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Interview with Robert Elmer Friedrichs, August 27, 2004


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Narrator affiliation: Radiation Safety, Reynolds Electrical and Engineering Company (REECo); Sr. Scientific Adviser, National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)

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Friedrichs, Robert Elmer. Interview, 2004 August 27. 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 Robert Friedrichs August 27, 2004 Las Vegas, Nevada Interview Conducted By Mary Palevsky © 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 Robert Friedrichs August 27, 2004 Conducted by Mary Palevsky Table of Contents As an employee of the Department of Energy [ DOE], Mr. Friedrichs worked for the Environmental Protection Division. In an unusual situation, he had to serve as a liaison between the DOE and the Shoshone Nation, which claims sovereign title to portions of the Nevada Test Site. 1 One of the highlights of Mr. Friedrichs’s federal career was his assignment to Johnson Atoll in the Pacific, where he oversaw quality control and compliance with environmental standards. 3 After returning from Johnson Atoll, Mr. Friedrichs was irritated by poor management practices. He quickly accepted an offer to work for the DOE Arms Control Division in Washington, DC. 11 Mr. Friedrichs participated in many arms control negotiations, including talks involving a comprehensive test ban treaty. He also traveled to Russia to attend negotiations. 15 Mr. Friedrichs describes his reactions to seeing Russia shortly after the end of the Cold War. 21 Mr. Friedrichs went to Vienna, Austria to attend United Nations arms control negotiations. 25 After returning to the United States, Mr. Friedrichs became involved in emergency management and the formation of the Nuclear Emergency Search Team [ NEST]. He also accepted a position at the DOE’s Public Affairs Office in Las Vegas, Nevada. 30 Mr. Friedrichs reflects on his experiences as a federal employee and civil servant. 36 Mr. Friedrichs was actively involved in the creation of the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation and the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada. 38 UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 1 Interview with Robert Friedrichs August 27, 2004 in Las Vegas, NV Conducted by Mary Palevsky [ 00: 00: 00] Begin Track 3, Disc 1. Robert Friedrichs: When I was first hired in, I was hired specifically to do radiological safety assessments. And then the group I was in became a branch, and we did environmental, radiological, industrial hygiene, and packaging and transportation assessments. And I was selected as the branch chief. After that, we had the reorganization and we spun off as our own division . And it was a bucket division, so I was the deputy director of the division, and we had environmental regulatory oversight in addition to the routine assessments. Mary Palevsky: “ Bucket division” means what? The terminology for division, for branch, that denoted a certain size of an organization, number of people involved, and so a normal division would have multiple branches and a staffing of, say, twenty people. A bucket division would not warrant individual branches underneath it because the staffing was smaller. And so as a deputy, I had a chance to do some details that were really neat. The first time I went back to headquarters was when I was in that position. And I went back, and one of the taskings I had was to take, first, fourteen Tiger Team reports that had been performed by headquarters teams and analyze them and write a summary report on it for headquarters use. So the division was called—? The Environmental Protection Division. And what year was this that you go back, approximately? UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 2 Oh, Lord. Approximately 1990, ’ 91 time period. But that environmental background as the deputy became very useful later on, too. So I was expanding my knowledge base as we went along. And this is at the point where the federal employees and the contractors still thought they were immune from the federal environmental regulations. So it was an interesting time. And that’s where I first had the experience of having the spiritual head of the Shoshone Nation [ Corbin Harney] come in with a letter to the government of the United States, and I was the one that had to go down and accept that and interact. Tell me a little bit more about that. That’s interesting. Well, the Shoshone Nation feels that they, under treaty rights, still have the test site. And the United States government feels and interprets the Ruby Valley Treaty of 1863 to be very different in its meaning. And it’s clearly a cultural thing that to this day the two people simply do not read the words and see it as a single way. And the government has paid compensation, which the Shoshone Nation refuses to accept, for the lands that were taken under the treaty, and they routinely have protested at the test site. They routinely enter the test site for visitation to special locations and leave no record. No one knows they’ve come and gone. And on this occasion, they were bringing in another protest letter, essentially. And so it was an unusual situation for me to be in. It was something I was totally unprepared for. So you’re informed that the man has come, or did you have any advance notice? No. None. The front guard desk called up and said I had a visitor, and so I went down and here he is. Now this is in Las Vegas. UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 3 Yes. And so it was a shock to learn about some of those issues, and that all came out of that time [ 00: 05: 00] period and position I had. So I really learned a lot from that that has served me well since then. I went back to headquarters [ in Washington, DC], as I mentioned. I had that type of an experience. I had my first visits to Johnston Atoll, because I actually got over more than once and was able to see that operation, and I understood the working relationship. The Department of Energy had the base support contract with one of their contractors, but yet the administrative control of the