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James Acord interviewed by James Flint

Acord, James 1944-2011 (speaker, male; interviewee; artist)
1998-06-19 to 1998-06-26


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  • Title:
    James Acord interviewed by James Flint
  • Contributor: Acord, James 1944-2011; Flint, James
  • Other Titles:
    Collection title: James Acord recordings

  • Rights: James Flint
  • Place Name: the home of Phil and Judy Munger, Wasilla, Alaska
  • Description:
    TAPE 1A [C1666/03/01 side A]: First talk in Richland at Community College; visit the Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF); pivotal encounter with the knurling on the stand supporting a sample of 316 stainless steel pipe; discussion about exception craftmanship and its meaning; brown glasses coloured by radiation exposure in house of Greg Greger. Reason for moving to Richland = to join that community of craftsmen. Comparison with reasons for moving to Barre, Vermont to learn to stone carve. Moving to Richland in January 1988. Signing up for class in Radiation Detection in December 1988. Relationship with wife Margaret. Buying the Richland house and moving his father in. First contact with the Richland community. Role of the FBI. Public meetings in Richland and civil unrest. Buying clothes to fit in with the nuclear scientists. Immersion in nuclear culture. Meeting Brian Freer. Getting access to the Hanford Technical library. Giving talks to the local societies.

    TAPE 1B [C1666/03/01 side B] More on the talks, and the reaction to them. Breakthrough of using two projectors to compare nuclear engineering to great works of art. Stigma against the arts among nuclear engineers. “Moving to Richland” exhibition in Seattle, summer 1989, including the Fiestaware reactor. First involvement with State Department of Radiation Control, due to work with Fiestaware glaze. Press attention leads to sudden access in Richland. Margaret’s fear that Acord is being used by the nuclear establishment for positive PR. Acord tries to use this to gain better access to the community. Starts Introduction to Nuclear Systems: 600 Level Enginneering Class. Assembles advisory team. Workings of a breeder reactor. Mishaps in breeder reactors in France, Japan. Radioactive isotopes. Jimmy Carter and the vaunted shutdown of FFTF. Acord sees an opportunity. The idea of doing an art-inspired transmutation in FFTF to highlight its possible role in converting dangerous isotopes comes about. Proposals taken to Department of Energy, and lectured about.

    TAPE 2A [C1666/03/02 side A] Margaret objects to Acord’s plan. Acord’s father dies. Details on father’s Alzheimer’s. DoE gives go ahead for the art transmutation… with a price tag of $80m. Acord gets a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts for $5000. Visits to Richland by artist friends including Arthur Aubry, Peter Beavis and Dale Travis. Fundraiser event in Seattle [to raise $80m!] is picked up by the press and CBS. Anti-nuclear protestors disrupt the event. The International Symposium on Breeder Technology takes place at Hanford, summer 1991. Acord is invited to lecture. Approached afterwards by a team from Germany headed by Dr Lukoff and Dr Koop, who invite Acord to breakfast. Over breakfast they offer Acord twelve breeder blanket assemblies. Details of the assemblies. Reaction of the DoE and Westinghouse contingent. The start of the effort to obtain a radioactive materials license.

    TAPE 2B [C1666/03/02 side B] More details on the assemblies, and the politics around them. Acord spends six months trying to get the license. The Germans return to Richland to see him. Margaret has left him. The Germans put pressure on the US officials to grant the license. The license comes through a week later. The license and its stipulations prove more confining than empowering. The breeder assemblies are flown in to Richland, and handed over to Siemens to be held in escrow. Acord becomes the first private individual to have been in these position with regard to nuclear materials. Ideas for what to do with the assemblies now they’ve arrived, including building a monument on Hanford’s “National Sacrifice Zone”. FFTF is shut down. Acord meets the secretary of Energy, Hazel O’Leary, and she tells him he’ll need an Act of Congress to do that. The politics of clean-up. The planned art piece at Imperial College – a scaled down version of Acord’s plan for the monument.

    TAPE 3A [C1666/03/03 side A] The human side of the nuclear industry; the politics around Hanford; anti-nuclear sensibilities. Acord’s Radioactive Materials license tattoo on the back of his neck. The people who live and work in Richland. History of Hanford, culture of secrecy, compartmentalisation of people’s jobs. [We go back in time here, and Acords starts to recount the detail of the process that leads up to the $80m price tag at the beginning of TAPE 2A]. Acord buys empty fuel tubes from FFTF off the back of a truck. Meets Bill Schuck, a nuclear engineer, who gets him access to the Special Metals area, where he is allowed to handle some of the metals [this is before Margaret leaves]. Discovers that Schenk got into a lot of trouble for this. Finds out that everytime someone talks to him they have to file a security report, which is one reason for people’s reticence in Richland. More on the technical advisory team, including in particular Wanda Munn, Bob Schenter, Gerry Woodcock and Gordon Rogers. The advantage of retirees for Acord – they no longer depended on having security clearance for employment. Atom Apple pie and coffee fuel the efforts to draw up an application to the DoE for a Neutron Transmutation for an Art Project. Margaret’s disapproval of what was happening.

