How Oregon State University Grew Nuclear Science- 50th Anniversary of OSU NERHP Graduate Program
LaSells Stewart Center OSU, Corvallis Oregon on October 11, 2009
Thirty three minute transcription
Donald James Reed (narrator) was born on September 26, 1930 in Montrose, Kansas. He graduated from the College of Idaho in 1953 with a B.S. and completed his Master’s Thesis in 1955 from Oregon State College (now OSU) on the amino acid synthesis of yeast in the Chemistry Department. By 1957 he received his Ph.D. His dissertation was on glucose and the amino acid metabolism of fungi. He worked at Montana State College and as a biochemist at the Western Regional Research Laboratory in Albany, California before returning to Oregon in 1962 as an Assistant Professor first in the Chemistry Department. He worked in the Radiation Center and as a Professor of Biochemistry. During this era he researched propellant toxicity. He received the Eleanor Roosevelt International Cancer Fellowship in 1976 two years after becoming a full professor. He worked at the National Institute of Health and he was also director of the OSU Environmental Health Sciences Center from 1980 to 1997. Now as an Emeritus, he remains active with publications to support publishing researchers’ innovative work.
KJ This is Ken Jacobsen Senior history student at Oregon State University, This is October 11, 2009. I have the opportunity to interview Don Reed at the LaSells Stewart Center here at the campus of Oregon State University on this date on the commemoration of 50th reunion of the NERHP program here at Oregon State. And with that I will allow Don to tell us a little bit about himself, his background here at Oregon State in the program and whatever he’d like to share with us on this anniversary. Thanks for being here with us Don.
DR Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to participate in this 50 year anniversary celebration of the programs at Oregon State related to nuclear engineering and nuclear science and education.
My own personal background and participation was that I came to Oregon State in 1953 as a graduate student in chemistry. Did a PhD, Masters and PhD under Chih Wang, and in 1957 completed my PhD dealing with the application of radioisotopes and radio chemicals to the study of biological pathways. And so my graduate work focused on the utilization of principally carbon-14 as a radio isotope. It was a study of the metabolism in a fungi penicillin digitatum. My completion of the PhD in 1957 meant that I then went looking for a position and at that time they were difficult to find because of the economic conditions weren’t too good, and so I took a position with the USDA in the Western Regional Laboratory in Albany, California. I was there only a year because in 1957 the Russian government put into orbit a satellite called Sputnik and that caused a refocus on many aspects of science and engineering in the United States. I was fortunate being able to get a position as an assistant professor in chemistry in the Chemistry department of Montana State College in Bozeman. I did that for four years, attempting to build a graduate program but graduate students were in such high competition for their services that it wasn’t possible to build a strong graduate program in Montana State, and so when I was offered the opportunity to come back to Oregon State with new programs and new directions I came back in 1962, and worked with my mentor Professor Chih Wang. During that time funds had been awarded for the building of the Radiation Center and so I became a member of the Chemistry Department, housed in the Radiation Center when it was completed.
We did various studies with radioisotopes, radio chemicals, as well as surprisingly, using those facilities to carry out studies with very toxic compounds: hydrazines, mono methyl hydrazine dimethyl hydrazine and hydrazine itself, as some of the propellants for the steering of satellites. Also we did an in-depth study of the pharmacology and toxicology not only of the hydrazine’s, but also of boranes such as pentaborane. That stuff is interesting because it only needs to be exposed to air to start burning. You can imagine the challenge of working with something that had those properties.
KJ Some certain laboratory conditions would have to be right on, I would imagine, yes sir.
So that meant my career here at Oregon State involved not only chemistry, but biochemistry, toxicology and to a fair extent, pharmacology.
So hopefully, you’ll have some questions for me.
KJ I will! You talked about your mentor. Talk a little bit about your relationship with him and his influence in your professional development and more on a personal level, your thoughts of him and his contribution to the program here at Oregon State.
DR Good. Chih Wang came to the states after World War II to do graduate work. During that time there was a change in the government of mainland China and he was forced to make a decision whether or not to remain in the United States or return to China. He had left one son with a brother so it was a very difficult decision for him. His wife had come with him when he came to do his graduate work she was a graduate student in physics and unfortunately she died of tuberculosis during those early years before I even got to know him. When I came to do graduate work in 1953, Chih was the person who was really the lead person in the application of radioisotopes and radionuclides in biological studies as well as in chemical studies. He was an excellent mentor because he was developing new areas, new techniques, had a wide interest in many aspects of chemistry and biology as well as nuclear science. He became an invaluable person to work with because of his influence on campus and his desire to build not only a strong program in applications of radio chemicals and radioisotopes but also in radiation physics and radiation health physics. He was happy to join with the engineering groups here to build a nuclear reactor. And so, while he had these widespread interests, he nevertheless was a very good person to work with. He was someone with the ability to build programs and be very successful in everything that he did. He became an advisor to many applications of nuclear science and nuclear reactors not only in Taiwan but eventually in mainland China itself. As an interesting sideline he also eventually got reacquainted and accepted by his family in China. He had the opportunity to have a chance to visit with his son, and he then he even had a granddaughter come and live with him here for a while, after he remarried and Louise Wang became his wife.
