Pittsburgh Years

Going Nuclear






ainting is ordinarily a routine job, and this painter had begun to anticipate the very end of the project at which he had toiled for some months; the structural-steel work that he was painting was nearly complete now.  But this job was not a routine painting job.  In this space in which he worked there was no natural light; large arc lights eerily illuminated the immense structure that he was in, sufficient in size to easily contain a football field and, for that matter, nearly as high as a football field is long.  The containment building, as it was called, was buried completely underground.  It was constructed of thick steel plate and just outside of that were several feet of heavily reinforced concrete.

Text Box:  
Underground Cross Section
Showing Two Heat Exchangers
Hung From the Roof
As he glanced down from his basket perch near the ceiling he saw the two huge cylinders that dominated this structure.  They were heat exchangers, boilers in common parlance, and he had been seeing them for so long now that they had, for him, become barely noticeable.  They hung one above the other from the ceiling, or the roof if you will, normal building terminology quite inadequate to describe this structure.  But he noticed them today because a number of men below, looking like a small little dots moving about like ants, were, he knew, in the process of filling the boilers with water as a final test of their integrity.

The entire purpose of this structure was to convert the heat generated by the adjacent nuclear reactor into steam.  The steam would then, in its turn be piped into the Turbine Building where it would be used to rotate huge electric coils which would send electricity—60,000,000 watts of it—into the power grid near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to light lights, turn motors, heat rooms and to perform all the other uses to which this invisible commodity can be put.  This was The Shippingport Atomic Power Station, the first large-scale, commercial, nuclear power plant ever constructed.

It was shut down at the moment because, after some years of service, newer, larger heat exchangers were being installed.  If it had not been “decommissioned” at the time, no one could be in here and the lights would be turned off and, quite unattended, filtered water from the Ohio River nearby would be turned into very high-pressure steam.  Soon everyone in here would be gone, the reactor would be restarted with new fuel rods, and power generation would begin once again, and there would be more of it.

Just then the painter looked up and he noticed something peculiar, something that shouldn’t be, something that couldn’t be!  The structural steel hangar that he was painting, and from which he was precariously suspended—along with the now increasingly heavy heat exchangers—was tearing from the ceiling, the weld slowly rupturing as the men below pumped more and more water into the great cylinders, putting more and more weight onto the hangars that held it all up.  He yelled down to the men on the floor far below.  They couldn’t hear him.  He began to wave, hoping to attract their attention.  Finally, someone below glanced up and saw his frantic motions.  He tried to signal to them just what was happening.  He knew that in moments he, and all the other paraphernalia that they had all been working on for months, could come crashing down.  Finally he made himself understood.

At about 2:00am the next morning I was woken from a sound sleep by a telephone call from a man who said he worked in the Human Resources department at Blaw-Knox.  I didn’t know him.  He explained that there was a problem at Shippingport and that they wanted me to join a crew of engineers at the jobsite.  I asked him when.  He said “Now!”  I asked where Shippingport was and explained that I didn’t have a car.  He said he would arrange for me to go with one of the others and that, by the way, I should pack sufficient clothes for a week.

The plant at Shippingport is on the Ohio river 30 miles or so from Pittsburgh as the crow flies.  But traveling the narrow, two lane, blacktop road that wound up, down, and around the seemingly endless wooded hills it was more like 60 miles by car.  Still in the half dark of early morning, in the cone of mist outlined by our headlights, oncoming traffic consisted only of large trucks piled high with great logs from the surrounding forests.  They were traveling at high speed, their drivers seemingly so familiar with each curve that one might have thought they were hill people with distillation products, being chased at this very moment by Revenuers.  I was glad I wasn’t driving; one of those logs through our windshield at a combined speed of about 120 miles an hour would have ended this story before the tale had even begun.

Getting to the site was only the beginning.  We then had to pass through a security station, take a quick course on what the yellow radiation tape meant (don’t go there unless you don’t want any more children), and then we were each handed a dosimeter to measure our cumulative exposure to radioactivity.  We finally reached a large room, one that—except for the absence of windows—looked almost familiar: a forest of large drawing boards and a great many of our coworkers already at work there.  Our Chief Engineer, Forest Williams, whom we had hitherto thought of only as an administrator was even here.  In fact he was running the show.

Blaw-Knox had the engineering and construction contract and Williams had signed and stamped all the drawings for the structure that supported—or was to have supported—the new heat exchangers.  Curiously, these two immense new Babcock & Wilcox steam generators were hanging from the ceiling, one under the other, instead of being supported from the floor, as might seem more natural. 

Text Box:  
A Shaker and a Mover
After the painter had yelled and waved and pointed, eventually the people running the water-fill test, had gotten the message.  They began emptying the boilers just as fast as they could.  It was this great weight that was causing the weld to fail.

The painter was later to be pinned with a medal for his alertness by no less than Admiral Hyman G. Rickover (under whose charge this plant ultimately operated).  Self preservation may have enhanced the painter’s keen eyesight, and certainly his good voice since, as I mentioned, he himself had been suspended 80ft. in the air, from the very support that he saw was tearing.

Blaw-Knox was not to receive a medal—probably a lawsuit.

There was no immediate nuclear danger operationally, since the plant was not in operation.  The great concern, as it was later explained to me, was that had it gone unnoticed, and the hangar support system had failed after the plant had started back up—gone nuclear so to say…   Well, indeed, it then would have been meltdown time, the China syndrome.

