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NASA Plum Brook Retirees Interview

Tuesday, October 8, 2002 at 2:51 PM

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Web Exclusive - 90.3's Karen Schaefer spoke with four Plum Brook retirees, whose jobs ranged from plant construction to reactor operation to hot cell experimentation to health monitoring. These were some of the pioneers of nuclear engineering and safety, who came from places like Westinghouse and General Electric in the private sector and went on to develop new guidelines for the industry in the newly-formed Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Read below for what they hoped to accomplish, what they believe they achieved, and what they believe the future of nuclear power to be. Who we are and what we did at the NASA Plum Brook Test Reactor

Jack Ross: My name is Jack Ross and I came to Plum Brook in March of 1962. Unlike most of the people at PB, I was not a NASA employee, but NASA did contract with a company to perform health physics and other technical support services at the reactor in addition to administrative support services.

My particular background was health physics. I had prior nuclear experience with Westinghouse in Pittsburgh and a small nuclear company before coming here. The purpose of our contract was to evolve the safety procedures in accordance with what NASA’s wishes and guidelines were.

It was a unique opportunity for me, having worked on programs involving the first nuclear fire reactor, the Westinghouse design, and also the first commercial power reactor. And I had never done work at a test reactor, although I had nuclear background. And so this was unique and I was coming in at the very early stage and anxious to see the development of a very fine program.

He just changed jobs, bought a new in P-burgh. His job offer at PB was accident.

Been here ever since, including the time when the reactor shut down when it was closed in ‘73… So I’ve essentially had beginning to end, cradle to the grave, observation, oversight and some degree of responsibility during that period of time. (Monitoring programs)

Jack Crooks: I’m Jack Crooks. I started with the old NACA back in 1956 as a co-op student. At the time I was going to the University of Detroit. I worked with Lewis Research Center in the Lubrication and Wear Division until 1958, when the PB reactor had been approved and was going through the design stage and had started construction. I transferred over to that project because I was a native Sanduskian and, of course, PB was just south of San. In 1958 I came to the site. I worked as an inspector for construction on the reactor, alternating 3-month work periods with 3-month school periods.

And then in June of 1959 I graduated from college as a chemical engineer with nuclear option. I started full-time with - at that time it was NASA… I spent 16 years - the life of the reactor - at the facility, doing a wide variety of jobs. I started as a process engineer. I became a service systems supervisor on shift. I obtained a reactor operator license and a senior license. I spent several years on shift overseeing operations of the reactor.

Following that I moved onto Division staff as a technical and administrative assistant, where I did all kinds of things - nuclear fuel accountability, overseeing of contracts for the production of the fuel. I did budgeting, PR, all types of things that fell into that end of the category. And from there I moved on to become assistant operations branch chief until the reactor shut down.

Following that I transferred to the Atomic Energy Commission, which became the NRC and I spent another 19 years with the NRC.

We left the area and ended up in D.C. And then in 1999, we came back to Sandusky and got involved in part of the activities for the decommissioning of the reactor.

Len Homyak: I’m Len Homyak, I came to the Sandusky area in February of 1962 and came in as a project engineer. I originally worked for the Goodyear Atomic Energy in southern Ohio, before I came here. As project engineer, I was responsible for putting experiments into the reactor. And prior to putting the experiments in, while the reactor was being built, I aided in helping construct the reactor, the piping components, the various small miscellaneous systems that are needed to operate the reactor. And when the reactor closed in about 1973, I got transferred to Cleveland and worked for the Lewis Research Center. While in Cleveland, the thoughts were that we might shut down the reactor and get rid of it, because the reactor was originally shut down and put into safe storage for 5 years with the possibility of being able to be opened again. Well, while in Cleveland, the thought was that we were not going to be able to open the reactor, so we were going to get rid of it. And I worked as the reactor manager during that period of time, where we were responsible for getting programs and stuff to get the reactor dismantled. But the budget system at NASA was such that we couldn’t afford it, so they put it into the mothball stage again. And I was responsible for extending the license for this new period of protective shut down.

By then I’d transferred back to PB as the Space Power Facility Manager, where we did testing for space. And in the meantime I retired and I’m sitting around waiting for the reactor to be dismantled again.

Mike Sudsina: My name is Mike Sudsina. I arrived in PB in 1965 with credentials of 13 years of nuclear experience - hot lab experience - working at Westinghouse Electric in Pittsburgh. I had worked with Jack Ross there and it seemed like I followed him all over the country.

In 1951 when I started at Westinghouse, it was, the nuclear industry was essentially in its infancy, so coming up here 15 years later in 1965, I had quite a bit of hot lab experience. Initially when I started here at PB I worked as a supervisory engineer on working three shifts for Lockheed Aircraft, working on the loop experiments, where the loop experiments were put into the reactor and, while the reactor was running, the loop experiments had to be inside the horizontal beam port. I continued working there as a supervisor on shift for Lockheed until 1968, when I left there and joined NASA as a metallurgical hot lab engineer, working primarily in the hot lab, helping technicians dismantle different experiments that had been in the reactor.