KJ What stands out in your mind with his efforts to get the plant built here and some of the challenges that that presented? Do you have any recollection of those challenges and the things that had to be worked through to bring a facility here to Oregon State?
DR Well, one thing that was very characteristic of Chih was his willingness to understand what it meant to be someone else. In other words, he could place himself in other people’s shoes and sort of understand what they wanted to achieve. He was able to work closely with many groups to bring forth the things that needed to be done and to accomplish the goals that are involved. He was able to blend his background with the background of engineers. I guess I could use the old adage that my son said to me when my son became an architect and started working with engineers. Eventually he became the person in charge of the group that was represented by this group of engineers and I said “Dave, why is it that you’re in charge – you are an architect and you’re just one out of many.” He said “well Dad, it’s like this. I was willing to learn their language and they weren’t quite so keen to learn mine so I guess that’s why it turned out that I was the person that was able to make the decisions for the group.” And Chih was someone who was totally devoted to his work and was one who always thought about these things and made it happen because he seemed to know where other people were coming from. So, I would say that it was an experience to work with him because in general, he was sort of one step ahead of you in many of his conclusions of what needed to be done.
KJ Did the design of the plant and funding and construction and all that, what were some of the-do you recall anything that stands out in terms of challenges to that whole process? I mean do you have any recollection as to…
DR Well the biggest, foremost question was the fact that it was obvious that nuclear reactors represented a form of energy that was not as other forms of energy in terms of what you had to do to make safe application of such energy. So consequently it was clearly understood from the very beginning that anything that they might put on a university campus had to be something that you might say had to be ultra safe. And so, Chih and all the engineers worked very hard to fully understand the processes that allowed them to make a reactor go critical, bring it up to power, and know that at any time if anything failed this whole process of nuclear energy production would shut down automatically on itself without any outside influences. In other words you wouldn’t have to have electric power any longer provided to the reactor that the reactor would go ahead and be able to quench itself. So that was the key, the main point that not only had to be fully understood and be prepared to utilize, but in addition to that allow the public to understand that this was an absolute requirement for the reactor to be here.
KJ So you would have been here when it was all done? It was dedicated, all those events?
KJ Anything stand out in your memory of those…
DR It kind of curled hair on the back of your neck when you would look down into the reactor pool and saw this blue glow and know that you are watching a critical nuclear reaction going on and producing power. So, its…
KJ Quite a feeling.
DR Oh yes. Because when you take the energy levels at the nuclear level compared to the level of energy involving electrons, we’re talking about in order of magnitude of millions difference and so you’re not controlling something that is the usual type of processes but much more powerful processes.
KJ I think my prior interviewee commented about that blue glow and the associated feeling. I mean engineers, academics – there is this detachment, but a very real feeling of excitement and emotion in seeing that.
DR Yes, and at the same time there is many questions to be answered and many things to be examined from you might say a research standpoint as well as just day to day operations standpoint and that’s still going on today. Certainly, if we have a resurgence of the application of nuclear energy many of these same questions will still be the main ones. And I think that’s what’s still a major factor in the extent to which nuclear power will become as important in this country as it is in other countries. I think France for example, we know that approximately 80% I believe, of their energy is produced by nuclear reactors and it is just a few percent here in this country.
KJ So you – What’s your, your kind of – So you have the feeling that there is the possibility is given we haven’t built in the plants for some time, that’s something we really need to, you know, pursue?
DR I think it’s not going to happen if people perceive the building of nuclear reactors that cost billions of dollars. I just don’t think that’s going to happen. It’ll be competition from other sources; it will mean that nuclear reactors, if they’re going to compete, they are going to have to be in the multi-million dollar range rather than the multi-billion dollar range, for them to be able to compete. Plus the fact that what we really need is dependability. Wind power doesn’t give us the dependability that we need. It’s a good clean source, you might say, with some drawbacks but dependability on an around the clock basis is still not going to happen because wind doesn’t work that way.
KJ No it doesn’t.
DR And nuclear reactors can’t involve billions of dollars and get shut down for extended periods of time. That’s not going to happen either. Because that’s a risk that just increases the cost of our energy a lot more than what it needs to be and if we could build these sort of facilities for much less and let them come on and go off-line on a regular basis but without having the major disruptions of a single plant going online, so we can have smaller ones and have them be very useful and probably the recovery of waste and radioactive products will not be the main disadvantage as it has been in the past.
KJ Right, right.
DR I think we will work through many of those problems. But the main problem will still be how much is the electricity going to cost, I guess will be the number one priority, the next priority will be how dependable will it be. Yeah.
