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Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Mystery of the Trowel – Solved

Uncovering the real story of Joe Ball’s trowel required research at the Department of Energy’s archives, where I could get more information about the AEC’s move from Washington, D.C., to Germantown, Md., in 1957. The AEC’s move was precipitated by the Soviet Union development of thermonuclear weapons. To survive a 20 megaton blast over the capital mall, AEC offices needed to be at least 20 miles away. Germantown was selected over 50 other sites.

This Cold-War move coincided with new initiatives by the AEC to promote civilian nuclear power plant construction. Thus, the dedication ceremony became a chance to highlight the atom’s contribution to national defense and its potential peaceful applications.

The AEC created a ceremony heavy in symbolism. Electricity from batteries charged by eight military and civilian power reactors lifted a curtain on a commemorative plaque in the new building lobby. A time capsule was placed behind the cornerstone packed with military and civilian artifacts, such as pictures of the Nautilus and scraps of linen wrappings for the Dead Sea scrolls dated by radiocarbon techniques.

As I found out from the DOE archives, AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss wanted even more symbols for the dedication ceremony. He asked for a trowel with some historical significance and Argonne National Laboratory obliged, including, as mentioned in Part I, creating a blade made from uranium. AEC officials liked the trowel and planned on giving speeches about its symbolism to local groups.

But there was a problem.

The uranium metal had been reused for many years in other experimental reactors, most likely in the CP-2. The uranium was still radioactive, enough that an Argonne official told the AEC to use only the handle and not touch the blade. Hoping to preclude objections from the White House, the AEC medical staff reassured the Secret Service that the trowel was a “unique opportunity” for Eisenhower “to demonstrate under completely safe conditions the proper way to perform an operation involving radioactive material.”

AEC assurances didn’t work. Ike’s staff refused to allow the president to touch anything radioactive. Stymied, the AEC substituted three silver-plated trowels. The uranium trowel was dropped from the ceremony and the silver-plated trowels that history records were used instead. The fate of the symbolic trowels – of which there were either two or three – were mostly lost to history, with one spending decades in storage at Eisenhower College’s old campus.

Joe Ball’s unusual auction win find reminds us why we love artifacts—their stories are fun. They teach us about the society that made them. The CP-1 trowel was born out of an optimism in the possibilities of the atomic age, but even in the 1950s radiation concerns proved powerful. Today most people likely sympathize with the White House’s fear of radiation, and the trowel probably seems like a questionable use of radioactive material.

And so Argonne’s creation reminds us how the nation had changed in the last half century in shifting to a more sober attitude toward nuclear hazards.

Joe Ball has graciously agreed to loan the trowel to the NRC , where it is now displayed in our lobby.

Tom Wellock
NRC Historian

The Mystery of the Atomic Energy Commission Trowel — Part I

“Is it radioactive?” That’s not a typical question your spouse asks when you come home with your winnings from a silent auction. But Joe Ball, of West Caldwell, New Jersey, wasn’t holding a set of steak knives or a reservation for a time-share in Reno. The innocuous looking mason’s trowel he won had links back to the very beginning of the atomic age.

While attending his class-of-1972 reunion for the now defunct Eisenhower College in Seneca Falls, New York, old items from the college were sold to the alumni at a silent auction. Ball’s trowel sat inside a well-constructed Plexiglas display case appointed with fine velvet and a handsome wooden box. A plaque claimed that the trowel was one of three copies made for Dwight Eisenhower to use on November 8, 1957, to lay the cornerstone for the new Atomic Energy Commission building in Germantown, Md.

The trowel’s parts were full of symbolism, the plaque reported. The blade was made from uranium taken from the CP-1 reactor, which, under Fermi, achieved the world’s first sustained chain reaction at the University of Chicago on December 2, 1942.

The handle was crafted from wood taken from Chicago’s Stagg Field under which the reactor was built. The zirconium ferrule and stem came from the first fuel assembly of the Navy’s revolutionary nuclear powered attack submarine, the Nautilus.

At some unspecified date, the AEC and Argonne National Laboratory donated the trowel to Eisenhower College, where it made its way to Ball – who won it with a $10 bid.

Many of his fellow alums were wary the trowel might be radioactive or doubted it was real. One quipped it would be hard to get the case through airport security. Ball eventually called the NRC’s Office of Public Affairs to check out its safety and authenticity. He was particularly concerned about mysterious black shavings scattered about inside the display case. OPA knew I’d be interested in the historic background of the trowel, and so I got involved. First, I directed him to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to have the case and shavings surveyed. They found the shavings were uranium, but detected no radiation coming from the display case.

I was intrigued. Given the trowel’s use and composition, this was an extraordinary, museum-worthy find. I drove up to Joe’s home, took photos, and went to work researching the trowel’s history. I located one of the other trowels on display at Argonne Lab’s small museum. Its plaque was virtually identical to Ball’s, except that it claimed there were only two copies. The Eisenhower Library in Kansas, however, reported that it too owned a trowel from the dedication ceremony. Having three trowels made sense since Eisenhower was assisted in the ceremony by AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss and Congressman Carl Durham of North Carolina.

But not all of the details about the trowel were so easily reconciled. Uranium metal was at a premium in 1942. Why was this uranium not reused in later reactors? Why did the detailed news accounts of the ceremony make no mention of the unique features of the trowels? Eisenhower’s itinerary for the ceremony reported that the president would use a “silver-plated trowel” to lay the cornerstone. Neither Ball’s nor Argonne’s trowel was plated. Were they fakes? If so, why did the New Jersey radiation office confirm that the shavings were uranium? I realized there was a hidden story behind the one written on the plaques. . . . Wednesday, we’ll have the rest of the story for you!

