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Scientist developed nuclear fuel for USS Nautilus

| Monday, July 18, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Tribune-Review
Zalman Shapiro, founder of the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. in Apollo.

In a lifetime of major technological accomplishments, Zalman Shapiro was proudest of being one of the developers of the nuclear fuel for the world's first atomic submarine, the USS Nautilus.

While Shapiro's accomplishments were among the landmarks of the Atomic Age, he was dogged by allegations — never proven — of illegally providing nuclear materials to Israel for its nuclear weapons program in the 1960s.

Shapiro, 96, died Saturday at his home in Pittsburgh's Oakland section.

Shapiro founded a nuclear fuel company in Apollo, Armstrong County, in 1957, pioneering the first continuous production process for nuclear reactor fuel, a crucial step in making nuclear power commercially viable.

The Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. produced fuel and other nuclear products for the U.S. government. It designed and constructed the first commercial plutonium facility in Parks Township, where the first nuclear-powered cardiac pacemaker was developed.

“He was a brilliant and courageous scientist, who was one of the pioneers of the nuclear age,” said daughter Deborah Shapiro. “My dad was a patriot who made substantial contributions to the defense and welfare of the United States.”

A longtime friend, Pittsburgh forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht, said, “Dr. Shapiro was a very astute gentleman with a combination of intellectual brilliance and a very high level of ethical behavior and personal integrity.”

Both were active in the Zionist Organization of America, the country's oldest pro-Israel group.

“He was a very ardent supporter of Israel where he contributed intellectually and shared nonconfidential information of an academic nature with his colleagues there,” Wecht said.

Multiple investigations

Shapiro, though, was best known for the allegations he provided the Israelis with weapons-grade uranium.

Despite nearly two decades of investigations by Congress, the FBI, CIA and others, Shapiro never was charged, nor lost his security clearance.

He vehemently denied the accusation.

“Why would I jeopardize my position, my integrity, my life?” Shapiro said in a recent interview with the Tribune-Review.

“What are they going to write on my tombstone: ‘He diverted material to Israel.' I don't want to go to my grave with this hanging over my head,” he said in another interview. “The government made a mistake and they should admit it.”

Shapiro did have an unlikely ally: Environmental activist Patty Ameno of Hyde Park. Ameno spearheaded lawsuits that settled for about $92 million against NUMEC's successors, the Atlantic Richfield Co., and Babcock & Wilcox for wrongful death, personal injury and property damage from the nuclear plants' emissions.

“I never thought for one moment Zal was guilty of illegally sending nuclear material to Israel,” she said. “The government, as the regulator, either knew or should have known that the ‘lost' nuclear materials went up the stacks, went into the (Kiski) river or got buried.”

Shapiro's expertise with zirconium, a hard metal resistant to corrosion, contributed greatly to his success in developing nuclear fuel for the Navy and for commercial plants, including the first atomic plant in Shippingport, Beaver County.

“Zirconium is virtually synonymous with Zalman Shapiro,” said Francis Cotter of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., a former Westinghouse vice president, in a 2009 letter supporting Shapiro's nomination for a National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

In addition to his daughter, Shapiro is survived by his wife, Evelyn; sons Joshua of Chappaqua, N.Y., and Ezra of Israel; 10 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren.

Shapiro was raised in Passaic, N.J., where he was valedictorian at his high school. He was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where he also got a Ph.D in chemistry.

He came to Pittsburgh to work at Westinghouse's nuclear division in 1947 and received the company's Silver W Award of Merit for his work on the Nautilus.

Shapiro returned to Westinghouse in 1971, after selling NUMEC. While retired, Shapiro was awarded his 15th patent at age 89 for developing synthetic diamonds.

“My father was a tireless problem-solver,” said Deborah Shapiro. “He was constantly trying to use his mind to see how he could make things better.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or mthomas@tribweb.com.

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