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Interview with Layton James O'Neill, July 23, 2004


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Narrator affiliation: Health Physicist, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission; Department of Energy

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O'Neill, Layton James. Interview, 2004 July 23. MS-00818. [Transcript]. Oral History Research Center, Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.


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Nevada Test Site Oral History Project University of Nevada, Las Vegas Interview with Layton O’Neill July 23, 2004 Las Vegas, Nevada Interview Conducted By Suzanne Becker © 2007 by UNLV Libraries Oral history is a method of collecting historical information through recorded interviews conducted by an interviewer/ researcher with an interviewee/ narrator who possesses firsthand knowledge of historically significant events. The goal is to create an archive which adds relevant material to the existing historical record. Oral history recordings and transcripts are primary source material and do not represent the final, verified, or complete narrative of the events under discussion. Rather, oral history is a spoken remembrance or dialogue, reflecting the interviewee’s memories, points of view and personal opinions about events in response to the interviewer’s specific questions. Oral history interviews document each interviewee’s personal engagement with the history in question. They are unique records, reflecting the particular meaning the interviewee draws from her/ his individual life experience. Produced by: The Nevada Test Site Oral History Project Departments of History and Sociology University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 89154- 5020 Director and Editor Mary Palevsky Principal Investigators Robert Futrell, Dept. of Sociology Andrew Kirk, Dept. of History The material in the Nevada Test Site Oral History Project archive is based upon work supported by the U. S. Dept. of Energy under award number DEFG52- 03NV99203 and the U. S. Dept. of Education under award number P116Z040093. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in these recordings and transcripts are those of project participants— oral history interviewees and/ or oral history interviewers— and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U. S. Department of Energy or the U. S. Department of Education. UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 1 Interview with Layton O’Neill July 23, 2004 Conducted by Suzanne Becker Table of Contents Introduction: REECo creates a first- on- the- scene radiological training institution at the NTS ( ca. 1970s- 1980s). 1 Involvement in radiological incidents: truck incident ( Wyoming), SL- 1 accident ( Idaho) . 4 Work on review of radiological safety and waste management documents. 6 Resistance to change among government contractors and others. 10 Work on radiological safety programs at Enewetak, Amchitka, Johnston Atoll, and Colorado Plowshare programs. 13 Work with state and local agencies re: Radiological Emergency Response Operations [ RERO] training. 16 Examples of radioactive material [ RAM] accidents, DOT regulations and potential for accidents. 17 Plowshare projects: Sedan, potential Alaska harbor, gas stimulation ( Gasbuggy, 1967), work on Rulison ( 1969) and Rio Blanco ( 1973). 20 Cleanup and containment of HAZMATs. 23 Effect of radiological materials on the earth. 26 Discussion of Baneberry ( 1970), including involvement of health physics personnel and the mechanics of a typical shot, wrongful- death lawsuits filed, reentry and cleanup, his views of Baneberry as compared to other test site events. 28 Concerns re: government compensation program for injured NTS workers. 40 Establishment of credibility for health physicists. 42 Incidence of accidents and death due to radiation exposure, and need for public education and training about radiation. 43 Work on NTS waste management certification program. 44 Conclusion: impact of job on family relationships, recap of career. 49 UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 1 Interview with Layton O’Neill July 23, 2004 in Las Vegas, NV Conducted by Suzanne Becker [ 00: 00: 00] Begin Track 2, Disc 1. ( Conversation begins before recording). Layton O’Neill: Ray Duncan, the Assistant Manager. called us, myself and Dennis Vetter, who was the lead man in radiological training for REECo [ Reynolds Electrical and Engineering Company] after we’d started to build an expanded training organization. He told us that he wanted to make REECo a training institution at the Nevada Test Site [ NTS]. And so we were given a lot of authority to really go gung- ho on this and push out in all directions. And we did some of the very first training in the nation of first- on- the- scene people, and that includes firefighters and police departments. And before we finished this program, we had trained every fireman in the State of Nevada, every policeman, highway patrolman, and a few morticians. Suzanne Becker: So essentially, you guys were set up to train those people that would first be arriving on any kind of scene. Yes, those that would be first- on- the- scene- type people, and we gave them a basic knowledge by going through this Radiological Emergency Operations course, and hands- on training exercises where we used real radioactive materials and realistic- type accidents on the test site. And we