Transcript of Tom Van Witbeck
How OSU Grew Nuclear Science- 50th Anniversary of the Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics (NERHP) Graduate Program
Oregon State University
LaSells Stewart Center, in Corvallis, Oregon
October 11, 2009 39 minute Transcript
Tom Van Witbeck (Narrator) OSU graduate of the Nuclear Engineering Program who worked for Westinghouse and was the lead investigator of the scenario investigation of Three Mile Island
Linda Richards (Interviewer) History of Science graduate student
LR Let’s start with why you came to OSU.
TVW I was in the Navy in the Navy nuclear program. I graduated from high school in ‘59 and spent seven years in the Navy and came time to get out at the end of that enlistment and I looked at what I could do with what I had learned in the Navy and it was clear to me I needed to continue my education. So I interviewed at Los Alamos National Laboratories to be a physics technician and was offered a job there and it basically came down to going to school fulltime and working part time or working full time and going to school part time. Los Alamos would have been work full time and going to school part time so we opted to come to Oregon State. “We” was my wife and I and our two children. I started as a freshman at the age of twenty six (laughs). Graduated in four years, setting no GPA records, I will guarantee you that (both laughing). But we got, we met the objective, we got through in four years. And according to my wife, graduate school was out of the question. It was time to go to work. I went to work for Westinghouse in the commercial nuclear world, starting up commercial nuclear power plants.
TVW And uh, while I was here… I was hired here because while I was in the military I was in the Navy and I was at sea, I contacted Oak Ridge National Laboratory and they gave me a, they sent me some publications that indicated where companies were that did things in the nuclear field, and I compiled a list of different universities with nuclear programs and OSU responded early and I corresponded with Doctor Chih Wang’s organization and the whole intent was that I would be a reactor operator working at the Radiation Center on the work study program. That was my primary reason for choosing Oregon State. Kansas State came in later, but uh, Oregon had already established a repiore with me and that was why I picked it. I had never been here before (laughs).
LR Were you surprised?
TVW I was surprised with Oregon, but pleasantly surprised.
LR How come?
TVW Well, I was raised in the Rocky Mountains. Oregon is, I don’t know, this valley is a lot more of a moist climate than Colorado was, that was a surprise, kind of mildly. It was quite enjoyable the four years I was here. Every term my wife was going to leave me and every term I was going to quit school, but we managed to persevere.
LR Congratulations (both laughing).
TVW The kids did well in school, so all’s well that ends well. And when we left my wife was caring my graduation gift. She was pregnant! Our third child was born the following February, in Pittsburgh, in the suburbs of Pittsburg while I was working for Westinghouse. I spent the next—I graduated basically in 1970, so I have been in the nuclear business ever since. Actually, since I got out of high school in ‘59 so I literally, this is my fiftieth year in the nuclear industry, also.
LR That is one reason why we thought it would be good to record people’s memories.
TVW Yeah, it was fun, it has been fun. I did take a few hobbies up that would elevate some of the continued, I won’t say boredom, but continued emersion in the nuclear business so that I would retain some degree of sanity (laughing). What else is here [looking over to the interviewer’s list of possible questions for the interview]? I remember meeting Chih Wang.
LR What did you think of him?
TVW I thought he was an unusual man. He spent a lot of time getting the [Radiation] Center together, but he always had time for the graduate students, and he was one of the few men I have ever met that you couldn’t argue with because he would claim that he could not understand you. And—because of the language barrier. Then he would end up discussing things with you and you would find out that after he had misunderstood you a few times, he was on the same side of the table as you were, talking from the same point of view. So it was very difficult to have an argument with him about anything. But he was a… he did a very good job putting the Center together. He was looking into the future, he attracted students.
During my junior year, we had about twenty, between twenty and thirty Korean graduate already degreed engineers from Korean Electric Power come over and spend about sixteen, eighteen months with us, and they attended our same classes we attended. It was quite interesting to me. Those gentleman and to see how they quickly picked up language and went from the C minus to the B plus grad average. It was phenomenal.
At the Center when I was there they were still building the reactor itself. Pouring…I remember one of the things they were poured was a shielded door, and the gentleman that put in the liner in the pool that was next to the reactor and the uh, for the experiments, when we irradiated. We wrote procedures for operating it and for starting it up. Terry Anderson was brought in from Idaho. He had worked at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory at that time. And a fellow by the name of Bill Carpenter came down from Richland. They hired him, he had been an operator at the N-Reactor and he was older than most of us at that time. He came down to be a reactor operator. And Art Johnson was brought in for health physics, and John Ringle was in charge of the whole thing. We had some folks a couple of chemistry people; I can’t remember the gentlemen’s names who were doing some work for the Air Force on toxicity of various things. And also, Doctor Schmidt had his moon rocks and we were doing neutron activation analysis of those
LR Uh huh. Now, was that an exciting thing?
