How OSU Grew Nuclear Science 50th Anniversary of the Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics Program
October 11, 2009
Oregon State University
LaSells Stewart Center, in Corvallis, Oregon
35 Minute Transcript
LR (Interviewer) Linda Richards, History of Science graduate student
SS Steve Shepherd (Narrator) MS 1976 from OSU NERHP; Retired from Cal Edison and consulting.
LR Now I’m confident that this is going to work for us and I would like to hear what you would like to share about your experiences with nuclear science.
SS I came to the university in January of 1975 as a graduate student under Bernie Spinrad who was professor of nuclear engineering and he had sought me out because of my background in chemistry as opposed to physics which was more standard. However, I also had a physics degree so somehow I managed to convince the rest of the faculty that I was worth a shot as a graduate student. But Bernie wanted a chemist so he got a chemist.
SS This was the time when he had a large research grant on afterheat, the CINDER project, as we used to call it.
SS CINDER. It spells something actually but I don’t remember what it was, but it was on reactor decay heat, CINDER. And he however decided because I was a chemist that I didn’t need a research assistantship, that I could attend grad school with just a teaching assistantship, so I had a TA with the opportunity to do some research for him but that was not the paid research that everybody else had so I was a teaching assistant for Art Johnson and –
LR This whole project is really Art Johnson’s fault (laughs).
SS (laughs) Well that’s good.
LR He kind of thought it when we were talking one day (laughs). He thought, we’ll collect oral histories at the anniversary.
SS And Art gave me about a thirty-minute tour of the Rad Center and determined after that that I could then be the TA for his lab class in radiation physics, and it involved showing me the instruments that he had, which I had a good understanding of how they worked anyhow.
SS So it worked fine until the day that I screwed up big time.
LR Oh yeah? Oh, tell me about that (laughs). An honest man…
SS The Rad Center has a bunch of different rooms and there’s the main reactor room where we were doing the laboratory for the students to approach with meters to radioactive sources and this was to teach them how to gain familiarity with cutie pie detectors, which were air ionization detectors for gamma and beta radiation and also do neutron detection. In order to do that, we needed to have a neutron source, so there was a neutron source in the hot cell in a fifty-five gallon drum of paraffin and he instructed me to wheel that out and I went into the hot cell area and wheeled it into the laboratory bay in the reactor bay area and hung the source up, using great tongs that were three feet long, keeping myself away from the source. And then we had our class and the students did their measurements. Because it was a shared facility the challenges involved two other classes having laboratories at the same time. There was a radiochemistry laboratory and a reactor physics laboratory—need to pause for a minute?
LR No, I think we’re good.
SS The radiochem class was using a fume hood over in the corner and doing wet chemistry on rabbit samples that were coming in and out of the reactor. So interesting enough, they finished up their lab period first and as they left, their shoe alarms went off at the exit.
LR Shoe alarms?
SS Well they were walking over and looking for trace contamination on their hands and on their shoes and sure enough there was contamination.
LR Now we should pause, on that exciting note [side conversation with another interviewer about conducting an interview on the following day at the Radiation Center]. So there was contamination?
LR And the alarms went off.
SS On the portal alarms as the students were exiting, nothing scary just oh no sit down start cleaning your shoes up so they’re backed up in the hall because all of them have it on their shoes.
LR How many are we talking about here?
SS There were probably twenty students in the radiation chemistry laboratory. There were another dozen students in the reactor physics laboratory and I had a dozen students in Art Johnson’s radiophysics class that he was teaching so nobody can leave the reactor bay area because they are contaminated on their shoes, so everybody is sitting down, pocket knives are brought out, people scraping the bottom of their shoes to get the contamination off.
LR Wouldn’t that kind of spread it? No?
LR (laughs) Just wondering.
SS Art and let’s see the health physics tech at that point, I don’t remember his name, I think it was Steve, but I’m not sure, set up some towels paper towels so you take your shoes off, start scraping on the bottom of your shoes until you get your shoes clean and then you’d go through and make sure your hands weren’t contaminated. But it was kind of ad hoc sitting in the hall.
SS And anybody who wore leather shoes were having to use the knife to cut away layers of the leather because whatever this contamination was, it seeped into the leather fairly deeply. So the next question is what was it and where did it come from?
SS Well the assumption was because the radiochem students were the first to show up with it that they had spilled something that they were working with liquid radioactivity in their lab so the assumption was they had spilled it.