In any case, Admiral Rickover was not at all a fellow to be toyed with.  I’m sure he expressed himself forcefully, no doubt profanely, to the directors of the Blaw-Knox Corporation—i doubt he wasted time on anyone at the mere Chemical Plants Division which had done the work; he would have started at the top of the top.  But his message was passed down, equally forcefully no doubt, to our management.

With this directive, these ordinarily placid and well mannered engineers became quivering, melting hunks of Jell-O.  This imperative had now been burned incandescently into their memory; no expense would be spared to deflect the wrath of the Admiral who, having sensed the possibility of a blemish on his otherwise stellar record, was not casually going to walk away from this cancer that had so fortunately been detected by the painter.

After we had been assigned tables to work at, we—the new guys—asked some of those already there what the working hours were. They looked at us as though we were daft.  We newbies learned that the standing order was to work as long as you could still think, and then, after a car full of people reached that stage when coherent thought was no longer possible, you were to proceed ten miles or so to the motel where all of us were being put up.  There you would be fed and go to bed.  When you woke you were to get a big breakfast and go straight back to work.  Lunch was ordered-in.  Coffee of course was always available, and free of charge here, even in those more Dickensian times.  I remember clearly that after the first week there, when I filled out my timecard, I found I had managed to put in 101.5 hours.  This was no doubt memorable to me because we were getting paid time and a half for overtime, but it was also notable because I had never before been tested to this level of fatigue.

The mandate under which we now worked was to redesign the entire steam generator support structure to a factor of safety of four.  In round numbers, that roughly doubled the “safety” of the already supposedly safe structure.  No one was taking any chances this time around.  This effort was to employ quite a lot of people in a very small window of time.

As each element was designed and then drawn up, the completed drawings were taken off the draftsman’s board by others and copies were made and given to Blaw-Knox’s constructors who fabricated the pieces and welded or bolted them into place that night.  Thus when you reported for work the next day you could, if you wished, see the realization of your design of yesterday, reminiscent of the story of The Elves And The Shoemaker, of The Brothers Grimm fame.  However, to do so, one first had to get to one of the temporary work platforms in your suit and tie (we were still “engineers”, after all).

First, to get inside the Containment Building at all, where all the construction work was being done, you had to take a rather daunting ride on a “man-lift”, a semi-open, elevator sort of mechanism which had continuously moving platforms on which one person could descend, or ascend, the 80 feet or so between the top and bottom of the Containment Building.  The thing was that the platforms didn’t stop for you; you had to jump on and off of them at just the right time.  The first time or two it seemed a pretty tricky operation, especially when staring out over the great void of the interior of the underground structure, looking down to where very small workers scuttled around.

The Beaver Motel (so-named—I hurry to write—for its proximity to the Beaver River of fur-bearing fame) became our home away from home for the next several months.  Aspirationally, this motel wanted a golf course, but did not have one.  But on Wednesdays it hosted a lunch for the local Rotary Club, a close second.  It was a place where the gentry could come of a weekend evening, wife or girlfriend in tow, to enjoy a few cocktails, a New York strip steak, a prime rib, a lobster tail or one of several comparable menu items which were invariably served with a potato, baked or French-fried, and a green salad.  We were all on expense accounts so we gorged on this fare for a week or two, after which it became so boring that we sent a delegation to the chef to ask for meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and other everyday food.  Since our team now pretty much dominated the establishment this was easily arranged and equitable prices were established.

We were domiciled two to a room, an unusual arrangement for the company, and perhaps its one bow to frugality for this hot project.  Having never been inducted into the military, or into any similar manly enterprise—not even the Boy Scouts—it was a little awkward for me.  But I was housed with a man I knew well, a middle-aged, and somewhat fatherly, engineer whose name was Ludwig Canzian.  Though his name sounds Germanic (one could imagine him having a slight musical bent), he was in fact of Italian background, and a true gentleman.  Ignorant of the proper procedure, I followed his lead of undressing nonchalantly, going into the bathroom in my underwear, coming out, teeth brushed, now in pajamas, with all other business taken care of, and then straight to bed.  We were exhausted anyway.  He later gave me his mother’s recipe for braciole, and subsequently, over many years, we worked on a number of other projects together.

A fellow named Bill McHugh, a draftsman, was on the team with us for quite awhile.  He was especially valuable on this project because he had moonlighted for many years at night as a steel detailer.  A structural draftsman ordinarily just indicates the sizes and locations of steel columns, girders, beams and other framing members.  A detailer goes farther: for each component he precisely indicates each element of the connection hardware, each hole to be drilled, each notch to be cut and each weld to be made so that after fabrication all these various components will come properly together.  Since there was no intermediate fabricator for this project—steel now, in our compressed time-frame, was fabricated right at the construction site.  Bill, and a few others who had this experience, did this work themselves.

Bill, an enterprising Irishman, had several other part time jobs: he was a deputy Sheriff of Allegheny county, a political appointment, but an occupation in which summonses could be served, evictions, and even arrests, could be made; and in yet another incarnation he happened to be a part-time car salesman for one of the dealerships in McKees Rocks, right where I lived.  After six months or so on this project, with 2 ¼ time pay for holidays, and averaging 80 hours a week or so, money was no longer a big issue for me and I bought a brand new, bright red, Plymouth Valiant automobile from Bill.

These had been interesting times.