Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Why I Became a Nuclear Engineer

I didn't get into the nuclear engineering field by direct choice. I started out thinking maybe I would go into medicine when I first entered college. But then I realized I was really more interested in mathematics, chemistry, and physics. So: I became a Mathematics Major / Physics Minor. 

John Bickel, as a serious Physics graduate student, 1973

At the end of my senior year at the University of Vermont in 1972, I went on a field trip to the Vermont Yankee plant in Vernon, Vermont with my physics class. It was not yet operating and this was way before all the security fences and guards with automatic weapons all over the place. We met in a visitors center with an engineer from the plant who explained how the plant worked and took us on a tour. One thing impressed me at the time was the recognition just how much energy could be released from one single nuclear fission reaction. From physical chemistry courses I knew that oxidation of hydrocarbon based fuels could yield somewhere between 2-8eV (electron volts) of energy depending on the reaction. Fissioning one single uranium nucleus, on the other hand, could yield ~200million eV. That staggering difference in energy yields stuck with me more than the piping and valves I saw inside the plant.

Yes, I got one of those simulated fuel pellets at Vermont Yankee

I finished a Master of Science Degree in Physics in 1974-- but quickly realized there was very little work in physics available. It was after the first Oil Embargo of 1973, the US economy was in shambles, and gasoline for my Fiat Spider sports car had risen from 34 cents/gallon to $1.25/gallon. It was at this point I decided to transfer over to a Nuclear Engineering program where I could possibly use some of the physics I'd learned. I talked to faculty at MIT and later RPI -- and found there were good research fellowships available at RPI almost for the taking. Living costs in Boston vs. Troy, New York cemented my decision to study at RPI. So my wife and I loaded up a U-Haul van and we were off to Troy NY.

Graduate school at RPI was pretty intensive academically - even though I had a leg up on the Mechanical Engineer types. I cruised through nuclear physics and neutron physics - but reactor engineering and fluid flow was all new. I especially recall the critical reactor lab where I did my first reactor start-ups. I remember the radiation instrumentation laboratory where we learned how to calibrate various types of gamma and neutron detectors. We had to build counting circuits and discriminator circuits - real practical skills. I also remember the homework. My wife recalls I would come home and work until 1-2AM almost every weeknight. I had learned as an undergraduate that the best way to prep for an exam was to take the text book and work out every problem in the back of each chapter -- an in particular any problem not assigned by a professor as a regular homework problem. (It usually turned out these were good candidates for exam questions.)

As my Masters Degree project was coming to an end, I started looking for employment. After job interviews with Knolls Atomic Power Lab (KAPL), General Electric, and Combustion Engineering (CE) - I decided the job offer at Combustion Engineering looked like the most interesting opportunity. I started work in September 1975 in Windsor, Connecticut. It was an incredible era for new nuclear engineering graduates - possibly equivalent to being an aerospace engineer after President Kennedy challenged NASA to go to the moon. I felt I was part of a young generation that was going to work to reduce America's dependence on imported foreign oil. CE already had operating reactors in Michigan (Palisades), Nebraska (Ft. Calhoun), and Maine (Maine Yankee) - and a dozen orders for new reactors in Arkansas, California, Florida, Texas, North Carolina, Louisiana, Arizona, and Washington.

My first assignment was in the Instrumentation and Controls Engineering department. On my first day my new boss took me aside and told me I had to learn about the dynamics of the CE pressurized water reactor. He piled up a number of training manuals that I had to read and understand before I could really do any useful work. So for weeks I read manuals, the CE System 80 Standard Safety Analysis Report, and computer code manuals. I then learned how to use a system simulation code called CESEC to figure out timing requirements for generating reactor trip signals. Within a year, as a 25 year old, I was helping design reactor trip systems by doing calculations on timing of events and confirming functional requirements. Later I became involved with the design analysis of the Reactor Power Cutback System, the Digital Core Protection Calculator System, and the Control Element Assembly Calculator System. I found out that CE would pay for me to continue my graduate education even to the point of getting a PhD -- so I put through the paperwork, and one thing lead to another.

Many years later (2006) I was a contractor to USNRC doing an audit at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station and I saw the operators console for the Reactor Power Cutback System in the control room and started staring at it. A young reactor operator came up to me and inquired what I was looking at so intently. I told him I was looking at the RPC operators console. He asked me if I knew about "what it was - and how it worked?" So I told him: "Yep. I designed it back in 1978."

John Bickel (right), Consultant to Swedish Nuclear Power Inspectorate
at an OECD meeting in Paris

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