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Interview with Robert Elmer Friedrichs, June 18, 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 June 18. 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 June 18, 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 June 18, 2004 Conducted by Mary Palevsky Table of Contents Introduction: In 1963, Mr. Friedrichs was hired by Reynolds Electrical and Engineering Company [ REECo] to work as a junior laboratory technician at the Nevada Test Site. 1 Mr. Friedrichs describes some of the scientific experiments and safety procedures involved in an underground nuclear test. 5 As he gained experience working for REECo, Mr. Friedrichs also began to support activities conducted by Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories. 9 The accidental venting of the Baneberry test prompted a swift and thorough response from Mr. Friedrichs and other test site safety personnel. 15 Unlike weapons designers, laboratory technicians such as Mr. Friedrichs usually did not focus on the military aspects of their work. While they believed their work to be patriotic, they saw it as primarily a scientific endeavor. 18 Mr. Friedrichs shares memories of the camaraderie and friendships forged at the Nevada Test Site. 20 Seeking a promotion and enhanced job security, Mr. Friedrichs decided to get a college degree while continuing to work full- time at the test site. He graduated from the University of Nevada- Las Vegas [ UNLV] in 1976 and was promoted to a supervisory position at REECo’s dosimetry laboratory. 27 After studying film badges and dosimetry records, Mr. Friedrichs began to work with the Nuclear Test Participants Review [ NTPR], a group that studied the effects of radiation exposure. 31 High rates of cancer and other illnesses among those exposed to the Smoky test caused concern for greater study of the effects of radioactive fallout. Mr. Friedrichs conducted extensive research on the topic and served as a liaison to provide information to the general public. 36 With his education and experience in radiological safety, Mr. Friedrichs served as a safety consultant in the private sector and later studied the effects of nuclear testing in the Pacific. 41 Conclusion: Views on civil service, problems within the bureaucracy and decision to accept position with the arms control negotiations group at DOE headquarters. 48 UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 1 Interview with Robert Friedrichs June 18, 2004 in Las Vegas, NV Conducted by Mary Palevsky [ 00: 00: 00] Begin Track 2, Disk 1. Robert Friedrichs: In 1963 I was working at one of the industrial plants in Henderson, working a rotation shift. Decided I needed to get out of that because physically and mentally it was very detrimental. And so I had two offers for a job and one was with TWA working graveyard at the airport, and the other one was to go out to the test site, and that was Monday through Friday, days, and essentially the same pay. So I grabbed that one. It made more sense to me to have free weekends and not wonder if I was going to see the sun go up or go down or what have you. And when I was first interviewed for the job there were three people that actually performed the interview. One individual named Garn Iverson, and another person that was in that interview group was Jay Brady, who became the senior health physicist for REECo [ Reynolds Electrical and Engineering Company], but had been involved in security in the very early 1950s and then went over to the radiation safety side of the house after that. The third person was an individual named Omer Mullen, and he was a chemist, and Omer retired from REECo many, many years later and the last thing I heard he lived in southern Utah with his wife. It was interesting because the person I worked for was not in that group. Mary Palevsky: Is Anita Mullen his wife? Yes. The person I actually worked for was a gentleman named Lester Hartzell, a little gray- haired, or white- haired, gentleman who was a chemist from the old school. He had been educated at the Montana School of Mines and had worked in South America in the mines and before he went to the test site he worked for the manganese plant that used to be on the road to Lake Mead UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 2 from Henderson. You can still see some of the remains of that facility but not very much left. And when that plant closed down he got the job out at the test site, so he’s the individual I really dealt with on a day- to- day basis. The very first day I reported for work I overslept. And so instead of showing up at eight o’clock, he was very patient and waited, by nine o’clock he’d sent one of the other people over to find if I was all right, because I was staying in a trailer out there, a four- man trailer. And I went in very embarrassed and he just politely said, Don’t ever let it happen again, and so I got started. But I did radiochemistry and various types of chemistry with some rather crude instrumentation. We didn’t have the multi- channel analyzers, we did not have the sophisticated stuff that came on later, but we had a Baird atomic unit that chunked away and we had some other units that were really very crude by today’s standards. In fact one of the counter units had the tubes that were wafers that had the numbers on the wafer going from zero to nine in depth, and so as the counts would change these numbers would flicker and change but they would [ 00: 05: 00] become further away and closer like an eye depth perception test, very, very interesting stuff. I started out doing, oh, strontium analyses, gross alpha, gross beta, gamma, plutonium, some uranium analyses, and those were ion exchange techniques for the uranium and plutonium. We did tritium using the vibrating reed instrument, where you would actually take the moisture created— or change it into a gas, capture it in a big metal sphere, and then through electrical current determine if you had what you were looking for inside. The fact that tritium was used in nuclear weapons at that time was classified, so we analyzed for it but we