When Harold Rarrick receives the Order of the Nucleus award from the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center later this month, it will be the capstone to a career that began at Sandia in 1949 and ended just last October when he turned in his badge after almost 65 years.
The award, which will be presented in a ceremony on Jan. 27 at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, recognizes a lifetime of contributions Harold made to the US Air Force in nuclear weapon-related work.
Like many of his contemporaries, Harold didn’t set out to work in the nuclear weapons enterprise. Rather, he ended up in weapons work almost by chance. He’d heard there was work in New Mexico. It wasn’t clear exactly what the work entailed but the employer was apparently looking for people with his skills. Hey, it was a job, and with a wife and baby to support and with a freshly minted degree in math and physics from Pepperdine University, a job sounded like just the ticket.
Harold got in his car and drove from California to the Land of Enchantment. He aced the interview with Bob Krohn, who was in charge of early nuclear tests at what was then called Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. Krohn offered Harold a job at Los Alamos doing . . . well, he couldn’t tell him that, not until Harold got his clearance. But the job paid almost $300 a month, which sounded pretty good. That was in August 1949. After a spell, his clearance came through, launching a career that spanned 12 presidential administrations.
Harold trained for three months at the Los Alamos Ice House, learning the processes involved in the surveillance and assembly of the plutonium and enriched uranium capsules for nuclear weapons, the core of the weapon package. It struck Harold that here he was, a green staff member getting $285 a month holding a king’s ransom’s worth of plutonium in his hands. At the dawn of the Cold War, this was probably the most precious material in the nation and he was handling it as a matter of routine.
Not in Kansas anymore
“We knew we were doing something important,” Harold says. “We talked about that a lot. We knew there was no margin for error in what we were doing.”
With that specialized training under his belt, Harold, now assigned to Sandia, was tasked to open a weapon storage site at a base in Texas. It didn’t take him long to figure out he wasn’t in Kansas anymore: To access the site, which had already been prepped for its weapons mission, Harold remembers walking through a maze of fences and doors guarded by “18-year-olds with machine guns.” And even after negotiating this gantlet, there were other protocols for entering the vault, all designed to make the site as secure as possible.
Over the next several years, Harold’s career might be summarized as “On the Road Again.” He traveled around the country training personnel and inspecting the components at weapon storage areas, serving in something like an inspector general role.
“I loved the work and the travel,” Harold says, noting that his job was exposing him to places he’d never been and experiences he’d never had before. The downside: He knows the travel and his frequent absences were hard on his family.
As the Cold War ramped up, and with it the scale of weapon testing, it became clear that there were risks that needed to be addressed more effectively. In 1957, Harold was asked to set up a health physics organization. Health physics is the physics of radiation protection. It was the job of Harold and his team to ensure that workers at the Labs and in the field at weapon test sites in Nevada and other locales, including Enewetak Atoll (the atoll name was spelled Eniwetok until 1974) in the Pacific, were not exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. This work kept Harold in the field for long stretches.
‘We knew what to do’
The pace could be relentless. During a six-week period at Enewetak, for example, there were more than 20 test shots. As Harold recalls it, “Sandia would put experiments on a bomb shot. After the test, we’d evaluate the rad fields, determine the risks, and then take guys in to recover the experiments.”
Harold recalls one test that had his team scrambling. They deployed some 4,000 fallout traps and air samplers in one weapons- related experiment.
“We learned that you could get contaminated real easy,” Harold says. The hard-won knowledge gained in field tests paid dividends when real-world events took center stage. “When Palomares happened,” he says, “we knew what to do.” [Note: Palomares refers to an accident in Spain in 1966 in which four nuclear weapons fell from a B-52 involved in a crash. Three of the weapons were recovered on the ground and one was recovered from the Mediterranean Sea.]
Harold describes his work during this time as “real stressful, but addictive.”
It seems that in his career Harold was destined to be a road warrior, operating away from the Mother Ship in Albuquerque. In 1970, he was named Division Supervisor of Range Operations at the Tonopah Test Range. During his stint at TTR, Harold created the position of test director, a role that still exists to this day and has proved invaluable to Sandia’s weapons mission.
After Tonopah, Harold spent more than 15 years in various roles related to weapon testing. Among his other functions, for most of the 1970s Harold was the program manager for reimbursable test programs, providing technical and financial management for non-Sandia customers, including the Defense Nuclear Agency, the US Air Force, US Army, US Navy, NASA, and other DOE laboratories using Sandia test facilities in Albuquerque and Tonopah. He also spent more than a decade in the Nuclear Safeguards organization and the Development Test Directorate, making important contributions to the Labs’ nuclear weapon mission. A highlight of this period was his involvement in the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action program, during which he planned, arranged, and managed two international conferences on the subject.
As the Cold War wound down, Harold became more deeply involved in environmental assessments and restoration. His personal, often first-hand knowledge of Sandia’s weapon test history made his insights invaluable during this period, keeping him engaged and occupied right up until his retirement in 1993.
But retirement didn’t mean the end of his involvement. After working as a consultant to DOE on environmental issues for several years in the 1990s and consulting with Sandia’s corporate archivist, Harold was asked to become a senior mentor for the then-new Weapon Intern Program. That role re-energized him as he relished sharing stories about Sandia’s weapons heritage with the next generation of weaponeers from the national laboratories, the military, and federal agencies. The mentor role was a perfect fit for Harold. He was so proud to be a part of the program that his wife sewed on patches of each intern class and embroidered “Harold – Senior Mentor” on every one of the shirts he wore for each intern class.
In recognition of his role in the Weapon Intern Program, Harold was one of several senior mentors honored in 2003 with the US Air Force Award for Exemplary Civilian Service.
Sandia was more than a job for Harold; it was a place to grow, to learn, to test his own limits.
“Everything was new. We were doing things nobody had ever done before,” he says. “We had to get smart fast and one way we got smart was that we worked with smart people. There weren’t many dummies at Sandia.
“I was just a kid when I started,” he reflects. “I’d do a few things different but not a lot. I spent 50 years not knowing what I was going to do the next day, what the next new challenge would be. That was a big part of the appeal and that part I wouldn’t change at all.”
Finally, almost exactly 65 years after getting his clearance to work in the weapons complex back when Harry Truman was president, Harold gave up his badge, dropping it in the receptacle box outside Sandia’s badge office at the IPOC building. It was a bittersweet moment, but one he was ready for.
“It got to where I was pushing myself to go in,” he says. “I was worn out, but I loved the work. I loved Sandia.”