I continued working here at NASA, at PB, until 1973 when the reactor was shut down. And I was one of the last personnel to leave. We were getting rid of some low-level radioactive waste that we had permission to ship out. And I left PB then in ‘73 and started at NASA in Cleveland from ‘73 until I retired in 1985.

Karen Schaefer: All of you gentlemen seem to have been in on the ground floor of nuclear power, in some form or other. Those were kind of the golden years after World War II when we thought that nuclear power held some marvelous promise. One of the issues was that NASA was considering using nuclear-powered space vehicles - this was part of our Space Program and the race to space. What were your hopes for the work you were doing at that time?

Jack Ross: In my case, my interest, my background and education - I have a graduate degree in public health and particularly with a specialty in nuclear and occupational safety. So I had, by virtue of my basic interest, I had a basic interest in assuring that any new technology - and it wasn’t just nuclear, there were many other technologies coming into industry at the time - so my basic motivation was, one, of getting into a facility to exert whatever control I could have on getting off on the right foot and starting off on a good, firm control of potential hazards. It’s always easier to start out tight in a new facility. And if you’re too tight, at least it’s a little easier to loosen the reins and make the procedures a little more adaptive. Whereas the reverse is, if you start out loose it’s extremely difficult and risky to try and tighten down later on after bad habits have already been formed.

So one of the reasons our company was brought in was because we had a number of people who had other nuclear experience, whereas this was a new facility and a lot of people here were very, very well-trained, but had minimal nuclear experience.

When we came here, the thing that motivated me in our hiring of other physics and support people, we tried to hire people not all from one facility. But we tried to hire people from a number of facilities, for example, we had a radio-chemist we hired from the Army quartermaster research reactor at Migg. We had another gentleman we hired who had been involved with health physics in the Air Force. We had another came from combustion engineering and General Dynamics. And we had another fellow from GE out on the West Coast.

So we brought people in from other nuclear facilities. And one of the things we did in developing our procedures here was we sat down and we brainstormed. Each of us reiterated our histories and our stories, the good and bad experiences at the places that we’d come from. In the process of doing this, we came to a conclusion and a consensus of picking up the better ideas from each of these facilities and amalgamating here into our suggestions and our procedures which we turned over to NASA. NASA shared our philosophy from the very beginning, in fact, helped direct us in that matter. So there was no great difference of opinion, it was just how best to implement this.

And so that was basically the motivation I had in coming here and the opportunity to be able to influence that as a project manager for our company. Working in close concert with NASA was an extremely attractive career opportunity for me.

Jack Crooks: At the time I started with NASA in ‘59 when the reactor was being built and going through the start-up and test phase, I pretty much was focused on what are particular job was. We all kind of knew what the big picture was, that nuclear power, the nuclear rocket, space-nuclear applications, for power sources on vehicles, radiation affects on materials. There was a lot of research information that wasn’t known. And we knew that the experiments were pretty much coming out of Cleveland. Len, who was in the project engineering group, their particular focus was on making sure the experiments were designed right and they were producing the results that they needed. Our job from a facility standpoint was to make sure that the reactor was operating, that it was operating in a quality, safe manner, and that we had good on-line times, so that the experimenters could get in and get out in a reasonable and have the information that they needed to get into the schedules of the rest of the programs.

For example, the nuclear rocket was being built and constructed and tested full-scale at Jackass Flats in Nevada. Part of our responsibility was to irradiate the control drum actuators for that reactor. I’ll just give you another idea of the types of things that we were doing. From an experiment standpoint, we were testing, doing fatigue-testing of materials in cryogenic environment under radiation conditions. A fatigue test was a pulling of a sample until it broke. There were other tests like that where people were monitoring the effects of, let’s say, electrical components over the period of radiation - which may have been a year, six months, whatever. Some of the experiments were five or ten years in their life, so they were monitoring what was happening during that time.

So we all had an appreciation of the experiment program. Again, from my perspective, from an operations standpoint, we had to make sure that the reactor itself was operating safely. The type of cycle the reactor was on - we used highly-enriched uranium - we ran for two weeks, so we had to change part of the fuel every two weeks. We shut down for a couple days, maybe longer, to insert and experiment. But we needed to keep and 80% on-line time across the year to stay competitive with other test reactors. So we basically were having the same balance and the same focus on safe operations as the primary thing, but still having a good on-line time.

I think that’s what the focus from an operations standpoint was - to make sure the reactor operated safely, the experiments operated safely, and that we were meeting the needs of the project managers here on site and the people at Lewis or whoever. We did radiations for Westinghouse, for commercial fuel applications, for many things. Michael and Len can give you more details on those things.

Len Homyak: When I came to Plum Brook in 1962, we had a mandate to put a man - or a few men - on the moon in 13 years. And we were going to use nuclear propulsion to do that. Now at that time, very little was known about the effects of materials by radiation. To give you an example, if you used an oil for lubricating pieces of equipment, when you irradiated the oil, it would turn gritty and it would just chew it up like sandpaper, so you didn’t want to do that. So we had to find materials that would work with the nuclear environment. In addition to that, the equipment that was being used with hydrogen and oxygen for the cooling of the reactor and the propulsion of the reactor, you had a very cryogenic condition, so we had to not only radiate materials with the radiation, but with cryogenic conditions - at, say -40 degrees Centigrade.

