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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

1 nonionizing electromagnetic radiation having wavelengths in the range of approximately 5 to 400 nanometers, shorter than visible light but longer than x rays

2slang—the University of Missouri

3 the positively charged mass within an atom, composed of neutrons and protons and possessing most of the mass but occupying only a small fraction of the volume of the atom. Physicists sought to release enormous quantities of energy by splitting the nucleus of a hydrogen atom, generating a chain reaction.

4Today, clearing a scientist to work in such a highly classified environment would require many months of background checking.

5For more than a half-century, Herbert M. Parker was a leading force in radiological physics. He was codeveloper of a systematic dosimetry scheme for implant therapy and the innovative proposer of radiological units with unambiguous physical and biological bases. He made seminal contributions to the development of scientifically based radiation protection standards and helped the Hanford Laboratories achieve prominence in radiation biology, radioactive waste disposal, and characterization of environmental radioactivity. For his inside view of the maturation of medical physics and the birth and evolution of the parallel field of health physics, see R.L. Kathren, R.W. Baalman, and W.J. Bair; Herbert M. Parker: Publications and Other Contributions to Radiological and Health Physics; Columbus, Ohio: Battelle Press; 1986; ISBN 0-935470-36-0; 864 pages.

6a unit of radiation dosage equal to the amount of ionizing radiation required to produce one electrostatic unit of charge of either sign per cubic centimeter of air; named for Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen, 1845–1923, German physicist, who discovered x rays in 1895 and received the Nobel Prize in Physics

7a measure of the ionization of air by radiation, not a unit of absorbed dose to tissue

8small electrically powered air condensers having a capacity of one to two cubic centimeters. Dosimeters are portable devices for calculating absorbed dose of radiation.

9portable instruments for detecting ionizing radiation and measuring dose rate

10elementary particles found in the nucleus of most atoms and having no electrical charge

11A related account of the work and personalities of this instrumentation group can be found in "Determining Safe Doses for Ionizing Radiation at Chicago (1943)" and "Developing New Dosimetry Instrumentation" in DOE/EH-0475, Human Radiation Studies: Remembering the Early Years; Oral History of Health Physicist Karl Z. Morgan, Ph.D. (June 1995).

12E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company constructed and operated the Hanford site in Washington state from 1943 to 1946 for the Manhattan Project. The X-10 facility in Oak Ridge, a pilot reactor and plutonium production plant, was also built by Du Pont. Du Pont and the Harshaw Chemical Company of Cleveland produced uranium hexafluoride on a scale sufficient to keep the vital isotope separation research going.

13During World War II, the Manhattan Project had built a vast complex of highly classified facilities in and near Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to process uranium for use in atomic bombs. The Atomic Energy Commission assumed control of these facilities upon its creation and, today, they belong to the Department of Energy.

14highly penetrating photons of high frequency, usually 1019 Hz or more, emitted by an atomic nucleus

15Dr. Arthur Compton, University of Chicago, a key member of the scientific team that established the Manhattan Project. Early in 1942, as part of the emerging effort to develop an atomic bomb, Dr. Vannevar Bush, head of the National Defense Research Committee, appointed Compton to be one of three program chiefs with responsibility to run chain reactions and develop weapons theory. As a result, under Arthur Compton the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago became a critical research facility for the Manhattan Project.

16an event in which a fissionable material undergoes a chain reaction

17Stagg Field was the University of Chicago's football field. Laboratories below Stagg's west grandstand became the site of the first self-sustained nuclear chain reaction achieved by a team led by Dr. Enrico Fermi on December 2, 1942.

18devices used to count the rate of radiation emissions from radionuclides

19an early form of a nuclear reactor, an apparatus in which a nuclear-fission chain reaction is sustained and controlled

20Italian-born physicist under whose leadership the Chicago researchers produced the first sustained nuclear chain reaction on December 2, 1942.

21On that day, the pile generated one-half watt of power (heat). Ten days later it achieved 200 watts.

22Eugene Paul Wigner (1902–95), U.S. physicist born in Hungary; one of a number of European scientists who had fled to the United States in the 1930s to escape Nazi and Fascist repression. For discussions of Wigner's years at Oak Ridge, see the Morgan transcript.

