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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

Cancellation of the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program

YUFFEE:But you had gone out to Idaho?
GAMERTSFELDER:Yes. [Our test station was there.] There was one other little incident. Convair had people working on these kinds of problems. They were going to build the airplane that we put this device in. They had figured out a nice sampling scheme, using little model airplane engines to pump air through filters, and they had it hung up to get a vertical profile of what ever was released.

They had been checking with Percy Griffiths, who was one of the health physics people for the AEC. And he [told] them there wasn't a chance of running. And [the Convair people] went off on a sightseeing trip, and our [General Manager, D.R. Shoul,] gave in, and we ran the test. [The Convair equipment was not used.]
GAMERTSFELDER:I'm not sure how they explained things to their boss. They had been spending weeks trying to get him to—I would take his numbers and show him what—I don't know whether he believed me or what.
FISHER:Was that the primary focus of your work while you were in Philadelphia—concern with that sort of stuff elsewhere in the country?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, no. We were also concerned about flying the danged airplane.

Somewhere along the line, [a fellow was driving] some tank truck with liquid oxygen, I think, and it had come into Bend, Oregon. He parked his truck and went away to find lodging or something. During the night—he apparently had some bad brakes—the fire started. The danged thing blew up.
FISHER:I bet it did.
GAMERTSFELDER:It took out a couple of city blocks' worth of a fair-sized town.

GAMERTSFELDER:I assigned a guy to look at the population densities in possible routes for the airplane to fly over. We had an airplane hangar (to take a nuclear- powered airplane) built—
FISHER:Where was that?
GAMERTSFELDER:Out at the Idaho site. We didn't have a runway yet, but they were going to build one if we had continued. [That building was eventually used as a warehouse.]
YUFFEE:Did you ever get a fuselage and get a plane put together?
GAMERTSFELDER:Oh, no. It didn't ever get that far. They flew a little water-cooled university-type reactor in an airplane and made their scattering measurements from beams, and things of that kind. It was just an ordinary air plane. That was done by [Convair]. I think that program died because [of increased capabilities of the rocket program].

They were—the thing we were working on finally, the mission was going to be to fly on chemical power out over the ocean, turn on the reactor, fly [reconnaissance] missions around Russia; monitoring what was going on and paying attention to radio traffic and all kinds of things of that kind.

If necessary, they would come in, dive down low, deliver a few bombs in strategic spots, and leave. And then come back, turn off the reactors, let them cool off some, and fly through a corridor back to our site.

We looked at population densities along the [possible routes]. The air plane would have been escorted in [and] escorted out. [If it crashed,] we would have been able to dump tons and tons of foam, things of that kind. There were mechanisms we could use. This was during the Cold War. People were serious.
YUFFEE:Sounds like it.
GAMERTSFELDER:I'm glad it got canceled. That's why I went back to Hanford: they shut us down.

Current Environmental Concerns at Hanford

FISHER:It's interesting at this point, where your work sort of has evolved into some of the more environmental concerns. Maybe it was just a general mindset that was developing. But there were concerns about milk, and there were concerns about local vegetation and concerns about population densities; where, earlier on, your work was much more occupational—doses for workers near reactors and things like that.
FISHER:I'm wondering if you think—
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, things changed when the AEC got in. The people with the most knowledge were the medical people, in terms of things happening to people, and they weren't really knowledgeable, in terms of things happening at lower doses.

We've always had a look at what background radiation was doing, and you can't find that. In fact, you can go to people living in Denver, and I don't think you can find any difference there. And that background is twice what it is here.71
GAMERTSFELDER:Other places on the coast, it might be as much as a factor of two less. They aren't that much more healthy. (laughs)
FISHER:But at places like Hanford, for example, do you think there has been any measurable effect on the environment from releases of radioiodine?
GAMERTSFELDER:I don't think so. I think Battelle thinks so. They're about to get to the point where they're going to try to predict—not predict, define—
FISHER:Does a dose—
GAMERTSFELDER:— what doses might have been obtained in a certain few individuals. My kids were all born out there in Richland.
FISHER:How about increases of thyroid out there, or thyroid nodules,72 for example?
GAMERTSFELDER:There was a big batch of data taken back, I don't know, 20 years ago or something. I've been retired for 19 (laughs).
FISHER:Good for you.
GAMERTSFELDER:It was—some good people took a lot of data, and they found the overall cancer rate in the area to be normal. They found a very rare kind of cancer in which there was something that would seem to be significant, maybe one or two cases, because it's a very rare kind of thing.