Measuring the materials, we were able to obtain high materials like stelite and molybdium disulphide for the materials for lubrication and other things. And that was basically our part, to get something to flying that would work whenever we got it out into Mars.

Karen Schaefer: And that was the goal, wasn’t it, manned flights to Mars?

Len Homyak: Yes.

Mike Sudsina: I guess I’ve always been a hands-on type person and when I started working at Westinghouse, I just got enthralled in working with the manipulators, taking things apart that came from Handford and from other facilities. I just enjoyed doing that kind of work. I started there like I said in 1950 and was working in the hot lab probably in 1951 and ‘52. And doing the experiments on radiation damage was our primary thrust there at Westinghouse initially. Everything had to work by remote control, we had to work through three-foot glass to prevent radiation effects on the personnel doing it. I guess I ran one of the first radiological impact tests in the country. As Jack mentioned, we were studying radiation effects on different materials and that just seemed fascinating to me, to be able to do something like that.

And I continued to go to night school while I was working there at Westinghouse. And when I left there in 1965, I went to a small atomic facility in Apollo, Pennsylvania which Mr. Ross had just left. He came up here and shortly after that I came up here and continued the same endeavors. Working in the hot lab again, doing the same thing that I started doing in 1952. And it was just interesting to continue doing this. I felt I had a knack to be able to do some of these experiments by remote control, handling the manipulators - one in the left hand, one in the right hand - and showing that expertise to other technicians to do the same type of thing. Taking experiments apart when they were first taken out of the reactor in cell one, where you had a big operation cutting the thing apart to begin with. And then as it slowly went down through the other cells, smaller and smaller pieces were investigated, until finally they had just a small sample that they would mount and check out metallographically to see what radiation damage was done on the very small, small sample, maybe only a quarter of an inch square.

So I guess I didn’t have any grandiose ideas about helping to build something. My expertise was about being excited about being able to take the thing apart and see how the thing did work, how it functioned and whatever information we could find after the experiment was over.

Karen Schaefer: There were lots of experiments being done with nuclear power across the United States at that time. The atomic bomb had been used for the first time, there were interests and concerns about the effect of radiation on humans. Obviously, there was a space race going on and an interest in trying different fuels. There’s also this foundational work that was going on here to try to understand - as NASA has always tried to do before it puts anything into space - exactly what’s going to happen before it happens. Looking back, what do you think the long-range value of work you did here was?

Jack Ross: I think the real contribution that our particular group made was to have a facility that operated for over a decade with some very, very unusual, one-of-a-kind experiments that were trend-setting, to say the least. And during that time, not exposing any employee or any person of the general public to any amount of radiation that was in excess of legally-permissible limits. I say that from the standpoint that might need a little clarification. Most people think of nuclear power as a commercial atomic power plant. The regulations are extremely tight. You don’t change one bolt, you don’t open one thing, you don’t so anything without tier committee approval. Changes of procedure require approval through the regulatory agencies, very, very tight control. That same control exists at a test reactor. But at a test reactor, consider the fact that about every 10-14 days or so, the reactor is being shut down, the lid is being off, the fuel is being moved around and shuffled, experiments are being moved. Periodically, from time to time - at least once or twice a year - there’s a long shut down in which major repairs, improvements, upgrades, and installations are made to accommodate experiments.

So there’s a lot of assembly, disassembly, movement, changes to accommodate experiments in the environment of a test reactor. Now admittedly, the power of the Plum Brook reactor as a test reactor was 60 Megawatts, which is quite substantial. But it’s still considerably less than the power involved in a commercial atomic plant. Under those conditions, though, I think the real satisfaction of our work, along with the work of the NASA people who really made this happen, was the fact that a very successful operation was made under very difficult circumstances and it was a safe operation, it worked safely, there were no major problems. They were very successful in their testing. They got an awful lot of information in that 11 or 12 years that they operated. And they had essentially an enviable record that still stands today in the area of test reactors and research reactors.

Karen Schaefer: Was that record shared with the nuclear industry at the time?

Jack Ross: I believe it was. The nuclear industry of course came into being under the shadow of a mushroom-shaped cloud, so in one respect that’s sad, but in another it’s probably good, because it alerted people to the potential harm that could happen if things were not properly handled. Unfortunately, the mushroom-shaped cloud does not relate to reactor work. Reactor work does not result in atomic explosions. What happens is basically, it is a much more safely-designed system, it’s a peaceful application of nuclear energy, not a wartime application. It’s had an enviable record compared to any other industry in the country, even though it has many detractors, of course. It has its own unique sets of problems, of course. But like any other high-tech technology, if properly handled, if the philosophical approach is one of safety, caution, and inquisitiveness to ensure safety, it can be handled safely, just as other high technologies can.

Jack Crooks: After we left Plum Brook, many of us thought back and said, gee, what did we just spend the last 16 years doing? And there were a number of things that came to mind. We looked at the output, the research reports. We had American Nuclear Society meetings, our joint technical meetings between NASA and the industry and other test reactor people on exchanging information on what we were doing from an experiment standpoint and also from a reactor operations standpoint.