LR Yeah, why don’t you just think that?
SS Well that was the first thought. So let’s see Mr. Carpenter who was the reactor operator was brought into the process to help figure things out and he was taking samples of what people were scraping off their shoes and they ran that out to a scintillation detector to find out what the actual material was the radioactive material that was contaminating everybody and from there they could narrow down the search, they thought. Well it turns out it wasn’t what the chem students were working with so then the next possibility were the reactor physics students who had been using the thermal column on the side of the reactor and that somehow they had contaminated something. Finally the idea was maybe it had something to do with the sources that I had hung and maybe my sources were leaking. So I was given the instructions to go do a swipe test on the sources, which in the technology in the day meant using these long-handed tongs to hold the source and rub them against a Kotex pad and then that Kotex pad would then be counted to see if there was radioactivity on it.
SS And trying to do this with three-foot long tongs was just not working so I, knowing what I was doing but being stupid nevertheless, reached down picked up the source in one hand and the pad in the other and rubbed it and then put the source back in the container. That came to light a month later when the finger rings, the little film badges on my fingers were developed and they showed significant amount of radioactivity that I would not normally have gotten; it was not a dangerous level but it was enough for me to get a lecture on proper techniques and not to violate proper techniques, which was an interesting lecture that I remembered throughout my career.
SS So was OSU relevant to future life? Yes.
SS You do it the right way or you don’t do it.
LR That’s a great story about what you learned at OSU.
SS Now to close the story out what had happened is someone had spilled material in the hot lab that was outside of th reactor bay and so as I wheeled this fifty-five gallon drum the wheels had taken it up and so it contaminated the floors all the way over to the reactor bay so the reactor baqy was contaminated before any of the practical lab students or faculty went in there. But I had no idea.
LR But you couldn’t have seen it.
SS When I went in past the monitors with the fifty-five gallon drum, the direct radiation from the source contained in the drum was high enough to make the monitors alarm so just having the monitors’ alarm was not anything significant at that point but it basically screwed up operations in the Rad Center for the whole afternoon because not only did we have to clean up the people as you say the dirt and the contamination went everywhere you know they were wiping down corridors and walls for the next week. The work study students loved it because it meant a lot of extra—
LR Extra hours.
SS Work for them.
LR (laughs) On the bright side, the silver lining (laughs). Well it sounds like—
SS These days it would have turned out to have been a reportable event and back then it was not.
LR Yeah, the standards have changed and become much more stringent.
SS So, I learned a lession, and everybody else learned a lesson at the same time, but I don’t know of any other significant contamination event in the Rad Center history.
LR This is the first I’ve heard of it, yeah. Although there is an old, an older student from really early in the program who got contamination on his hand and I know that story through the grape vine so I have to talk to him at some point, so and he seemed to make it into a funny story like I guess it was a funny story also like yours.
LR So that’s the only two that I know of.
SS The only thing that was really challenging about it of course is that I had had minimal instruction and here I was trying to keep everybody calm, that this is routine and I didn’t know what I was doing but somehow we got through it, which I think is more of a testimony to Bill Carpenter and Steve, the radiation health physicist, and Terry Anderson who was the reactor supervisor, really taking charge and telling people what to do.
LR So when you’re saying Steve, you think Steve was the radiation health safety officer.
LR Yeah so I could figure out who that was, I used to, Steve, well I’ll have to look, to try and piece it together. So do you have any other highlights from your adventures at OSU? Maybe not as dramatic (laughs).
SS I started forging a link between myself and American Nuclear Society. Chih Wang was a strong advocate of ANS and of Octave J. Dutemple who was the executive director of ANS at the time and he got Octave to come out for a seminar, as he and Octave were secretly discussing how to go to China.
LR Oh how interesting because I know that Chih wanted to, he eventually did make some in roads with Taiwan and China, both places—
SS It was it was illegal for American citizens to go to China, but Chih did and we found out later that he wasn’t just being a scofflaw it was an initiative that ANS and the Nixon administration put together to start opening up China for nuclear activities.
LR You know there’s a group of students from China here now, I mean they’ve been working with China out of OSU.
SS Well we had the Libyans back then in 75, 76 and the unofficial story is that it was okay to teach the Libyans about nuclear engineering but that we just wouldn’t teach them about shielding.
