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NUMEC made significant advancements

| Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2002

Zalman M. Shapiro, 82, of Pittsburgh, founder and president of Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. in Apollo and Parks, is a pioneer in the nuclear industry.

Shapiro is considered a brilliant scientist by his peers, as he was one of the first people selected to work at the Westinghouse Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, West Mifflin, to develop the Mark I nuclear reactor for Nautilus, the country's first nuclear-powered submarine.

In an interview with the Valley News Dispatch earlier this year, Shapiro recounted his and NUMEC's accomplishments.

Before Shapiro hatched NUMEC in 1957 with several other Bettis scientists, he was instrumental in the development of the country's first nuclear-powered submarine.

Surprisingly, the U.S. government was a bit gun-shy about switching subs from diesel engines and batteries to nuclear fuel.

"There were those in the Navy who felt it wasn't desirable," Shapiro said of the nuclear component of the sub. "(Admiral Hyman) Rickover had connections with the Atomic Energy Commission and convinced them of the necessity of having a nuclear-powered submarine."

Ordinary submarines could only stay submerged for a short time because they ran on battery power while underwater. The conventional diesel engines in the subs could not be used while submerged because they needed air to function.

In contrast, nuclear-powered subs could cruise underwater indefinitely. The nuclear engines needed no air and did not create toxic exhaust fumes. They didn't need to be recharged like batteries.

With the dawn of the atomic age, the ramifications of such power were enormous. A fleet of submarines that could stay submerged - and therefore hidden - for long periods was a huge military advantage.

The Nautilus was commissioned by the U.S. Navy in 1954 and, on its maiden voyage, broke all previous records for underwater speed and endurance.

"It was a very exciting project and, yes, there was pressure. For the most part we pressured ourselves," Shapiro said.

During development of the sub, 80-hour work weeks were the norm.

"We didn't know about how to produce an engine - a nuclear-powered engine for the sub. We had to start from scratch. In spite of that, we were able to have a prototype ready in four years, which is outstanding," Shapiro said.

He said it would be almost impossible today to produce such an innovation in such a short period of time.

"At that time, money was no object. We did what was necessary to do it in record time and successfully."

While working at Westinghouse Bettis in the 1950s, Shapiro helped develop the nuclear fuel for the first commercially operated nuclear reactor in the country in Shippingport, Beaver County.

But Shapiro saw production problems with nuclear fuel for the power plant. Fuel was produced in batches, and maintaining consistency in fuel batches was difficult.

"It was quite obvious that the method for fuel was not good and could be improved," Shapiro said. "It was an opportunity I felt was available to me and was the basis for the company I started."

NUMEC developed the first continuous conversion process for the production of fuel for utility power reactors, a crucial step in making the nuclear power industry more economically and commercially viable - one of NUMEC's greatest achievements, Shapiro said.

In other words, Shapiro's company was the first to mass produce nuclear fuel good enough to power commercial reactors. Without this manufacturing breakthrough, the availability of fuel for a large, nuclear-powered Navy would have been questionable and commercial nuclear power plant operations would likely have been unfeasible.

"We were very successful," he said.

Being on the cutting edge of nuclear technology was exciting, said Shapiro, but sometimes experimental programs met an early demise and that resulted in slashed budgets at NUMEC.

In the mid-1960s, NUMEC was the lead contractor with Lockheed to develop a nuclear device to power a space station, according to Shapiro. A new director at the AEC canceled the program.

"We spent a hell of a lot of money for that. When you write up these proposals, it was an expensive proposition.

"We got Lockheed involved because they were big and involved in the space program. We did all the work, they were along for the ride. We were the tail wagging the dog."

In fact, Shapiro said his company was the first and best in the production of nuclear fuel in the 1960s.

"Other companies like General Electric and Westinghouse saw what we were doing and felt free to copy," Shapiro said. "They came in saying they wanted to buy stuff from us, but before they did, they came in and examined.