I know there cases where what we had learned from the radiation-effect studies were being fashioned into the design of not only the nuclear rocket, but also a space nuclear power application from an energy standpoint in the SNAP program - Space Nuclear Auxiliary Power. There was a reactor that was SNAP 10 that was designed for that and was actually put into space. And then there things that were applicable to the nuclear industry in general from an operating experience standpoint. At the reactor - like other facilities it was a new technology, it was a new facility.

We had designed multiple layers of safety into the facility. And at times a layer may have failed and you needed to look at that to find the root cause and see, well, why did this fail? Did everything else do their job? And in all cases, we never had a real, serious accident per se. We did have a few incidents that we could categorize as significant, something like the reactor head at one point experienced a loss of flow. That was something that wasn’t supposed to happen. We had the primary cooling loop that put the main flow through the reactor core. If we lost off-site power, we had a shut down cooling loop that operated off of diesel generators. That loop provided the shut down coolant. So by design, we were never to lose all flow. If we did both systems, we actually could feed flow through the core to keep it cool by opening valves and bringing in water from the overhead storage tanks. So we had back-ups. We had tanks that were buried in the ground where we could take that water and store that water safely underground.

I’m talking if you got to the third layer of emergency cooling. But in the one incident, we did lose primary coolant flow and we lost shut down cooling flow. And my recollection was, somebody had thrown a breaker and he accidentally - and what it did is it shut all the pumps off. Well, he recognized what he did, so he turned the breaker back on, so it was a very short period of time, well less than a minute, let’s say. But the core was without coolant and we took that very seriously. In fact, we ended up thoroughly examining the core. We did not find anything wrong with the fuel plates, but the decision was made not to re-use that core. So that core was sent for reprocessing, the fuel was reprocessed.

So that type of experience was fed to the Atomic Energy Commission at that time and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and they factored that into their thinking. There were some incidents like that from an operational standpoint where everything just didn’t work the way that you wanted it to. But you had to make sure that you had two or three layers to back up. In the design, you posed these failures, It was part of the risk assessment process, You said this pump doesn’t work, what do I do? You say, well, I’ve got to put another pump in. What if both pumps fail? Well, then they’ve got to have another way to do it. And after you get to three or four failures, then you figured that was improbable, anything after that was improbable.

So those types of things were, when we look back, we say, gee, we came away with a lot of experience. The nuclear power industry - not only test reactors, but commercial power, military applications - the Army power reactor program, the Navy nuclear power programs and surface vessels, the aircraft carriers and cruisers - all this was happening at the same time, starting in about 1950. I think that’s when they had the first Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology that Rickhofer went to and other people that were instrumental in really starting the peaceful uses of atomic energy.

Jack mentioned the Pittsburgh area, the shipping port reactor, which was kind of spin-off from the nuclear Navy program. Rickhofer said, well, I’m using it in submarines, I ought to be able to use it for commercial power purposes. So he was behind shipping port.

By the time the PB reactor was shut down in ‘73 and I went with the Atomic Energy Commission, there were 22 commercial power reactors that were operating at that time. There were like 250-some proposed at the peak in the middle-’70’s. We ended up with a 115 being licensed and operated.

And that technology was changing, as Jack had mentioned. PB was 60 MW in power. Some of the early commercial power reactors for Westinghouse - I mean, the shipping port reactor, Big Rock Point, Dresden I, Peach Bottom I, and Enrico Fermi I, which was a different type of reactor were all in the 100 to 5-600 MW range. And then, around about the time in 1970, why commercial power industry took another giant step. They decided to go to 3000 MW reactors, with a thousand to eleven-hundred MW in output.

The experience that we gained here paralleled what was going on in the industry. In other words, our radiation safety programs, as Jack had mentioned, I mean, we were a member of the Atomic Energy Commission. And so we were bound by the same rules and regulations. And they kept changing as the industry gained experience, then the Atomic Energy Commission kept upgrading its rules. Things like, when the reactor at PB was built, we weren’t built to meet seismic requirements. Well, in the middle to late 70’s, there was an earthquake somewhere. And I don’t remember the specifics of it, but that brought into question the need for seismic requirements for siting of commercial power reactors. Now, they looked at PB and we looked at the probability of an earthquake happening in this region and they basically said it was very, very remote. And the way that this reactor was built with all the concrete and everything, it was very unlikely that there would be any impact and we were pretty much grandfathered regarding those regulations.

Now 10 years later, like Len was talking about if you could restart the reactor, I think things like that probably came into the picture in that they had to go back and look and say, well, what new regulations are we going to have to meet and can we really restart the reactor once it was shut down. Len can address that.

So my feeling was we did a really good, high-class job. We did what I was a would say a Lewis Center, NASA research job. It was a research effort, things were thought out, the products, any information that we obtained was being disseminated. We tried to make sure that it was getting to the right places. Because that’s what our objective was, as a research facility, to feed knowledge back into the system that people could go forward with the next generations of whatever they were doing.

Len Homyak: The real reason that PB reactor was never restarted was the budget situation for NASA was so fully depressed we just couldn’t afford to do anything like that, so the mandatory finding was to get rid of it. And even that they couldn’t afford. So they postponed for another 10 or 15 years.