island belonged to the Defense Nuclear Agency, and so people going there had a real hard time understanding how things worked. And we had personnel that would go over and do inspections from time to time, help out the Defense Nuclear Agency in a variety of ways. And we had a permanent site representative. There was a Fed there on island all the time. And the position within the organization changed from time to time. Sometimes they were strictly a representative. Sometimes, and when I had the opportunity to go back for a prolonged period, the relationship had been redefined and I was a deputy to the commander, the island commander. So just so I can put this in some context in my own mind as we go forward, Johnston Island— I don’t know enough about it yet. I know we did testing there, but there’s all these presences because other things are going on. Give me a sense of what the story is there. Actually, the last testing that was done there was in the early sixties, and part of the agreement or stipulations that the Senate put on signing the treaty to eliminate atmospheric testing was a series of safeguards, one of which was Safeguard C that said the Department of Energy and its predecessors would maintain the capability for atmospheric testing. And that held in place until the early nineties. And so that’s how we had the contractual relationship. UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 4 But what’s the deal with— there’s a military commander and then there’s the Defense Nuclear Agency there also? Well, the Defense Nuclear Agency is a mixed uniform type organization. They have civilians and active duty military, and the military are all branches. And so when I was there, we had Navy personnel, we had Marine Corps, we had Air Force, and we had active- duty Army. And then we had civilians. But the Safeguard C was what really drove that continuing all those years. One of the things that happened when I was still a deputy in the Environmental Protection Division, they created a new organization that was going to do performance assessments on the entire organization and the contractors. So the person they selected to be the director for that was in Washington, D. C. and could not come out for approximately four months. So I was tapped on the shoulder to go over and be the deputy to that individual, and set up the organization and start the functions. And so that covered everything. We had a group that looked at management from the standpoint of [ 00: 10: 00] performance. We looked at quality performance, and then we had the old- fashioned group that did the assessments like the branch had originally done that I had been over. And we got that started. Total Quality Management [ TQM] was the buzzword at that point. And it’s interesting because all of these evolutions over time with quality management, quality performance, when you really cut through all of the buzzwords that the popular book has, the underlying fundamentals are all exactly the same, and it’s just good business, it’s good management, to try to continually improve your product so you stay competitive and you survive. But at that time, it was Total Quality Management, and so we were going down that path. And then the director came on board. Who was that, do you remember? UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 5 Yes, I do remember, vividly. The individual’s name was Donna Burgman. She, after a couple of years, went to Albuquerque on a detail and did not come back. But it was a very stressful period for everyone. It was unfortunate because she had no supervisory experience. They had just plucked her and made her the office manager. So she had not developed skills of communicating with the staff. You would go home. The next morning, you would walk in and in your mail slot would be a handwritten note that she’d written that evening, dressing you down for a problem that had occurred the day before that she didn’t want to talk to you one- on- one about. People were upset because she was making demands on who they could and couldn’t see at noon when they were on their lunch break. And it was really a strange time. And so I had a conversation with a couple of people and they indicated, you know, they wanted someone to go over to Johnston Atoll until they got a permanent person selected, and would I be interested? And I said, Certainly, I’d love to do that. And so shortly thereafter I was tapped and told I would be going over there for many weeks, and then I would go back to Honolulu and cover for the director of the Pacific operations while that individual took vacation and then several training classes, and then I would come back to my old job. And so I was oriented to the operations in Oakland [ California] where they actually did the procurement for a lot of material that was shipped to the atoll and then containerized and shipped via cargo container to Honolulu and then offloaded onto a barge that was then taken down to Johnston Island, the Marshall Islands, and other distant locations. But that’s the way the nonperishable stuff was all moved. And saw the operation in Oakland and went over and spent a very short time in Honolulu, at Hickam [ Air Force Base], getting oriented as to what the expectations were. And then went down to Johnston Atoll. UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 6 And I absolutely loved it. There had been problems with the prior site representative. He didn’t understand the working relationship that existed between the command and the military people and his role and the contractor. And so the military were trying to direct the contractor, which they could not do, and he in turn was trying to direct the military troops when the commander was off- island, because he was the deputy to the commander. And it doesn’t work that way. [ 00: 15: 00] Who was the contractor over there? At that time, it was Raytheon Services, Incorporated. I understood the relationship. I understood the concepts of unity of command and delegation of authority. He could not be delegated the authority for the military personnel because he was not in that organization. He was on loan, essentially. And in turn, the military couldn’t direct the contractor because they had no contractual relationship. And so I clearly understood when the commander went off- island that the executive officer was the acting commander. And I was the deputy to him, in the same role. And when they had problems with the contractor, I was the one that went in and kicked tail and demanded that things be straightened out. That was my role. No question at all. And so they really were shocked and surprised that someone could come in from an organization that they had past bad history with and everything went extremely smoothly. And their focus had primarily been at the management level. And I would go out in the evening and I would go to the local places and sit and talk and find out what was really going on on the island, instead of what the management was telling the military was going on. So I had an opportunity to really quickly get an in- depth understanding that was very valuable. