In 1961, Hanford officials had a problem. A half ton of plutonium - enough to trigger an international incident today - was missing.
The loss was called an “inventory discrepancy” in the code words of the Cold War.
They hired Dr. George Brabb, a University of Washington instructor and systems analyst, to find what was going wrong during the complex process of turning uranium ore into weapons-grade plutonium.
Brabb came to a stunning conclusion: Some of the missing plutonium was probably going out the stack of a bomb factory called Z Plant.
But the public never knew about his suspicions.
Brabb’s report for the General Electric Co. was kept secret for decades, and only recently declassified. Now, the retired professor is back in the limelight.
Attorneys for the Hanford downwinders are calling. So are lawyers defending Hanford’s contractors in the lawsuit that accuses them of exposing thousands of people in Eastern Washington and Idaho to radiation dangers.
“I’ve become very popular all of a sudden,” Brabb, 71, said Friday at his Coeur d’Alene home.
“I was the first one to speculate that plutonium was going out the stack in a significant amount.” Brabb was an unlikely nuclear sleuth.
In the early 1960s, the young professor agreed to fly from Seattle to Richland one day a week to teach management classes to employees of GE, Hanford’s site manager at that time.
Brabb gained the trust of GE and was hired for several summer jobs in 1961.
His search for the missing plutonium proved the most intriguing.
“I had full access to the whole place, and it soon became obvious to me the losses were at Z Plant,” Brabb said.
The plant was the end of the Hanford pipeline, where liquid plutonium nitrate from the reprocessing plants was forged into a powdery, highly radioactive solid for nuclear bombs.
Brabb got a special clearance to get inside Z Plant. He walked the floor for a week.
He studied blueprints, identifying an unmonitored waste pipe discharging radioactive wastes into the ground.
Brabb also suggested some of the plutonium might have gotten behind double layers of filters inside vacuum-sealed hoods where workers shaped the finished product.
Plant managers were initially skeptical. But Brabb was proved right when they looked inside the hoods.
Plutonium was piling up in the ducts of the vacuum system, behind the filters.
That meant the filters used throughout the plant were failing, Brabb concluded.
“This convinced me that fine plutonium was being released into the atmosphere from Z Plant despite the filters,” he said.
In his secret report, Brabb called on GE to launch a major research effort to reduce the plutonium loss and improve filtering methods.
“The problem of missing plutonium can be isolated and minimized only when management at all levels is desirous of doing just that,” Brabb wrote.
He submitted his report in September 1961. GE managers also confiscated all notes he used to prepare the paper.
He never again heard from GE about his recommendations. He left UW in 1967 and went on to become director of graduate programs and research at Illinois State University’s business school.
He also wrote four books on management and computer systems before retiring to his home state of Idaho six years ago.
“I don’t know what happened to my report. It was like it went into a black hole,” he said.