Some of the things that we accomplished with the reactor working like it was, we developed materials that were radiation-tolerant that other people could use when they were building new reactors or using radiation-type quantities. We developed new fuels for small, wastepaper basket-sized reactors that we could put on satellites on or the moon is we had to. And we also developed fuel configurations, where with a certain fuel configuration, you could crash the reactor - this small configuration - into a mountain and it wouldn’t become critical and cause a atomic explosion.

We also developed energy systems that converted heat directly to energy - this is like thermionics. And right now I think very little has been done on thermionics since that time and they’re starting to use the thermionics development presently.

Mike Sudsina: As far as spin-offs concerned here at PB, I have to allude back to something that we did years and years ago as far as evolution in the nuclear field was concerned. And Jack Ross and I worked at Westinghouse in the early 50’s. We helped generate, we helped to fabricate the cladding material for the fuel for the reactor. In fact, while we worked there in the 50’s, we helped make the reactor core for the Nautilus submarine. And with that evolution of material fabrication and so forth, I’m sure some of that was used here at PB later on, as far as the cladding of some of the fuel elements.

And as far as some of the work that we did to make our case here as working, I think the project worked fine as far as a safety standpoint was concerned. My experience here paralleled the good experience that I had had a t Westinghouse as far as safety was concerned.

In terms of types of radiation that we were working under, the dosimetry that was used, the amount of radiation that we were working under at one time. My experience has been that Westinghouse was a very, very safe place to work as far as material and coming and leaving is concerned. And that followed me along here, I had the same experience here at PB. Whenever we would get something in, it might not be as clean as when it left here. The type of personnel we had here were just right on the ball making sure that, you know, we don’t want someone to say that something left here dirty or contaminated after it was here at PB. So as far as safety was concerned, it was one of the things that was evolved as far as the nuclear industry was concerned.

So, Jack did mention, but some of the dosimetry that’s being used today was perfected here and was thought of here at PB while Jack’s company was working here at PB.

I think the program worked fine, the government just decided they would not use a nuclear rocket. I think everything we did was pointed toward that direction and the end result would have worked fine. We did discover materials like Len had mentioned that would work in the nuclear field for space travel or space propulsion, but it just didn’t seem feasible at the time. Our end was met as far as working the reactor and the experiments in there and safety-wise. Like Jack mentioned, we never had any big problems with the NRC as far as any accidents or so forth like that were concerned, mainly because of the type of redundancies that Jack mentioned that we had there for back-ups.

In fact, when I was for Lockheed, our contract was to have a loop in 80% or 90% of the time. Well, my supervisor at that time not only had back-up plan B, but he had C and D, because that’s how we got paid. And this was the thinking that someone had to be in charge of in terms of working around a nuclear facility. You always had to have a redundancy plan as far as performance and safety was concerned. And anytime anything was done in the hot lab as far as moving anything around, we had to have safe work permits, we had committees actually looking at how it was going to take to get this thing from this place to the other place, how is it going to be shielded, how is it going to be shipped out, how much radiation are people going to be picking up and so forth. And it was all done with the very clear intent of being as safe as possible.

The end product, like I said, I think the reactor proved itself. It worked out to the general expectations that everybody wanted it to. The end product, unfortunately, as far as nuclear propulsion was concerned, was never used.

Karen Schaefer: Obviously, when the reactor here closed in 1973, some things happened in the United States. You mentioned that there had been 250 reactors planned, that was the goal. We didn’t build that many, because in 1979, Three Nile Island had a severe problem that has queered the nuclear industry ever since, at least the power industry. No nuclear power plants have been commissioned since that time. And recently we’ve seen a pretty severe set of problems at a nuclear power plant just west of here. There’s apparently still quite a lot of support for nuclear power - it does after all compose 20% of our power source in this country. A lot of Americans feel quite comfortable with it. But at the same time, we’re talking about shipping nuclear waste to a central point in Nevada, people are concerned about it coming through their neighborhoods. For the first time, we’re distributing potassium iodide to the general population around nuclear power plants. And then of course, we just had some terrorist attacks on this country a year ago.

I wonder what changes have you seen in the industry over your lifetimes in the way in which nuclear operations are handled or changes in the way in which we think about nuclear power. In that respect, how do you view the future of nuclear power?

Jack Ross: (laughter) I should point out that I was the nuclear division of a company called Teladyne, our division for Teledyne Isoptopes, Inc. At one time our company had the environmental monitoring contracts for about two-thirds of those 100-plus reactors in the country. And as such we had a chance to routinely analyze, evaluate and report back to our clients in a very timely fashion all monitoring that was performed. One of the things that impressed me was that these plants, in spite of the dire predictions of many. Many nay-sayers, really had a pretty clean record.