Thomas Wellock
NRC Historian

Surveys Help the NRC Assess Itself

Recently, the NRC’s Inspector General released the preliminary findings of an internal “safety culture and climate” survey that canvassed employee opinions on a wide range of workplace issues. This survey is conducted every three years by an independent consulting firm.

While the survey answers are still being analyzed, the results are generally positive—especially in the categories of workload and support, and training opportunities. The quality of internal communications also scored well, although it seems we have more work to do explaining why decisions were made.

We have also identified areas where the agency slipped compared to recent years, and will require special attention. These include: the ability to raise different professional opinions or challenge the prevailing view; recognizing and respecting the value of human differences; and developing people to their full potential. I do want to emphasize that while we are identifying areas for improvement, the overall results for the NRC are above industry and national norms.

These findings generally confirmed what we have learned so from the government-wide Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey—conducted earlier this year. According to the preliminary results, the NRC ranks first among federal agencies in both Leadership & Knowledge Management and Talent Management; second in Job Satisfaction; and third in Results-Oriented Performance Culture. Like the internal safety culture survey, there are also areas we are identifying for focused improvement.

The details of both surveys will continue to emerge during the next several months. The agency’s senior managers will be assessing the information in a coordinated manner to identify specific focus areas. Agency-wide action planning has already begun, and office and regional level action planning will begin at several “Results to Action” workshops in mid-January.

The bottom line for me and the other managers at the NRC—no matter how well the agency does on surveys—is to keep examining how to improve as leaders in this agency and, ultimately, as government civil servants entrusted with a serious and important role in the safety and security of this nation.

Bill Borchardt
Executive Director for Operations

“Government-to-Government” — Recognizing Tribal Interests

November is Native American Heritage Month, so it seems a suitable time to highlight the NRC’s current efforts to develop a Tribal Policy Statement and improve our interactions with Native Americans.

Throughout the regulatory process, the NRC works in cooperation with other governmental entities, including federal, state and local governments – and tribes. This cooperation helps to ensure effective communication and to promote greater awareness of the policies, activities and concerns of all parties involved.

Native American tribes have a unique relationship with the NRC and the federal government. There are 566 federally recognized tribes that are “sovereign”— that is, they have the legal authority to govern themselves. As a result, when the NRC meets or consults with tribal representatives, it does so on a “government-to-government” basis, much as it does with the leaders of foreign countries.

The NRC recently published a draft Tribal Protocol Manual to provide more clarity, and to obtain feedback, on how the agency conducts its meetings with tribes. The manual, originally developed as an internal document to provide guidance to NRC staff participating in tribal consultations and interactions, has been published to explain how the NRC conducts these consultations. It will help to create more open and productive working relationships between the NRC and tribal governments. It will also serve as a starting point for the staff to develop a policy statement on tribal consultations.

The manual contains information NRC staff collected from many sources, including Native Americans, NRC staff with experience in interacting with tribes, and other federal agencies with established tribal outreach programs. It will help NRC staff to work more effectively with Native American tribes by providing both sides with a clear roadmap to the regulatory process and the opportunities for interactions within it.

Anyone interested in NRC’s interactions with tribes is invited to comment on the draft and to provide input to the policy statement.

For more information, see the NRC website.

Michelle Ryan
Project Manager
Intergovernmental Liaison Branch

Reactor Operators: What it Takes To Do This Important Job

At first glance, the list seems surprising: Among professions that can earn $100,000 a year without a college degree are massage therapists, personal trainers, executive pastry chefs and nuclear reactor operators.

The list from PayScale.com has been touted in several NBC News reports. These reports stressed that all of the professions required extensive training and certification as well as years of experience before anyone could expect a six-figure salary. But what does that mean specifically for reactor operators?

The NRC issues two types of licenses to control room personnel qualified to operate a commercial nuclear power plant facility – i.e., the nuclear reactor. These are reactor operators (ROs), responsible for manipulating the controls of nuclear reactors, and senior reactor operators (SROs), who direct the licensed activities of ROs. Applicants for an RO license must have at least three years of power plant experience, including at least six months at the plant where they are currently employed (and seek a license) and at least six months as a non-licensed operator. SRO applicants also must have at least 18 months experience as a qualified non-licensed operator or as a plant staff engineer or manager involved in the daily activities associated with operating a commercial nuclear power plant facility.

RO candidates are not required to have a college degree, as long as they have the necessary experience and training. A college degree in engineering, engineering technology, or related sciences is typically required for anyone testing directly for an SRO license – with the exception that with at least one a year of active experience as a RO at a commercial power reactor facility they may take the SRO exam, whether or not they have a college degree.

Applicants for both licenses must complete rigorous training provided by the facility licensee (utility) before taking the NRC’s hours-long written examination and operating test. Once licensed, there are continuing training requirements per the facility’s NRC-approved requalification training program. ROs and SROs must pass a facility-administered operating test every year and a written examination every two years to maintain their license status.

Some of these experience requirements can be met through military service – in general, an applicant can receive six months credit for every year’s experience working at a military propulsion plant such as a nuclear-powered warship. It’s also important to note that reactor operators work for the commercial nuclear power plant owners, not the NRC, although it’s the NRC license that makes them eligible to do the job.

The licensing process for reactor operators is described in detail on the NRC website.

So while you don’t need a B.S. in Physics or a B.E. in Nuclear Engineering, to become a licensed nuclear reactor operator, you do have to meet extremely tough standards in experience and knowledge before being able to take the controls of a nuclear power plant as an RO or SRO.

John Munro
Senior Reactor Engineer
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