23substances containing elements (such as cadmium) whose nuclei absorb neutrons, and thus decrease the efficiency of a nuclear chain reaction

24Film badges are dosimeters worn routinely to measure accumulated personal exposure to radiation on photographic film.

25an accelerator in which particles move in spiral paths in a constant magnetic field

26For the transcript of the interview with Mr. Healy, see DOE/EH-0455, Human Radiation Studies: Remembering the Early Years; Oral History of John W. Healy (May 1995).

27C.M. Patterson was born December 24, 1913 in Fairfield, Nebraska. He received a B.S. in Pharmacy from the University of Nebraska. From 1944 to 1951, he served as Supervisor of Radiation Protection at Hanford Works. From 1951 to 1978 he was the Health Physics Superintendent at the Savannah River plant. Patterson served as president of the Health Physics Society from 1962 to 1963.

28the DOE's 570-square-mile former site for plutonium production, located near Richland, Washington

29The X-10 pile was a graphite cube, 24 feet square. It had been drilled with 1,248 channels that could be loaded with uranium slugs. Large fans blew cooling air through these channels. (Source: Richard Rhodes; The Making of the Atomic Bomb; New York: Simon and Schuster; 1986, p. 547)

30a facility where plutonium is extracted from uranium and fission products in irradiated fuel elements

31According to Karl Morgan in his oral history, Dr. Wollan spent most of his time developing fiber dosimeters—small electrometers with a fiber that moves across the scale proportional to the dose administered to the instrument.

32Karl Morgan recalls, in "Creating a Health Physics Division (1943–44)": "The [1994] Nobel prize in Physics was given to one of [Wollan's] students there who he educated and trained in neutron diffraction techniques. Had he lived and were he alive today, he would be the principal recipient of that Nobel prize in Physics. Of course, that has been acknowledged." (Morgan transcript, DOE/EH-0475)

33a noble gas; symbol Xe. The isotope 135Xe is created as a fission product in some reactors. Xenon-135 nuclei absorb neutrons. The presence of 135Xe in a reactor will slow down the chain reaction, until the isotope decays. This effect is known as "xenon poisoning."

34the National Laboratory near Santa Fe, New Mexico, where nuclear bombs were assembled before and during the Cold War; operated by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy. Since World War II, Los Alamos has been a research and development center for nuclear weapon designs and other scientific studies.

35General Leslie R. Groves, U.S. Army, assumed command of the Manhattan Engineer District in 1942 and led it to completion of the Manhattan Project.

36A professor of Radiology at the University of Rochester (Rochester, New York), site of research involving plutonium and human subjects, Dr. Warren left Rochester to work on the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge as head of the medical section and headed an Intramedical Advisory Committee. After World War II, he became dean of the University of California, Los Angeles Medical School.

37In 1943 Friedell became the Executive Officer of the Manhattan Engineer District Medical Division. For the transcript of the January 28, 1995 interview with Friedell, see DOE/EH-0466, Human Radiation Studies: Remembering the Early Years; Oral History of Radiologist Hymer L. Friedell, M.D., Ph.D. (July 1995).

38allowed to sit while the short-lived fission products to decay away so that the fuel rods could be chemically processed and plutonium separated out

39the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, predecessor agency to the U.S. Department of Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC); established January 1, 1947

40International Commission on Radiological Protection

41National Council on Radiation Protection. Although the words "and Measurements" were later appended to the name, the council's initials remain NCRP.

42A millirem is one-thousandth of a rem. A rem is a unit of radiation dose equivalent, or "rads times the quality factor, Q." The limits for occupational exposure of workers to radiation range from 2 to 5 rem per year for most countries.

43Scientists at this point of time were not aware that radioiodine depositing on pasture land, ingested by dairy cows, transferred to milk, and ingested by man (and children) would constitute a major intake pathway, leading to excessive concentrations in human thyroids. For a discussion of attempts to monitor the milk-to-man iodine cycle at Hanford, see "Unknown Health Hazards From Fallout" and "Monitoring Livestock Exposure" in the John Healy transcript (DOE/EH-0455, May 1995).