LR Why? I don’t understand.
SS Well Libya wanted the bomb, so why teach them anything that would help them create the bomb?
LR Oh and shielding would help with that.
SS Well shielding allows you to be in proximity—
LR Close so you can, okay.
SS You can do things.
LR Manipulate the materials.
SS I don’t know that the faculty really didn’t teach them about shielding, but at least on the grad student level …
LR (laughs) Well I’m glad I asked you—
SS …We consciously kept saying we weren’t going to teach the Libyans anything about shielding.
LR Okay, I, I’m glad I asked you because I misunderstood what you meant and I thought you meant like we won’t teach them how to shield themselves, they would actually be getting nuked while they were working on… that wouldn’t make sense, that wouldn’t be nice.
SS The biggest problem in building a bomb is working with very radioactive materials.
LR Right, yeah.
SS So shielding is extremely important in order to make that process happen.
LR I wonder if you have some thoughts about the relationship between nuclear power and nuclear weapons.
SS It’s there, the faculty never put up any flags on, “wait a minute, you can’t think this way because it’s classified” but we knew when we were getting around the edge of a weapons issue and we avoided it like the plague because none of us wanted to go into weapons at that particular time so most of the new talent going into the laboratories for weapons were coming from Berkeley and MIT not from OSU. I don’t know of any OSU undergrad or grad student that went into weapons in my period. So. It was known and you could figure out what was going on. We understood the boundary on classified material and not officially having any ability to access it, you kind of read between the lines to know where there was classified stuff and you just didn’t go there. On the other hand, the Navy would come out and do stupid things like give us lectures on the capabilities of their submarines and gave away classified information but they didn’t realize it. They would not reveal the power level of the sub’s reactor but they told us the shaft horse power and the simple conversion and other details, that let us figure out what the classified power level must have been. Tthey couldn’t describe how deep the submarine could go but they discussed technical details about how to get the reactor systems to depressurize at depths where the pressure outside is greater than the reactor pressure and since we knew what reactor pressures were, we could figure out the depth so the Navy may have given away a lot of classified information but nothing on weapons, That was a different story, alltobether. And again it was kind of exciting to know that Chih Wang was in China at that time frame but nothing we could do or talk about, he was an interesting old goat to have as a professor. I had a class in radio tracer methods that was jointly taught by Walt Loveland of the chemistry department and Chih Wang and Chih’s claim to fame was on making scintillators and these were organic materials that would respond to radiation by giving off a flash of light and he would put them on film negatives and he came in and taught us how to float this on a solution and gently pull off a piece of plastic to lift off the top layer of the solution to get a nice, even coating of the scintillator. None of us were successful in doing it but it was an interesting lecture.
LR (laughs) It sounds pretty hard. Well then Professor Loveland, he is actually in Hawaii this weekend so he won’t be here at the anniversary but I am going to talk to him later.
SS Walt has a very close, had a very close relationship with Glen Seaborg, they coauthored books—
LR I didn’t know that.
SS Glen Seaborg is—
LR I know who that is (laughs) yes, I know that name. But I didn’t know that he—
SS Coauthor books, yes.
LR Huh, I should pay more attention. Well the name Loveland was really familiar but I didn’t know why and my studies of the Radiation Center are a much earlier so I don’t know—
SS Well I came back in 92, I was thinking about getting a doctorate at that point and adding on and as an older student it was different and how can I put it? Walt was not the most helpful.
LR Awe, I’m sorry. I won’t tell him that you said that (laughs).
SS Yeah, I know it’s recorded now.
LR You can cross it off if you don’t like it. Did I tell you I’ll send you the transcripts? And you get to edit them and then I donate them after you’ve had a chance to look at them.
SS That’s fine. I was approaching the graduate degree from a business perspective of how much time I could spend to go do it, take away time and how to do it efficiently and effectively and his comment was you should just take three years out of your life and let us run it for you.
SS And I said I don’t give away my life to anybody else.
LR (laughs) But it is what grad school is like.
SS It is.
LR It was the truth.
SS It was, and I saw it as a much more business oriented opportunity for myself.
LR Did you make some friendships when you were in the program?
SS Certainly, mostly with the faculty. Those have been the longest lived because they’ve continued to be active in the American Nuclear Society as I have been. Interesting to meet new faculty coming in, Todd Palmer standing over there, I met at ANS, particularly when I had to overrule his judgment.
