Friday, June 13, 2008

A Note on Alvin Weinberg, Hyman Rickover, and Milton Shaw

Yesterday I wrote about Hyman Rickover's attitude toward reactor safety. It is clear from A. Stanley Thompson's stories that Rickover was determined to silence scientists who were concerned about reactor safety in programs he had some control over. It is not that Rickover had no concern about reactor safety, rather he and his staff hads worked out an approach to reactor safety and believed that they had solved all of the problems. All that was left, in Rickover's mind was an almost fanatical adherence to Rickover's safety system. Rickover was paranoid. Scientist who questioned the Rickover's infallibility on safety, were the enemy in Rickover's book.

I have previously told the story of the Rise and Fall of Milton Shaw, here, here, and here. Shaw's attitude toward nuclear safety appears to be identical to Rickover. It now becomes apparent that Shaw's goals and methods were identical to Rickover's. This would explain Shaw's power. He was Rickover's man, and could be counted on to do what Rickover wanted. while writing my account of Shaw, I was unable to understand why Shaw, a Navy Department functionary, had received his appointment as reactor research boss at the AEC. But it is plausible that Rickover wanted the Shaw in the AEC as Rickover's long arm in control of reactor development. Shaw's great political clout, would have really been Rickover's then. It would also follow then that Rickover was behind Alvin Weinberg's firing as Director of ORNL.

But the nuclear safety controversy that Shaw's heavy handedness had created, was beginning to erode Rickover's power. Rickover had many enemies in the upper ranks of the navy. And some Rickover enemies were looking for an opportunity to clip his wings. Rickover had overreached, and Richard Nixon, already wounded by Watergate, had reached out to contain the festering sore, the nuclear safety mess at the AEC. In December 1973, Rickover received his 4th star. Richard Nixon spoke at a cerimony which marked Rickover's promotion. Nixon while ostensively honoring Ricjover, delivered a very different message:
"I don't mean to suggest by that that he is a man who is without controversy. He speaks his mind. Sometimes he has rivals who disagree with him; sometimes they are right, and he is the first to admit that sometimes he might be wrong."
Rickover must have have been grinding his teeth when Nixon said these words. Rickover lacked the modesty to admit that he might be wrong, and Nixon knew it. Nixon's words must have rankled him, as Nixon also knew they would.

Shaw was an all to faithful servant of Rickover, and by doing his master's bidding, he had begun Rickover's undoing , as well as his own.

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