And I’d just like to elaborate on say, Three Mile Island. We had the contract for environmental monitoring for Three Mile Island when the disaster occurred that. And my personal opinion is that if we sat down in a room here and tried to figure out how to screw up Three Mile Island, we couldn’t have planned a better way to do it than what actually happened there. Nevertheless, as bad as what happened at that facility experienced, it was an economic disaster and not a public health or safety disaster. At the time, we had environmental monitoring station at the plant and out to probably around ten miles as I recall. And those were immediately picked up and continuously changed frequently all during the crisis management of that incident. In addition, General Public Utilities at the time gave us carte blanche and all the people within a substantial area there, if they had any question at all about their products, their services, or their facilities, they were instructed to get samples and send to us or have our people come in and collect samples. And literally we went form an 8 a.m. ‘til 5 p.m. Monday through Friday lab operation, which was normal for our clients. We went to a 24-hour, 7-day a week, one-year monitoring for these clients. I mean we literally had hundreds and hundreds of thousands of samples coming to us for analysis, everything from Amish goat milk cheese to Hershey’s chocolate to anything you want to think of in that area. From all the various corn crops, all of the various cash and agricultural crops. In not one instance did we come across any amount of radiation that was transferred from the plant our to the general public.

Now, there were some planned releases later. Krypton 85, as those of you here know, is an inert gas that’s a radioactive isotope that does not react with anything in nature, but it is a significant early bi-product in the release of any malfunctioning nuclear facility. And it was kept under containment and later on, there were some planned releases that GPU made in concert with the NRC, as I understand it. And there were some controlled releases that again that resulted in minimal if any exposure to the public…

So in that respect, I wanted to clarify the position that I’m coming from when I express my opinion about it. I personally feel that we’re probably now getting more like 33 - 35% of our power nuclear-ly, as opposed to twenty. But I honestly feel that we’re going to have to come back to it some day. And I’d like to emphasize that, for example Spain about thirty years ago went on an active plan to go totally nuclear. And I think they’re probably about 60 - 70% of their power now in Spain and Portugal are from nuclear sources. France is probably significantly above us now. I understand they might have something in the range of 40 - 50%. So there are other countries in the world that are aggressively pursuing, and I might add safely, the development of nuclear power and I might add are realizing a substantial portion of their energy from nuclear power.

In that respect I feel that some form of nuclear power will re-emerge as a preferred choice in this country. There are problems that still have to be solved, most of which are political and not technical or scientific. We have a political process in this country that serves us well, even though it can be very cumbersome at times. And it’s good to hear all the cross-section of opinions, because it’s from those opinions it puts those who are in the nuclear industry, it puts their feet to the fire and forces them to take hard, second look at what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. In that respect, I think the nuclear power industry - in spite of the considerable trepidation that some segments of the population might have, I think the nuclear power industry still continues to get a more firm foundation and improving foundation for the industry.

Economically, I think there are still issues to be solved, but when you consider the alternatives, which for quantities like our country requires, you really are talking minimal other alternatives. There are so-called, quote, environmentally-friendly sources of power which can serve little niches here and there. Certainly wind and solar have a place, but there’s no way they’re going to satisfy the requirement that heavy commercial, business, and industrial requirements of this country. For the interim, the only feasible alternative is fossil fuel and we all know the problems around fossil fuel, I think it’s going to happen in a generation or two and we’re going to be back into nuclear power as a viable, commercial source of energy in this country.

The country, after listening to many, a couple of decades now, on waste disposal, is going ahead with plans - a very solid plan - with waste disposal. There area questions that many people have about waste going through their communities and things like that. Those are solvable problems. And certainly, my own observation is, there are safe ways of getting it through. For example, there have been a number of tests that were performed on taking various designed containers either on trucks or railway cars and they have designed and test-crashed them at fantastic speeds to determine their integrity. Could they safely contain their contents in the event of a transportation disaster? Could you put something in an airplane and crash it? I don’t think that’s been done, but I don’t think there any plans to handle any large quantities of radiation, but I know there are small quantities. Controlled sources and things like this that can be legally shipped by air and I know there are containers that can safely handle them.

I feel that nuclear power does have a very definite place in our future, not necessarily the immediate future, but I can feel it’s not that far down the line, either.

Jack Crooks: I tend to agree a lot with what Jack Ross just said. I spent 19 years, as I mentioned, with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I had earlier mentioned that at one time, there were applications for some 250 reactors. Now, before Three Mile Island, that number came down significantly. And the reason that it did was the country did not have the capability to produce reactor vessels and really they could not have built that number of reactors in the time that utilities were needing them.

But Three Mile Island clearly had a significant effect on the licensing and the construction of additional reactors after that date. There was probably - I can’t remember - a three or four year hiatus where the NRC would not license a plant to operate, because they needed time to assess the Three Mile Island incident and make sure that there were regulations put into place that covered what utilities had to do to make sure something like that would not happen again.

And I want to say that after that, there were probably 20 or so reactors that were licensed following that, but the last one that was licensed was in the 1990’s. Now if you’re reading nuclear news and general information in a newspaper, that nuclear power will probably have - we may not have much choice. That if we want to meet our power needs, that it won’t play some role in the future. And like Jack said, it may be in the next 10 or 20 years. And they are looking at their new reactor designs, there’s all types of things like that going on in that area. Again, looking at the experience, looking at the power level, they may not be 3000 W reactors, they may be 5, 600 MW reactors and they may be a different type of reactor. So there is this effort going on to address what do we do from an energy production standpoint in this country in the future.

