Kenneth Pitzer blamed AEC advisors for slow power reactor development
During the Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC) earliest years, the General Advisory Committee was sometimes viewed as a source of discouraging, delaying advice. Made up of selected members of the scientific establishment, the group habitually sought more studies and inserted costly delays aimed at making the perfect next step instead of taking steps that were good enough to support practical learning.
A March 8, 1952 New York Times article titled “Atomic Delay Laid to A.E.C. Advisers: Even Dr. Conant Should Yield to Men With Faith in Goal, Coast Chemists are Told,” provides a well-positioned person’s insights into the disappointingly slow process of developing power reactors.
The article reports an address to the Southern California section of the American Chemical Society. Dr. Kenneth Pitzer, who had recently left his job as the director of research for the Atomic Energy Commission, told the ACS section that the AEC needed to revise its procedures to reduce the authority of the advisers in favor of project engineers and lab directors.
He referred to the General Advisory committee members as “kibitzers” who had little enthusiasm for primary AEC goals like peaceful atomic energy development. He suggested that some should be replaced.
Even such top scientists as Dr. James B. Conant, president of Harvard University, should be replaced as commission advisers by men “with faith and enthusiasm in the job to be done” and who would give the commission “constructive advice,” Dr. Pitzer asserted. More than one of the influential members of long standing on the general advisory committee, he added, seem to have “remarkably little enthusiasm for the primary goals of the Atomic Energy Commission.”
The 38-year-old dean of the College of Chemistry on the University of California’s Berkeley campus declared men were needed “who will specialize in pointing out new fields to explore rather than in double-checking decisions in projects already under way.”New York Times, “Atomic Delay Laid to A.E.C. Advisers: Even Dr. Conant Should Yield to Men With Faith in Goal, Coast Chemists are Told”, Mar 8, 1952 p. 6
Pitzer gave the AEC a backhanded slap by calling it “reasonably efficient by general governmental standards,” and stated that its monopoly in atomic energy had delayed atomic reactor development.
He described how material production reactors, with their complex chemical processing systems, had been built in less than three years during wartime. During that time of rapid progress, he said, if there was a disagreement about which of two courses of action were best, both of them were followed.
In the succeeding years, following either route needed to be preceded by an “exhaustive series of preliminary studies” that added layers of cost to the project. Salaries, overhead and other cost components always accumulate during delays.
He noted how it took six years from the end of the war to build anything that could generate electricity, and even then it was a tiny reactor that produced just 100 kilowatts of power in December, 1951.
“The slowness,” Dr. Pitzer declared, “did not arise from a lack of designs for power reactors which reputable scientists and engineers were willing to build and test. It came rather from an unwillingness of the commission to proceed with any one of these designs until all of the advisers agreed that this was the best design.”
The speaker likened the present setup, with a multitude of committees advising the Atomic Energy Commission, to an automobile equipped with a separate brake lever for every passenger.
Aside: I love the image of a car with brakes for every passenger. Some have described the process of working through government permitting mazes as processes where anyone can say “no” but no one can say “yes” and grant final permission. End Aside.
Delaying power reactor construction until the acquisition of the National Reactor Testing site in Idaho was described as a precautionary measure reaching “silly extremes” since “safer and smaller models could have been built without any significant risk on the original Argonne (near Chicago) and Oak Ridge, Tenn. sites with great savings in both time and money.”
Reading this article reminded me of numerous conversations I had with Ted Rockwell, who served as Admiral Rickover’s technical director for the Nautilus and Shippingport projects. He described Rickover’s frustrations with the “scientists” advising the AEC and also told great stories about the bureaucratic skill with which his boss maneuvered around the committees that wanted more delaying studies.
Conversely, from the perspective of the people conducting the approval process:
Nobody ever gets fired for doing nothing. However, people get fired for exceeding their authority all the time. Lawyers are arguing over where the line is, and the line never stops moving, and all previous decisions are reviewable and the people who made them are fireable, on the basis of a legal standard that didn’t exist at the time the decision was made.
So what do you do? If there is anything at all novel about what the applicant wants to do, you insist to the applicant that you have no authority to act on their application. This only changes once you have a directive, in writing, from someone above you. That person is unlikely to make such a directive unless they’re such a short-timer that they won’t get fired when the rules are reinterpreted. This is how political appointees get exasperated with minor and obvious decisions being kicked up to them instead of being resolved three levels below, where by any logic they should have been.
What it looks like to the applicant is that old political cartoon of the officials standing in a circle and pointing to the next guy. (You go to the Department of X. They say, “X doesn’t have authority to do that. Y does. Ask them.” You go to the Department of Y. You go there and they say, “Y doesn’t have authority to do that. X does. Ask them.”) Meanwhile, the organization as a whole drops the ball. No individual person in it has any incentive to act in the group’s interest.
I call this the “organizational infield fly rule.”
Much of the anti-nuclear activism in the courts is effective precisely by creating this type of doubt in the minds of the NRC staff – not by changing policy. All they have to do is create that question in the back of a junior manager’s mind: “will I be fired if I sign this?”
The path of least resistance? Appoint another committee to write another report.
Sounds similar to the way NASA started operating after Apollo/Saturn.
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