Alice Stewart was one of them, and as health physicist, has been riding that for a long time. She seems to think people got damaged out there.73
FISHER:Is her work credible?
FISHER:Do you think that environmental concerns about the tank farms,74 since that's what being raised now—
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, the tank farms are something to worry about.
YUFFEE:Do you think so?
FISHER:Because of the leaking?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, anything of that kind, I don't know. Most of them are sitting out in the desert and boiling. I don't know why they didn't double-hull those things.75
FISHER:In the beginning?
GAMERTSFELDER:I think the only people I know of that got killed were some of the workers, when they dropped a tank on them.
FISHER:The construction accident?
FISHER:Well, what's your concern about the tanks now?
GAMERTSFELDER:But the—I don't have to worry about that. Any construction job is going to be killing people.
YUFFEE:Right. Sure.
FISHER:But do you have a concern about the contents of the tanks or the lack of knowledge about them?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, this was—the dropped tank was when they were building it. It actually killed somebody.

There were some low-level wastes that were dumped into the ground. They got as far as the 300 area. That included tritium76 and—it was one of the rare earths; I don't remember the name of it. It's one where you do something to it chemically, and half of it comes out and half stays in the solution to do something else. And they don't—the regular processing didn't catch it all, by any manner or means. It can travel underground. And it did, to the 300 area.
YUFFEE:Was there a thought that the fact that the land out there, the subterranean land, a lot of it was clay,77 that it would soak up—
FISHER:Would it retard the movement of some of this?
GAMERTSFELDER:Oh, that land out there is [sand and] gravel.
GAMERTSFELDER:[But underneath] it's gravel, [rocks, boulders—and very large basalt] boulders.
GAMERTSFELDER:And in the space in between, filled with smaller hunks. And there are apparently some things like old lava or something in there, some places. So the water will flow generally this way and some will flow generally off that way.
YUFFEE:That must make it difficult to track, then?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, there are lots of wells. We put lots of wells in out at the 200 areas. We brought in what we thought was going to be a job for a geologist of a few years. I think he's still there [after twenty-some years]. (laughter) I think it's a bigger group, but it's still there.
FISHER:Do you think that the soil composition causes some of the spills from the tanks to migrate?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, I had a soil chemist, and most of the things that get thrown into the ground apparently like to link up with the kind of soil that we had out there.
YUFFEE:So it certainly wasn't a retardant. Instead, it was quite the opposite?
GAMERTSFELDER:Yes, for most things. But that doesn't count the whole—it doesn't count everything.
YUFFEE:No, it doesn't cover the whole periodic table [of elements].
GAMERTSFELDER:But the major hunk apparently stopped. I thought we did a pretty good job.
FISHER:How about some of the lawsuits that are going on out there now? Do you think there's any basis for these people looking for medical monitoring funds to be established?
GAMERTSFELDER:I think you've got some people who've learned some of the lingo [of nuclear physics, health physics, and litigation] and are extrapolating. I can't see any very large number of people actually being involved in anything of this kind. It may be difficult to really prove it, but I remember reading something very recently. It sounds like he had read an awful lot of stuff.
FISHER:Really? Was this in the newspaper or something?
GAMERTSFELDER:Probably more—there are a few technical people who are—Gottfred?
FISHER:Yeah, John Gofman.
GAMERTSFELDER:He did some questionable stuff. He had collected data in Illinois around the GE reactor plant down near Morris, Illinois. One of the counties we've talked about was being affected. The cancer [incidence] had gone up [by] a factor of two or three. And he didn't find out, or neglected to find out, that the county population had gone up by a factor of three, or something like that.
FISHER:Oh, I see, skewed results.
GAMERTSFELDER:And then, one of the doctors in the [AEC] Division of Biology and Medicine, whose name has now slipped me, did the whole state of Illinois. And he did it properly (a medical man ought to) and it showed absolutely nothing.

