When Milton Shaw went to the AEC in 1964 he already had a well-formed set of beliefs, attitudes and professional skills. His entire working career had been spent with the Navy, first as a junior officer, and then as a young engineer who had pioneered the modern nuclear fleet under Rickover. Almost all of Shaw reactor experience had been with Naval ship propulsion. That was almost entirely with the Light Water Reactor. Rickover and Shaw had adapted Navy management systems to the running of shipboard reactors. Every system on the reactor was duplicated. If one system failed, another was ready to take its place. Duplicate systems meant that if a system needed to be shut down for maintained, another was available to take its place. Thus reactors could be run continuously. Crews were highly trained. Every operating procedure was elaborated in detain in technical manuals. Officers and men were expected to always follow manuals to the letter.
I once did a brief study of the Soviet Navy’s reactor problems. The Soviet Navy had a system was much more lax than the US Navy, and the soviets paid the price for it.
Shaw’s strengths as a manager included keeping researchers and research on tract. Shaw identified objectives, set by superiors, and worked relentlessly to make sure that objectives were meet. His attitude to authority was military. Orders were to be obeyed.
When he joined the AEC in 1964, Shaw took charge of a very different system. Scientist ran the National Labs, and their methods took latitudes for curiosity. Scientist like my father and George Parker were given significant latitude to direct their own work. The result was that they sometimes solved problems, and sometimes discovered problems, as George Parker was doing in his reactor safety research.
Executive Officers in the Navy are the chief inspectors of shipboard operation, and Shaw functioned very much like a Naval Executive Officer. During the early 1960’s George Parker and my father had run an annual international conference on reactor safety issues. Shortly after Shaw’s ascension to power at the SEC, that conference was ordered shut down. Shaw then proceeded, systematically to attempt to drive Parker out of the nuclear safety business.
From Shaw’s viewpoint nuclear safety was a done deal, and further research on it was a waste of time. Shaw viewed light water reactors as a mature technology. From his perspective, all that was required was to build in sufficient redundancy, write the technical manuals, and make sure that the workers were well trained and that rules were followed.
From Shaw’s perspective the scientists at Oak Ridge and at other national Laboratories, were a bunch of unruly boys, recruits who need to be set in line by Chief Petty Officer tactics.
Chuck Rice, who had been the President of Aerojet Nuclear, an AEC contractor recalled an encounter with Shaw:
After I had been elected president of Nuclear [Aerojet Nuclear], we had a big dinner for key managers in the company at the Stardust Motel. Milton Shaw was there, Bill Ginkel, many from Aerojet, all the way down to branch managers. Shaw got up and did his Rickover-type tirade on all that these people in the room had done wrong. They were lousy managers, had poor control, and so on.
When it was my turn to speak, I got up and listed the outstanding accomplishments of the group and complimented them on the work they had done so well.
As I walked out after dinner deBoisblanc came up and said, “I really appreciated the comments. You’ll be fired, but it was nice to hear it.”
The next day there was a meeting on whether to fire Rice or not. Shaw said, “Find out the reason for his speech. Then we’ll decide.” Someone called me and I said, “Shaw works at Headquarters, I work here. If we are to do well, I’ve got to invite the people who work
here to join my party.” I kept my job
Shaw believed that reactor operations should be subordinated to quality assurance. Parts and systems must meet standards, and management must assure the standards always be meet.
Shaw was authorized by the AEC to sweep the national labs clean with a new broom. Alleging that labs were duplicating efforts, he demanded the merger of working units, and the redirection of lab staff assignments. He sought tight control on research efforts.
Shaw believed himself to have all the answers, and did not brook opposition. Not even Alvin Weinberg was safe from Shaw’s broom.
Shaw believed that reactor safety was largely a matter of good engineering. Once the principles of proper reactor design were understood, good judgment and adherence to sound design principles would always assure that safety would be maintained. The belief of Weinberg and others that scientist like George Parker should continue to working on safety issues was discounted by Shaw who thought that further research was a waste of effort. Shaw believed that emergency cooling for reactors was a wasted effort, if the reactors were well engineered to begin with. This belief was to cost the reactor industry billions of dollars and was to have serious consequences at Three Mile Island.
Scientist began to believe that Shaw was vindictive, and that he would punish people and institutions that failed to adhere to his dictates. As scientist, some late in their professional careers, began to be laid off from national Labs, a belief that Shaw had instituted nothing short of a purge of AEC research programs. Moral plummeted at AEC facilities, and chaos reigned.
Chuck Rice explained Shaw’s new system to Idaho congressman Orval Hansen:
“In the past, reactor and environmental safety was derived from experienced experts working together as a loosely knit team, each member of which expected the remaining members to perform
the appropriate functions at the appropriate time without clear cut lines of responsibility and delegated authorities.
In response to AEC desires and directives, this informal system has, in a period of less than one year, been replaced by a highly formalized system that places primary reliance on unswerving adherence to a set of interlocking procedures and responsibilities
that have been subjected to multiple reviews by boards of specialists. The writing of prospecifications has become a job for the skilled engineer rather than the purchasing agent.
Carefully documented engineering studies have replaced the quick fix by the maintenance man.”
Shaw was not above blaming others for problems he had himself created. Oscar Wilde once wrote about puppets, "There are many advantages in puppets. They don't argue with you, they don't have any tastes in art, and they don't have anything to lose." This was what Shaw sought in science.
From the viewpoint of nuclear safety, aspects of Shaw's attitude were above reproach. The super quality of American reactors, which can operate at maximum efficiency 90% of the time, and the fact that no life has ever been lost due to civilian reactor safety issues, are certainly testimonies to the value of his quality control system. At the same time, Shaw’s short sightedness contributed to the Three Mile Island incident, which was more than anything else, a disaster for the American Nuclear Industry.
By 1970, concern about nuclear safety was spreading. The Scientific community as a whole was aware of what was happening at places like ORNL, where the safety concerns of Scientists like George Parker were being ignored. Weinberg went to bat for his scientist, and was told that he was out of touch, and that if he continued to speak out about safety, there was no place for him in the nuclear industry.
As the very moment Shaw was purging scientist who were concerned about nuclear safety, a wide spread movement opposing nuclear power emerged.
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