TVW oh yes it was.
LR It seemed like it was.
TVW And we started to do some forensic work for the state. They brought in some people, I remember some people stole some copper from the state, no, not from the state, it was a utility, uh, and had taken it out of one of their storage yards and they brought samples of that with samples of the roll that the copper had come from. We analyzed it and showed that it was indeed come from that one particular roll of copper.
TVW Among other things, we worked on other things. Some of the graduate students were doing things. I did a senior project. I remember that they purchased some gold foils from the National Bureau of Standards at the time it was called. We irradiated those in the different beam ports and I did the calculations to calibrate the flux to calculate what the flux was in each of the beam ports, essentially calibrate the beam ports for different exposures, and published that as a paper my senior year.
LR That must have been exciting.
TVW It was. I finished it just about the time that I was leaving town to go on my job. So it was.
LR Do you remember what journal it was in? You probably do?
TVW Say again?
LR Do you remember what journal it was in, or where it got published?
TVW Oh no, I don’t. I don’t believe it really got published anywhere, I published the paper in essence I mean I finished it and wrote it up and gave it to the Radiation Center so they could use it as data for the beam ports.
LR Well, they probably still have it in their library. They have a bunch of the older paper.
TVW They could have, but also one of the other things I got done at the time was interesting. We had a big stack of Nucleonics magazines just sitting there and uh, they were older than that era. They were from a decade to two decades before and I convinced Chih Wang to find the money and we had those bound and put into volumes. They are probably still around there someplace.
LR I will look for them.
TVW And uh, Doctor Ringle came to us and asked me to start at student chapter of the American Nuclear Society. We did that.
LR You started that?
TVW Yes, well, it was with a lot of help from the other students that were around then, and I was an undergraduate and Ringle had approached me. I didn’t know where we were going to get the time to do this. But we got it done. I think I was the first President, but then after that, after me came a few others that were here. We were off to our first conference. It was down in UCLA where we had some graduate students presenting papers. Paul Lorenzene and Dick Stout were all graduate students here then in those days and there were three or four others who I can’t remember. Paul has obviously gone on to do a lot of good work and he is back here I gather working on something, for a new type of reactor. A commercial venture.
LR With the NuScale?
TVW Yeah, NuScale. And he was, Paul went on to get a law degree and a doctorate in Nuclear Engineering. What else would we want to talk about?
LR Do you remember Professor Willis? Was he around when you were around?
TVW Willis was not here, I don’t believe. We had Doctor Lamar Bupp here from General Electric, he was the chair of nuclear, he was a sponsored chair from industry and he was advising us and teaching us classes and his big push was toward the metallurgy. His background was in chemistry and in chemical analysis. He had worked in a number of a laboratories, research laboratories. He a, was pushing for us students to move toward the metallurgical side of the nuclear sciences which was an open area to move into at that time.
LR Did you do that?
TVW No, I worked mostly with start up. Having… at that time there were a lot of commercial nuclear plants out there that were under construction. They were getting into the start up phase and there were very few nuclear operators available so most of them came from the Navy nuclear program. Since I had been in that program, and I had operating experience on nuclear planning when I was in the military when I went to work for Westinghouse I didn’t stand much of a chance of getting into the design field. They put me on projects where we started up nuclear plants. I worked for them for a while and then I went on and went into the consulting business and was doing that for about fifteen years with a company and worked my way up to Vice President, and then got fired like thirteen other vice presidents
TVW (laughing also) I had the distinction of lasting longer than any of the others. After I left that company, I went off on my own. I was doing consulting and I have been doing consulting for, it will be twenty years now this year, it will be my twentieth year.
LR Have you ever counted up how many nuclear plants you started up? Or worked on?
TVW I participated in the start up of six or seven commercial nuclear plants and the Fast Flux Test Facility in Richland Washington. And I have worked at, and done, work for the Department of Energy in at least ten or twelve different laboratories all around the country. Everything, most of it having to do with the formality of operations and getting plans back and getting facilities back in services with a more disciplined approach to operations.