never used the term, so everything that we did was logged as “ activity.” Before we used that word they used the term “ mint,” and so when you look at the old laboratory records you will see analyses for UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 3 “ mint,” and then during my period “ activity,” and that’s just part of the secret code you needed to learn. I started out as a junior laboratory technician, doing the chemistry analyses, wet chemistry primarily, and did some work in the dosimetry laboratory, but we were in Building 155 which was a cinderblock building, one story. We were in one end and the Public Health Service was in the other end of the building. They were building the new Building 655 which had the medical facility and the radiation safety people in it when it was completed. So in order to save money they decided they were going to pull the lab furniture out of 155 and install it in the new building, and it was not that great to begin with but it was a way to cut the cost down. So they brought in a trailer and set it next to Building 155, and it had counters and hoods, what have you, in it, and so I would work in a trailer for several months while they were gutting out the laboratory and then reinstalling the equipment. Unfortunately the trailer was only six feet tall, the walk space, and being six- six I had to pretend I was Quasimodo the whole time I used that. So that was really quite awkward but we managed to continue to function. And then when we moved to Building 650, I mean that was grand. Even though it was old furniture it was really nice, large rooms, large laboratories, and worked there doing radiochemistry. But it became apparent very quickly that the building wasn’t large enough, plus the state- of- the- art technology was changing so rapidly. Instead of doing everything with chemistry and one small room for counting, we now needed to have a very large counting room, prep rooms, et cetera. And so they built the addition on that had all of that type of capability. And there they went into very large multi- channel analyzers, very sophisticated low background systems for the pigs that you would put the samples in, have the detectors inside, so all lead- shielded or heavy steel shielded. The steel pigs that were used had to be pre- World War II steel because they use isotopes in the steel- UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 4 making process today, and so anything postwar you have a higher background, so you in turn [ 00: 10: 00] have a greater noise level and you can’t detect as low as you would like to. And so several of ours were made out of battleship gun barrels. And they still had the grooving in it that would make the shell rotate as it came out. That was a unique application, to say the least. Yes. Now are any of these artifacts still around? No. They got rid of the gun barrel pigs years ago, and I would imagine they probably just surplused them. We also had a whole body counter that was added to the building several years later, and that was all steel and that steel came from a battleship. Now how did that work? And it was like two- inch thick steel that they welded the whole thing together, and very, very heavy steel door going in. Small openings where the cables would run out from the detectors and go to the instruments, and the technician would actually sit outside and monitor, then work the data. So someone would walk into this thing and— I mean how did it work? Actually they’d change clothes. They’d put on paper coveralls and little paper booties and they’d go in and they’d lie down on a table and they’d just lie still, and then they would be counted for twenty, thirty minutes to be able to get the kind of numbers that were needed to really determine if they had any uptake or not, internal depositions. And so just the fact that in order to have that type of a background they had to get battleship steel to build this entire box, which is still out there today. Interesting. It’s sitting in a building there now? Is it still in use? It’s attached to the back of Building 650. It is not used today but I mean it’s still physically there. But those were just some of the kinds of things that evolved. We also over time started doing a UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 5 lot of work for specific individuals in the national labs. It wasn’t just our routine sampling network stuff. We would begin getting in samples that had been taken for specific reasons and they would need the data turned around very quickly in order to know if they could have the crew go in the next day and work, or if the dose was such that some of them could not work on that job. So would it be a soil sample or a plant sample or—? They were frequently urinalyses, and if there were incidents we would get wound swabs and nasal swabs, and the routine program we did air sampling, we did vegetation sampling, water sampling, not a lot of soil, but we’d do the other three, a lot of the other three. So if someone was trying to see if it was safe to go in, you would do— Normally we’d do a combined filter for the air sampling. It would have a pre- filter that would be paper that would catch all of the particulate, and then we’d have a charcoal cartridge behind that in the head of the air sampler that would capture the gases, and so you could count those and determine what gamma emitters you had. And you could analyze the filter paper one for other radiations besides gamma, but with the gamma spectrums it’s quick and easy to do the analyses and prompt fission products primarily to know if you had any kind of seepage from the shots and what isotopes would be coming out. Now we’re talking about underground at this point, so seepage up. [ 00: 15: 00] Yes, I need to clarify that the last shot that was really atmospheric was in 1962, and I went out there in 1963, so I didn’t see on the test site. I did not see any of the atmospheric shots, but certainly saw underground shots on a regular basis. And I can remember standing on the balcony at CP- 2 [ Control Point] and looking out on Yucca Flat and see the ground movement