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Bettis lab gave Pittsburgh a place in history of nuclear power

Monday, March 15, 1999

By Sharon Voas, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Just a half mile up Lebanon Church Road from Mr. Hoagie in West Mifflin and a short walk from the Locker Room Bar is a cluster of drab buildings where one of the most momentous pieces of modern history was made.

  Charles Weaver, first manager of the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, spades out the first shovel of earth at the plant groundbreaking in May 1953. (Post-Gazette)

It was in this scattering of mostly low red- and yellow-brick buildings - the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory - that scientists and engineers created the first peaceful uses of the atom.

Fifty years ago, when virtually nothing was known about how, or even whether, atomic fission might be used as a power source instead of an explosive force, Westinghouse Electric Corp. signed a contract with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, building the Bettis lab to create the first "atomic engine."

The date was December 10, 1948, only three years after the United States dropped the atomic bomb, and atomic scientists were held in an almost God-like awe for "unlocking the secrets of the universe." The Pittsburgh Press declared that the signing of the contract "places Pittsburgh in bold letters on the atomic research map."

The Bettis researchers tamed the most explosive force in the world to propel submarines and other ships, helping to make the U.S. Navy the most powerful on Earth. They then scaled up a version of their reactor to build the world's first commercial nuclear power plant at Shippingport.

But Bettis' first developments benefited from unique qualities that fostered a misleading confidence in nuclear power, critics say. The Atomic Energy Commission held them up as evidence of the possibility of a nuclear utopia in which nuclear power would provide an infinite and cheap supply of energy.

But in those heady days of 1948, the Bettis scientists and engineers, who smiled for the press photos in their fedoras and double-breasted, pin-striped suits, knew only that they were taking on "the toughest engineering job in the United States."

"You knew you were into something big," said Charles Weaver, who was only 34 when he was handed the job as Bettis' first manager. "You felt like you were revolutionizing the power of the world."

Weaver, now 84, trim, and impeccably dressed in a gray turtleneck with matching herringbone jacket, is a man with an air of great discipline. He oversaw the Bettis operations for 31 years, first as the manager and then as a Westinghouse vice president. As he sorts through stacks of old photo albums and awards in his elegant Shadyside apartment, he speaks proudly of the work at Bettis.

"You get into something like this, it's an adventure," he said with a bemused smile. "Every step is exciting."

Submarine propulsion was chosen as the first application of atomic power because submarines then had a whale-like quality that made them inherently vulnerable. Powered by batteries while submerged, they had to surface regularly to get air for the diesel engines that recharged their batteries. But a nuclear-powered submarine could remain submerged and run for years without refueling.

Between the dream of a nuclear-powered submarine and the reality were myriad mind-boggling challenges.

Although American scientists knew how to set off a chain reaction in radioactive materials, they hadn't come anywhere close to bridling the wild reactions enough for use as a power source.

All they had were "atomic piles," crude piles of uranium-laced graphite blocks that were massive, weighed hundreds of tons and operated at temperatures too low to produce steam.

The Bettis researchers had to make a nuclear reactor small enough and light enough to fit in a submarine. They also had to make it run at temperatures high enough to produce steam to turn a turbine, which in turn would propel the submarine and generate electricity.

To get a more intense, more controlled reaction in a much smaller space, the Bettis researchers concentrated uranium in fuel pellets the size of a finger down to one joint and lined these pellets up in long, thin rods.

But this solution presented another major problem. To make the rods to hold the pellets they would need a material that would not corrode in a super-hot and wet environment, but would not impede the movement of neutrons, the subatomic particles that generate nuclear energy by smashing apart uranium nuclei.

The Bettis engineers literally built their own plant to produce such a material - pure zirconium crystal.

To control the nuclear reaction, they invented finger-like control rods that absorbed neutrons and could be moved in and out from among the fuel rods.

Operating at high temperatures caused another set of problems. Materials such as steel lose strength as heat increases, so all of the pipes and other equipment would tend to corrode - a problem only made worse by the wet and radioactive environment.

"All of the components of the plant - all the valves, all the pumps - had to be specially designed because of radiation and corrosion," Weaver said. "None of this had been done before."

Rear Adm. Hyman Rickover, the father of the nuclear Navy, ruled the program with an iron fist.

"Throughout the program, he was the driving force, and he was not an easy man to work with," Weaver said. "I survived him. He was a friend, but a hard taskmaster."