were able to use the abandoned facilities at the test site, and we even had one facility that was in up in Area 24 that was devoted to conducting reactor- like scenes. The facilities looked like reactors, and we had players and actors and the radioactive materials and fires and the whole nine yards, for example radiological shipments laying on the ground, turned over truck and auto wreck scenes. We also conducted reactor accident, response; we had live stream clouds, UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 2 radiation, injured people, and used mulage techniques to make it look like real wounds and accidents. Wow. And this was in the sixties and seventies? Yes. Before HAZMAT. Well, yes, more like 1970s and 80s before HAZMAT years. This program was strictly radiological, and then as HAZMAT [ hazardous materials] became more and more prominent with years, they adopted that into this program, so it became the HAZMAT program in later years. OK, so it’s sort of the precursor to that. Yeah. Well, that was because the particular interest in this program. The training was within the Atomic Energy Commission [ AEC], and so they pushed for the radiological part initially. The AEC had some HAZMAT problems, but they were minor, and actually they had a handle on them and the radiological part was more visual, more vivid, in everybody’s mind. And it was when we were starting to ship large amounts of radioactive materials across the United States. In fact, we had been shipping some for a long time. The general public just didn’t know it, but the DOE [ Department of Energy] did— that’s why each office operation had the Radiological Assistance Teams that were to respond to accidents/ incidents involving radioactive materials. So anyway, we continued progressing with this training thing, and REECo did become quite a training center. After we had trained most of the people in the State of Nevada, we found that there was interest by other states— other fire departments, other than Nevada— so HQ said we should start training people from all over the United States. And did they come here for that? UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 3 Yes, they came here for the training, and initially— I don’t know if I should say this or not. Well, we paid for their lodging at Mercury, and they ate at Mercury, subsidized food prices, and yet they weren’t government workers. That was put down. As soon as the government lawyers found out what I was doing, why, I got called in on the carpet and they said, O’Neill, if you house and serve food to another civilian, we’re going to take you to court. So we had to quit doing that, but we continued on the program by revising what we did and making the students pay for their housing and they had to pay for their food too. And were these people that were sent to this program by the counties that they worked for? State governments, county governments, and city governments. It was all within the realm of government in the United States, so there were people who were first- on- the- scene responders, and there were some people who were supervisors of the first- on- the- scene- type [ 00: 05: 00] responders that came to our program, too. And so Bama [ Charles] McKnight was one of the key figures in this training, and he worked for Dennis Vetter. But he was the contact, and he used to have his office where he collected hats from everybody who came, and badges, and all that kind of stuff. He was famous nationwide, and he was an excellent instructor. My job was just to oversee this and find funding. In the early days, for the onsite people and for some of the DOE people that we trained, I would give a closing talk about the importance of our program, and would always speak to each of these classes. And what else? Dennis developed over the years a great group of instructors and a very fine program. We not only had classroom training, but we had field exercises with every course. That was the big part of our course, the actual realistic field exercises. And I imagine you’d have to do things hands- on. UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 4 I can tell you an interesting story. We had one exercise going on and we had the manager of Nevada Operations Office [ NVOO] who attended the course. Ink [ Mahlon] Gates was his name. And he was out there and he had been put into some kind of a controlling position on the Response Team. We had these actors, and this woman, an actor, she was supposed to put psychological pressure on the team. And when we did that, we actually applied psychological pressures. And we had her screaming and yelling that her husband was inside this reactor, and she wanted to see him and she wanted to go be with him; she wanted to see if he was alive or dead. [ She was] literally beating on the guards that were trying to keep her out, you know, flailing her hands a little bit, and she was just raising Cain all through the exercise, out at the front gate of the exercise, while the emergency teams were trying to respond. And Ink Gates, he walked over behind this woman and wrapped his arms around her from the back side, picked her up, and carried her back away from the scene action, and they handcuffed her to an automobile. Wow. Are you allowed to do that? Well, we did. It was all in the exercise. She was an actor. And Ink took care of the situation. So it was quite a story for everybody that was involved. We also had a lot of exercises where we provided foreign- speaking