More Memories of December 2, 1942

FISHER:Well, I think I've run out of questions. But I do have one final little aside. I'm just wondering. You mentioned that when the first sustained reaction appeared in December (December second, 1942) that you celebrated, and that there was the knowledge that something really wonderful had occurred. I'm wondering if anybody said anything that you recall at that time, just by words—
GAMERTSFELDER:I don't remember.
FISHER:Well, I'm looking for your own recollections.
GAMERTSFELDER:No, they were just patting backs. (laughs) And the people didn't hang around very long. They later ran that reactor up at some higher power. They did it from a control room further down in the building. I remember, after that, picking up the copper wire and checking it out. It was [radio logically] hot. It had just been on the floor.
YUFFEE:And you picked it up?
GAMERTSFELDER:Yeah, I picked it up. I think I dropped it in an envelope or something.
FISHER:Well, it's quite a contribution to history. You've certainly been able to see a number of interesting events.
GAMERTSFELDER:Oh, it has been interesting.
YUFFEE:We took an excursion yesterday to the [X-10] graphite reactor.
GAMERTSFELDER:It doesn't look like what I saw when I was there.
FISHER:I wondered about that. It seemed awfully souped up.
GAMERTSFELDER:It has been filled up with [offices]. There used to be a lot of open space in there.
YUFFEE:We were curious, but we didn't know that—saw that your name—you had signed the 50th Anniversary plaque, as well as Waldo Cohn, who we were with yesterday.79
YUFFEE:We want to thank you for talking to us.
FISHER:We just want to give you the opportunity to say anything else, if there's anything.
GAMERTSFELDER:Are we on the record?
FISHER:Well, but we can turn that off if you would like.
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, okay, turn it off.
FISHER:Okay. It will just give you the opportunity to say anything else, wrap up anything, ask any questions we should have asked, but didn't.
GAMERTSFELDER:No, I don't have anything.
GAMERTSFELDER:There's a plutonium-238 fuel element in the Pacific Ocean somewhere.
YUFFEE:Oh, really.
FISHER:Where's that? What was the source of it?
GAMERTSFELDER:You know the Apollo mission that didn't make it?
FISHER:Mm-hmm, Apollo 13.80
GAMERTSFELDER:It did go to the moon['s orbit], and they used the [LEM] that was to take them down to the moon as part of the mechanism for bringing them back.
FISHER:As the rescue operation, right?
GAMERTSFELDER:Yes. And that had that fuel element. It was in a protective casing. The casing had been tested in the facilities as to how it would stand up to the reentry into the [earth's] atmosphere. That casing would have taken any thing that could happen to it, but that casing was held onto the LEM with some metal fittings. We weren't sure what those would do to the reentry process. Nothing happened. Nothing was found in the atmosphere. Nothing has been found in the ocean, so far as I know.
YUFFEE:In the ocean?
FISHER:But the casing did break off?
YUFFEE:But it's there?
GAMERTSFELDER:I don't know. But the fuel element hasn't produced any [noticeable effects]. Now, there was an earlier version which used plutonium metal in the fuel element, and it burned up in the atmosphere. And there was some of it spread somewhere from Capetown[, South Africa], on up the east coast of Africa somewhere. Nobody ever found any of it.
YUFFEE:Oh, wow. That's interesting. Well, we appreciate your talking to us and giving us some of the insights you were able to.
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, it has been interesting.
FISHER:Good. I hope you've enjoyed it as well.

