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stories along The Way

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Japan's nuclear crisis hits very close to home

This story starts with something rather personal.

My grandfather, Joe Haaga, was for all intent and purposes my dad.  My grandparents had four children including my mother. As far as I know, he and grandma were pretty much the typical straight-laced 1940s' kind of parents that usually come to mind. As the family patriarch, my mother says her dad was loving father, but always at a 1940s-appropriate distance.

I was the first grandchild, born on my grandparents' anniversary in the mid '60s. Mom and dad separated almost immediately and we found ourselves living with my grandparents. For some reason, when I came along, that stiff 1940s veneer of my grandfather's broke down completely. I was raised by Papa, and as I remember it, he was the most loving, affectionate father any child could ever want.

The first seven years of my life were pretty much all about my grandfather and me. We did everything together from the minute he would come home from work. I watched football on his knee while we rooted for the Dolphins and Raiders.  He knew a little about that, having played QB while in college at Notre Dame and had a bum knee to show for it. Today's players were whimps, he'd grumble. Although too young to understand back then, today I'd wholeheartedly agree given that, at the time, football was losing the last of its incredibly tough 60 minute'ers.

And oh boy, he spoiled the hell out of me. And like any good father, he worried and fussed over me. I was not a healthy child from birth, and he took good care of me.  This man was father, in every sense - and a damn good one. During the short time we had, I could not have been any luckier in life.

J.A. Haaga at Tokai Mura, Japan in 1962
Joe Haaga was someone else of importance in life, too. He was also J.A. Haaga II - nuclear engineer. 

 J.A. Haaga was truly a pioneer in the field of nuclear energy. As he entered college, nuclear energy as a reliable form of power generation was in its infancy. The spectre of Nazi Germany developing an Atomic bomb brought the best and brightest to Chicago to defeat them. It wasn't long before Haaga found himself working directly with Enrico Fermi on the Manhattan Project  at just 22 years of age, helping the Italian scientist with reactor experiments.

From there, while employed by Du Pont, he worked at both Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Hanford Nuclear plant throughout the 1940s, well before Hanford notoriously became the de facto nuclear waste dump throughout much of the Cold War.

Some of the APED Team at Dresden
Moving to General Electric, Haaga first organized and managed all training of the combined GE-US Navy crew assigned to develop the reactor for what became the USS Nautilus - the United States' first nuclear submarine. In a small momento box, I recently found a "USS Nautilus necktie clip" of all things, commemorating those who worked on the project.

When GE went into nuclear energy full time, Haaga became GE's Atomic Power Equipment Department [APED] lead manager. His team oversaw the installation and safety training for all GE-manufactured reactors throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Haaga and his team started up more than thirty different reactors, including Con-Ed's Dresden Plant in Illinois (pictured) during his time with APED. By 1960, he had started up more nuclear reactors than any man in the world.

In 1962, GE sent Haaga to Japan where he led the start-up of the GE-designed Light Water Critical Assembly at the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute in Tokai Mura, Japan. It was this trip that my grandfather fell in love with Japan, the beautiful people and their culture. He brought back with him Japanese screens and artwork that became a part of the household that was later my home as a child.

As a nuclear engineer, 'safety above all' was J.A. Haaga's stock in trade. By the age of 45, he was already known in the industry as 'the Old Man of the Mountain' when it came to reactor safety.  He was lead author on a seminal paper: "Safety Achievement in the Startup and Initial Operation of Eighteen Reactors" that is still cited in current nuclear literature. About my grandfather's commitment to safety, George C. Fullmer - at times a APED team member and at times a competitor - related in his book The Great American Carpool and Other Stories that a reporting supervisor once complained to him that 'Joe would give them no room to move on their own outside standard (reactor) procedures because "Joe knows all the tricks; he's pulled them all himself so he won't let anyone do the same."'

The Fukushima reactor installations came in the late 1960s. General Electric manufactured reactors were to be installed at Fukushima 'Dai-Ichi' (#1), becoming Reactors 1, 2 and 6 on the site. The APED team, led by my grandfather, spent the better half of the decade back and forth from Fukushima. He loved traveling there. He would have lived in Fukushima, I think, if that had somehow been logistically possible. Grandma went with him on occasion, and related with a broad smile that some living around what was then a very remote area had never seen anyone before with freckles like she had. I still know a few words of Japanese my grandfather taught me as a kid. 

Fukushima in a way led to my grandfather's untimely death. There were major problems growing with the contractor on this installation, Ebasco: a unionized company GE itself had created at the turn of the century. To the professional tasked with the safety of what might be an entire city in the worst-case scenario during a reactor installation, Ebasco's "contracted" work for GE was a growing concern and running way over-cost. My grandfather went to his boss repeatedly about problems that were occurring with Ebasco on projects. His boss tried to go upward, and ran into a huge brick wall. This was highly political, and millions if not billions of dollars were at stake. The GE hierarchy did not want to listen to either man.

Ultimately, push came to shove over Ebasco during the MillStone Point reactor project in 1969, and neither my grandfather nor his boss, Ray Dickman, would back down. They were both was heavily retaliated against, made scapegoats, and one day found themselves ' an office where the phone never rang', as my grandfather described it to our family. He left GE, and went to work for Jersey Nuclear. I was old enough to remember when Exxon Nuclear then acquired Jersey in the early 1970s.

Whether it was the stress of the Ebasco incident, or just his stressful life in general isn't known, but all of this was ultimately just too much. After 7 major heart attacks, my grandfather passed away at just 52 years of age in 1973. Ray Dickman died just months later. Meanwhile, GE and Ebasco finished installation of Fukushima Reactor 6 the same year. Later the same decade came vindication in a very public way:  cost overruns and shoddy construction of five nuclear power plants by contractor Ebasco in Washington State caused most of them to be 'mothballed' to the tune of billions of taxpayer dollars, earning the "Washington Public Power Supply System" [WPPSS] the moniker Whoops!  Had he been alive, my grandfather would have had the opportunity to say 'Told ya so.'

Life was very difficult after the passing of the head and heart of our family. That's all I'll say about that. But I did inherit my grandfather's A-type personality, a bit of his brain for science and slightly raunchy sense of humor. First and foremost, with my background in physics, today I too hold his belief that nuclear power - first Fission, which is what we have now - then Fusion in the future will mean clean energy for humanity if the technology is managed and advanced properly and safely.

Fusion reaction.
Fusion reactors in theory will have no dangerous radioactive byproducts like Fission reactors do, and their potential for clean power is effectively limitless. Fusion needs to be pursued. Nuclear Fusion is not the same as Nuclear Fission, yet today your average man on the street doesn't know the difference - they're unjustly terrified of anything with the word 'nuclear' in it.

Sadly, the nuclear industry has suffered decades of funding cuts, decaying infrastructure, and safety failures since the Old Man of the Mountain permanently left the field. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and ultimately even Tokai Mura have suffered deadly systems failures (Tokai Mura 1999 was not a reactor failure). Consistently well-funded research in Fusion reactors has never really existed in my lifetime. The fearful confusion between Nuclear Fusion and Nuclear Fission continues unchecked in the general populace.

Which brings us back to Fukushima. The disaster unfolding at Fukushima and Japan itself as I type this would break my grandfather's heart today as the project itself ultimately did back then. I myself take heart in knowing that it took forty years of different management, a 9.0 earthquake and a cataclysmic tsunami to dislodge the strong foundation of nuclear safety my grandfather and his professional team put in place at Fukushima. My thoughts and prayers and that of my entire family go out to the heroic people of Japan.

Read Bill Dedman's summary of GE-type reactors in service in the United States at