Tuesday, May 4, 2010

How Milton Shaw Blew the Nuclear Safety Issue.

I have returned to a discussion of Milton Shaw because he appears to be a pivotal figure in the American Atomic Energy program. Shaw lead the AEC into a controversy over nuclear safety, which eventually lead to its breakup. Shaw and his associates including AEC Commissioner, James Ramsey and Congressman Chet Hollifeld managed to alienate both the scientific community of the AEC's National Laboratories, as well as a large constituency drawn from the general public. Shaw appears to have believed that the public had accepted nuclear technology to a far greater degree than it had. Shaw simply mistook a pliant congressional committee with the public at large and believed that if he maintained a good relationship with a few members of Congress public support was assured. This was far from the case.

Ramsey, Hollifeld and Shaw appear to have taken the attitude that they understood nuclear safety issues better than the scientists who researched nuclear safety did, that they and not the scientists knew best what was in the public interest, and that to the extent the scientists disagreed with them, they - that is the scientific community - represented an obstruction to the accomplishment of desirable goals. In fact, the support of the scientific community was an important part of gaining public acceptance for the implementation of wide scale nuclear power generation. At a critical point, as a vigorous and dogmatic anti-nuclear movement was emerging, scientists were publicly lifting their voices to question the safety of the then current reactor designs, rather than reassuring the public of their safety. The scientists were genuinely alarmed, and this only added to public concerns. about the safety of nuclear power.

Milton Shaw's vision and his personality lay at the heart of the unfolding disaster. Robert Pool noted:
Milton Shaw, the head of the AEC's Division of Reactor Development and Technology, was convinced that such safety research was reaching the point of diminishing returns. An old Rickover protege, Shaw saw light-water reactors as a mature technology. The key to the safety of commercial power plants, he thought, was the same thing that had worked so well for the navy reactor program: thick books of regulations specifying every detail of the reactors, coupled with careful oversight to make sure the regulations were followed to the letter.
Pool here has captured the problems with Shaw's vision. During the Shaw era, Light water reactors were not a mature technology, and in fact many questions about nuclear safety needed to be resolved as American Scientists well understood.

Shaw's vision was shaped by his experience with Hyman Rickover's Navy reactor team, and later as an administrator of Navy research programs. Navy reactors were much smaller than those which American utility administrators now contemplated. Large size added both to reactor complexity and to the danger they potentially posed. As Pool pointed out, the Navy's solution was through very careful quality control and redundancy. This solution undoubtedly worked. A comparison of the United States Navy's nuclear safety record with that of the Soviet Navy is highly instructive. However, the frequent Soviet Naval reactor disasters, although sometimes fatal to members of submarine crews, did not cause major social displacement. This was not to prove the case in the accident involving a large Soviet civilian power reactor at Chernobyl.

Pool notes how the nuclear safety approach of the American scientific community differed from that of Rickover's Navy
a scientist's approach to safety (was) figure the maximum credible accident, prepare for it, and everything else will be automatically taken care of.

Shaw believed, Pool claims that the largest conceivable accident concepts were,
academic fantasies. he worst-case loss-of-coolant accidents, for example, envisioned a major cooling pipe breaking in two. It was a scientist's approach to safety: figure the maximum credible accident, prepare for it, and everything else will be automatically taken care of. But Shaw contended that nuclear accidents were more likely to be the result of little breakdowns that snowballed. Take care of the little things, and the big things would take care of themselves-that was Shaw's safety philosophy, and he was in charge of all the AEC's safety research.
The major nuclear accidents which concerned the scientists were admittedly rare. Yet Ameriican scientists were correct in assuming that Light Water Reactoir technology, from the viewpoint of nuclear safety, was by no means mature. This was to be proven in 1979 at a place called Three Mile island. Scientists at two AEC facilities, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the AEC's reactor testing station at Idaho Falls, had been carrying out nuclear safety research. Oak Ridge scientists, lead by George W, Parker, had been studying the response of nuclear fuel to reactor accidents since 1955. My father, C.J. Barton, Sr., had been part of this research team between 1960 and 1964, but had seen early indications of the pressure that Milton Shaw would put on nuclear safety research, and looked for another research focus to which he could apply his talents. In fact Parker and my father took a middle of the road attitude toward the dangers posed by nuclear accidents, and had concluded in their summation of ORNL nuclear safety research between 1955 and 1965 that
In conclusion, we wish to emphasize that there are many factors affecting the fission product source term and the amount of fission products which actually can escape the containment system of power reactors in reactor accidents.
Unlike Shaw, the Oak Ridge reactor chemists regarded their research as providing
highly useful information,
They concluded,
it is now recognized that the hazard of reactor accidents can be fully evaluated only through sophisticated accident simulation experiments in facilities such as the Containment Research Installation (ORNL), the Containment Systems Experiment (Battelle Northwest), 4 and the Loss-of-Fluid Test (Phillips-Idaho).
I now suspect that the report by Parker's team titled OUT-OF-PILE STUDIES OF FISSION-PRODUCT RELEASE FROM OVERHEATED REACTOR FUELS AT ORNL, 1955--1965. was "commissioned" by Weinberg to support the case that he and other scientists were arguing with the Shaw dominated AEC. My father was summonsed back from Molten Salt Breeder Reactor research to contribute his writing skills to the effort. He later stated that he had been asked to interpret George Parker to the world. Indirectly his interpretive efforts may have been effective enough to call Milton Shaw's wrath down, if not on the entire laboratory, at least upon the ORNL Reactor Chemistry Division, which was shortly thereafter destroyed.

