Milton Shaw: And the decline of the American Nuclear Establishment

(Guest post by Charles Barton)

Shortly before Alvin Weinberg’s 80th birthday, Bill Cabbage and Carolyn Krause, journalists associated with ORNL, interviewed him.

During the interview Weinberg was asked to comment on Milton Shaw. Weinberg responded, “Milton Shaw had a singleness of purpose. In many ways I admired him, and in many ways he drove me nutty. He had a single-minded commitment to do what he was told to do, which was to get the Clinch River Breeder Reactor built. My views were different from his. I think the Commission decided that my views were out of touch with the way the nuclear industry was actually going.”

Milton Shaw was actually a Knoxville boy. He was born on Oct. 5, 1921, in Knoxville. His father, William Shaw, was a professor of agricultural chemistry at the University of Tennessee. There were fewer than 1000 Jews in Knoxville when Shaw was born, and in some respects the Knoxville Jewish community was typical of the South. The Knoxville Jewish community had contributed a major voice to the nation, Adoph Ochs, the the founder of the Ochs-Sulzberger dynasty that still owns the New York Times grew up in Knoxville, and began his journalism career there.

Shaw studied Mechanical Engineering at the University of Tennessee, and probably received a draft deferment, because his field of study made him more valuable to the military with a complete education, than as a grunt. Upon graduation Shaw joined the Navy. He was sent to the Navy Propulsion School at Cornell University in 1944. The Navy then assigned him to the Pacific where he served as an engineering officer for the rest of the war.

Mr. Shaw served in the Navy as an engineering officer in the Pacific Theater during World War II. After the war Shaw continued his career with the Navy, working at the Naval Engineering Experiment Station and Testing Laboratory (EES) in Annapolis, Maryland. He sought out Rickover, and Rickover took him on, first sending Shaw to the Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology in 1950-51, where according to Alvin Weinberg, he was an average student. Now average at Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology in 1950 probably meant very, very bright. To be above average in that crowd you had to be a genius, of which there were more than a few of those floating around Oak Ridge at the time.

Shaw had had the quality of relentless determination. to get whatever job he was assigned done. He was the perfect executive officer, which Hyman Rickover recognized.

Rickover managed to insinuate himself into the AEC bureaucracy while also working for the Department of Defense, and holding Naval rank. These multiple hats gave Rickover great power, and he brought Shaw into the system. Shaw learned the use of power, and an abrasive, autocratic leadership style from Rickover. From 1950 to 1961, he reported directly to Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, known as the “father of the nuclear Navy” and who was serving in the Office of Naval Reactors for the Atomic Energy Commission. When Shaw left Rickover in 1961, it was to serve as a technical assistant to the assistant secretary of the Navy for research and development.

Shaw had worked on the development of the nuclear submarine, and then was Rickover’s man in charge of surface nuclear systems. He was responsible from conception to completion for the aircraft carrier prototype plant and the nuclear propulsion plants for the Enterprise and the Long Beach, as well as for all other surface ship propulsion plant projects.

The Shippingport reactor was really a naval aircraft carrier reactor that had Shaw had developed. When President Eisenhower proposed his Atoms for Peace project, Rickover donated a spare aircraft carrier reactor that had been built for experimental purposes. The reactor was hooked up to a turbine and a generator, and thus became the nations first “civilian” nuclear power plant. Of course Rickover’s boys continued to run experiments on it.

Shaw understanding of technical issues, coupled with his management skills made him the supreme bureaucrat. During his three years as a senior assistant to the Navy assistant secretary, Shaw was actively involved with the management of all research, development, test and evaluation matters to the Navy and Marine Corps. He was also responsible for coordination and direction of the scientific and technical efforts of the Navy’s bureaus, laboratories and offices. Needless to say, Shaw had a position in which he yielded great power over the Navy’s scientific and engineering establishment, and he undoubtedly chose to do so.

In 1964 Shaw left the Navy Department, and joined the AEC as director of reactor research and development. That position gave him oversight of research the reactor programs of all the national laboratories including ORNL. Shaw did not flinch at using his authority to the utmost. In the case of ORNL he was accused of using his authority to destroy the Lab. I do not know if that was his intention, but he certainly succeeded in destroying the Reactor Chemistry Division.