people; like a guy that walked in with his horse that could only speak Spanish and he would harass and put pressure on them. Well, we tried to build the pressure up so that they were as close as we could get it to the pressure of a real incident, because that’s where you get real training. And how did you go about creating these scenarios? I mean how did you come up with what things might be like? Well, we came up with a lot of that from our familiarity with real incidents. I told you about the story when we went to the truck incident in Wyoming, and in that incident we had a real farmer UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 5 and his daughter appear at the scene, which is, you know, the classical. There was a fire. The fire along the highway burned over into his field, onto the farmer’s land. This is a real accident that I’m talking about. This truck caught fire. And so we had real people involved. We had the highway patrolman who was involved at the scene. He was the first on the scene, and then he came and picked us [ the Federal RAT team] up at the airplane, and he was back out there. He was a real respondent, and yet he walked over and picked up the radioactive source, trying to figure out why we were so concerned about this little chunk [ 00: 10: 00] of metal. And he could see everybody was concerned about something, and he was trying to figure out why we had finally sat it on the bumper of this truck. So he walked over and picked it up and looked at it and he says, Oh, “ Radioactive Material.” And he had sense enough to put it back down. A week later he received erythema on his hands from picking up that radioactive source, but as far as we know, that’s all. We lost contact with him in later years, but he never called back and complained. But he did receive erythema. Which is what? Reddening of the skin, like a first- degree burn. But we had all these people plus the truck operators, and all these people and things were involved. Then I was involved in the SL- 1 [ Stationary Low Power Reactor] accident at Idaho, and we had real stuff there, too, which we used in our scenerios. Like government people who came and thought they didn’t have to obey the government signs. The sign said, “ United States Government. Keep out.” And this guy says, Well, I’m a government employee, and he walked across the barrier and on in. Well, he contaminated himself, and we had to take his— I think we took his shoes away from him. And so those are the kinds of things that really happen, UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 6 and they put pressure on response groups. After that incident we put up “ Radioactive Contamination” signs. And so there was a definite need for training, and I’m sure there’s a growing need. It’s still going on right now. That’s one of the major things that Bechtel Nevada is doing today, as I understand it. I haven’t been out there. But they’re doing anti- terrorist response training right now. And it includes radiological and HAZMAT problems. And so they are basically training people, not just in Nevada but from around the country, how to respond to certain situations? Yes, they come from all over the United States, including all the militaries. So that kind of training is going on, and it’s an offspring from the program we started back in the seventies and eighties. So it was a big thing, a major thing, and a lot of manuals were written. And one of the things that I wanted to tell you about, things that I did, was all the radiological safety documents, like the one I have here, that came out of these programs was my responsibility to sit down and review these documents. So you had to review this— Yes, I reviewed these documents and passed approval and made comments on these documents when they were in the draft stages. And as long as the program was alive, they were living documents. They changed with time and as we learned new things and new approaches. And then the other part of the review responsibility I did was every program that had— well, that was off the test site primarily— when we went to Hattiesburg [ Mississippi] and we went to Colorado, went to Amchitka [ Alaska], and those kind of places— review of radiological safety documents that people had written in my own organization and other organizations that applied to the programs we were involved with had to be reviewed. UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 7 Just documents they’d written in regards to other training documents? Yeah, training, and then documents that had to do with procedures and operations, and primarily that. And reports. There were follow- up reports. And so review of documents was a major part of my program and my responsibilities. And as I changed from health physics into waste management, that again became one of my biggest efforts. The contractors were writing most of the waste management documents, and the review of those documents was one of my big responsibilities. And it got to the point where— I want to crow a little bit here, I guess— I became one of the better reviewers, and so we got some new people in, like Leah Dever, who was an assistant to Joe Fiore [ Assistant Manager for Environmental Restoration and Waste Management], and she wouldn’t sign on a document until I had reviewed it. So I got a [ 00: 15: 00] reputation. And today I still sort of have a problem with that because I’m a nitpicker. Right, which probably is what made you so good. Yeah. So when