram got into the pen one night. He impregnated 50 of them.

YUFFEE:A rather potent ram, huh?
FISHER:Despite the slippery floors.
GAMERTSFELDER:I don't know how many more he tried.
YUFFEE:Did he drop dead at the end of the evening?
GAMERTSFELDER:No. No, apparently he was inexhaustible.
FISHER:When you were doing this research in the Biology Division, and the work that you were doing compiling exposures and things, was all of this work done towards establishing a standard of maximum permissible dose, or do you think that it was done in an effort—
GAMERTSFELDER:It wasn't so much establishing a standard, as establishing the means, maybe, to establish standards.
GAMERTSFELDER:I don't remember what—we didn't have standards that way, around—really, until they got the NCRP going, with, essentially, Government sanction and understanding.

We had, at the starting point, that 100-millirem-per-day [standard for maximum exposure]. In our operating rules for people who were working in the plant, we investigated anytime somebody got 50 in any one day. And we tried to find out what was going on. It isn't that we punished anybody for getting over 100. Those were unusual circumstances if they did that.
FISHER:And what happened if somebody received a greater-than-permissible dose?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, they would just try to find out what it was. We would record it. Everybody had something that recorded what total dosage he was getting. So at the end of the year, we would sum things up. I don't know if we even told them at the beginning. But eventually, we were telling them every year.
FISHER:But a worker's duty might not be altered or changed if, one day, he got over the dose?
GAMERTSFELDER:Normally, not.
FISHER:So there were, in fact, people who were getting—
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, they wouldn't—nobody was getting 5 rems a year, or anything like that.
FISHER:So the doses were reasonable ones?
FISHER:Even by today's standards?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, they've lowered the limits a couple of times since.
GAMERTSFELDER:But I think the philosophy, what they were doing at Hanford, kept up with whatever changes were made.
YUFFEE:And there was obviously follow-up to make sure that the—
GAMERTSFELDER:Yes. Well, those people that we hired with the high school educations, they were very responsible people. May I skip around a little bit?
FISHER:Sure, absolutely.

Nuclear-Powered Aircraft; the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program

GAMERTSFELDER:I left Hanford, went to the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Division of General Electric. We were going to fly an airplane on nuclear power.47

They had several different kinds of missions that they were working on, and we stopped with this direction. We finally ended up where we were testing the device with the cycle that we would expect maybe, would end up in the airplane. [These tests were run at the GE Aircraft Engine Group facility in Evendale, just north of Cincinnati, Ohio.]

They had run multiple engines off of one chemical heat source, and we were testing [a] reactor [at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory].

(Material deleted. Dr. Gamertsfelder inserts the following for clarity and accuracy:)

The initial criticality steps had been completed. And when they started to operate at higher powers, the monitor they had installed in the reactor did not respond properly.

The reactor had a zirconium hydride material as the moderator.48 It held about as much hydrogen as the same volume of water would, and it could run at higher temperatures.

(Material deleted. Dr. Gamertsfelder inserts the following for clarity and accuracy:)

It was replaced by an ionization chamber which, normally, was located outside of the reactor, and was meant to work like a cruise-control throttle in an automobile. In order for this chamber to work in this new location, the power supply for it was modified by adding some filtering circuits. This system worked very well for several incremental increases in power level. When they started the next increment, there was a nuclear excursion.49

The excursion had taken place after the normal workday at Evendale had ended. The next day in Evendale, a meeting in our conference room was convened to discuss the problem [by phone] with Idaho people in their conference room. They did not yet know the cause of the excursion. Our management decided to send a group to Idaho to assist in the investigation and subsequent recovery. We were told to go home and pack a suitcase, and return. When we returned, we were taken to an airport, where our airplane (a C-5450 on bailment from the Air Force, and known officially as the "Site Flight" and unofficially as the "Slite Fright") then took us to Idaho.

The next morning, after getting to the test site, we were told what had been learned while we were out of communication. They had not yet discovered the cause of the excursion. About a half-hour later, the two- man team that was examining all the instrumentation came into the conference room with a graph of the response of the modified power supply, which was not large enough to provide a shutdown signal.
FISHER:When was this? When did this occur, more or less?
GAMERTSFELDER:Oh, in the late '50s. I can't get an exact year.
FISHER:It was just a brief little interlude you had, because you did go back to Hanford, didn't you?
GAMERTSFELDER:I did. I went back to Hanford for a short period of time[, three years]. It was, overall I guess, a mistake, but—
FISHER:Why do you think it was a mistake?
GAMERTSFELDER:Hanford was changing. They [were going to break it up].
YUFFEE:So this was diversification?