    TAPE 3B [C1666/03/03 side B] Friendship with Bob Schenter; his obliviousness to natural beauty; his work on the Gas Tag System at FFTF. The “three thousand” area. Going in with Bob to meet his team. Document Control policy. Pitching to Bob’s boss. The rumour that the DoE are going to allow the transmutation. The scale of the waste problem at Hanford, and the bureaucracy surrounding it. The people in the Federal Building, “the invisible ones”. Richland’s culture of surveillance. Community radioactive monitoring. Impact on Margaret. Margaret makes friend with Margaret Greger, Greg Greger’s wife, and learns more about the environmental impact of Hanford. General chat about the process of nuclear bureaucracy. “Five nines” culture. Anthopological aspect to Acord’s work. Interactions with his father in Richland, volunteering at the local church. B reactor and Charles Pasternak.

    TAPE 4A [C1666/03/04 side A] Mention of filming by Tom Putnam. History of Hanford site; origins of B, D and F reactors. Talking at the Hanford Retirees Club. Campaign to preserve B reactor as a building of historical significance. Visit to B reactor. Involvement of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla; Russell Jim and the Yakama Indians. Reporting in the Tri-City Herald. Visit of Charles Pasternak to the monthly meeting of the B Reactor Museum Association. Pasternak bonds with Acord over his anthropology tie. Turns out they both knew Dr. J Robert Angel at the Smithsonian. Pasternak’s connection to the Native Americans; issues around Native American grave sites. Memories of Dr. Angel. Support and encouragement from Pasternak; Pasternak’s unusual clarity on security requirements. Pasternak dies on Acord’s birthday, of food poisoning. Acord’s suspicions about Pasternak’s death. Reference to the film Silkwood.

    TAPE 4B [C1666/03/04 side B] Why Pasternak might have been a thorn in the side of the DoE. Acord outlines his understanding of the National and International Nuclear Bureaucracy. Role of the Pantex plant in Texas. Role of UK, Canada. Role of contractors: Rockwell, Westinghouse. Levels o management. Organisation structures designed to enhance political deniability. Investigative journalism around nuclear issues: Ralph Nader, Helen Slade, Jeremy Hall, Paul Loeb, George Wolzack, John McPhee, Richard Rhodes. Appointment of Mike Lawrence as Director of Hanford. The experience of the Downwinders; farmer/activist Tom Bailey. Freedom of Information act requests to Hanford; Lawrence organises an enormous data release, hoping to swamp the requesters with detail. But it backfires. The data reveals health issues; gets picked up by the national press. Lawrence moved to Vienna. This happened as Acord and Margaret were moving to Richland.

    TAPE 5A [C1666/03/05 side A] Atomic culture in Richland. Atomic themed businesses; “badge in pocket” campaigns; dress codes; bumper stickers; bars. Hanging out at the Gaslight Tavern, talking to the barmaid leads to discovery that Acord and Margaret are being used as a training target for security operatives. Explanation for the oppressive level of surveillance and multiple phone taps. Drinking beer with the radioactive tank teams. Tank whistleblowers and tank leaks. Reagan’s Star Wars policy. Margaret’s waitressing job – overhearing conversations. Hanford’s role supplying plutonium batteries for space-based railguns violates the Atoms for Peace [no nuclear weapons in space] treaty. Other violations of international law and treaty. How this knowledge is kept from the press. The parade in honour of Mike Lawrence: “Thank you Hanford for Winning the Cold War”. Front line culture. Acord’s radiation protection class; learning about personal dosimeters; how Acord’s classmates would not talk to him in the breaks; how plutonium is only referred to as product; how the teacher limited answers to questions on account of Acord’s presence.