Milton Shaw thought recommendations like those of George Parker and my father were a wasts of time and money. In her history of the Idaho National Laboratory, titled "Proving the Principle," Susan M. Stacy stated,
Shaw felt that standards and criteria, combined with experience and good engineering judgment would protect public safety. He sided with those who felt it was possible to prevent accidents by building reliable back-up systems— defense-in-depth. Understanding the moment-by-moment progress of an accident that would never happen was a waste of money.
While Milton Shaw had dealt primarily with ORNL management at a distance, he had chosen a more hands on approach at the Idaho Falls National Reactor Test site. The test sites began to feel pressure from Shaw after began when operators began to bring to bring a new research reactor to criticality for the first time.
As the operators rotated the con- trol cylinders, they saw that the count- rate recorders were not behaving according to prediction. It could mean a delay like an earlier one when the stain- less-steel coolant pipe had been acci- dentally over-pressurized. Some of the pipe, thirty-six inches in diameter, had bulged and deformed. The pipe was ruined. Replacing it had cost millions of dollars and a year of time. . . . the drive mechanisms for the sixteen control cylinders would not rotate on command. Each of the drive units had been installed backwards.
Milton Shaw, the director of AEC-Headquarters’ Division of Reactor Development and Technology, was not amused with the misstep with his new toy. The history of the Arco Lb asserts,
It was likely that if Shaw chose to assert his convictions, the shift in emphasis would change the com- fortable old way of doing things at the NRTS.
Shaw showed up in Idaho and delivered a Rickover style tirade to the upper management of the facility. Shaw was quite correct that the mistake had been serious blunder, but his management style was modeled after Rickover's and his solutions were simply to adopt adopt Rickover's solutions to all problems, has if fanatic attention to quality control could in all instances bring nuclear safety.

Shaw may have chosen to deal with the NRTS staff because they were more vulnerable and easily controlled by the Rickover method than ORNL was. The Rickover method involved humiliating people in order to break them, and treating people could be controlled by fear more gently. Shaw probably sumized that Weinberg was too big a fish to be controlled by the Rickover treatment, and thus controling ORNL would have involved first getting rid of Weinberg. This is exactly what Shaw did. Indeed Shaw also suceeeded in destroying ORNL as a reactor research center despite the fact that ORNL had given the Light Water Reactor concept to the Navy. Arco got to keep its reactors, but at a price,

A loss of coolant accident was a major concern of the scientists.
In the new plants, the reactor core con- tained tons of fuel. Analysts imagined the consequences if the coolant somehow failed to carry away the heat of fission- ing. Suppose a pipe leaked or broke? The SPERT tests had proven that such a situ- ation would easily put a stop to the chain reaction: the loss of pressure would allow the water to turn to steam; the lower density of steam would fail to moderate the neutrons; and the nuclear reaction would stop. But the radioactive decay of the fission products inside the fuel elements would continue to produce heat and continue to need cooling. Even though the decay heat was a small percent of the heat of a fissioning reactor, it was enough to melt the fuel and clad metal, leading to potentially violent interactions with water or air. Scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory attempted to define what might be at stake. They imagined the worst case loss-of-coolant accident (LOCA) in a reactor located very near a large city. They elaborated it with the worst possible weather conditions. Then they calculated the consequences if the fuel melted. They speculated that it would drop to the bottom of the pres- sure vessel, melt through it, fall to the concrete floor and basements beneath the power plant, burn through the con- crete, and proceed through the earth “to China,” or at least in the direction of China, until the fuel cooled naturally. Worse, steam pressure might rupture the containment vessel and send fission products into the atmosphere whichever way the wind was blowing. Having breached their triple containment, the fission products would be an immediate hazard in the air and could eventually contaminate soil and water supplies.
A reactor was designed to test the Loss of Coolant Accident at Arco, during the early 1960's before Shaw moved from the Navy Department to the AEC. The reactor, called the LOFT was intended to be tested to the point of destruction. It should be noted that George Parker and my father had deemed the LOFT to be an important project, but for Shaw it was a waste of time. Then, the regulatory responsibilities of the AEC presented Shaw with an excuse to divert the LOFT project to other uses.
Back in Washington, the regulators were trying to cope with license appli- cations. They wondered whether the proposed tests, being performed on a small reactor, would actually tell them anything relevant about large reactors. Some of the AEC staff doubted that the methods for analyzing the core melt or the water interaction with melting zircaloy were sophisticated enough to produce meaningful data. Nor were they sure that the containment vessel would withstand the gas pressures generated during the meltdown.