Health Physics Response to Accidents at Hanford

GAMERTSFELDER:Diversification. The job I had to do was not what I thought it was and was disturbed by an excursion in a system, which required my services full- time for months.

(Material deleted. Dr. Gamertsfelder inserts the following for clarity and accuracy:)

I was put on an investigation committee, along with four other senior GE employees, to determine the cause of the accident and evaluate the way in which it was handled, and to make recommendations to prevent a recurrence. The chairman of the committee was Carl N. Zanger, of the AEC.

There were two other groups: a "Working Group" to investigate the ways to safely correct the situation, and an "Advisory Council" to review and approve the plans of the Working Group. Our committee members were forbidden to take an active role in the work of the other two groups.

There was a plutonium processing plant in the 234-5 Building in the 200 West area which produced plutonium-contaminated liquid waste streams. These waste streams were being treated in the Recuplex51 operation, which had been designed as a semiworks to develop the best way to recover the plutonium in the waste stream.

The recovery equipment was in an enclosure made of transparent half- inch-thick plastic sheets. The enclosure was about 40 feet long, 20 feet high, and 10 feet thick. There were glove ports for some operations, and a control panel for pumps, remote valves, heaters, and other equipment. All of the tanks and piping in the enclosure which contained plutonium were geometrically safe. Some of the vessels which were used to pre pare solutions to treat the plutonium were not geometrically safe.
FISHER:Would the delay in reading the badges have affected the readings?
GAMERTSFELDER:No. No, it just delayed our getting the information on them.
FISHER:And there were no problems, no health problems?

(Material deleted. Dr. Gamertsfelder inserts the following for clarity and accuracy:)
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, no, there apparently weren't any health problems. The whole-body doses, including gamma and neutron immediate effects, plus the doses due to self-irradiation from activation products in their bodies, were 110 rem, 40 rem, and 20 rem. The RBE [(relative biological effectiveness)]52 for the fast neutron doses was two.

The employees who were taken to the hospital were retained there a little longer than necessary, to see if there were any delayed effects. No dam age of any kind was found. However, plans were made to check each of them on a regular basis.
FISHER: Doctor, it's interesting that you said [that] the three individuals involved—they were in the accident (the excursion) were taken off the plant site into town.
GAMERTSFELDER: Into town, yes.
FISHER: Into the local tri-cities hospital?
GAMERTSFELDER:No, there was a hospital in Richland.
FISHER: Kadlec Hospital, right? But it—are you talking about the hospital? Was this a medical facility that was administered by the Medical Division?
GAMERTSFELDER: There were GE doctors there.
FISHER: Oh, okay. It wasn't a public hospital.
GAMERTSFELDER: Well, it was public. Richland, unlike Oak Ridge, has always been an open city. The restricted area began a few miles north of the city.

Kadlec Hospital was always a public hospital. In the early days, however, you probably could not get a house to live in unless you were working in Richland or the plant. Some time in the late '50s, the people living in the houses were able to buy their homes at very attractive prices. When we came back in 1961, we bought a house.
FISHER:Was it Kadlec Hospital? Is that where?
GAMERTSFELDER:Yes, they were—well, at this time, Richland was a completely open city.
FISHER:This would have been in the early '60s when this occurred?
YUFFEE:Maybe we can take you back to the late '40s.

The Green Run

YUFFEE:To what is well-known, the Green Run.53
YUFFEE:And we could get your observations on the Green Run?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, the Green Run was requested by the military[, the Air Force].
YUFFEE:And did they—

