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.