Milton Shaw wondered if the LOFT project would fall prey to the same kinds of problems as the ATR. He saw the possibility that unreliable parts or equipment might interfere with good test results. What was the point of an experiment if it used the wrong parts, the wrong materials, and met the wrong specifications? Results could never be duplicated. The project was about ten percent complete, and the reactor’s eighty-ton pressure vessel had been fabricated. Nevertheless, Shaw stopped the work to “regroup and do the job right.” Quality assurance hit the LOFT project. The experiment was going to become much more complex. ; ; ;

One view was that the AEC should confront it directly: test it, under- stand it, characterize it, and learn how to make it inherently impossible. This had been one purpose of the original test plan for the LOFT experiment. The other view was that this was costly and unnecessary. The China Syndrome should simply be prevented. Emergency core cooling system (ECCS) engineering should be so foolproof that nuclear fuel would never have a chance to melt. If anything was to be researched, it should be these engineering preventatives. . . .

For LOFT the upshot of all the talk was a loss of support for the original experi- ments. Those advocating research on the mechanism of the China Syndrome ultimately were disappointed. Aside from Shaw’s determination to make LOFT a showcase for new quality assurance procedures, the project drift- ed. People were laid off. Work stopped, started, stopped. Funds were held back or stinted, even though they had been appropriated.
Then researchers
developed computer models predicting the behavior of coolant in a LOCA. Among other experimental devices, they built a simulated reactor called Semiscale to help understand how coolant water would behave as it depressurized after a pipe broke. This process was called a “blowdown.” Blowdown tests and computer analysis of the simulated accidents led to computer programs, called codes, capable of predicting the performance of back- up cooling systems during a blowdown. . . . The Semiscale heat source was electrical but created the same high temperatures as a reactor. Between November 1970 and March 1971, a series of tests demonstrated—unexpectedly—that after certain accidents, steam pressure in the coolant pipes prevented any emergency water at all from gaining access to the core. . . . The margins of safety that had previously been assumed for commercial emergency core cooling systems would have to be revised downward. .
Thus Shaw's contention that LWR technology was mature was demonstrated to be false. The AEC was forced to adopt
a set of requirements more conservative than had been the case before. They were “Interim” Acceptance Criteria, a set of safety requirements that a utility company had to meet in order to obtain a license from the AEC.
These revised licensing requirements forced the costly revision to the designs of nuclear plants that were already under construction as well as costly revisions to the design of planned plants. Shaw's view that the LWR was mature was proving not only mistaken, but a very costly mistake that began to create market doubts about the viability of nuclear power.

The disatisfaction among Idaho scientists was extreme, and science writers told of secret night time rondavous in Idaho Falls, followed by clandestine meetings. But beyond the dissatisfaction of scientists was the questions that the market was beginning to ask about the viability of nuclear power.

Despite the growing nuclear safety problem, as Robert Pool notes:
In 1972, for example, with a hundred light-water reactors either built or on order in the United States and no commercial breeders, Shaw split his $53 million safety budget down the middle-half for light-water and half for the breeder.
Shaw's disregard for the safety issue, his deluded concept of nuclear maturity, and his dogged determination to continue forward with the oversold LMFBR project had left the realm of sanity.


donb said...

Very interesting narrative.

While Milton Shaw may have been wrong about a number of things, he was right about the accident scenario, which later unfolded at Three Mile Island. As Robert Pool wrote:
Shaw contended that nuclear accidents were more likely to be the result of little breakdowns that snowballed.
This is exactly what happened at TMI. And as Susan M. Stacy noted:
He (Shaw) sided with those who felt it was possible to prevent accidents by building reliable back-up systems— defense-in-depth.
While the accident was not prevented, defense-in-depth is exactly what saved the public from harm at TMI.

Susan M. Stacy's next sentence speaks loudly:
Understanding the moment-by-moment progress of an accident that would never happen was a waste of money.
Here is where Shaw erred. It was lack of understanding that was the undoing of TMI. It turned what should have been a routine unplanned shutdown into an event that partially melted the reactor.

In a way, TMI accomplished what the LOFT experiment was supposed to do. It happened on a full-sized reactor. Unfortunately, it was unplanned, poorly controlled, and very expensive. Nevertheless, important lessons were learned, lessons that contributed the enhanced safety and reliability we see today in our fleet of light water reactors.

This is not to say that I am an uncritical LWR supporter. But it is what we have operating right now. We need to make the best use of what we have until we can replace them safer, more efficient reactors.

Charles Barton said...

donb Shaw failed to follow through on his safety philosophy. The Three Mile Island accident was in practice a failure of Shaw's approach, because the safety based engineering and quality control were not in force, even though the 1979 NRC was more serious about safety regulation enforcement, than the aEC was during the Shaw era. Post 1979, the NRC did what they could, which was to adopt the Shaw approach with the with fine tooth comb Shaw envisioned. whether or not the Shaw approach to nuclear safety helps the nuclear industry is open to question. But that is a topic for another post.


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