(Material deleted. Dr. Gamertsfelder inserts the following for clarity and accuracy:)
GAMERTSFELDER:Herb Parker called me to request that I, and the groups that I supervised, cooperate with the Air Force in the conduct of an experiment which be came known as the Green Run[, which involved the intentional atmospheric release of radioiodine].
FISHER: And so the military ran the show?
GAMERTSFELDER: I am sure that our GE management had some concerns that the running of such an experiment might not be covered by our contract with the AEC. I assume that the AEC was able to provide some assurance that they would be covered. And, as a result, GE agreed to cooperate with the Air Force. Obviously, some pressure was applied by the Air Force to get the agreement, but after agreeing, we did cooperate without abdicating any of our managerial responsibilities.
YUFFEE:Sure. Who were some of the other people involved, besides Jack [(John)] Healy?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, essentially our whole site-survey group, we treated it as a special run. And we found out where the [radioiodine] cloud went, for our pur poses.
YUFFEE:So meteorology was already under your purview at that time?
GAMERTSFELDER:Yes. And we didn't recommend, we wouldn't have recommended, that they operate it. We told them that. They wanted to run anyway, and they did run—
YUFFEE:And were you told the purpose?
GAMERTSFELDER:No, we guessed.
FISHER:What did you guess?
GAMERTSFELDER:We guessed they were interested in finding things out so it would help them look into [what the Soviets were doing in their nuclear program].
FISHER:You mean, monitoring of plant activities?
GAMERTSFELDER:See, what was—that's what we thought. And nobody told us one way or the other. Earlier than that, we had had a visit from somebody who we knew was somehow associated with espionage, and had been a worker with radiation. He talked about getting radiation headaches, apparently getting radiation levels higher than we [would] ever allow.
GAMERTSFELDER:And shortly after that, one of the guys that worked with Healy, Walt Singlevich, went and joined them—or joined some [other secret] group, anyway. I ran into Walt several times and never got the hint of anything that they were possibly doing.
FISHER:Really? Do you think it was necessary to use iodine that was as "green" as it was for the detection purposes you supposed they were trying to accomplish?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, the amount of material being dissolved was, I think, smaller than normal. This was just a batch that had been fixed up particularly for them. When the reactors had run originally—when the military was very, very interested on getting their hands on plutonium—they put out a lot more than was put out in the Green Run.
FISHER:A lot more what?
FISHER:In the early production days?
GAMERTSFELDER:Yes, very early production days. There was a lot of iodine put out.
FISHER:Well, the Green Run iodine was cooled about 16 days, I think?
GAMERTSFELDER:Something like that.
FISHER:But yet, earlier you expressed alarm that iodine, or Parker expressed alarm that iodine was cooled for only 35 days originally.
GAMERTSFELDER:Yes. But that was a rather continuous operation[, with much more uranium and fission products].54
GAMERTSFELDER:No, they were completely different subjects. The cloud wandered off and went down to the Columbia River Valley, turned around and came back and wandered off towards the east. And you could find traces of it in vegetation. Most of that territory doesn't have very many people in it.
YUFFEE:Was that your role? Your specific role was to monitor the cloud?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, it was something special. We were prepared. We knew what was going on—prepared to go and do it. We just didn't agree with them on the time we were doing it.

[My only instructions about the Green Run was a verbal request to cooperate in the running of the experiment. Our role was to do what we normally did when the separations plants were going to dissolve irradiated fuel. We advised them about the weather and expanded our environmental sampling schedule because of the magnitude of the purposed release.

While we did not know what kind of measurements were going to be made with the airplane, we thought that a smaller release would have been adequate].
YUFFEE:Who had the final say as to the exact time of the—
GAMERTSFELDER:[I am sure the colonel who decided to run the experiment was given the weather forecast, and the time chosen was consistent with the forecast of suitable weather. They had an airplane. I never saw the airplane. I don't know whether it operated out of the airport or out of an airport that was at Richland.
FISHER:It may have operated out of Othello, Washington. There was a radar station in Othello, across the river, just north of the reservation.55
GAMERTSFELDER:I don't know where the airplane took off from. I never even saw it.
YUFFEE:Did it tag the cloud, or was it—
GAMERTSFELDER:I don't know what it did[, and I don't know what results they obtained].
FISHER:How vocal were you with your team?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, we were loud enough to let them know what we recommended. But we were told to cooperate, and we cooperated.
YUFFEE:Were there any AEC officials who were present for the Green Run?
GAMERTSFELDER:I don't know of any. There was—there were AEC people as part of—they had an office.
FISHER:They had an operations office out there?
GAMERTSFELDER:Yes. Whether they had any people in the field or not, I don't know.
FISHER:Are you familiar with the name Walt Williams, Walter Williams?
FISHER:He would have been the Deputy General Manager of the AEC at the time. He was one of the only AEC high officials who was around at Manhattan Project time. He was also an instrumentation person, a technical guy.
GAMERTSFELDER:Yes. Well, they had some technical people, but at that time—I don't know of any contacts that we had with the AEC at that time.
YUFFEE:One of the reasons why we're interested in these questions is: there's a basic lack of documentation that we can find on the specifics of the Green Run. In fact, we're curious as to whether or not this was done on purpose.

