An Early Passion for Nuclear Energy
I have a passion for nuclear power. It began when I was a teenager and has continued to develop for more than thirty years. It fires me up early each morning, causes me to bore friends and family to tears, and often keeps me awake late into the evening. This passion has been the source of many of my life’s successes, but it has also taken me to emotional places where I hope most of you never go. It can be quite frustrating to be an enthusiast about a topic that most people find as welcome as acne.
My fascination for nuclear technology began as a general interest in energy. Sometimes during those sleepless periods when I wake up thinking of new ways to explain or use the amazing qualities that naturally occur in the nuclei of many of the earth’s substances, I try to pinpoint the initial source of my interest. To the best of my recollection, it began when my father described the general characteristics of a new plant that his employer was building near Homestead, Florida.
It was 1974 and I was 14 years old. Like many American young men of that age, I was counting the days until my 15th birthday. That birthday had a magical quality – it was the day when Floridians could take a simple written test and earn the privilege of sitting behind the wheel of a powerful freedom machine – the automobile. Of course, I knew that one of my parents would be sitting beside me as I learned to operate the machine of my dreams, but that was a mere detail. I was ready to drive.
The reason that Dad and I began talking about Turkey Point – which was the name of the plant that Florida Power and Light was building in South Florida – was because I was in a bit of a snit. I had been complaining – actually, given my age at the time I was probably whining loudly – that I was going to get my license at just the wrong time. In mid 1974, gasoline prices had just doubled from about 25 cents per gallon to 50 cents per gallon and there were some people that had declared the end of cheap and available oil.
I saw my dream of long road trips exploring the wonders of the world floating away with the daily headlines. Not only was the price skyrocketing, but we were actually being limited on the quantity of gas that we could purchase. Believe it or not, but there were a number of local stations that simply did not have any gas to sell and there were lines forming at many of the others. My father, a lifelong commuter, worked in Miami, more than 40 miles from our home in Pembroke Pines. I saw my Dad more often than usual during that time, he found that the lines were quite short at 0530 at the station near the pool where I had practice at that same time. I normally rode my bike to practice, but took him up on his offer of a ride whenever he needed gas.
Anyway, it was during one of those trips to the pool that Dad began explaining to me how his employer was working to reduce America’s dependence on oil by building nuclear plants like Turkey Point. I think that may have been the first time that I ever heard the word, nuclear. The possibility of overcoming what seemed to me to be a rather enormous problem got me quite interested in the subject, and Dad and his friends were pretty good sources of continuing information. He was a transmission substation engineer, but he had worked for FP&L for his entire career and knew a lot of people who were working on Turkey Point and on planning for St. Lucie, which was another two reactor power station located a couple of hours up the east coast of Florida.
The FP&L engineers that Dad knew taught me enough about the technology to help me decide my career path. I was a pretty decent student – actually, I was a bit of a geek – and I liked to buy nice things, so it seemed like a natural fit. In the mid 1970s it was as common for bright high school students to declare that they wanted to “do something in nuclear power” as it was in the 1980s for them to declare that they wanted to do something with computers or in the 1990s for them to say that they wanted to do something with the Internet.
Not only did Dad and his colleagues teach me about the technology, but they also spent some time talking about the economic, environmental and political implications of this new form of energy. Turkey Point had its detractors, but some of Dad’s friends pointed out that all new technologies had growing pains and that some of the most vocal opponents of the new plant were possibly people that were selling oil to the company’s other plants or people that saw their jobs being threatened because they were not trained in the mysterious new power source.
Dad was particularly interested in the environmental aspects of nuclear power. He called himself an old country boy, having grown up on a small farm in southern Georgia. He hated waste; he was born in 1925 and learned to use and reuse everything during his Depression era childhood. I’ll never forget his unique recycling system. He loved fruit and had planted about a dozen different citrus trees in our small suburban yard. After the trees began bearing fruit, he decided that the skin was going to waste, so he built a compost heap out of chicken wire.
Mom, also a product of the Depression and the daughter of a single mom, supported his waste minimization habit and kept a plastic bucket on the kitchen counter to collect fruit scraps, potato peels and those brown leafs that sometimes occur on the outside of heads of lettuce. Dad heard from someone that rabbits liked to eat fruit skins and flower buds, so he bought a couple of rabbits. I wish now that I had learned to like the tomatoes that he grew around the compost heap, but I have terrific memories of the amazing citrus that he grew and nurtured with the “waste” from the rabbits.
Dad was the first one to point out to me that there was a growing question in the nuclear world about the eventual use of the waste material. He did not pose it as a show stopper; he was an engineer and a recycler. He thought that there would be uses found for the waste, and told me that it might be an interesting area to study since it was not yet a solved problem. He did, however, make sure that I understood that he was far happier about the fact that the company was collecting and caring for the waste from the nuclear plant than he was about their solution for fossil fuel waste disposal – which was to build ever taller smoke stacks. He liked knowing that nuclear power plants did not even need smoke stacks.
That is how I got hooked on nuclear power. When I began looking seriously at colleges, a strong nuclear or electrical engineering program was important. My excellent guidance counselor pointed out to me that the Navy had one of the largest and best respected nuclear programs in the world, and that it operated a tuition-free college that actually paid you to attend. That sounded like the perfect choice for me. I managed to obtain an appointment to the Naval Academy in the class of 1981 and entered another phase of my nuclear power passion. That, however, is grist for another article.