you were reviewing them, what types of things were you looking for to make sure that they were accurate? Well, that’s one that I was looking for, was accuracy, primarily accuracy. Not opinion. Because people have their right to opinion and how they present it, so I tried to be impartial. I just wanted to make sure that what they said was accurate. And that’s the big area. And it was as accurate as best as I knew from my familiarity with the procedures and my college training in the radiological business. This seems like it would be pretty straightforward. In what ways would things end up being inaccurate or biased or not partial? UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 8 Oh, they were usually simple mistakes like, I don’t know, something was not exactly correct. It’s hard to pick that out. They were general things. And there’s a lot of scientific data in here, and you can look up in manual to see if that is actually right, what they’ve said. And I don’t know how to tell you— how they were used and the amount of time, you know, like this is a REECo training manual and I determine whether I thought what they were doing was adequate, too. OK. So essentially, you were the final gatekeeper, so to speak, that it passed through, and you reviewed it for accuracies, everything from the data, if they had it, to procedures. If there were comments on it, I made comments, then wrote a letter that went back to the originator. But there was one document that I reviewed I got in trouble with. It was a pamphlet to be handed out to everybody on the test site, and there was a picture in there that I totally disagreed with because they showed this guy picking up this item that could’ve been radioactive, and I just said, That was a dumb picture. Here’s a sign that says “ Radioactive Material” and the guy’s picking up something and looking at it. And I wrote that in my comments that that was “ dumb.” Well, the system didn’t like my using that word, but the letter got out and got to the contractor and writer, and it came back and ate me. So you had to be careful. And the other thing was along with reviewing documents, of course, as I told you, we had to review programs. We actually visited areas and reviewed contractor programs. And the policy out of Washington was for us to write up a document like an inspector would write, like the things he found that were good and the things he found that were bad. Well, as time moved on, we had different people at the top, and one of the problems was one of our top supervisors came in and said he didn’t want documents that said what was wrong with the contractor’s operation. He wanted documents that said that if you found something wrong, it had been corrected. And he UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 9 wanted the items closed before he got the document in his hand, before it was published out and sent to the contractor. He wanted a document that said, Well, we found this but it was corrected. And if you said that, would that be corrected? Well, we started changing our way of doing business and started trying to write— he was high enough up that we needed to satisfy him, but it was not according to the HQ orders for conducting appraisals. That you needed to do that. Were the changes made, usually? Yeah. Oh, yeah. That was the other problem, of course, was proving the validity of them. And it depends on where you go with a critical document, criticizing another operation. You can go to the guy that was responsible for that, but the people upstairs from him who get the document first might not know that the operation was not good, but the guy who was doing it would agree with you. In fact, one of the things we did was always take our documents out and let the contractor review them for our errors that we had made in writing it, and of course we never let them change anything unless they could prove that it was wrong. So it was tough. And then the [ 00: 20: 00] document would go through our system. It goes upstairs in the DOE and [ if] it’s a major document, it’s signed by the assistant manager or the manager himself, going out to one of the contractors. Because you’re messing with the contract. So essentially, the whole process and the paper flow or the paper trail, I guess, had to be changed so it would read a little bit more positively. It had to read well and it had to read so the upstairs understood it. And there were things of interest. An interesting story is one time I had written a document about Los Alamos National Laboratory and some things that we found there that needed correcting, and when it went over the assistant manager’s desk, why, his secretary had lined up the signature lines on a whole UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 10 bunch of papers and he just signed them all and sent them out. Well, that document circulated clear to Washington. And it came back, and I got called on the carpet, and I was told that the document would be rescinded and that Nevada was asking for those documents all to be shipped back home to us, and that I was supposed to go through it again, which I did, but I didn’t change anything. And then we had a meeting with the Los Alamos group, and the people down at the lower levels, some of them were quite adamant, and one gentleman even got to the point that he followed Khrushchev’s lead and took his shoe off and beat on the table about how we could— this one had to do primarily with— I think I spoke about