Rickover was so demanding that after one of their meetings - always held on nights and weekends because Rickover squeezed every minute out of the day - Weaver dreamed he was a puppet and Rickover was pulling the strings.

"He was the most intuitive engineer I've ever known [even though he wasn't an engineer]," Weaver said. "He'd hear somebody just describe something and say he didn't think that would work."

The Bettis workers celebrated their first big taste of success March 30, 1953, when their reactor produced a self-sustaining chain reaction at the Naval Reactors Facility in Idaho. Bettis' reactor was then built into a submarine designed by Electric Boat Corp. of Groton, Conn.

On Jan. 21, 1954, after a champagne christening by Mamie Eisenhower, the first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, slid into the ocean at Groton, Conn.

Weaver celebrated on board with Rickover and the submarine captain. "We had probably the first nuclear coffee," Weaver said. "In the sense that the power on board was nuclear, it heated the coffee."

Rickover was also the driving force behind scaling up the submarine's nuclear reactor to build the first commercial nuclear power plant.

"After we saw it work in the submarine, we all thought it would move out into the field of commercial power and be a substitute for dwindling supplies of coal and oil to supply our homes," Weaver said. "At the time, all the indications were that we had a rapidly disappearing supply of petroleum. We believed it was an infinite source of power for everything but things like cars."

Shippingport Atomic Station began zinging power into the commercial electric grid for Duquesne Light Co. in 1957.

The Atomic Energy Commission held up the Nautilus and Shippingport as symbols of a just-opening atomic future, said former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall in his 1994 book on nuclear power, "The Myths of August." Bettis' early success helped persuade Congress to provide subsidies to entice reluctant utilities to build nuclear power reactors and to promote misbegotten projects, such as nuclear airplanes.

But the nuclear submarine reactor was a unique masterpiece, Udall wrote, because Rickover was a gifted and ruthless perfectionist. The submarine also operated in an envelope of ocean water that resolved radiation shielding and safety problems that would confound those who tried to develop workable reactors on land, Udall said. Indeed, the commercial nuclear power industry has never been able to match the outstanding safety and performance record of the nuclear navy.

The legacy of this misplaced faith in nuclear technology, he maintained, are radioactive wastes, the potential for radioactive releases from power plants and the proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world.

"It got to be a competitive business too soon," Weaver said. "General Electric started selling reactors. Every utility in the country wanted to buy one before the bugs were all worked out. With the submarine, we moved along in an orderly fashion and worked the bugs out as we went along."

The government's failure to provide the means to dispose of highly radioactive spent fuel handed ammunition to anti-nuclear critics, Weaver added.

Bettis also designed and built a light-water breeder reactor at Shippingport, a type of reactor that produced more nuclear fuel than it consumed. But the highly controversial breeder reactor program was plagued with risks and President Jimmy Carter canceled it.

Nuclear propulsion for naval ships, however, has remained an important mission.

Bettis designed the first nuclear-powered cruiser, the USS Long Beach, and the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, which is in the Persian Gulf now launching warplanes over Iraq. Bettis has designed the reactors for Nimitz-class aircraft carriers and fleet ballistic missile and attack submarines. Bettis, now one of the Navy's two nuclear ship propulsion design centers, began designing an updated nuclear reactor for a new class of aircraft carriers this fall.

"There's a great feeling of pride in our workers here when they see our carriers around the world on TV and they think about the role they play in that," said Bettis general manager Byron Ruth.

More than 40 percent of the Navy's combat fleet is nuclear powered. Bettis, which employs 2,100, trains the sailors who run these warships, overhauls the nuclear propulsion systems and provides day-to-day technical support.

Ironically, the same week that Westinghouse celebrated its 50th anniversary of managing Bettis, it lost its government contract to run Bettis. On Dec. 15, the government denied an appeal by Westinghouse to overturn its decision to award the five-year, $1.4 billion contract to manage Bettis to the San Francisco-based Bechtel Group.

Although no other company had ever managed Bettis, Navy officials were said to be upset with how Westinghouse, now known as CBS Corp. after its purchase of the television network, auctioned off its industrial operations with little warning to the government.

But the pride in Bettis' achievements in nuclear power remains, Weaver said.

"It was one of the most tremendous developments of our times," he said, "there is no question."

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