NUMEC's scientists strived to produce new types of nuclear fuel.

"You had to research them from the word 'go' and determine what was the best process. We were doing things for the first time, said Shapiro. For him, typical days were spent 16 hours at work, seven days a week.

"It was very challenging and exciting," he said. "These were fuels and materials produced for the first time."

Many of NUMEC's contracts with the Atomic Energy Commission and Department of Defense were - and some still are - classified.

"We were working for the national defense," Shapiro said. "These were new things, scientific challenges.

"You always have satisfaction with success. You worked hard to achieve success, and it was very important we achieved success because it was for the success of the country."

And former colleague Dan Klein, 75, of Pittsburgh got a chance to see some of that success.

"He's a smart, brilliant man. An entrepreneur and he learns easily," said Klein, a nuclear reactor physicist at Westinghouse from 1954 to 1986 and then a consultant from 1989 to 1991.

He worked with Shapiro in 1972 when nuclear fusion was on the horizon. They eventually worked out an an agreement with Princeton University for conceptual design concepts for fusion.

"The process would eliminate waste problems - so fusion would be the ultimate source," Klein said. Although not used, the concepts still are on the drawing board.

NUMEC's nuclear landmarks

Many of Zalman Shapiro's and NUMEC's accomplishments listed below were taken from documents and statements Shapiro made in 1978 to U.S. Reps. Morris K. Udall, D-Ariz., and Robert E. Bauman, R-Md., whose Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs investigated missing uranium from NUMEC.

Other items were taken from various documents from the FBI, Department of Defense, Atomic Energy Commission, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other government agencies.

  • NUMEC was the first facility to fabricate the uniform spherical coated particle fuel required in the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) program, which was to use atomic energy to propel a rocket for interplanetary travel. According to NASA, nuclear rockets were shelved in the 1960s because of the public's fear of anything nuclear. NERVA involved the Los Alamos (N.M) laboratory, Westinghouse, Aerojet and other industrial companies.

  • Shapiro proposed and supervised the first major program for the preparation and determination of the pre- and post-irradiation properties of mixed oxide fuel. This was a new fuel for nuclear reactors.

  • NUMEC designed and constructed the first major commercial plutonium facility in the world in Parks in 1960.

  • NUMEC was the first commercial manufacturer of plutonium and americium neutron sources for oil well, logging and other applications. Neutron sources are used for oil exploration. The devices using neutrons help find oil beneath the earth.

  • At the Atomic Energy Commission's request, NUMEC established a plant and succeeded in producing pure hafnium crystal bars for control rods in the Navy reactor program. In nuclear reactors, control rods adsorb atomic particles and control the power of the reactor. This process was helpful to the Naval reactors program. NUMEC went on to develop and supply high-yield nuclear fuel for the program.

  • AEC selected NUMEC to refurbish and then operate a plant for the government to separate boron-10 from natural boron. Boron-10 damages nuclear reactors, so the separation allowed the nuclear reactor to operate more efficiently.

  • NUMEC developed the first nuclear-powered cardiac pacemaker.

  • In the 1960s, NUMEC produced enriched uranium for the Pentagon-sponsored "Project Pluto," a nuclear rocket engine developmental program. According to the NRC, the material was shipped to Rocky Flats, Colo. Project Pluto included the Tory II nuclear-powered ramjet engines, built to demonstrate the feasibility of an air-breathing jet engine powered by a nuclear reactor. The Pluto reactor had to be small and compact enough to fly, but durable enough to survive a 7,000-mile trip to a potential target. In July 1964, more than seven years after it was born, Project Pluto was dismantled.

  • NUMEC and the Israeli government formed a company in Israel called Isotopes and Radiation Enterprises, better known as ISORAD. This company did experimental and commercial food irradiation.

  • NUMEC was successful in landing contracts to recover enriched uranium from scrap materials. These processes allowed for the recovery of enriched uranium in order to be used again.

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