that before— the U. S. Department of Transportation [ DOT] regulations that we were enforcing. And it was a legitimate thing because Los Alamos had taken the lead in the shipment of radioactive materials and was making shipments, and they were exempt because they were shipping nuclear weapons components and stuff that was classified. And the gentleman was underneath the impression that he didn’t have to follow DOT regulations. Well, he had apparently got left out of the chain, and in the meeting that we had, they had a whole group of their people plus their top advisor, and there was three or four supervisors of our DOE group in there. But when the meeting ended, all the supervisors in my group had left. And Jerry Dummer, who was the head Health Physicist of Los Alamos, was there. And he verified that everything I had in the report was accurate, in front of his leader who was there, the first time he’d seen it. And when the meeting ended, the chairman of the meeting, the head Los Alamos man, said, Layton, we’ll take this all back and work on it and get it taken care of. Wow. That’s quite the procedure, though. But it was quite a, you know, for me it was a lot of stress for something I was doing. And there were times when contractors were called in by my supervision and said, This is pretty serious. Rather than have a document written up on this, I’m going to UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 11 instruct you verbally and give you a copy of this draft report. You better go out and get it straightened out. And so there was the buddy- buddy factor. So how was that? I mean that must’ve been frustrating. It was frustrating for me, but we got the results we were after, so that was the important thing. And I guess— I don’t know where you cross the line, you know. I had trouble with it myself because it’s good to be a good- old- boy and be friendly and try to get things straightened out, but [ 00: 25: 00] it’s also important to get the word there, and from my personal viewpoint, I was the low man on the totem pole and not getting much credit for anything. Right. So is that something that was pretty pervasive, sort of that mentality and the good old boy—? Well, I don’t know if it was or not. That’s only personal experiences, and I don’t think everybody had that kind of problem. Right. Just maybe in the circles that you were in, the folks that you were dealing with. Yeah. I think it was, because I had lots of conversations with guys who worked on nuclear criticality safety, and they didn’t have those kind of problems at all. Right. What do you think it was about the particular stuff that you were doing that you always faced so much opposition? Well, I think it was primarily due to the fact that [ pause] I don’t know, let me back up a little bit. You run into that kind of thing everywhere. When I was a Sanitarian in Kittitas County [ Washington], I went in there to try to teach people how to build proper sewage treatment, septic tanks, and how they should lay out the drain fields and that, and I sat down with a lot of plumbing people and people who put those kind of things in for people out in the country, and their response to me was, Well, I been doing this for fifty years, and you’re just out of college and you’re trying to tell me how to do my job. And sometimes UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 12 they did what you wanted to do and sometimes they didn’t. And what I had is the knowledge of people who had gone and looked at all these systems and experienced all these systems and had proven better ways to do it. And yet they didn’t want to accept that. So they were sort of just set in their stubbornness, set in their ways. Yeah, they’d done it. You know, I had that type of problem with waste disposal in a city I was associated with, and they had been dumping the city garbage alongside of the riverbank, and the river took part of it away when they dumped it over the edge. That was a good way to get rid of it in those days, I guess. There was always swamp land around the rivers, and so they would dump it there. And yet the county attorney, who was supposed to be my representative, refused to support my positions. And they’d been doing it that way for years. Why change? And it’s easy. And it���s easy and it doesn’t cost a lot. So everything that I tried to change and have done, all this cost money. So maybe it seems like cost and— Cost and tradition and familiarity. And what they call the buddy- buddy system, you know, where you get working with somebody and you don’t want to step on anybody’s toes. Well, I got in trouble a lot because I guess I stepped on toes. [ Laughter] Yeah. Trying to get everybody into line. But that was the first few years. Things lined up and we had good systems. And one of the big struggles we had in the contractors was getting people to write down procedures, how you do something. Is there a procedure on this operation? And they’d say, No, we been doing this for twenty years. We don’t need a procedure. Well, the DOE system UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 13 from headquarters down and the things we were trying to enforce was, We need procedures written up. We need procedures. So it was tough to push people to procedures. It almost sounds like, you know, old family traditions that are passed down and that’s just the way that you do it. Well, I think that’s the way it was because I was in on the birth of health physics, and so when it started