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. We had an occasion where once a week I would take the commander out and he would pick a place and then, without notice, we would go there and walk UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 7 in and start asking questions, start seeing what was going on. And then I would take him to places afterwards that I knew there were, through my conversations, that there were problems that we needed to make him aware of. And one time we were standing, looking at a burn pit. And this vehicle drove down, stopped at a large burn pit, and threw liquid into the burn pit there, and turned around and started coming back up. And so we stepped out in the road and stopped the vehicle and asked the person who they were and what they were doing. Found out they had come from the laundry and they were throwing chlorine into the burn pit, which is an environmental violation, big time, OK? So the next day, when we met with the management, we brought up the issue that they had a problem with the control of hazardous materials, and they assured us, No, everything was under control. And we said, Well, let’s give you an example. And we told about what we observed. And they said, Oh, no, couldn’t possibly be one of our people. It has to be the Army contingent that’s doing the demilling. We said, No, it was from your laundry. This was the vehicle. This was the individual. This was the time. And they just couldn’t pull tricks anymore. We really knew what was going on. And I got all over the island, and in fact, at one point, I took the commander— and recognize, this is an island two miles long and a half- a- mile wide, so if you walk around the sea wall, it’s a five- mile walk. You can’t hide a heck of a lot on an island like that unless you’re really skillful. I took him on a short road he didn’t even know existed, and he had been there almost two years. He was right at the end of his assignment. And took him up to a section of the edge of the island where he had not been before, and I showed him asbestos shingles and piping sticking out of the coral, UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 8 so that he was aware there were issues, environmental issues, that had not been documented yet. [ 00: 20: 00] But it’s because I always got out, I always went everywhere I could. If I saw a road, I wanted to follow it. If I saw something that looked unusual and out of place, I stopped and talked to the people, what have you. And really had a good time in learning a lot about it and doing something productive to help. Yes. Just so I understand, you’ve said that there was the moratorium but there’s still a presence because of Safeguard C, but I really don’t have a good understanding of what else is happening on the island. So you’ve got the burn pit is— what can you tell me? Well, the island had an authorized strength of 1,200 personnel, of which 900, slightly more, were there at any given time, which overloaded the capability of the sewage system and other things, but that’s a different issue. The primary activity that was going on was demilling of the chemical warheads that had come out of Germany. And they had a large prototype plant there that had been constructed, and they were burning the various materials. Prior to that, the Air Force, when they pulled out of Vietnam, had brought back Agent Orange and stored it on the island, which created some environmental issues. So there seemed to always be some program that needed the remoteness. OK, so it’s the remoteness and the danger of the chemicals with the contamination. Right. So that means Germany from World War II chemical warheads, you’re saying? Or from the Cold War? The Cold War. And I’m drawing a blank right now on which they were. But we had artillery shells. We had rockets. We had one- ton containers. I mean there was a wide variety of configurations and multiple types of material that was brought out and destroyed. UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 9 And these burn pits would destroy it. No, no. No, that was just a holdover, old practice, of taking your waste products, and because you didn’t have anywhere to bury them, like a conventional landfill— there just wasn’t room— you burned it. And then you dealt with the debris that remained, the metals and that kind of thing. I understand. So when this guy comes along with the chlorine— Chlorine bleach, and throwing it in, yes. There again, it was an effort to help them understand the environmental regulations that applied to them. And being remote, they were a little slower in learning than the contractors at the test site. But it’s just one of the things we could do to help. Because I had spent a lot of time with the locals, when it was time for me to leave the island, I went over the night before to one of the specific clubs that they had. And different groups had these little buildings on the island that they would put together, little almost like, in some cases, sheds, that they would get together. And who were the locals, then? Well, there were no indigenous population, but the people who were there year after year, you know, they would renew their contracts, their cultural backgrounds, they would get together. So you had one of the buildings that the Filipinos, it was like their