44an endocrine gland located at the base of the neck and secreting two hormones that regulate the rates of metabolism, growth, and development

45Victorine detectors for measuring cumulative exposures to radiation

46The military headquarters were located at the south end of the Hanford site, but the defenses were established outside the Hanford area, to protect the site from possible Japanese raids.

47In the late 1950s and early '60s, several contractors worked on the development of nuclear-reactor–powered jet engines for long-range military aircraft. The projects were funded by the AEC and the Department of Defense, and the contractors included General Electric, Pratt & Whitney, and others. Engines were built in Connecticut (Pratt & Whitney) and Ohio (GE), and some were tested at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho. Also known as the NEPA (Nuclear Engine for the Propulsion of Aircraft) program, the nuclear aircraft program was cancelled by President Kennedy because problems with engine weight and crew shielding, as well as design philosophy disagreements, were halting progress.

48a substance that slows (moderates) or thermalizes neutrons coming from the fission reaction, increasing the probability of their causing additional fissions in sustaining the chain reaction. In modern reactors, water is used as the neutron moderator.

49an unexpected rapid increase in fission rate, resulting in a nuclear chain reaction

50a four-engine cargo plane built by Douglas Aircraft for the military as the C-54 Loadmaster and for civilian airlines as the DC-4 passenger plane

51a plutonium waste recovery facility at Hanford, in the 234-5 building

52the ratio of the damage caused by that radiation compared to the damage caused by the same absorbed dose of reference radiation, usually cobalt-60 gamma rays

53Operation Green Run is discussed in Human Radiation Experiments: The Department of Energy Roadmap to the Story and the Records (310+ pages), (DOE/EH-0445, February 1995). For more on the Green Run, with an emphasis on its military purpose and the involvement of the U.S. Air Force, see the John Healy interview transcript (DOE/EH-0455, May 1995).

54products such as the elements strontium and cesium that are formed during the splitting of uranium atoms in a nuclear reactor

55a colloquial term commonly used to refer to the Hanford site

56Since 1965, Battelle Memorial Institute, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, has operated the Pacific North west Laboratory in Richland, Washington, for the U.S. Department of Energy.

57General Electric took over from Du Pont as prime contractor of the Hanford site after World War II.

58a Department of Energy weapons site in Aiken, South Carolina, that, during the Cold War, was the major source of tritium and plutonium for atomic bombs

59Feed Materials Production Center, a uranium processing facility near Cincinnati, Ohio, that was part of the defense nuclear fuel cycle. Former workers have filed a class-action suit, claiming they had not been informed of the dangers of working with uranium; for a detailed discussion of the Fernald suit, see DOE/EH-0456, Human Radiation Studies: Remembering the Early Years; Oral History of Merril Eisenbud (May 1995).

60In 1963, milk from dairy cows fed iodine-131 was consumed by eight General Electric/Hanford workers either as a single dose or as several daily doses. During the study, the amount of iodine in the cows' diet was increased from 5 milligrams per day to 2 grams per day. The resulting uptake by the human thyroid was determined in Hanford's whole-body counter facility. Participants were Hanford scientists who had volunteered to drink the milk and be counted over a period of approximately 1 month. This work was supported by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Source: "HS-1: Ingestion of Iodine-131 in Milk by Hanford Employees," in Human Radiation Experiments Associated with the U.S. Department of Energy and Its Predecessors (213 pages), DOE/EH-0491, July 1995.

61emitting helium nuclei during decay, possibly causing tissue damage if ingested or inhaled

62Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago, Illinois; operated by the University of Chicago

63an excess assimilation of radioiodine in the thyroid, indicating abnormality

64J. Newell Stannard, a professor emeritus of Radiation Biology and Biophysics at the University of Rochester (Rochester, New York)

65Radioactivity and Health: A History, Office of Scientific and Technical Information, October 1988. Currently published by Battelle Press, Columbus, Ohio; 2,010 pages in three volumes; ISBN 0-87079-590-2. Stannard wrote the book in response to the need for a definitive review of the biomedical research directed toward understanding the behavior and effects of radioactive materials in the biosphere. Sponsored by the DOE's Office of Health and Environmental Research, Radioactivity and Health documents the development of professional knowledge in this area from before the eighteenth century into the early 1980s. Presented in a narrative style and generously illustrated, the book includes anecdotal material and explains the role played by the principal men, women, and institutions. Extensive indexing by the author and editor make it easy to find specific subjects, people, places, and events.