I did learn one thing at the Radiation Center. Our parking lot was adjacent to the intramural field, and they played a lot of rugby there and uh, we would come out at night and there were these gentlemen sitting there with lips cut, arms bleeding
TVW black and blue and right behind us we knew rugby was not something we wanted to participate in. I was in the work study program so I worked 14 hours a week. There were three of us, as I’ve indicated. We were studying basically in the conference room, I mean there in the control room, and they found the money and went up into the ventilation room on the next floor above and built one large room up there and that was for the reactor operators. They allowed us to put three desks in there, there was, it was air conditioned and heated and quiet. We added our own study facility which was extremely helpful during that time and also it put the operators where they knew where we were so they could easily get a hold of us if they needed us for anything.
LR So… the modest amount of background that I know about the TRIGA reactor is that I know it was built by General Atomic so that even a high school student could operate it…
TVW It is a very safe reactor and it’s almost bullet proof from an environmental standpoint. It is extremely safe. Nuclear standpoint also. It very much so self regulating and so it is quite safe to operate. Essentially I had a year of education in the nuclear Navy program and my high school degree and I was able to operate that reactor. We were able to all three of us. Max I believe had some college and I know that Alex had spent some time, he had… I don’t know if he had finished his Associates degree or not. He had spent some time at SOC [Southern Oregon College, now SOU] before he came up here. Alex was also married and also had two children.
LR It sounds like you were quite a team, the three of you.
TVW Max was the single one. We were actually. Alex went to work for Portland General Electric and I believe at one point he was the head of their engineering group up there. He and his wife got divorced but Alex remarried ended up retiring out of Portland General Electric and running a clothing store in one of the towns out near the plant. I have lost touch with him. I haven’t seen him in years but Max and I continued to be in touch with one another and in fact Max went to work for Pacific Gas and Electric and then uh got the correct time in his mind he came to work with a company I was working with who were actually working for me and ran an office for us in Phoenix doing start up of commercial nuclear units down there and then he had been at Battelle Northwest for awhile also and he came to work for me for a period of time and then he was recommended to go to the Atomic Energy to be on as a technical advisor to the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Lando Zak. And he, indeed, was his, went and took that job. He was concerned about leaving the company and I remember telling him at the time that you would be much more valuable to private industry once he had done a, a tour back there under Lando Zak. Unfortunately for private industry, Max stayed (laughing) worked for the NRC and then the Department of Energy. Then he went back out to, he went to work at the Hanford site again and retired. He is now living in Bend Oregon.
LR Is the coming to the anniversary?
TVW He isn’t coming to this one. He’s out of town. He is actually down in the wine country right now with his wife in Northern California. But Max is on the advisory committee for the nuclear engineering curriculum here. He is still doing some work with the university. I haven’t done any work with the university. I have been hiding from them (laughing). But I was talking with Alexia and they are talking about putting together a class on nuclear plant start up and I would—that’s an interest of mine. I might, if something comes of that, I’d be helping with that
LR on the practical side
TVW the practical side of nuclear engineering something out in the field
LR Yeah. I know that large groups of the Chinese students are coming over this last year Its probably very similar to the experience of the Korean students that you had.
TVW From what I understand, that was the case, yeah.
LR Its kind of interesting because I did not know about the Korean students.
TVW That must have been, it would have been ’68, ‘69 when they were here, yeah.
LR Can you tell me a little bit about the moon rocks?
TVW Very little, I know that after Schmitt got some of those out of one of the early flights to the moon and we were, we had a lot of analytical equipment that he had gotten for that project as well as others. It was state of the industry stuff at that time. It was nuclear data and we were using iodine crystal sodium ionide counters as I recall. It was the best that was out there at the time, and we had it here at the Radiation Center and it was used not only to do his work but the forensic work I talked about, in fact I used the equipment to count the samples that I irradiated in the reactor beam ports, the gold foils, yeah. And a number of grad students working on different projects there used that, and we did have another reactor there. We didn’t use it that much.
LR The AGN 201
TVW The AGN 201
LR Did you?
TVW A big tank sitting in a corner. I think we operated it once when I was there.
LR I am glad that you brought that up because other people have commented that the AGN 201 didn’t work very well.
TVW Well, it was an old, it was a tank. It was a very low power reactor.
LR Uh hu, like a .01 [megawatt] or something.
TVW It was .01 watts. I would believe that, yeah. And with the [TRIGA] reactor we were at 250, I believe it was 250 kilowatts of steady state out of our TRIGA and it was a Mark 2 Plus because we had an embellished it the controls,
LR And there were Mark 3 controls. I am glad you can confirm that because I saw the order for it that said that they were going to upgrade it but I didn’t really know what really happened. You know when you look at documents; you don’t really know what really happened (laughs).
TVW Well, yeah.