club, their space, where they could get together and they could talk, they could do whatever, cook foods that were traditional and, you know, like being at home when they were away from home. And the one I concentrated on were the Pacific Islanders, primarily from Hawaii, and so I’d always go over to what they [ 00: 25: 00] called the Hideaway, and it was like a full- blown house on one of the islands of Hawaii proper. I mean it had a kitchen, it had like a living area, and that’s where they had the cabinet with the karaoke machine, and porch and tables outside, and they’d cook in the house, UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 10 they’d cook outside, and sit around and talk and everything, and just really a wonderful atmosphere. And let me tell you a story. We were sitting talking one evening, and an old gentleman was there that had come up from Kwajalein. And he was telling the story about this haole who had gotten an ultralight and built it, and then the haole flew it over the lagoon. And I leaned across the table and I said, Wait a minute, why do you have to say it’s a haole? Because I know that means a non- Islander, OK? And sometimes it’s used in a derogatory way. And he looked at me and he didn’t know if I was taking offense or not, and I said Only a haole would be stupid enough to do that. But the last night I went over to tell everyone goodbye. They said, Wait a minute. We got something for you. And I said, No, you know, you don’t need to do that. They said, No, we have something for you. And they went in and came out from the kitchen, and they had a bottle of Dom Perignon. And I said, I don’t deserve this. I really appreciate the thought, but I don’t deserve it. So we’re all going to drink it. So we all sat and had sips and finished the bottle off. Another time before that, I was there talking to one of the old- timers that dove a lot, and he said, I’m going to show you something. We don’t show anyone, but I’m going to show you. And they had like a big freezer, and he opened it up and he got way down in the back corner and he brought out this very large crab with unusual coloring. And he said, We catch these here. Nobody knows they’re here but we catch them and we eat them because they’re delicious. He says, Now don’t you tell Fish and Wildlife. So I didn’t. I honored the request. But they would cook up stuff they caught, and some strange- UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 11 looking fish, and some of them with enormous bones, but the tenderest meat you could ever imagine. And it was wonderful. Just sit there and— One of the guys from here came out to help with an environmental problem, and he was native Hawaiian of Chinese ancestry, and so I took him over there, and he reconnected with his past. And he had been quite distant from the family for a long time, and he said it reminded him of sitting on his grandmother’s porch, and that he needed to get back in contact with the family when he returned. So I felt good about that. But it was just a great opportunity and, you know, it was so open and so loving, you just felt good. And so then I went back to Hickam and took over the office there. Worked some very specific problems while the director was gone. And they had me staying at a hotel on Waikiki. I had a government vehicle that I drove back and forth, and I parked at Fort DeRussy and then walked one block to the hotel room. And that way I didn’t pay for the parking that you would have to at any of the hotels, so it really worked out beautifully. And again, it was such a [ 00: 30: 00] really nice environment and working on things that had value added. Good people to work with and everything. And one day I got a call from my boss back here in Vegas, and she informed me that they got reorganized and I was now not her deputy director anymore, but I was a team leader. Not a branch chief either, but a team leader. And I told her that was unacceptable. The least she could’ve done was have the courtesy to talk to me beforehand, and that I would be leaving her organization at the first opportunity. And I just felt that strong about it, that because of her poor management practices, all the other problems that went on, I just didn’t need to go back and put up with a bunch of crap. UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 12 By “ her organization,” you mean— when you say, I’m leaving your organization, you meant what? Hers back here in Vegas, because I was just detailed to the Pacific. I understand, but what was that organization? That was the management assessment. I’m trying to understand. You don’t have to give me the name, but I’m trying to understand. So you would no longer work in that portion of that world. You’re just saying, Forget it. Does that mean you’re not going to have a job? What does that mean? No, I would be leaving at the first opportunity, whatever that opportunity was that was presented. And so I felt very, very comfortable with myself at that point, where before it was very difficult and it was a continuous tearing down of self- esteem. Got it. You weren’t going to accept that at that point in your life. No. I didn’t need that. Simply didn’t need that. And so when I came back to Las Vegas, before I reported back to work, I got a phone call at home. And I was asked if I would take a job in the Arms Control Division and do a one- year detail to headquarters, and I said, Absolutely. It was the first thing that was presented, so absolutely. And when I walked back into the office, I walked in to the individual that was my boss and I explained I’d been offered and had accepted this other position. It would take a couple of weeks for them to process all the paperwork and everything, at which time I would be going over there, and in the meantime, Don’t screw with me. I was that blunt. And it was really interesting because when I left, she had one of the people move into the office I had on the very corner of the building, where you could see her coming each morning. And every time she’d pull up and start to walk in the building, he would get under the desk UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 13 because he didn’t want to interact with her. She would come in, drop