NUMEC made significant advancements
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.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- CDC’s misinformation spreads faster than Ebola virus
- Pirates must weigh risk, reward in attempt to sign Martin
- Syrian border town emerges as pivot point in Islamic State fight
- Starkey: Chryst missed his only shot
- Penguins’ Crosby OK with Neal comments about trade
- Penn State succumbs to No. 13 Ohio State in double overtime
- Penguins rebound with shutout of Predators
- Pittsburgh Mills mall stability questioned
- Robinson: Rooney retains North Side roots
- Pa. Supreme Court in ‘sad state’ as scandals tarnish reputation
- Real estate notes: Hotel going up in Chippewa; CSX honored