LR So did that prepare you to be working in the Westinghouse?
LR Did you smoothly did you feel prepared by the program?
TVW Yes. I was prepared by the military operating a steam plant on a ship. And I actually spent a fair amount of time in health physics and in water chemistry on the ship. That was the area I worked in the most. So between that and working with Art [Johnson] here.
LR You worked with Art Johnson?
TVW Yes, I did. I was his, after I operated a reactor for about a year I became his HP technician I did surveys I haven’t seen Art since I left.
LR Art is one reason why we are doing this project.
TVW Oh, great!
LR While I was talking with him, he said we are going to have this anniversary and I thought, maybe we could talk to other people too and he was like, yeah, lets do that. So it is really Art Johnson’s idea. I don’t know if he remembers it or not but he should be here…
TVW So he was the genesis of it.
LR Yeah, yeah.
TVW I had the opportunity and the fortune of being in the right place at the right time working for a consulting firm and the man in charge of what became General Public Utilities was Herman Dieckamp. And Dr. Dieckamp had been in charge of one of the private industry laboratories that our president worked in, the president of our company worked in. And when Three Mile Island happened he called him up and he said Hermann, I have this crew of people who do start ups and have done this kind of work and can you use the help? And he said yes. Get them here as quickly as possible (LR laughing) and two days after the accident happened at Three Mile Island I was sitting in the [TMI] Visitor’s Center discussing whether we should sell the stock short (laughing). It was a… the next year and a half I was at Three Mile Island. I authored the a—the team I headed up—authored the sequence of events of the accident. We interviewed all of the operators numerous times and analyzed charts and other data and pulled it all together and wrote a sequence of events with the first twenty hours; the first two days and then the first month essentially.
LR And is that sequence the NRC report?
TVW Yes. The sequence that we—and they may have done something a little different, they had their own people looking at stuff—but basically what we did was the one that most people used. We had, there was a group of about twenty five. We had a utility person heading it up but after two weeks he left, went home. So I inherited it.
TVW I became the head of it, and I worked under a gentlemen who they brought in out of New Mexico. Dr. Tan in nuclear engineering who used to work for the utility. Our group is the group, we actually made the recommendation to… We had two claims to fame, and the one of them that I was most proud of was the sequence of events but I think the thing that we did that.. We identified the need that the operators needed to have psychological counseling because it was really horrendous for them. They were being interviewed so many times. The newspapers were crucifying them and everybody else. It was a sad circumstance for them. So, we made that, strongly made, that recommendation to the company and they responded and they got some counseling in there for them.
LR Good idea.
TVW I ended up on a committee that worked for Herman DeCamp on what we should do to prevent this accident, this type of accident, from happening again and we made recommendations there. Our other claim to fame was the woman that owned a nursery right next to the Visitor’s Center turned it into a t-shirt shop and souvenir shop. We would go in there and buy a bunch of t-shirts and take them home with us when we went home on weekends to wherever we were going, Idaho—our company was in Idaho Falls, Idaho and I’d be going there. Our group came up with, one of the guys, Micheal, in my group, came up with a slogan “a little nukey never hurt anybody” and it had the twin cooling towers showing on the t-shirt and that was his claim to fame. That was fun.
LR You do have awfully good stories.
TVW Thank you. It was fun though. It was the most challenging, technical thing that I ever did. I have ever done.
LR The Three Mile Island work?
TVW Yes. Because I used everything I knew about being an operator. I could talk to the operator about things that you know the way they talked about them, I understood that. The nuclear stuff I understood from my degree and then the start up and how the organizations are set up on the regulatory side I knew from my work with Westinghouse working on start ups, where we were interfacing with the NRC on a routine basis for our clients and so it worked, it worked out quite well. And my health physics work with Art Johnson and others, that was also useful.
LR I was going to ask was there anything from OSU that helped you?
TVW Well, the whole understanding of nuclear physics in more sophisticated terms than I understood it from the Navy education. Also, the health physics again with Art, I learned a lot more about health physics than I had known at that time there, even though I had worked in that in the Navy. Ours was mostly “this is how you do it, these are the impacts” and then you read a bunch more material because you are interested in it. With Art it was also he directed me to different things and showed me the paths in health physics that people went through, and the techniques they used for analyzing and that kind of thing. So it was very interesting and useful and it all came together. Very much so.
LR Well, you have had fifty interesting years.
TVW I have had a very interesting time. (LR laughing). We have lived in a lot of parts of the country and worked on a lot of facilities and met a lot of people. And I have enjoyed it very much.
LR That’s wonderful.
TVW Thank you.