her stuff off, walk in, look, nobody was there. She would then go down the hall until she found somebody, and then start a dialogue, and he’d pop back up from under his desk and go back to work. He told me that a couple of years afterwards. I didn’t know it at the time. But every time somebody would ask me why I left, I would say that I had contributed all I could to the organization, and for my own sake and for that of the organization, I needed to move on. And that’s all I’d tell anyone, until she had gone and it was years and people would come up and say, How in the hell could you stand that situation? She had a staff meeting one time and the staff asked her what they were supposed to do, because she was changing things from the way I’d originally set it up and all, and they were pushing her to know what her expectations were. And she got so angry, she said, You’re [ 00: 35: 00] professionals. You should know what to do. I shouldn’t have to tell you. And then stormed out of her own staff meeting and wouldn’t come back. And we sat there looking at each other, and finally I said, Well, I guess the meeting’s over. We got up and went back to our offices and sat and waited for some divine revelation. But it was just awful. She’d storm into the manager’s office without an appointment, and right past the secretaries— which is a big no- no because you know who really runs any organization is the secretaries— and make demands and everything else. And that’s why they arranged her detail and then gave the FTE [ full- time employee] to Albuquerque to keep her. But it was a really awkward situation. But, to jump ahead— But let me just ask one thing before you jump ahead, which is, from what you said last time, and I think you’ve said it but I want to clarify, it sounds like what you’re saying is that your UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 14 experience in the Pacific, you grew to a certain point or you realized that you weren’t willing to do things a certain way. You said it was pivotal, last time. I think that’s what you— Absolutely. Absolutely. So there’s a connection between— That, and then going on to the next plateau, which was going back to Washington for a year and working in the interagency, dealing with nuclear weapons treaties, plural. The original assignment was to go back and work the Threshold Test Ban Treaty and the Joint Verification activities, except we had gone into the moratorium so there wasn’t a heck of a lot to do in that area. And they gave me other treaties to work. I had the INF [ Intermediate- Range Nuclear Forces] Treaty and the START [ Strategic Arms Reduction] Treaty, which really occupied the majority of my time, and then I provided backup for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty [ CTBT] work that was going on. There was another individual that had the lead on that, but I did provide support to that. Who was that? Karl Poppe with Livermore lab [ Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory] was the individual that had it when I first went back. And then Jay Norman got it when Karl left. Well, when Karl left and went back to Livermore, he was then put on a detail that found the next lab director for Livermore. The University [ of California] Board of Regents called him up to work that issue. So a brilliant man. Absolutely brilliant. And very tall. There was a lady from Los Alamos Laboratory— her first name was Mary— that was on the hall, and then myself, and so when Jay came back, we explained to him that he didn’t belong there. And he said, Why not? And we said, Because you have to be over six feet tall to be on this hall. She was over six feet tall? UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 15 Oh, yes. Yes. And so everybody talked about it, the Land of the Giants. And it was just really fascinating. Tell me a little bit about— when you say you worked the treaty, what were you doing? Well, you would attend the interagency meetings that would review activities, what was occurring in the treaty partners’ countries— And the interagencies would be? You had State Department, [ Department of] Defense, an organization we quaintly referred to as State Department West, you had— well, you had the Secretary of Defense and then you had the Joint Chiefs of Staff; they were represented separately. DNA had a representative in [ 00: 40: 00] many of the treaties because they had a heavy involvement. FBI on some occasions, not all and not for all treaties. Energy [ pause] gosh, I’d have to look it up now to see what the others— That’s OK. We can look that up. I just want to get a sense. I’m thinking State, Defense, but I would never have thought of the FBI. Well, for certain treaties, and not all the time. If there was an issue that was of interest to them, they would come in for that meeting, but they would not normally attend the meetings. And we met in the ACDA [ Arms Control Disarmament Agency] portion of the State Department building. They took over the eastern end of the State Department building, but they were still in many ways State Department. The ambassadors for the different treaties came out of State, what have you, and you followed all the protocols, everything. So we’d review what was going on, and then when there were the periodic meetings, we would provide backstopping. So the team that was there doing the negotiations or doing the activities covered under the treaty, they would fire back for information, we’d put the packages together, feed it back to them, that kind of thing. UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 16 Technical information. Yes, and policy information. And so they would know what they could and couldn’t agree to. OK. So your knowledge of policy within DOE, then, makes you be a good person to do that. Yes. And what resources we had. You didn’t want to commit or agree to something that was proposed when you didn’t have the technical resources to validate. So you had that kind of a thing go on. And they also put me on as the DOE representative to the Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers, and that originated with the hot line between the president and the premier of Russia. So it grew out where it wasn’t just the abili