Part II

When Milton Shaw went to the AEC in 1964 he already had a well-formed set of beliefs, attitudes and professional skills. His entire working career had been spent with the Navy, first as a junior officer, and then as a young engineer who had pioneered the modern nuclear fleet under Rickover. Almost all of Shaw’s reactor experience had been with naval ship propulsion. That was almost entirely with the light-water reactor. Rickover and Shaw had adapted Navy management systems to the running of shipboard reactors. Every system on the reactor was duplicated. If one system failed, another was ready to take its place. Duplicate systems meant that if a system needed to be shut down for maintenance another was available to take its place. Thus reactors could be run continuously. Crews were highly trained. Every operating procedure was elaborated in detail in technical manuals. Officers and men were expected to always follow manuals to the letter.

I once did a brief study of the Soviet Navy’s reactor problems. The Soviet Navy had a system which was much more lax than the US Navy, and the Soviets paid the price for it.

Shaw’s strengths as a manager included keeping researchers and research on track. Shaw identified objectives set by superiors, and worked relentlessly to make sure that objectives were meet. His attitude to authority was military. Orders were to be obeyed.

When he joined the AEC in 1964, Shaw took charge of a very different system. Scientists ran the national labs, and their methods took latitudes for curiosity. Scientists like my father and George Parker were given significant latitude to direct their own work. The result was that they sometimes solved problems, and sometimes discovered problems, as George Parker was doing in his reactor safety research.

Executive Officers in the Navy are the chief inspectors of shipboard operation, and Shaw functioned very much like a Naval Executive Officer. During the early 1960’s George Parker and my father had run an annual international conference on reactor safety issues. Shortly after Shaw’s ascension to power at the SEC, that conference was ordered shut down. Shaw then proceeded systematically to attempt to drive Parker out of the nuclear safety business.

From Shaw’s viewpoint nuclear safety was a done deal, and further research on it was a waste of time. Shaw viewed light-water reactors as a mature technology. From his perspective, all that was required was to build in sufficient redundancy, write the technical manuals, and make sure that the workers were well-trained and that
rules were followed.

From Shaw’s perspective the scientists at Oak Ridge and at other national laboratories were a bunch of unruly boys, recruits who need to be set in line by Chief Petty Officer tactics.

Chuck Rice, who had been the President of Aerojet Nuclear, an AEC contractor, recalled an encounter with Shaw:

After I had been elected president of Nuclear [Aerojet Nuclear], we had a big dinner for key managers in the company at the Stardust Motel. Milton Shaw was there, Bill Ginkel, many from Aerojet, all the way down to branch managers. Shaw got up and did his Rickover-type tirade on all that these people in the room had done wrong. They were lousy managers, had poor control, and so on.

When it was my turn to speak, I got up and listed the outstanding accomplishments of the group and complimented them on the work they had done so well.

As I walked out after dinner deBoisblanc came up and said, “I really appreciated the comments. You’ll be fired, but it was nice to hear it.”

The next day there was a meeting on whether to fire Rice or not. Shaw said, “Find out the reason for his speech. Then we’ll decide.” Someone called me and I said, “Shaw works at Headquarters, I work here. If we are to do well, I’ve got to invite the people who work here to join my party.” I kept my job.

Shaw believed that reactor operations should be subordinated to quality assurance. Parts and systems must meet standards, and management must assure the standards always be meet.

Shaw was authorized by the AEC to sweep the national labs clean with a new broom. Alleging that labs were duplicating efforts, he demanded the merger of working units, and the redirection of lab staff assignments. He sought tight control on research efforts.

Shaw believed himself to have all the answers, and did not brook opposition. Not even Alvin Weinberg was safe from Shaw’s broom.

Shaw believed that reactor safety was largely a matter of good engineering. Once the principles of proper reactor design were understood, good judgment and adherence to sound design principles would always assure that safety would be maintained. The belief of Weinberg and others that scientists like George Parker should continue to working on safety issues was discounted by Shaw who thought that further research was a waste of effort. Shaw believed that emergency cooling for reactors was a wasted effort, if the reactors were well-engineered to begin with. This belief was to cost the reactor industry billions of dollars and was to have serious consequences at Three Mile Island.