The Genesis of Health Physics and Occupational Radiation Standards

YUFFEE:And I also want to note that we were made aware of by a health physicist that we work with that, I guess, the Health Physics Society has named you as one of the true founders of the field of health physics.81
GAMERTSFELDER:Oh, that's K.Z. [Morgan]. There were health physicists before us. Essentially, Herb Parker was trained as a health physicist a long time ago.
YUFFEE:Well, I guess, apparently a person who worked with Darrell Fisher, who is a health physicist who works out at Battelle, said that recently the group named a few people as the founders, and you were one of them. So we wanted to at least note that for the record, and also, to say that it means a lot to be able to talk to people like yourself who have a lot to say and interesting insights.
GAMERTSFELDER:I remember when they were starting the Health Physics Society. There were a lot of health physicists around, and one of them didn't seem to know that it was older than the project. They thought it started with the project [(Manhattan Project)].
FISHER:With the project?
GAMERTSFELDER:Actually, they were going to call it the Biophysics Society, and there are other kinds of biophysics82 that had been going on for a long time, too.
YUFFEE:Sure. Well, I guess we know you're being humble.
FISHER:Well, in all fairness, Doctor, it's true that the idea of coming up with standards really didn't—I mean, even standards for x rays weren't created until 1936 or so—'35 or '36.83
GAMERTSFELDER:Oh, yes. Well, yes.
FISHER:So the idea of creating standards and maximum levels was a relatively new one?
GAMERTSFELDER:When I was working with radiation in the '30s, one of the suggestions in one of the textbooks was that if you were going to run a laboratory properly, as far as your own exposure was concerned, you would store your film without extra protection in the lab in which you were working.(laughs)
GAMERTSFELDER:We didn't do that then. We kept x-ray stuff around. I mean, I was work ing with x-ray machines right in the same—in the lab. One thing: we had an x-ray—this has nothing to do with that. I was working with x rays and, in the circuit which ran the transformer that provided the voltage for the x-ray machine, was a length of fuse wire bathed by water (which was the cooling water that went through the cathode of the x-ray machine) so that, if the water shut off, the fuse would blow and the thing would shut off.
GAMERTSFELDER:I came in one morning, and the thing had shut off. I checked the fuse, and it had blown. I opened up the box in which the x-ray tube was sitting, and the x-ray tube, which had been supported at either end, and the target was in the middle—you had an x-ray beam that came out through a hole in the lead box—the tube had busted. Before the tube had busted, I had seen it and it was black. What happens is, some of the x rays react inside the glass.
GAMERTSFELDER:The glass had deteriorated to the point where it just couldn't hold a vacuum anymore. (laughs)
YUFFEE:It just broke?
GAMERTSFELDER:And it gave way, and it dropped. And those pieces of glass, you would pick them up, they were slippery. It was sodium hydroxide and other oxides, a little bit of moisture—slippery. So the x-ray machine would have been turned off, in any case.
YUFFEE:Well, that's good to know.
FISHER:Certainly some interesting experiences, and you've met some interesting people.
YUFFEE:And we thank you again for talking to us.
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, you're welcome. I've talked to a lot of people during the last year.
YUFFEE:This issue seems to be getting a lot of attention.

Reflections on Herb Parker and Karl Morgan

GAMERTSFELDER:It's too bad Herb [Parker] didn't get to this point.
YUFFEE:We feel the same way. It would have been nice to talk to him.
GAMERTSFELDER:He was a very smart, quick mentally, man. He got [riled up] once at a meeting in Chicago, and there was a—this was at the University of Chicago, after we had left there. It was a health-physics–type meeting. He was probably mad at K.Z.

GAMERTSFELDER:There was a mural on the wall in there, with shepherds and sheep and crooks and things, and he turned that into health physics. That crook had a lamp on it that was a survey meter. I can't remember all the things he did.

YUFFEE:Oh, that's funny.
FISHER:Well, that's good. Did they—was it a very closed community—Herb Parker and K.Z. Morgan and Carl Gamertsfelder and Simeon Cantril? Were you close personally? There weren't a lot of people, men, in the world that knew what you knew then.
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, there were a lot of people [who] thought there was a lot of bad blood between [Englishman] Herb Parker and [North Carolinian] K.Z. Morgan. K.Z. was a southern gentleman from the word "go." They were good personal friends. They visited each other at their houses. You get them in a meeting, and—(laughs)
GAMERTSFELDER:But the guy I was talking to was surprised they even talked to each other.
YUFFEE:Well, I got the impression from when I met Dr. Morgan, that he doesn't seem as if—I mean, everyone who's familiar with the issue knows that he has taken some views now that a lot of people don't necessarily agree with. 84

It seems to me that the transformation—I would have a hard time believing that it's a huge transformation. It would seem to me that he hasn't really changed a heck of a lot over the years. I could be wrong. Am I wrong in that respect?
GAMERTSFELDER:Well, I couldn't say he changed from—any different now than when I knew him in Oak Ridge. I haven't been around him during his [times when there were arguments about his views]. I really haven't been in the same places.
GAMERTSFELDER:We weren't there. There's a part of my life you haven't—you don't know about. It's still health physics.
FISHER:Which is?
GAMERTSFELDER:My stint with the Atomic Energy Commission.
YUFFEE:Oh. Please tell us about it.
GAMERTSFELDER:My part of which later became the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
FISHER:Oh, wow. Why don't we—since we don't know about it, let's—yeah— no, I'm very interested in that.
GAMERTSFELDER:You can turn the machine off.

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