KJ From a standpoint of when the plant here at OSU went on, and like any new technology, safety innovations, improved design, how did that transform the industry and what was OSU’s role in any of that that you can speak to, is anything stand out, I mean obviously OSU had having a plant, you know, you could research and do a lot of things in exploring nuclear power and nuclear energy.
DR Well, my background is not very extensive in that area because most of my concern focused on all the different ways that there were contributions to the environment were good and not so good. And we’ve had to spend a lot of time asking questions about chemicals in general. So, we’ve spent far more money on questions of contamination that has reduced the healthy characteristics of our environment far more than radiation products, products that have come from nuclear reactors and so forth. But, I’m sure that’s going to be an ever-increasing area of work, and I think you have to say that when the price of electricity goes up, the safety records of reactors are going to look pretty good. And the cost of getting rid of the radiation products and the decay products that receive the attention will make it feasible to overcome those costs.
KJ Talk a little bit about, you talk about your area was in the environmental area, as you know it related to, as you spoke of earlier, what were some of the things that you noticed from the beginning of your career that toward the end of your career that changed or how you were able to make things safer.
DR It’s a remarkable area, because from the 60s on we had to understand that many of these chemicals that were potentially damaging or were damaging the environment, we’ve come to realize that we knew very little about them, and their fate and so forth. So we had to do an enormous amount of research to understand their fate and their interactions in terms of the damage they could do. And there are many p chemicals that we use in the environment that we still don’t know that much about. And as we understand many of the disease processes including cancer, we realize things that, well, we ought to keep it in perspective, it wasn’t until the middle 50s that we even knew what the role of DNA was, let alone the fact that initially we thought here was something that was kept locked up in a safety deposit box until we needed to use it! But that turned out to be not wrong, not to be right, that it was totally wrong to believe that when we realize that DNA was a very active substance metabolically. And signals were coming and going all the time (laughing). So I don’t know of anything in terms of a vision that could be more exciting, than the fact that chemistry and biological processes are really extensive and yet much to be understood and I think that it’s important to find out that every time we’ve asked the question “What is the safety level for ionizing radiation?” It’s kinda like the price of computers, it keeps going down. We need to reduce the level of exposure, not allow more exposure. But at the same time we have to accept the fact that we exist in an environment that involves natural radioactivity that is with us from the day we are born, the day that we start drinking milk, there is radionuclide’s that are there because the fact that our origin is that of an Earth that came from processes that involve nuclear reactivity.
KJ So what do you think the legacy of the ‘NERHP’ here at OSU is going to be in?
DR Oh I think OSU has been a marvelous contributor to our overall base of understanding of chemical and biological processes, and the key to that I think is the fact that OSU has been able to provide a wealth of biological systems work with, and it’s far greater than at many other universities. So we have many biological models, we have a wide diverse interest in those models and we have a breadth of science areas that has made us a very productive university. So when people ask “Why do you do so much research?” It’s because we have so much that we could offer in terms of doing that research.
KJ So now that you are retired twice, I won’t use the term you used, what do you do to occupy your time with nowadays? I mean what do you find…
DR Well, I still advise some programs. My advice gets to be worth less and less each year, as you can imagine. But still there are things that need to be done to keep research programs productive, there are requirements that need to be met. But in addition to that I serve as a chapter editor for one of the main publications of toxicology, that is a publication of protocols, current protocols of toxicology and it’s the new techniques that are being developed that have widespread applications that people need to know about, so I find those authors and help them get into print with the methods that they are developing. So as a chapter editor, that is very interesting and a very satisfying to help scientists in making their work better and more productive.
KJ Anything else that comes to mind that you want to share?
DR Well I think that it should be fully understood that Oregon State is not so successful because of the leadership of their administration, it is the fact that they have been fortunate in being able to go out into the market for professional people and attract those people that not only make the commitment, but do whatever it takes to be successful. And that success is partly from the leadership, but I think the leadership contributes in their own way, and one of the biggest ways to let people do what they do best, and facilitate that to the extant they can but, most of the success is not from our increasing revenues from the educational standpoint, but the increased revenues from the research standpoint where the individual faculty member is still largely responsible for that.
KJ Well, I’ll let you go ahead, unless you have something else, I’ll go let your rub shoulders with your colleagues and enjoy your reunion and..
DR Sure, but let me say that I think that it’s excellent that the history department is taking these oral histories because I’m sure you are more aware than the rest of us that if you want to build a background story on anything of this magnitude, it’s really difficult to pull all the pieces together and make a coherent story, so I think the oral histories are what I call a very efficient way to bring to focus some of the things that not only has happened but that point to what kind of future will be at Oregon State.
KJ We appreciate your time. Thank you so much for giving your thoughts and your impressions. It’s been very enjoyable, so, thanks.