66an abnormal reddening of the skin due to local congestion, such as inflammation, or excessive radiation exposure

67the process or method of measuring or calculating the dose of ionizing radiation, or energy absorbed per unit mass, using data from bioassay and other radiation measurements

68devices that measure temperature as a function of the electromotive force induced when heat is applied to two dissimilar metal wires joined at both ends

69involving the subjection of organic compounds to very high temperatures

70a radioactive substance that emits electrons or positrons during radioactive decay

71In the United States, an individual's exposure to background radiation averages about 350 millirem per year; the amount will vary with elevation and other factors. Daily fluctuations in the background occur proportionately with the amount of cosmic radiation striking the earth.

72small, rounded masses or lumps

73In 1956 and 1958, British epidemiologist Alice Stewart had written articles claiming that a dose as small as half a rad to a rad received by children in utero would raise by more than 50 percent the risk of cancer in the first 10 years of life. She and John Gofman later became professional friends. For a discussion of their friendship, see "The Low-Dosage Harm Controversy" in the Gofman transcript (DOE/EH-0457), June 1995.

74Westinghouse Hanford Company currently manages the transfer, storage, and treatment of radioactive liquid waste from process facilities. The liquid wastes are stored in underground tanks.

75The problem is that the liquid wastes contained corrosives that ate through some of the tanks, allowing some liquid leakage into the ground. The single-shell tanks have been replaced with double-wall tanks.

76a radioactive isotope of hydrogen having an atomic weight of three. The heaviest isotope of the element hydrogen, tritium gas is used in modern nuclear weapons.

77In actuality, there is no clay in Hanford soils.

78John Gofman, a physician and biophysicist, held that there is no safe level of radiation exposure. Gofman's public views and outspoken style brought him into frequent conflict with the AEC. For Gofman's account of these conflicts, see "The Controversy Over Nuclear-Armed Antiballistic Missiles (1969)," "Testifying Before Congress on Radiation Effects," and other sections in DOE/EH-0457, Human Radiation Studies: Remembering the Early Years; Oral History of Dr. John W. Gofman, M.D. (June 1995).

79At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Cohn was a senior biochemist in the Biology Division, where he investigated the radiotoxicity of fission products. For the transcript of the interview with Cohn, see DOE/EH-0464, Human Radiation Studies: Remembering the Early Years; Oral History of Biochemist Waldo E. Cohn, Ph.D. (June 1995).

80The aborted mission and the successful rescue became the subject of a major motion picture, Apollo 13, in 1995.

81[Herbert M.] Parker was thus to become the principal architect of the Health Physics program at Clinton Laboratories [Oak Ridge, Tennessee], providing for development of suitable instruments and standards for the measurement and control of radiation. He served as head of the fledgling Clinton Laboratories Health Physics Organization in 1943, and, along with Ernest O. Wollan, a cosmic-ray physicist, and Carl C. Gamertsfelder, he was one of the original three to bear the title of 'health physicist' . . . His group later included several who would make their mark in the new profession of health physics, in no small measure due to his influence . . . [including] Karl Z. Morgan, longtime head of the Health Physics Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory [as Clinton Laboratories came to be known] . . ." Source: Herbert M. Parker: Publications and Other Contributions to Radiological and Health Physics; edited by R.L. Kathren, R.W. Baalman, and W.J. Bair; Columbus, Ohio: Battelle Press, 1986.

82the branch of biology that applies the methods of physics to the study of biological structures and processes

83Actually, the first standards for x rays were created in 1928.

84Some scientists have expressed concerns that Dr. K.Z. Morgan exaggerates the radiological risks associated with trivial levels of radiation exposure.