One thing I was going to mention too, was, you said 20% of power, and you were correct in saying that, in the U.S. is being produced by nuclear. That’s across the whole country. There are regions of this country where it’s 60 - 70%: Chicago, Nebraska. There are states where it’s 50 - 60%. There might be two reactors, but more than half of the power being produced by the state. The New England area, again, they were heavily dependent on nuclear power, because it was very expensive for them to get fossil fuels in, it was very costly for them to produce power. I think we were buying hydro-electric power from the Canadians, we were buying nuclear power produced by the Canadians, so there were a lot of things that entered the picture. Right now, in going through deregulation, the whole commercial power industry is again going through transformations. Companies that did very well and had a lot of experience in nuclear are buying up a lot of smaller utilities.

In the early, the industry went through growing pains before Three Mile Island. It was very interesting to not only watch, but to be involved in and the NRC was conscious of what was going on, because there were a lot of utilities that didn’t have the nuclear experience. There weren’t that many people that had nuclear experience. So they were converting a coal mentality to a nuclear mentality. They were buying reactors like turnkey facilities, where Westinghouse or General Electric would go to a reactor and basically train the utility people, turn it over to them. They would provide advice during operations, but the utility people picked it up and ran with it. And they were competing with Joe Blow next door. So if he had a problem and he fixed it and he knew Joe Blow was going to have the same problem, there was kind of an incentive for him not to transfer the information. And we, the NRC and others, were trying to make sure that wasn’t happening. So we had operating experience feedback programs. There were databases. If we saw things happen at one reactor, we would write information notices, we would put out generic letters, we would tell people, you don’t have any choice. We want to know whether you can have that problem. If you can have the problem, then we want to know what your fix is. So that was happening in say, from the time I was there, actually from the earliest date, because at PB, we had things happen that we felt were unusual things. We called them incidents lie they’re called today. We would feed that back into the process. There were requirements that said, if something unusual happened, you report it and then we’ll disseminate the information.

After Three Mile Island, then the industry itself created INPO, which was the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. Now, the NRC, it was kind of a self-regulating group. And the NRC interfaced with INPO. I went on INPO evaluations. We would go into INPO and look at what they were doing from a gathering information standpoint. INPO had their own data systems. And we had agreements, they had safety information that we didn’t have, INPO was to provide it to the NRC. And those things worked. The feedback of operating experience became very important, because of the number of utilities and the number of people in the industry that were learning. So as you went through the growing pains, you were feeding the information back.

INPO had developed what were called good practices. They had a team of about 20 people that would go to a site and spend at least two weeks there and go through everything. They would go through all the areas of operations, health physics, went through everything. We walked with people, went on shift with people, just looking at what they were doing, then critiques what they were doing, talked with about why aren’t you doing it this way or this guy over here has maybe a better idea, have you considered doing that? And they would have an exit-enter review at the end of two weeks and make up a list of actions that they felt - we met with the utility as well, their vice presidents, their top management - and people would look at what was important and decide on course of actions. And that was then followed up on several months later.

Now, you mention Davis-Besse. From what I have read - and I’m not that intimately involved with it - but that were other operating experiences, some within this country, not as severe as Davis-Besse. Also in the international community. Now with the NRC, particularly after the Chernobyl incident, INPO was created the world organization, WANO nuclear plant operators, with the same types of goals, to look at what was happening at reactors around the world, have different countries exchanging information. And prior to WANO, there actually was the International Atomic Energy Agency had a function like that and the Nuclear Energy Agency had a function like that and the NRC was tied into all of that. And we were exchanging information internationally. I mean, that’s a whole different subject that you can get into there, because of the different regulations and the different governments with the countries. Some governments were open, some weren’t, that was a very interesting experience. And that stuff still goes on today.

You don’t catch all of them. I mean, you try to, but I’m a realist, too, that there are incidents and there will be incidents in the future. Even at Davis-Besse it was found and it was detected. It was not found and detected earlier. There’s seems to be all kinds of questions and problems of why didn’t they know it earlier and we need to know that, to make sure that people, that everybody’s attuned to the fact, that if, look guys, if you see something unusual, you don’t understand it, you haven’t done your root cause analysis, you’d better be doing those things. Because an accident one place is an accident everyplace, is what it amounts to.

Karen Schaefer: Len Homyak’s opinion is that nuclear power can be safe and will be used in the future.

Len Homyak: The Three Mile Island reactor is the worst experience that we had in the United States and that accident was contained. Chernobyl is another thing, because that was uncontrolled, nobody was overlooking anything and it was just a disaster. One problem that we have with reactors in the United States is that a small reactor can be very, very safe, as we found as we were doing testing in the configuration for nuclear airplanes. The nuclear airplane power source was actually crashed into a mountain and it did not become a critical event. We developed small nuclear reactors for the Moon and satellites and they were perfectly safe. My personal opinion is if you had nuclear reactors in the 500 to 800 MW range and they were punched out and they were all the same, after you decided that this one reactor was safe and a good configuration, you can have a safe system for the rest of your life.