LR Maybe that is the right place to stop…but you know there was one more thing I was kind of wondering about
TVW Go ahead.
LR Actually it was on the list of what to ask, but it is not really specific to OSU. Um, because the perception of nuclear energy has changed so much during the years I was wondering, if you had any, you know, insight on the acceptance of nuclear power, the rejection of nuclear power and how do you feel about all of that? How that affected you?
TVW Well… for a long time I have actually thought I would be in on the birth and the death of an industry in this country in my lifetime. But I see cause to think that it will continue and grow in this country now. My own personal feeling is that this was the first industry that really analyzed accidents, that were credible accidents that could occur to a facility, and put that analysis in the public forum and then designed a facility with the appropriate safeguards to control it, given those accidents happen. And I think the fact that we put that information out there—those that did not like nuclear power could use that to their advantage to frighten the general public. Horror stories of these design basis accidents and put their spin on it. You add to that the idea that a commercial nuclear unit licensing process was two steps; the first step being the construction permit phase, where you were actually in the beginning fessing up for, you know, seven hundred fifty million dollars with a guarantee that you would have a operating facility from the vendor. The first plants were done turn-key; GE and Westinghouse were doing turn-key plants. So if your operators couldn’t get licensed, they would license theirs, but there was still no guarantee you were going to get an operating license. So after you got the plant built then you went before the NRC—well the early days, the Atomic Energy Commission—then the NRC, applied for an operating license and the interveners [those opposed to the construction of nuclear power plants during licensing procedures]had ample opportunity both in the construction permit phase and at the operating license to present their case and then sway the public to their side and argue the license shouldn’t be granted. There were several plants that didn’t finish because of the costs mounted and the adverse publicity the industry was receiving although we had no accidents up until Three Mile Island in the commercial nuclear side. There was obviously the SL 1 accident in Idaho but the public believed we were a real hazard to them, and continued to believe that for decades. And I think that the fact that the industry and the military and the Navy program have operated essentially accident free except for TMI, all those years speaks to the design of the plants and the credibility of the analysis, and the training, and the commitment of the operators. I think we are seeing that people are coming to believe that nuclear power is safe. I have all these examples in my own mind, in my own life, that if I had to put my family next to any kind of a commercial facility, of any kind, manufacturing or otherwise, I would choose a nuclear power plant because it is the safest place to be. It is the most well designed and analyzed facility in the country. And I think there are fourteen, somewhere between fourteen and twenty six depending on which sources you look at and what you want to call a commitment for new plants being, working their way thru the system by now so…I am happy to see that. I think that it is an ideal time to be going into the nuclear field. I was thirty when I graduated from college and then I went into the commercial industry. So I am about the age of a lot of the people who were in the first group working in the nuclear industry on a commercial scale. And, we are all retiring. Or moving into retirement or have retired. There are a number of jobs becoming available in the commercial nuclear industry, as well as the Department of Energy. There are thirty percent, forty percent of the DOE could retire at any time, you know. That is a tremendous number of jobs available. Going to be available, or coming available. Especially for young engineers, be they men or women. We have I think gotten past most of the bias against women engineers. I can remember working within Westinghouse there were engineers who flat made a statement that they would not work with women engineers.
LR Was that in the sixties?
TVW Oh yeah. Now these were gentlemen who were already in their fifties and they just did not think that women engineers had the grounding necessary to work as engineers.
LR You felt differently?
TVW Yeah. I had had, there were some women in my class, and I had worked with some women on various nuclear plants that were more than capable of holding up their end of the bargain and doing work.
LR Wanda Munn is going to talk to us today. I hope she will come.
LR Do you know[her]?
TVW I don’t ..
LR It is a great little story, because you might have been a student when she ran the office. She ran the office of the Radiation Center and then decided to get a nuclear engineering degree.
TVW What is her name again?
LR Wanda Munn.
TVW Okay! I bet I do know Wanda Munn.
LR She has been recognized nationally as an outstanding nuclear engineer.
TVW If it is the lady I am thinking of I can understand that.
LR Yeah. She will be the keynote I think, for the anniversary.
TVW Okay. Alright, yeah.
LR And I might have the eras wrong. Maybe you might not have been there when she was doing that. I just thought that would be a very interesting story to hear as well.
TVW Yes. It would be.
LR The atypical experience (LR Laughing)
TVW Exactly. That’s good. Any other questions?
LR I really appreciated this time that you gave me, I think I will turn it off now [the digital recording] but I wanted to make sure you knew that maybe I could talk to you again?
TVW Sure (LR laughing).