LR Hmmm…Say that louder I guess (laughs) [Todd Palmer was standing nearby within earshot].
SS Well, his division had their ideas about who would be acceptable to give papers at a particular meeting and I was the program chair for that meeting and said no, this person can give their paper. And we got into a big argument. Eventually he came around and agreed that I was actually correct, that I had access to more facts than he did but the individual was not one that the division was happy with.
LR Oh okay.
SS When I say division, I mean—
SS –The ANS division I should say.
LR Did you feel the program prepared you for what you’ve done since?
SS Very much so.
LR And how?
SS I’ve had an opportunity in my professional career to see the graduates of other nuclear engineering divisions or schools and clearly Oregon State has the best program to meet what industry needs; it’s tied to it and it’s relevant. UCLA had a well-regarded program but many of their students didn’t seem to understand the nuts and bolts of how the systems go together in a reactor.
LR Yeah, that would be important to know.
SS And guys like John Ringle, who were very specific on the licensing process certainly helped me very much in hitting the ground running in the licensing field, and proceeding to get—as an example—it was through my intervention that Palo Verde [nuclear power plant in Arizona] received the first forty-year operating license that was ever granted by the [Nuclear] Regulatory Commission. Everybody else had had to have the time period during construction subtracted from their forty years and I went in with the regulation to the attorney’s office and said no, we’re going to ask for the full forty years and the attorney said, “I didn’t even know it said that.”That was something I had learned from Ringle. So we were the first ones to get a forty-year license. Since then, lots of plants went back in and refiled and recaptured that construction period onto their license but that was an item from Ringle’s nuclear regulation class that I took straight into industry.
LR And so have you said what you do now?
SS I’m retired at this point. I left with my Masters degree in August of ‘76 and joined Bechtel September of ‘76 as a shielding engineer.
LR Oh, so that’s your specialty.
SS And proceeded to start off shielding a plant called San Onofre in Southern California and then Palo Verde, did a lot of work on Palo Verde for many years in all kinds of nuclear systems and shielding design work, licensed it, went out and got it started up, then went into my own business, consulting engineering.
LR Is it specific to nuclear power plants as well?
SS It was mostly for nuclear power plants, but I did some for water treatment.
LR So over the years you’ve seen a lot of, probably, public opinion change around nuclear power and I’m wondering how that might have impacted you or affected you.
SS Well I’m not sure the change has been there. I’d say it’s been negative the whole time. In 1976 as I was coming into California working for Bechtel, they already had a ballot proposition to try to ban nuclear, but, that was turned down by the public. But the anti-nuclear sentiment has been there the whole time. It was advantageous being here and giving speeches and as a graduate student in the outreach of the student ANS branch here at Oregon State.
LR Oh, so you got to talk to the public?
LR Did you do that with John Ringle?
SS No. John was the sponsor for the student branch but it was the ANS student branch that made the contacts with Rotary, Lions, and various groups and set up a speakers program.
LR Huh, oh maybe it was Willis that I was thinking of, Professor Willis was he there when you were there?
SS Not a name I remember in our student-led public outreach efforts.
LR Okay, well Professor Willis talked about his disappointment; he would hold public workshops to try and explain nuclear to the public and he felt very frustrated by the response.
SS Well, Spinrad was in a battle with other faculty, the Humanities faculty, which, to a man, was against nuclear and not that they were going to throw it off campus but they didn’t see any point for it in society and Bernie wrote several articles that show in the faculty records significant comment at the Faculty Senate arguing that Bernie was too opinionated and not worthy of a position at a university of ideas. I know he took it personally, it was a very cheap shot but that was traditional at any university that the nuclear facultywere being vilified by the other faculty.
FOR INFO, LOOK AT http://oregonstate.edu/senate/ffp/111975-9.html
LR And how have you dealt with that?
SS You go out, you give a talk and you do more than the thirty second sound byte and eventually people understand that nuclear power plants cannot explode as a bomb would explode and they understand how you can work and control the material.
LR So you feel that you were prepared by OSU for your career and you ended up definitely making a career of your studies. What, if you look back, what would you want someone, let’s say someone comes into the archive in fifty years and they want to read about what it was like to be a part of growing nuclear science, is there anything in particular you want to make sure that is there from your perspective.
