RICHLAND, Wash. — Usually the surprises Hanford workers find as they clean up old buildings and burial grounds at the nuclear reservation are bad: undocumented, stray containers of dangerous radioactive or chemical materials.
So Randy Young and Sean O’Neal were cautious when they spotted a sealed coffee can tucked inside a wall behind asbestos-board paneling at a building they were preparing for demolition near D Reactor.
Young, dressed out in white coveralls and a respirator, gingerly picked it up. It was heavy enough that he knew something was tucked inside -- maybe bits of the asbestos-laden paneling, he guessed.
But when their supervisor at Washington Closure Hanford, Dustin Cooper, unpeeled the electrical tape and popped off the metal lid, he found a gift from past workers.
He could see immediately that it was a time capsule, he said.
The green MJB coffee can was packed with newspapers from September 1955. Out of one fell a note on the “Don’t say it ... Write it!” memo form used for decades at Hanford.
The form was dated “9-26-1955 A.D.” and addressed “to whom it may concern.” That’s all, other than three signatures — K. Edward Thomas, Monte D. Dickinson and Henry L. Matear.
It appears that some planning went into preparing the time capsule.
Workers are used to finding reminders of past construction workers inside the walls of the hundreds of old buildings being torn down as part of environmental cleanup of the nuclear reservation. It produced plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program during the Cold War.
They find empty cigarette packages, crumpled newspaper pages and other trash. Once Young found a handwritten note saying, “Buy war bonds.” Occasionally, they see walls signed by past generations of workers.
But the papers folded and fitted into the coffee can appeared to be collected over several days from multiple places, not just a random selection of what workers were reading at the construction site one day.
They included the GE News, a company publication for Hanford workers when General Electric was the site contractor. Copies of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Spokesman Review and the Columbia Basin News, a competitor to the Tri-City Herald in the ’50s, also were folded and fitted into the can.
The top news of Sept. 26, 1955, was President Dwight Eisenhower’s heart attack.
“President ‘Satisfactory’; Heart Attack ‘Moderate’” was the headline above the masthead for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Eight doctors were keeping watch, it reported.
The Columbia Basin Herald went with a Page 1 editorial — “Let’s Remember: He’s President But Mortal Too” — and a picture of the president waving at the McNary Dam dedication a year earlier. Local news included an account of a 5-year-old Kennewick girl badly injured when she was hit by a car.
The Spokesman Review, dated two days earlier, topped the page with a reproduction of a hoax ransom note for a California baby.
Some news doesn’t change. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a story about two women rescued after becoming lost in an Oregon forest.
But the GE News put a spin on its story about workers winning money for their cost-cutting ideas that wouldn’t be politically correct for publication today.
Charlotte Hansen won $100 and the article started, “It isn’t always the man who comes up with ideas on cost cutting and more efficient operations.”
The newspapers are in delicate condition, said Tom Marceau, senior cultural resources specialist for Mission Support Alliance, the Hanford contractor responsible for collecting artifacts and historical items found across the site.
It’s a stroke of luck the time capsule was found at all.
Workers were removing hazardous materials from the electrical substation that once served D Reactor and the complex of support buildings that surrounded it. It dates to World War II, when D Reactor began operating shortly after B Reactor, the world’s first production-scale nuclear reactor.
In 1955, an addition was built with a single wall that had the asbestos paneling that needed to be removed before demolition. Workers were cutting off the asbestos boards, working carefully to prevent sparking near the old animal nests inside the wall.
Without the asbestos paneling, the wall would have come down when heavy equipment was brought in to demolish the building without the time capsule being discovered, Marceau said.
“The fact that these guys put it together is pretty neat,” he said.
He’s hoping that the workers who left the newspapers can be found. He would like to thank them and ask them what prompted them to leave the time capsule.
He’d had no luck tracking them down this week, checking for different spellings for letters that were difficult to read on the memo they left.
The Herald did find a death certificate filed in Benton County for a Monte Dickinson. It said Dickinson was born in 1900 and died at the age of 68 in 1969. But the Herald did not find possible information about the other two workers.
The items in the time capsule now will be brought before a DOE Hanford artifact committee that determines what to do with historic Hanford items.