On Nov. 30, I had the privilege of interviewing S. Reed Nixon, who lives not far from where I do in Orem, Utah. I met him through my wife, who has known the Nixons for several years. Over the summer, we went to visit them and Reed told me of some of his experiences as a nuclear engineer on Admiral Hyman Rickover’s staff during the 1950s. I couldn’t pass up such an opportunity, so I arranged to bring over my video equipment and interview him on camera.
Reed got into nuclear engineering by chance. He started out by receiving a B.S. in electrical engineering from Caltech in Pasadena (where he had Linus Pauling as a chemistry professor – according to Reed, Dr. Pauling would nervously pace up and down the chemistry lab during his lectures, turning the Bunsen burner gas stopcocks on and off). This was in the late 1940s, after Reed had served two years in the Navy. At the time, Robert Millikan was Chancellor and would have the seniors and their parents over for tea each year. He told how gracious Dr. Millikan was to his mother at the tea party.
Upon graduation, he moved to Provo, Utah where he taught math part-time at Brigham Young University and then started working for Telluride Power Company, which ran the power utilities for southern Utah at that time before it was bought out by Utah Power and Light. Telluride Power Company originated in Telluride, Colorado when the mines there began to have trouble with ground water. The Nunn brothers bought out a number of mines, then contracted with George Westinghouse to design a hydroelectric power system based on alternating current as conceived by Nikola Tesla. This was the world’s first commercial AC system, which supplied power to the mines for pumps that kept the water at bay. Reed had some interesting stories about this original power system, including how it was difficult and dangerous to shut off. When the mines in the Tintic Mining District around Eureka, Utah began to have the same trouble with flooding, the Nunns built a hydroelectric plant in Provo Canyon (now the site of Nunn Park) and transmitted electricity about 40 miles across the valley to Eureka.
After a few years with Telluride Power, Reed heard of a new laboratory being built in Arco, Idaho to process spent nuclear reactor fuel rods. They needed an electrical engineer. This was about 1951, and nuclear reactors for generating power were a brand new invention. As Uranium-235 splits, it releases free neutrons, which in turn split other atoms. The fission byproducts, such as Barium-141 and Krypton-92 (among other isotopes), are themselves mostly radioactive. Some byproducts, however, are not, and they act as neutron sponges, so that of the three neutrons given off by a single U-235 atom, only about 2.5 are available to continue the reaction. Eventually these products poison the reaction, to where fission will no longer occur spontaneously. The Arco facility (now the Idaho National Laboratory) was built to take the “poisoned” fuel rods and remove the impurities, so that the remaining U-235 could be re-used in reactors. It also was the training facility for the prototype reactor for the USS Nautilus.
After a year or two at INL, Reed applied to receive training in nuclear engineering at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which was the primary source of U-235 enrichment at the time. It was such a new field that only one textbook had been written, and he could see an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a whole new technology. Hyman Rickover (later an Admiral) had recently been put in charge of developing nuclear reactors for the navy, and was sending his people to Oak Ridge as well. While there, Reed got to know the navy personnel and also finished as one of the top engineers in his class. His job at INL had meanwhile been eliminated, so he decided to take a chance and apply to be on Rickover’s staff.
Rickover was infamous for being a hard-driven workaholic. He was also abusive, profane, and intolerant of anything less than perfection in his subordinates and in the contractors (such as General Dynamics) who were building the first nuclear submarines. He personally selected his staff members and all officers in nuclear vessels until his retirement in 1983. His recruiting interviews were legendary; he was known for being so confrontational during the interviews that several candidates tried to attack him physically, and so he usually had his director of personnel in the room as well for protection. He would push a candidate to the edge – he already knew their technical qualifications or they wouldn’t have been there in the first place. What Rickover wanted to know is how much abuse the person could take.
Reed Nixon’s interview was probably the easiest one that Rickover ever gave. After Reed was accepted, his job was to act as a liaison with the contractors as they built the USS Nautilus (SSN 571) and USS Seawolf (SSN 575), making sure that all the specifications were followed exactly, even down to inspecting each weld on the reactor vessels with X-rays. Rickover was a demon for quality assurance, and would insist that contractors tear a system apart and start over if there was even the slightest flaw. Reed was a part of Rickover’s staff through the launch of both vessels.
Using nuclear reactors to power naval vessels has many advantages, especially for aircraft carriers and submarines. The power plant can operate for many years without refueling, so there is no need for tankers to follow along and act as targets for enemy torpedoes. Also, the old diesel subs during World War II were noisy and fairly easy to locate, since they had to run close to the surface in order to pull in air and discharge exhaust from the diesel motors. Nuclear reactors run quietly (no moving parts except the propellers) and have no exhaust, so they can run silent and run deep. Our “boomer” subs (those with nuclear weapons) are said to “hide with pride.” Nuclear carriers, such as the USS Enterprise (“nuclear wessels” anyone?) and the USS Nimitz, employ at least four separate reactors. They don’t need to take up a major portion of the ship with diesel tanks, so they can hold more planes and ordnance.
The Nautilus was the world’s first nuclear powered vessel, which used what is now a standard design of saturated water cooling. It was launched in 1954, and was used to test the feasibility of nuclear reactors on ocean vessels. Two of its first accomplishments were to sail under the North Pole (Operation Sunshine) and to sail all the way around the world underwater, thereby living up to its namesake by going more than 20,000 leagues under the sea. It was decommissioned in 1980 and is now a museum in Groton, Connecticut.
The Seawolf used a more advanced superheated water system with liquid sodium metal as the primary coolant. The sodium, however, was corrosive and difficult to maintain and the pre-heaters for the superheated steam rarely operated at top output. The Seawolf was known as the “Blue Haze” because of a sodium leak that occurred during the original reactor fitting. It was eventually refitted for a standard reactor in 1959. The liquid sodium reactor was sealed in a steal container and towed out to sea on a barge, then sunk 120 miles east of Maryland. The Navy has not been able to relocate the container. Originally launched in 1955, the Seawolf stayed in service until it was decommissioned in 1987 after a long and distinguished career.
Admiral Rickover’s insistence on perfect quality has led to our nuclear navy now having over 5400 reactor years and over 200 million miles sailed without a single accident or even a safety incident related to the nuclear reactors. This perfect operational record should convince the general public just how safe and reliable nuclear power can be, but unfortunately it’s a fact that often goes overlooked.
Reed Nixon worked in Rickover’s office for about two years. One memory he shared of his time there was a memo that Reed wrote to a contractor in which he said that, “we desire that you do the following . . . .“ Rickover wrote a caustic correction in the margin of the memo saying, “We’re the Navy! We don’t desire anything! We demand it!” Reed eventually left Rickover’s staff to work in the private sector as a consultant, promoting the use of nuclear power in industry. Rickover wasn’t at all happy for him to leave.
Our interview ranged over many subjects, from Nikola Tesla to nuclear reactions and the disposal of nuclear waste, such as the radioactive byproducts that had been removed from fuel rods at INL. Reed Nixon was very generous with his time, and it was a pleasure to hear these stories of the dawn of the nuclear age.