and the dust and whole thing from an underground shot. You knew when they were going to be UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 6 ended, watched that, and then you’d go back in and do whatever you were there for. So that’s the kind of samples we normally did. And then you were saying that it reached a point where then you’re doing that for safety and for just general knowledge of what’s going on—? Safety. And then you’ve got the lab people asking you to do it on their specific—? They would have a requirement where they would need fast turnaround. They would have special interest in a specific type isotope and so we would get samples and we’d be very focused in getting that information and getting it back to them, working swing shift and then calling out and providing the information. Not to say anything negative about our management, but what we would normally do is call the person that evening and tell them, but clarify that that was not the official result. And then our management would get the counting data the following day and call out and formally report the results. And it was always fun to see if they came up with the same answer. And the folks that we did that for were kind enough never to tell our bosses that we’d already told them. But it helped them do their plan for the next day. And we did a lot of samples that were water, a lot of air samples, and in particular for shots you’d have an array. You’d have up to thirty- two air samplers for a single shot, and on days where you had more than one shot you got this large volume of samples and you had to pull the filter out, bag it for counting, label and everything. Then you had to puncture the charcoal cartridge out of the cone head that it was in, bag it, get it numbered and everything, and into counting, and not cross- contaminate samples. So it was just a fairly fast operation. And the water samples we’d put 500 mils [ milligrams] in a bottle for gamma counting. We’d take just a few mils and put it in a cocktail for tritium analyses. We might take the remainder for plutonium UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 7 analyses and that would go into a different laboratory. So you had all of these kinds of things going on. And the vegetation, you’d have to dry that out first before you would then crush it down and ash it and then deal with the ash. They originally would bring the vegetation in in paper bags, and we’d slit an H- pattern in the side of the bag and open it up and just put the whole thing in the drying oven, until one day the drying oven caught on fire. And we’d been getting away with that for, oh, probably two years before it finally kindled. And so from that point on then we’d make an aluminum tray and put the vegetation in the tray and dry it that way. But again those are things you learn as you go along. But I’ll never forget looking in the room, seeing it’s full of smoke, and walking in. The drying oven doors are open and the smoke’s just rolling out because of the fire. First thing we did was slam the door shut and then cram a wire shelf under the handles on the door to hold it shut, and then go out and hit the fire alarm because we didn’t want it to get out of control. We wanted to at least try to cut off the oxygen and keep it [ 00: 20: 00] contained. So the fire department came over and put out the fire and then chastised us for our stupidity and then they went away. But those were interesting experiences. They really were. The biological, you know, we’d have wound swabs, if somebody had a puncture, of the wound and they were concerned that there might’ve been plutonium that they were exposed to through that pathway, and that is a definite pathway of concern with plutonium because of its long half- life and being an alpha emitter. So anybody who had a puncture wound, that was routinely checked. And nasal swabs if they happened to get into a dust cloud and weren’t wearing the respirator, you’d want to confirm if they had any inhalation because there again that’s another pathway of concern where you would not want the plutonium in the lungs because of the potential damage to the tissue. UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 8 Ingestion is another pathway but most people aren’t stupid enough to eat radioactive materials. And those are really the three primary pathways for plutonium. What would happen if you got a reading that was too high or either from the samples or from an actual sample from a person? Well, you would count it and then that would determine how that person was treated medically. In one case we had a bioassay where it turned up positive and so they brought the person in, gave them great quantities of beer so they would produce a large amount of urine that we could then analyze. And they literally kept him at the bowling alley until I had finished the analyses and confirmed with the follow- up sample that he had not gotten a plutonium exposure of that magnitude, that indeed the sample had been contaminated in the field. Oh, I see. Shortly after I went out there I did bioassays from one individual who always had positive bioassays for plutonium, and at that point we would actually take product out of the ion exchange columns. We would then put it in solution and electroplate the plutonium onto a very small platinum disk, and then we would take that disk, put it on a glass slide with photo emulsion on it, leave it for seven days, then go in, pull off the disks and then develop the slide and then look at it under a microscope and count the alpha tracks, and it was just black. So we then went to a matter of hours instead of days in order to be able to count the tracks and determine the internal deposition and exposure the person had. But he had gotten a snootful several years before and being plutonium it doesn’t go anywhere very fast and so we could just rely on every time he had one come in we were going to see. No question about it. But those are some of the types of samples we did. Then as I got more proficient over time I started actually working for Los Alamos when they did the nuclear rocket engine