Scientists began to believe that Shaw was vindictive, and that he would punish people and institutions that failed to adhere to his dictates. As scientists (some late in their professional careers) began to be laid off from national labs, a belief set in that Shaw had instituted nothing short of a purge of AEC research programs. Morale plummeted at AEC facilities, and chaos reigned.

Chuck Rice explained Shaw’s new system to Idaho congressman Orval Hansen:

“In the past, reactor and environmental safety was derived from experienced experts working together as a loosely knit team, each member of which expected the remaining members to perform the appropriate functions at the appropriate time without clear cut lines of responsibility and delegated authorities.

In response to AEC desires and directives, this informal system has, in a period of less than one year, been replaced by a highly formalized system that places primary reliance on unswerving adherence to a set of interlocking procedures and responsibilities that have been subjected to multiple reviews by boards of specialists. The writing of pro-specifications has become a job for the skilled engineer rather than the purchasing agent.

Carefully documented engineering studies have replaced the quick fix by the maintenance man.”

Shaw was not above blaming others for problems he had himself created. Oscar Wilde once wrote about puppets, “There are many advantages in puppets. They don’t argue with you, they don’t have any tastes in art, and they don’t have anything to lose.” This was what Shaw sought in science.

From the viewpoint of nuclear safety, aspects of Shaw’s attitude were above reproach. The super quality of American reactors, which can operate at maximum efficiency 90% of the time, and the fact that no life has ever been lost due to civilian reactor safety issues, are certainly testimonies to the value of his quality control system. At the same time, Shaw’s short sightedness contributed to the Three Mile Island incident, which was more than anything else, a disaster for the American Nuclear Industry.

By 1970, concern about nuclear safety was spreading. The scientific community as a whole was aware of what was happening at places like ORNL, where the safety concerns of scientists like George Parker were being ignored. Weinberg went to bat for his scientist, and was told that he was out of touch, and that if he continued to speak out about safety, there was no place for him in the nuclear industry.

As the very moment Shaw was purging scientists who were concerned about nuclear safety, a widespread movement opposing nuclear power emerged.

Milton Shaw: Part III

Shaw’s Stalinism was beginning to tell. Claire Nader was an employee and friend of Alvin Weinberg. Through Dr. Nader, her brother Ralph began to hear about nuclear safety issues and the way that the AEC under Shaw was operating. Nader began to speak out. Nader’s views could never be described as subtle and nuanced. He began to attack the entire nuclear industry with a rhetorical sledgehammer.

The Union of Concerned Scientists had been formed in 1969, Information about nuclear safety issues flowed from both Oak Ridge and the Idaho National Reactor Testing Station. The Union of Concerned Scientists began to raise the issues. The AEC under Shaw’s direction began to cover up research that called attention to safety concerns.

During this increasingly tumultuous period in American nuclear history, Weinberg and his close associate Floyd Culler were summonsed to an interview with Congressman Chet Holifeld. Holifeld had the Chairman of the House Atomic Energy Subcommittee, and thus had great power over ORNL. He was also an ally of Shaw’s, and was clearly indoctrinated in Shaw’s way of thinking. It was Holifeld who delivered the message to Weinberg that he was out of touch, and that there was no longer room for him in the nuclear establishment. Seething, Weinberg had dinner that night with Ralph Nader, the brother of his friend Claire Nader. Boiling over with rage at his humiliation by Holifeld, Weinberg laid out for Nader the heart of the safety issue. Scientists thought of nuclear safety in terms of probabilities. Things might work well 99.99% of the time, but there might be a 0.01% of an accident happening. Safety involved being ready for that 0.01% probability that something bad might happen. Shaw trained as a mechanical engineer and did not think in terms of probabilities. Either things happened or they didn’t in Shaw’s world. Scientists who thought in terms of probability were just guilty of sloppy thinking, and needed to move over for the naval engineers who could always make things happen with 100% certainty.

Weinberg later regretted his conversation with Nader, who had no real respect for Weinberg or anyone who was capable of independent thought and had integrity as Weinberg did. But Weinberg had needed a chance to ventilate that night after the demeaning way Holifeld had treated him.

Within a few months Weinberg was fired as the director of ORNL.