SS The industry demands perfection and the faculty provided a good introduction to that concept that it’s rare that anything you did was good enough if it wasn’t perfect. So the faculty started from the very beginning of creating in your own mind the expectation that you’ve got to just do it right from the get go, very strong attention to detail, homework, lab assignments, across the board. You just don’t screw around with nuclear security out at the Rad Center, you don’t screw around with playing around with nuclear materials. You can talk about it, you can figure out the what-ifs but you just do it by the rules and you do it right from the beginning.
LR And has that been your experience working in the commercial—
SS Yes. Now this is not the only school with a reactor in Oregon. Reed College has one as well.
LR But theirs isn’t as fancy as ours.
SS No and as an undergraduate program it is less structured and less precise and interesting enough that’s why they’ve had, in my view, two fairly serious problems. Their electronics were manipulated such that the reactor wasn’t working properly. Their electronics tech put in a bypass and they received a notice of violation from the NRC on that. And I believe there was a contamination incident also that was fairly serious a couple years ago.
LR I didn’t know.
SS So they’ve had some challenges whereas OSU has not.
LR And I know that the reactor would have, I’m not sure when they upgraded their, someone was telling me how one of the, I think it was Professor Ringle was talking about when they changed the reactor fuel.
SS FLIP fuel.
LR Yeah and how much he liked that fuel and then how upset he was when they switched out of it. Now they’ve got, because they had to get the high, the highly enriched fuel out and they switched to lowly enriched. But I’m just wondering if you were there when they brought in the FLIP fuel.
SS They were getting ready for it.
LR Well he turned out being unhappy with it.
SS Yeah well we were unhappy with it from the get go.
LR Oh okay.
SS But it was Jimmy Carter and that was the way things were going to be; it’s not as if we had a choice in the matter.
LR It was a national security decision.
SS A national security mistake. Had nothing to do with that. Contemporaneously they ran away and left the core for the TRIGA in Saigon.
LR That’s very interesting, I wasn’t aware of this.
SS They quote forgot to remove it before they left Saigon.
LR Huh. But the Vietnamese didn’t start a nuclear program though, did they?
SS What do you know about it?
LR Nothing (laughs), I know nothing. You tell me (laughs). It’s your interview you can talk about it if you like.
SS I have no facts but I cannot believe that a totalitarian regime is not doing something to exploit that. That’s the Carter administration that left it behind or rather didn’t approve the project to go get it out.
LR Ah, that’s tough (laughs). So you have a lot of good memories, a lot of interesting things to say. Have you given your oral history before?
LR Huh. So if I call you up one day and say how about if we talk again, would you be willing?
LR Awesome! That’s great, so I think, is there anything—
SS Nope, that’s fine.
LR Okay, we’re good for now?
SS Thank you.
LR Mostly because I’m the one who will be typing this and the longer we talk, the more I have to type.
[Interview seems to end, but then the tape is turned back on, because Steve Shepherd has another interesting story to add about finishing his thesis]
SS Bernie had had my thesis for three weeks and in fact had copied it and shared it with the English department to prove that engineers could write.
LR Nice, that’s a good compliment.
SS Which was a compliment and then he gave it back to me the night before it was due at noon at the graduate department the next day and he had written in red ink on every single page. I had to retype my thesis over night, literally over night.
SS One hundred and twelve pages or whatever it was and I’m not a professional typist.
LR Well you got faster I bet by the end (laughs).
SS But Robin Keen was good enough to use—
LR She’s still there you know.
SS I know. She was good enough to let me use her IBM Selectric, so at least I had a good typewriter to work with.
LR Well Robin might actually help me with these transcriptions so maybe she’ll, I can put in a good word about how you gave her a compliment in the transcript so maybe she should help me type it.
[Again tape is turned off and then back on]
SS’s WIFE Betsy Shepherd No, you don’t need to put me in.
LR No, you do.
Betsy I drew this schematic of the device that his thesis was about (laughs).
LR How cool is that? You’re the illustrator. What I envy—
SS Ah, yes.
LR Wife or girlfriend at the time (laughs)?
SS And I gave her the job at ten o’clock and I wanted it back at one a.m.
Betsy Yeah, it was like a round thing with a, I don’t know what it was.
LR That must have been a very stressful night.
Betsy (laughs) Productive though.
Betsy We got it done.
LR Well it’s been really fun talking with you. Okay.
SS Thank you.