The problem now is that each company wants to have bigger and better reactors, each company wants to have a different type of reactor that is different than anybody else, so they’re all different, they’re all large and unmanageable.

Mike Sudsina: I feel like the other fellows do that nuclear power can come back. I think that some of the success of the foreign countries is, all the reactors are the same. I think if our government got on the ball and said, we will have nuclear power, but they all have to be the same, so that when Joe Blow leaves Pittsburgh, he can work at the reactor and nothing will be different. The control panel will be the same, the MW power will be the same, the while facility would be the same. And that’s what I think they’re endorsing in France. They take parochial school children through the reactor to show them that this is where we get our power, it’s safe, you’re walking right underneath this thing right now, it’s right above you and I think with public education and a thrust from the government saying, look, this is the way we have to go, this is what we’re going to do. And I do think if they make it generalized, where all the reactors would be the same, maybe smaller but in essence all the same, I think there would be a lot more safety involved and a lot more acceptance of nuclear power down the line.

Final Reflections

Jack Crooks: Mike was talking about standardized plant designs and those have actually existed for a number of years. The NRC is in the process of approving standardized plant designs. Now I don’t know if in this country you will ever have all the reactors the same. It just isn’t our nature. We’re independent, we’re free, we’re competitive, but to a degree, you have to standardize and people look at that. I mean there are reactors out there that are, quote, the same plant, but they have two units, unit one and unit two. In reality, what happened, they share a control room. Okay, but unit one was built first. Let’s say unit one was built first and it was scheduled to go on line two years before unit two. By the time unit two came in, you had three years of regulatory changes. So unit two, even though it’s the same control room, may have some things different and you swap operators. The operators are licensed on both facilities, but they have to know and understand what the differences are. And you have to make sure that you haven’t created any confusion. That’s where human factors come into play.

So, even in France, their reactors are different generations. They have gone through upgrades and downgrades. They are more standardized than our plants. We had three vendors, you had General Electric, Westinghouse and Babcock and Wilcox. Boiling water reactors and two different kinds of pressurized reactors. You even had gas-cooled reactors… So we have a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience in dealing with different types of reactors and right now, in the future, I think we’re all saying maybe the answer is you go with the smaller reactor and you go with the pebble bed reactor or you go with some other reaction that has yet to be proven for long-term use and you may get by with just downsizing some of the existing technology.

There is an interim fix, I think… fusion is off in the distant future somewhere. So all this is being looked and not just the U.S. It’s a world effort to keep progressing. And environmental concerns, all of those things are entering the picture. And I think at times, you need the interplay. I learned that with the NRC, when we did something, we really did need to have all the parties involved. You had to have the Union of Concerned Scientists. You had to have the utilities. You had to have the different government agencies. You had to have the state. All those people had input. And they all had their concerns and you had to make sure that you were addressing as many of those concerns as you could. And there were times that the - I don’t want to say anti-nuclear groups, but the groups that weren’t in favor, I mean they hadn’t been convinced yet. They were actually able to have improvements implemented that probably the regulatory agency couldn’t have. As I say, having had some experience, there were times when we needed their voices to support things that staff in the regulatory agency were saying, we need to do these things, because they’re technically correct, they’re safe, and in the long run, they’re going to give us a better reactor.

It was probably more costly and there people in the industry that had different views.

Jack Ross: When you ask what final reflections I might have, I guess I reflect on what PB as a microcosm of the history of nuclear industry. We’ve had a unique opportunity here, those of us who have been here most of the time, to witness the planning of a facility, the birth of a facility, the early check-out, testing of a facility, the implementation and philosophy of operation, the successful operation, the successful gathering of data, and the safe tucking in of a sleeping baby when it’s shut down. We also had the opportunity here to plan for decommissioning, which is going on right now at PB. And at the time when the decommissioning planning was starting to take place in the late 70’s and early 80’s, that in itself was a new aspect that the nuclear industry was gearing up for. The Regulatory Commission started paying attention and in fact mandating that the new plants be designed with the idea of facilitating eventual decommissioning. And in fact they had various other regulations relating to the decommissioning aspect in the initial operating license operations. Decommissioning was important because of the fact that it appeared technically that somewhere in the range of 35-45 years was the maximum life of these facilities base on early history due to radiation-induced embrittlement of metal and things like that. Some facilities have had to shut down a little earlier, others have gone to their planned life.

PB now, since it first went critical, is approximately 40 years ago and since it shut down is about 25 or 30 years. And in that respect, we’ve seen the whole aspect of what needs to be done here. I was privileged in leading a small, select team involved in planning for the decommissioning of the facility here. It was NASA’s wish that somebody look into it and provide them with some insight for somebody to consider. And they contracted with us and we had a small cadre of people here and knew the facility intimately plan that decommissioning. So in retrospect, it’s rare in a particular individual’s lifetime to be involved in the early birth and successful operation of a facility, but also the nursing of it while it was sleeping quietly and eventually planning for its total dismantlement. In that respect, in retrospect, I do feel PB is a microcosm of what the nuclear industry is faced with, particularly the 115 plants that Jack mentioned that exist now.

Additional Information

* Plum Brook Photo Gallery
* Plum Brook - Part One
* Plum Brook - Part Two

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