Although Shaw did not know it then, his days at the AEC were numbered. The Nixon Administration had appointed a Washington State zoologist, Dixy Lee Ray, to the AEC. Ray, who lived in a mobile h
ome parked somewhere in the Virginia countryside, was a total outsider to Washington D.C. But she was nobody’s fool. During 1972 and 1973 scientists from AEC facilities were called to testify before congressional hearings. Scientist after scientist laid bare concerns about nuclear safety. It was not Alvin Weinberg who had been out of touch about nuclear safety, it had been Milton Shaw. A few months later, the Nixon Administration swept AEC Chairman Glenn Seaborg aside, and appointed Ray to the Chairman’s position.

Ray almost immediately began to deal with Shaw’s power. By his rigidity on nuclear safety and his alienation of the scientific community, Shaw had created a serious public relations problem not just for the AEC and the nuclear industry, but for the increasingly for the embattled Nixon administration.

Ray rewrote Shaw’s job description to leave out nuclear safety issues for his area of responsibility. Shaw was furious and handed Ray his resignation. The damage that Shaw had done to America’s nuclear research establishment was immeasurable. The national laboratories, the crown jewels of American science, had been laid low. Shortly after Shaw’s resignation, still seething at the treatment the AEC have given his concerns about nuclear safety, Carl J. Hocevar, a Idaho National Engineering Laboratory scientist, resigned his position. In a public letter published by the New York Times Hocevar voiced the dissatisfaction that still was felt throughout the American nuclear establishment:

Ms. Dixie Lee Ray
1717 H Street NW
Washington, D. C. 20545

Dear Ms. Ray:

I am resigning my position as an Associate Scientist with Aerojet Nuclear Company in order to be free to tell the American people the truth about the potentially dangerous condition in the nation’s nuclear power plants. As an employee of Aerojet Nuclear I have not been able to freely express my concerns about the nuclear reactor safety issues. Consequently I will be working for the Union of Concerned Scientists in an attempt to more fully inform the public about the current state of knowledge concerning reactor safety, particularly the emergency core cooling systems.

I have been employed at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory for the past seven years for Aerojet Nuclear and its predecessors. During that time I have been involved in the development of computer codes which are used in the thermal-hydraulic predictions of loss-of-coolant situations. I was the principal author of the THETA1-B code which was adopted by the AEC as an accepted method of predicting the thermal behavior of a fuel rod during a LOCA. The last several years I have been working on a new thermal-hydraulic loop code. The primary goal of this project is to develop analytical models which will more realistically describe the physical processes that could occur during a LOCA.

While analytical models for predicting the fluid behavior during a LOCA have been developed by both the nuclear industry and the AEC, the techniques in general are not capable of describing actual physical situations with a reasonable degree of reliability. The AEC is using shaky and unproven computer predictions as a basis for answering such vital questions as the effectiveness of reactor safety systems in preventing catastrophic accidents. This is wholly unacceptable.

Adequate experimental programs to determine the workability of reactor safety systems are also urgently needed. Experimental verification of the analytical computer codes is a necessity if we are to place our faith in these methods.

Aerojet Nuclear employees were used by the AEC as consultants during the ECCS hearings. In 1971 the AEC adopted the methods we had developed, but completely ignored our reports concerning the serious limitations of those methods. They were the best that could be developed based on the limited analytical and experimental research the AEC and nuclear industry had carried out, but they were preliminary and definitely not an adequately proven way of determining nuclear reactor safety. Little has changed in the past few years, and the safety of nuclear reactors is still uncertain and unverified.

The AEC is ignoring advice from many of its experts on reactor safety problems, a situation that has given rise to numerous resignations. Several of my colleagues have gone to work trying to help the utility companies understand the reactor safety problems that the AEC would prefer to ignore, but I believe that the genral public, and not just the companies investing in nuclear generating equipment, must be told the truth about the potential hazards.

I also have personal reservations concerning the radioactive waste problems. While I am not an expert in waste management I find the long term radioactive waste question deeply disturbing. The present generations get the electricity from nuclear plants and we leave the radioactive wastes for our children and future generations to take care of. Plutonium, an extremely hazardous material that retains its radioactive potency for hundreds of thousands of years, is hardly a legacy that future generations should be given.