tests. UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 9 And I would work at what the laboratory referred to as the “ Mouse House,” and that was their counting laboratory and offices, and we would analyze various samples that would come in from the field. And it was fun because it would be two hours after the run before the samples would physically get there, and so if we knew what time the run was going to be we could actually go over and watch it, and then go back to the lab and be there and ready to go when the samples came in. So I got to see some of the reactor runs that way. [ 00: 25: 00] So this is the reactor that they’re trying to make so it could be for the nuclear rocket. Yes. And they’re doing tests on the— Nuclear engine for deep space probes. For deep space, right. Yes. We also did a lot of samples from Plowshare shots when that program was very active, because obviously you have this enormous mass of earth that’s thrown out— you’ve got radioactive material in that— you have radioactive material released to the air, and some that’s in the debris pile that on the bottom, and so we would analyze those samples also. But I didn’t physically go out and watch those shots when they occurred. Then we were providing support to Sandia laboratory and I’d been working in the lab and they set up a special group where there were literally three of us in the group— And so you’re still working for the contractor, for REECo, and first Los Alamos and then Sandia says, We want you to do this specific work for us? Actually there was a group of us that would go do the Los Alamos stuff. Then I was put in this special group where there were two chemists and myself, and we would do special samples, one- of- a- kind analyses, one- of- a- kind- type samples. One of the things I was assigned was the UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 10 responsibility to set up a series of analyses for used motor oil, to determine when it should be changed out instead of just changing it on some fixed frequency, and so I found the appropriate lab procedures. We had infrared light analyses that we did. We did some gas chromatograph analyses. We did a couple of rather unusual ones that I found. We could actually determine the PH by mixing two indicators in a very careful ratio, and you would take a filter paper and you would saturate it in this solution, and then you would put it down on a piece of clear glass. You’d take a swizzle stick and put it in the oil and then drop one drop of oil onto the filter, and as the oil would diffuse out there was a halo ring that went before the oil, and that actually would have the color that would tell you the PH. And the two we used covered the entire spectrum. And so we could just do that very quickly, very cheaply, and know the PH. Then another concern is water in the oil, and we’d use what I refer to as the crackle test. If it is over a certain parts per million water in the oil, if you put a drop of oil on a hot plate that’s hot it would sit there and crackle and bounce all over. If you took oil that was below that, drop it on, it’d sit there and just fume off. Yes, that’s like a cook knows if there’s water in the oil. That’s interesting. So you’re checking the motor oil for its usability, not— Well, for the compressors and for the heavy equipment, because they didn’t want to just automatically change out the oil on some fixed frequency. Right. I see. They also were having some problems that they wanted to know when it was occurring in some of the equipment. They were losing rubber gaskets in some of the systems, and we were able to determine that an engine additive that had been used was literally deteriorating the seals. So you’re doing an analysis of this material but in this case it’s not about radioactivity; it’s about the composition of that material. UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 11 [ 00: 30: 00] Although some of the problems we were given, the obvious issue was radioactive, a unique- type isotope, what have you. But in the case of the motor oil, that was strictly to know the quality of the oil. Yes. Interesting. And so that was fun, to get into that. We also caught engines that were beginning to deteriorate; you’d have heavy metals. We had an atomic absorption unit that we used for part of that analysis, and you’d shoot a wavelength through the flame where you were running the sample through, and this wavelength then would be recorded for very specific elements. And if you wanted to look for a different element you had to open the side of the box and crank it around to the next tube and run that. And so we found that we had some very large pieces of equipment where the engines were starting to deteriorate, and so instead of running them until they failed they were able to go in, repair them, and minimize the cost significantly. That’s interesting. So those were some of the fun kinds of things I did in that group. Yes. Yes. [ 00: 31: 30] End Track 2, Disk 1. [ 00: 00: 00] Begin Track 3, Disk 1. But as a result of working in that group, learning the gas chromatograph in an updated way and far more technically oriented than when I worked a gas chromatograph at one of the plants in Henderson, I was asked to support Sandia Laboratories on one of their shots where they wanted to do gas chromatograph analyses of the air in the tunnels and different places in the tunnels after a nuclear shot but before people were allowed to go in. And so I worked on that Diamond Sculls shot in T- tunnel which was enormous. I mean it was just incredible, the size of the line- of- sight UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 12 pipe and everything. And so I was out there weeks in advance. We were running transit times from the different valves that we would open to know if we opened a valve and pulled a sample how long it would be before it got to the trailer and went through the machine. And then on the shot itself they delayed that several times and so I was going back and forth with the scientific advisor for REECo and we decided that we were going to do a little something interesting