    TAPE 5B [C1666/03/05 side B] Acord meets a woman who remembered the other student getting reprimanded for asking a sensitive question in class with Acord present. Acord discovers people were taking bets on whether or not he would pass the course. Reaction to Paul Loeb’s book, “Nuclear Culture”. Books and publications available in the Richland library. Reticence of community to open up again, post-Loeb. John Rector, retired machinist who had worked on B-reactor during the Manhattan Project. Hanford during WWII. Tom Putnam’s video interview with John Rector. Rector’s sensitivity with regard to Loeb, point being that Richland community reacts badly to even mild criticism. DuPont’s role in building Hanford. More on Richland’s conservative culture, and high suicide rate, especially among high school students. Douglas Coupland’s novel “Shampoo Planet”. Group show “High Tech Low Tech” at Centre on Contemporary Art [COCA] in Seattle. Meets a fellow artist who was born and raised in Richland, and who rebelled to become a tattoo artist. Meeting with Deborah and Greg Greger. Going to yard sales.

    TAPE 6A [C1666/03/06 side A] Deborah Greger, a poet herself, author of “Desert Fathers, Uranium Daughters”, confirms that children with and artistic bent tend to leave Richland. Margaret’s unhappiness with the situation, in contrast to Acord’s enjoyment of the process he was going through. Alchemy, and the goal of the transformation of the chemist himself. Birth defects and childhood leukaemia in Richland. Alchemy and sculpture. Acord’s interest in alchemy; Jung’s “Studies in Alchemy”; origins of chemisty in alchemy. Moonlight is polarised light – therefore useful in certain chemical reactions, although the alchemists would not have understood that. History of alchemy, alchemy in Ancient Egypt; Neanderthal burial sites; orchre production as an early alchemical process. Acord’s climbing background and early alchemical experiments. Jewellery manufacture, gold work, early pharmacology, woad. Grinding cinnabar and mixing with mercury. Vannuccio Biringuccio’s Renaissance textbook, “The Pirotechnia”. Da Vinci and Michelangelo. Mathematician John Nash, and the removal of the barrier between magic and mathematics, religion and astronomy. Alchemical ideas that influenced Priestley, Newton, Rutherford.

    TAPE 6B [C1666/03/06 side B] Early atomic scientists and alchemy: Szilard, Rutherford, Fermi. Rutherford’s transmutation of nitrogen into oxygen. Nuclear theory, radioactivity, spallation. History of the nuclear age. Early experiments of Fermi and Szilard. Using nuclear science to literally turn lead into gold. Environmental processes as alchemical processes. How nuclear science lost the spirituality of the alchemists along the way. What defines a human being? The point of art, how technology can not really be said to belong to the human until it has been deployed as art. Creative in art and science. Acord’s early training as a sculptor at the Cornish School of Arts, under Phil McCracken. Living with McCracken in the islands off Seattle. Background to the Northwestern artists’ tradition. Casting the carcass of a baby killer whale. The sensitivity to materials that Acord developed through this training. Performing poetry and plays with Dean Anderson and his wife. Moving to Seattle and starting to learn metalwork. Early interest in skeletons and Amerindian artefacts.

    TAPE 7A [C1666/03/07 side A] Introduction to LSD, hippy culture, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Carlos Castenada. Transition from wood carving on the West Coast to granite carving in Barre, Vermont. Types of grain in granite. Alchemical tips in poetry and sagas, particularly Beowulf – how blood quenching makes a sword stronger. Acord’s approach to study and apprenticeship. The crucial importance to him of understanding how things are made. The use of magical tokens in making jewellery, working for a famous New York sculptor, building bridges. Extracting gold from ore to finish a piece of jewellery made with owl’s feet. Carving figurines from clay bricks as a child. The thinking behind Monstrance for a Grey Horse. Reliquaries, and their significance and import. The influence of Henry Moore. Starting to carve Monstrance in Barre. The Three-Mile Island nuclear accident, and its impact on Acord.

    TAPE 7B [C1666/03/07 side B] Article in Scientific American on uranium reserves, and uranium’s connection with granite. Parallels between idea of smashing granite carvings for the uranium and smashing marble statues for the lime, or melting down bronze statues to make cannons. Researching uranium extraction in the University of Washington Library. The concept of an artwork containing both granite and uranium. The toxic nature of the various uranium extraction techniques. Calling the Trojan nuclear plant and asking for some spent fuel. Sitting in on the State of Washington High Level Radioactive Waste Council. Meeting chief radiation safety officer for the University of Washington, Michael O’Bryan. O’Bryan tells Acord about Fiestaware, along with other common sources of radioactive materials. Acord’s plan to obtain Fiestaware and use that as a source material for uranium. Taking extracted Fiestaware back to O’Bryan, and being warned about the dangers. Adopting basic radiation safety procedures. Acord is approached by the Dept of Radiation Control. Acord begins battle for the right not to have a licence. Acord’s cats: Eddy, Little Miss Foot [with extra toes and a frost-bitten tail].