In spite of the soothing reassurances that the AEC gives to an uninformed, mislead public, unresolved questions about nuclear power plant safety are so grave that the US should consider a complete halt to nuclear power plant construction while we see if these serious questions can, somehow, be resolved. The most prudent course of action that we can take is to proceed cautiously.


Carl J. Hocevar


The damage had been done.

Appendix A: Rickover

After I wrote this account of Milton Shaw’s career, I learned more about the role of Hyman Rickover in the story. Shaw seems to have Rickover’s creature. Shaw’s abusive and confrontational management style appears to have been a conscious emulation. However Rickover appears to have worked to bring his victims back on board after he racked them over the coals. Shaw, in contrast left his victims out to dry, and thus he collected more and more enemies. Shaw’s attitude toward nuclear safety tracks too closely with Rickover to be an accident. Other aspects of Shaw’s career are consistent with Rickover’s attitudes. I suspect that Rickover and Shaw may have been in close and frequent communication during Shaw’s AEC years, but I will leave that for future historians to test.

It is clear that by 1973 Shaw and Rickover had become a problem for the Nixon Administration. Nixon, in particular, appears to have gotten Rickover’s number. While Nixon increased the number of Rickover’s, those star were in fact waning. Shaw was vulnerable, because even a Nixon weakened by Watergate was still more powerful than Rickover, and Nixon understood even better than the aging Rickover, the mechanism of power.

From: A Primer on Nuclear Safety: 1.2.1

There is little doubt that Rickover’s influence played a pivotal role i
n the choice to concentrate reactor research on two reactor designs, the light-water reactor, and the liquid-metal fast breeder reactor (LMFBR). Both reactor concepts have safety flaws. But Rickover was more introduced in producing quick results than in building the safest possible reactors.

A. Stanley Thompson worked for North American Aviation during the 1940s and spent time in Oak Ridge during the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion days. Thompson had a chance to observe Rickover in action during a conflict between Rickover and two officials of North American Aviation. Rickover traveled to the North American headquarters to meet with company officials on a Saturday in 1949. Officials were called in for the meeting, and everyone arrived with the exception of physicist Mark Mills, who was out on a tennis court. When Mills finally arrived, Rickover started chewing him out about a report Mills had written about the potential for chemical explosions in reactors. Rickover launched into a tyrade, and eventually Mills tired of the abuse,

“Sir, I resent your treatment of me. I will no longer stand for it. I’m leaving!” Mills said, and started to walk out.

Rickover also stood smilling, and said, “Mark, I think we now understand one another. You can get back to your tennis game.”

After Mills walked our, Rickover commented to us, “Mills is now conditioned on reactor safety.”

After the meeting, North American’s Chauncey Starr complained to the AEC about Rickover’s abuse of Mills.

Thompson continued:

“The next time I saw Rickover was in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, at a conference on the nuclear propulsion of aircraft hosted by Alvin Weinberg, Director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Rickover was there in his self-appointed capacity of keeping himself informed on everything in the nuclear business. Chauncey Starr gave a talk, for which he had been coached by aircraft engineers at North American, on the importance of Mach number, aircraft lift to drag ratio, and engine thrust to weight ratio for the design of an airplane and its nuclear power plant.”

“In the evening we were invited to a friendly and welcoming dinner at the home of Marge and Alvin Weinberg with several of the senior members of Weinberg’s staff and their wives. After dinner we were seated in a circle in the Weinbergs’ living room. For a while, Rickover was directing at Starr on the opposite side of the circle a series of stinging remarks against which Starr was doing what he could to defend himself. The rest of the party had lapsed into a stunned silence. Finally one of the wives remarked, “You know, there’s something going on here that I don’t understand.” Rickover addressed her, “I’ll tell you what’s going on. This man [pointing to Starr] has been knifing me in the back, and I don’t like it.” Word must have got back to Rickover that Starr had talked to people at the Atomic Energy Commission about Rickover’s visit to North American. On the way down the hill from the Weinbergs’ party, I saw Starr and Rickover walking arm-in-arm, and talking in a confidential manner. I assumed that Starr had now been “reconditioned” on interference with Rickover. I was impressed with Rickover’s ability to turn on alternating charm and ferocious attacks, as suited his purpose at the moment.”