pushing itself out beyond the immediate realm of the people that were working with it [ 00: 30: 00] and the government and the DOE and the Atomic Energy Commission said, We’re going to start inspecting your places, and they never had an inspector there before related to radiological safety, why, they took offense to it. They’d been doing well without us and now it was going to cost money, and they were being told that they had to change operations, they had to write procedures. This was all very, very tough for the contractor system. And I was involved in a lot of that. So basically people are resistant to change. Yes, I think so. Then the other thing I wanted to talk to you about, because of that and the positions I had and that, was a number of times I was the first- on- the- scene at projects. And for instance, Enewetak. I went out there on the island. I was the first health physicist to be sent out there before we got started on the actual cleanup. And we established an office, along with the rad- safe contractor who I was working with, Eberline [ Instrument Corporation]. Eberline had representatives there and we had people there, and we set up procedures for the radiological safety program on the Enewetak Atoll. What we would require people to do and how they would do it, and wrote procedures. And we spent a lot of time getting the facility ready to receive people en masse to do work. So I was on a number of operations on Amchitka, when we went back up for reentry. I was the government representative for the RADSAFE, [ radiological UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 14 safety], and we set up procedures and decided what we would do and what we wouldn’t do in cooperation with the contractor. And most of those were very enjoyable and were not difficult, because they weren’t established programs. Right. You came in and established them. Yeah, we established them. And at Johnston atoll, we did that with Eberline also, the same contractor. Eberline was a good contractor. They didn’t have any workers at the Nevada Test Site. They were out of Albuquerque. And so we did a lot of that kind of thing, setting up procedures, and that also happened in the Colorado Plowshare programs. And so essentially, you saw a big difference between coming into a project that’s already going or situations that were already established, trying to change procedures— Versus setting up programs. Yes. Which I guess makes sense because— Yeah, it would, because they were there trying to decide what to do, too, and we all put our heads together and tried to come out with the best we could. Oh, let’s see. What else do we want to talk about? Well, I’m just curious because you’ve had so much to do with the way that we handle accidents and spills and that type of thing, locally what types of things went on that you responded to? Was there anything that impacted the Las Vegas area or the surrounding areas? No. We never had anything that strictly impacted anybody. We had a few incidents, most of them minor. We had a truck sitting in a casino lot that had radioactive placards on it and people were concerned, somebody was, and called it in. And we went down, and the truck driver had parked his vehicle there and gone in, I guess, and went to bed, had a drink, or whatever he UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 15 [ 00: 35: 00] did, ate dinner, gambled, and went to sleep. And in the morning he got up and got in his truck and took off. Of course, he had a little bit of a delay. He had a notice on his vehicle. Bet he was surprised. In those cases, why, we worked with the state and local rad- safe people, and with the local emergency response organizations. I worked very, very close and very intently with the State of Nevada and their emergency response capabilities and the Civil Defense capabilities and the local rad- safety office and emergency response office, I worked with those also. So we had very close association and we were involved in quite a number of exercises and helped them put them on. We had one exercise out on the highway coming into Las Vegas of an accident with a couple of vehicles with a truck involved, and a fire, and a highway patrolman. And everybody acting, and we had a gentleman from the test site who was a security guard pull up and turn into the road, off to the side of Highway 95. He’d seen me there and he came over to me and he says, Layton, this is really a mess you got here. He says, Do you need some help? Of course, I had to let him know it was an exercise. He was surprised at the realism. So generally when you do these things, people don’t know that you’re doing exercises. No, the general public didn’t know. The only people that knew were the top dogs— maybe some of the responders knew and some of them didn’t. The way we did them, we would call them and say, hey, there’s been an accident. You know, we would work with the state and we’d do our networking with the guys that knew about it, but they would turn it on to respond. But they were always told that, This is an exercise. So the guys responding knew it was an exercise, but they didn’t know what kind of problems they were going to encounter. And like I told you earlier, we used real radioactive materials at times. And they used instruments, and they knew it was a radiological incident, and [ that] there were people out there critiquing and grading them. UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 16 We had people dressed