    TAPE 8A [C1666/03/08 side A] Acord gives contact details for various people to Flint, along with advice on how to get good access to Hanford. Various people who effectively spied on Acord. Various other contacts, and comments on them.

    TAPE 8B [C1666/03/08 side B] Tissue samples from Karen Silkwood – Acord looked it up on a computer in the Transuranic Tissue Registry. Talking to reporters John Stang [Tri-City Herald] and Philip Schuyler [New Yorker]. The meaning of the term “Special Project” in DoE-speak. Other contacts: Arthur Aubry, Gerry Williams, Frank Gaylord. More on Acord’s infiltration of the community. Looking at maps of Richland: Acord identifying the various landmarks and areas of interest.

    TAPE 9A [C1666/03/09 side A] Continuing with the map-tour of the area. The geography of the three counties. The ecology reserve. Input from Phil Munger on the landscape around the Columbia River. The different reactors, the railheads. The politics around access to the Columbia River; the US Coastguard asserting the right to navigate. Artist trips down the river to throw paper aeroplanes at the guardtowers. Birdwatching with Peter Beavis. Kayaking down the river with Margaret. Photographs of the paper aeroplane trip. How to hire a canoe in Richland. The Waste Management and Processing Area. The PUREX plant. Working with the Arts Catalyst. The Atomic Man, Harold McCluskey, who got caught in a spray of Americium particles. Studying McCluskey in the RAD-DET class; he was buried in a lead-lined concrete coffin. Acord talks about the damage to his hands from stone-carving – vibration of the pneumatic tools. Damage caused in Barre, carving long hours. Problem exacerbates back in Seattle, and then more so in Richland. Margaret’s jobs in Richland: frameshop, then Bonmarché mall, which provided medical insurance for a period, allowing Acord to get his fingers treated and one of them amputated.

    TAPE 9B [C1666/03/09 side B] Further reflections on the Atomic Man and amputated limbs. Giving a lecture to the Washington State chapter of the Health Physics Society. The discovery, thanks to Ron Kathren, that Acord’s amputated finger has joined Harold McCluskey in the Transuranic Tissue Registry. Acord sketches a plan of his studio in Richland, and talks through the contents. Mention of George Wolzack’s film of Acord. Acord discusses his carving tools. The Hanford dust. Welding equipment. Glove box. List of accumulated radioactive materials. Other items in and around the studio. The weather in that area. The tumbleweeds. Moving from the B-house [with Margaret] to the studio on his own. Divorce with Margaret, and reconciliation. Activities at the Fremont Art Foundry.

    TAPE 10A [C1666/03/10 side A] Working outside at the studio on a picnic table. Rollers for shifting stone blocks. Heating the studio; getting snowed in. The story of how Acord came by the studio. The WPPSS bond default, and how that bankrupted the business of the man who owned the studio before Acord. John Rector’s involvement with the property. Acord can’t raise the money to buy the studio. Someone else buys it, then goes bust, and puts it on the market again. Digression into the story of how Acord and Margaret bought the B-House of a family of four children who’d inherited it from their parents, partly by borrowing money from Phil Munger. When Margaret leaves she lets Acord stay in the house and rent half it. Eventually he buys the studio with the help of John Rector and Wanda Munn.

    TAPE 10B [C1666/03/10 side B] The steppe shrub environment around the studio. The fauna and flora in the area. The story of the radioactive coyotes, and the feral horses. The question of whether or not to contact Margaret Morrissey [Acord’s ex-wife]. Margaret’s reaction to Phil Schuyler’s New Yorker article. Acord’s job electroplating in Seattle. Other jobs stone carving. Acord’s financial situation. Paying his way with drawings. Working in a frozen French fry warehouse, and juggling that with giving talks in Richland; changing into suit and tie in the restrooms. More on electroplating. I G Farban cyanide – peculiar connection with Thomas Pynchon. Dipping Fiestaware in the electroplating acid tanks. Operating the crane with Dale Travis.

  • Notes:
    Recording: 1998-06-19 to 1998-06-26;
    - Acord, James 1944-2011 (speaker, male; interviewee; artist);
    - Flint, James (speaker, male; interviewer)
    Recording Notes: Digital copy of original cassette recording.
    Recording Notes: audio file 20 WAV 16 bit 44.1 kHz 2-channel
    Recording Notes: There is some background noise and hiss present in the recordings, but the speakers’ words are clearly audible.
    Duration: 15 hr. 25 min.
    Access restrictions: Open access. For broadcast and publication refer to curator. Refer to terms and conditions in the deposit agreement (signed February 2015).

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