From: A Note on Alvin Weinberg, Hyman Rickover, and Milton Shaw

It is clear from A. Stanley Thompson’s stories that Rickover was determined to silence scientists who were concerned about reactor safety in programs he had some control over. It is not that Rickover had no concern about reactor safety, rather he and his staff had worked out an approach to reactor safety and believed that they had solved all of the problems. All that was left, in Rickover’s mind was an almost fanatical adherence to Rickover’s safety system. Rickover was paranoid. Scientist who questioned the Rickover’s infallibility on safety were the enemy in Rickover’s book.

Shaw’s attitude toward nuclear safety appears to be identical to Rickover. It now becomes apparent that Shaw’s goals and methods were identical to Rickover’s. This would explain Shaw’s power. He was Rickover’s man, and could be counted on to do what Rickover wanted. In my account of Shaw, I could not understand how Shaw had received his appointment at the AEC. But it is plausible that Rickover wanted the Shaw in the AEC as Rickover’s long arm in control of reactor development. Shaw’s great political clout, would have really been Rickover’s then. It would also follow then that Rickover was behind Alvin Weinberg’s firing as Director of ORNL.

But the nuclear safety controversy that Shaw’s heavy handedness had created, was beginning to erode Rickover’s power. Rickover had many enemies in the upper ranks of the navy. And some Rickover enemies had Rickover had overreached, and Richard Nixon, already wounded by Watergate, had reached out to contain another festering sore, the nuclear safety mess at the AEC. In December 1973, Rickover received his 4th star. Richard Nixon spoke at a ceremony which marked Rickover’s promotion. Nixon said of Rickover: “I don’t mean to suggest by that that he is a man who is without controversy. He speaks his mind. Sometimes he has rivals who disagree with him; sometimes they are right, and he is the first to admit that sometimes he might be wrong.”

Rickover lacked the modesty to admit that he might be wrong, and Nixon’s words must have rankled him, as Nixon knew they would.

Shaw was an all to faithful servant of Rickover, and by doing his master’s bidding, he had begun Rickover’s undoing (as well as his own).
Appendix B: Milton Shaw and the Molten Salt Reactor
Milton Shaw played a major role in the shutdown of the Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment, and the elimination of the MSBR from the breeder reactor sweepstakes. Not only did Shaw force the shutdown of the MSRE, but he presided over AEC reactor research at the time of the Great ORNL purge, when something like a third of ORNL employees, including many reactor researchers were discharged. ORNL reactor research never recovered from the purge, even though the Lab has to continue to distinguish itself in many areas of science.
Perhaps the greatest damage which Shaw did to the American nuclear future is found in WASH-1222, a document written by Shaw’s staff to assess MSR technology. Unlike previous AEC assessments which viewed the MSR as a promising technology, WASH-1222 reached negative conclusions about MSR technology. However, a careful examination of WASH-1222 reveals deep flaws in the thinking that lay behind it. The strongest objection to the MSR was that it required more development. Thus the basic argument was not that MSR technology was fundamentally flawed, but that it should not be developed because it required development. Other assumptions were equally flawed. For example, WASH-1222 asserted that unlike the MSR, the LWR and the LMFBR were mature technologies. In the case of the former technology, this view seriously underestimated problems with LWR safety which was to lead to the Three Mile Island accident. In the case of the LMFBR, WASH-1222 seriously underestimated the technological problems which LMFBR developers faced. In retrospective, the history of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor demonstrates that the LMFBR faced far more serious developmental challenges than the MSBR did.

One thought on “Milton Shaw: And the decline of the American Nuclear Establishment

  1. I found this fascinating. my interest stems from the fact that my father was closely involved in the building of the nuclear submarine he was an electrical engineer. We lived in Philadelphia when this all started then followed by a year in DC, then we moved into the Naval Academy while we built a house on the bay. I had just turned six when we moved to Washington the high point for me there was having tea with Mamie Eisenhower My father and the President stopped by to say hello. I always heard that Admiral Rickover was tough guy but, wow not this bad. Having said that I also always said he knew what he was doing when he decided to have my father work for him. My dad for many reasons was always calm,very humble and kept his head down and always let the other gut
    take the spotlight!
    I am one of five girls the closet to my father. he passed away in 2014 an extraordinary man.

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