when the shot went. And so the day of the shot they had the electrician go into the portal and hook up the power. That was the first thing. Then we went in and I ran the gas samples. Then they allowed the monitors to come in and the others to come in and actually begin access into the tunnels. So we’re the second and third person to go up to the portal. And we had the results, we called them out, they knew they could send the next folks on in. So a fairly significant number of people were coming up the road, and as they pulled in the scientific advisor and I were sitting on the steps of the trailer, eating watermelon. We’d done our work; now we were relaxing. That’s funny. When you say the line- of- sight pipes were huge in that thing, I mean what are we talking about in scale here? I think it was thirty- five feet in diameter. It was big. You look at photographs of that shot and the end of the line- of- sight pipe is just enormous. That was in the 07 drift and it’s all closed off now. You can’t see it. But for years afterwards they had like a wire mesh door on that drift so people could look in and see it. It was just really impressive. So they’re testing a certain kind of design in there, or a certain kind of application, or a certain kind of something in there. Actually in the line- of- sight pipe they draw a vacuum to simulate space. And also to make sure you don’t have a bunch of air molecules for the radiation to have to fight its way through to get to the experiments that are on the very end of the line- of- sight pipe. And so you get better data UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 13 that way. It’s very difficult to draw vacuums on large areas, and so they have to do some very sophisticated stuff. But that, to my knowledge, was the largest one they ever did. OK, so let me see if I’m understanding the technology correctly. You have the line- of- sight pipe and it’s a vacuum in there and you’re trying to get measurements of things that are coming off the tests, is that correct? Yes. But when you have it so large, you’re not only trying to take measurements, you’re saying you’re actually trying to simulate space. In other words, every line- of- sight pipe is not trying to simulate space. No, but several of the shots, they actually put missile warheads, satellites, et cetera in to see what the effects would be if there was a detonation nearby. [ 00: 05: 00] In space. In space, and to harden the warheads from the enemy shooting off missiles, trying to in any way make them ineffective. So this is in the tunnel itself, these warheads are sitting. Right. All underground. Right. That explains a comment someone made to me several weeks ago that said, I spent so many years in tunnels pretending that we were in space, or something to this effect. That’s what he was talking about. Yes. In fact one of the participation certificates, and I think it’s Huron King, when you look at it you can see the large white vessel that was on the surface, and that was a vertical shot, but they ran a line- of- sight pipe up to the surface and into this large container, and they have a cutaway and inside of that they have a satellite hanging there. UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 14 OK, so yes, if I get to see that. All right, so that explains that part of it. So a “ vertical shot,” that means that the device is placed in a certain way that’s in a hole rather rather than in a tunnel, is that what it is? Right. A thousand- plus feet underground, and then they run the pipe up to the surface in that case. Normally they wouldn’t have a line- of- sight pipe; they would have the cables coming up and there would be all the gas seals and all of that. But in the case of that specific event, and it wasn’t the only one like that they did out there. They actually ran a line- of- sight pipe all the way right up. Wow. Well, I interrupted you but I needed to get clear that I’m understanding what you’re saying. They had line- of- sight pipes that were so large, they put full- size equipment in to determine the effect of radiation flux on the electrical systems, et cetera. So a lot of that. Amazing. It’s just amazing to think of the technological sophistication that has to go into things like this. As a result of the work that I did for Sandia they invited me to go down to the laboratory and have a tour of the Sandia Laboratories. And so when I did that it was quite an eye- opener. That’s where I really saw very complex science going on. [ I] realized that I needed to do something with my life. Sitting out there being a technician was not going to make it. Interesting. About what era would you say this is? Oh, probably 1971, that general time period. So I came back and in 1973 I actually started at UNLV [ University of Nevada- Las Vegas]. We had gone through the Baneberry incident out there where we had the venting that shut the test site down for several months. Were you there for that? UNLV Nevada Test Site Oral History Project 15 I was in Mercury and we could see the cloud, we knew there had been a major problem, and so we started gearing up, getting additional supplies out of the warehouse and everything and getting everything set up, knowing we were going to have work. And in fact we started just before eight o’clock. I got off the next morning at I believe it was six, went home, got some rest, [ 00: 10: 00] went back in, and we started working twelve- hour shifts. And we counted tens of thousands of samples by the time we were all done. They would go through and they would swipe all of the equipment, all of the housing, everything in the forward areas to make sure everything was decaying out properly, and at the appropriate point then allow the general workforce back in. We had monitors there all the time collecting those samples. But that first day though we had a busload of people that were brought in who had been contaminated. They’d been decontaminated initially out at the control point, still had readings, and so they brought them down to Mercury where we ran them through the showers again, took bioassay samples, did thyroid counting, et