Was there a message sent by the [Air Force] that documents—things should be said and not written, with regard to the Green Run, or was there—do you remember there being pretty good documentation about what happened?
GAMERTSFELDER:[I don't know of any message or document from the Air Force concerning anything about the Green Run. I am sure that our routine activity reports included data about the Green Run.] I don't remember the detail of our reports. We would have had to have gone through Parker.
YUFFEE:But they were written reports?
GAMERTSFELDER:There's other reports, internal reports. And I don't know whether they've found them now or not. The good copies of all of that stuff went to Du Pont. Du Pont lost those. And some of the things—I went up and talked to Battelle56 about some of these things—and some of those documents are very hard to read.
YUFFEE:I'm sure. They probably were done on onionskin.
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, either that or copies made by that kind of blurry purplish ink process [(mimeograph)]. But I don't know of communications with the AEC at that time. I don't know what-all was written down by Herb Parker.
FISHER:Sure. Okay.
GAMERTSFELDER:But we did make surveys. We knew where the stuff went[, and I don't know of any restrictions on our normal internal reporting].
FISHER:How far away did you monitor? Did you get to Walla Walla [(Washington)]?
GAMERTSFELDER:I'm sure we got to Walla Walla. The furthest that I know of would probably have been down the Columbia River Gorge, probably as far as [the Dalles].
FISHER:That would have been [south]west?
GAMERTSFELDER:And for the other, we might have even gotten [northeast] to Spokane [(Washington)].
YUFFEE:How many years were you at Hanford that first time?
GAMERTSFELDER:The first time? About—well, I got there in '44.
FISHER:Or '43?
GAMERTSFELDER:Forty-three, '42— down to Oak Ridge.
YUFFEE:In '43? So it would have been '44.
GAMERTSFELDER:And this would be—
YUFFEE:Because you were out in Chicago for the [pile startup] in December.
YUFFEE:And then you stayed until '43 for a little bit less than a year, then you went down to Oak Ridge.
YUFFEE:For about a year?
GAMERTSFELDER:Yes. It was '44.
FISHER:So that would have brought you into '44.
FISHER:Okay. August of '44.

General Electric Takes Over the Hanford Contract (1946)

YUFFEE:Okay. And when did you leave to join GE?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, GE joined me.57
FISHER:Oh, GE joined you?

GAMERTSFELDER:That's right, when Du Pont left [as prime contractor for running Hanford], after the war.
FISHER:That's a good point.
GAMERTSFELDER:Oh, we had fought—in moving from the technical division, which is where we would have been ordinarily, because of Herb Parker's insistence, we ended up without all of the job titles available to the other people. We ended up with senior supervisors reporting to senior supervisors reporting to senior supervisors.
GAMERTSFELDER:And we had just gotten that settled. So we got to use some other titles, like Area Supervisor and things of that kind.
YUFFEE:"Supervising Supervisor."
GAMERTSFELDER:And GE came in, and everybody was a manager. (laughs)
FISHER:Oh, too many chiefs and no Indians.
GAMERTSFELDER:Philosophies of operation were different, and—
FISHER:How so?
GAMERTSFELDER:Du Pont was, "Grandpa knows best." (laughs) GE listened a little bit more, or it was a little further down the line, or something.
FISHER:That's surprising, because Du Pont really only agreed to build the Hanford plant "kicking and screaming." They weren't wild about it from the outset.
GAMERTSFELDER:Oh, I know. And they stuck by their guns. They got out when they said they were going to get out. Then they got back in.
FISHER:Yes, down at Savannah River.58
YUFFEE:And so, when GE joined, where were you?
FISHER:I think it was '46, '47, right after the war ended, I think.
GAMERTSFELDER:Yes, it was about—it was—
FISHER:Because, by '45, Du Pont was saying that they were going to stick to the contract [allowing the company to back out after the war, if it chose], and they wanted out.
YUFFEE:So when did you begin work on the aircraft, the nuclear-powered aircraft?
GAMERTSFELDER:I went in '52, in the fall.
YUFFEE:And you moved out to Cincinnati?
YUFFEE:And that's where they were doing the work?
YUFFEE:Up there, were they using the facilities at Fernald59 for the—
GAMERTSFELDER:Fernald? I don't know that we had anything that we did there. I went through Fernald once.
YUFFEE:And how many years did you live in Cincinnati during this?
GAMERTSFELDER:[Till] '61, about [nine] years.
YUFFEE:And then you went back to Hanford in '61?
GAMERTSFELDER:Hanford for three [years]. And then I went to Philadelphia.
YUFFEE:When you went to Hanford the second time, we know [that] again, there were some more field releases, not [of] the magnitude of the Green Run. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about those?
GAMERTSFELDER:I don't know much about them.
FISHER:Well, there were some of the milk studies in '63 that you participated in.
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, the milk study I participated in, I drank some milk.60

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