Nuclear Museum Logo
Nuclear Museum Logo

National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Richard Meservey’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Richard “Dick” Meservey is a nuclear physicist who worked at Idaho National Laboratory (INL). In this interview, he describes the rewarding projects he worked on at INL including the Special Power Excursion Reactor Test and the Advanced Test Reactor. He lauds the unusual freedom that scientists enjoyed working in Idaho Falls, and explains why he came to love living in Idaho Falls.

Date of Interview:
September 14, 2004
Location of the Interview:


Kelly: You can tell us your name, and spell it.

Meservey: Okay. Richard Meservey. Most people call me Dick, and Meservey is spelled M-e-s-e-r-v-e-y.

Kelly: Why don’t you tell us, what’s your educational background, and what brought you to the site and when?

Meservey: I have a bachelor’s degree in physics from Western Illinois University, back in Macomb, Illinois, with a specialty in nuclear physics. My professors realized that Idaho was one of the last places where they were still doing lots of physics work, and so they kept pressing on us to try to come to work out here.

Another fellow who worked at SPERT [Special Power Excursion Reactor Test], Jim Campbell, and myself were both seniors, and Jim came directly out here. I was probably a little bit chicken-hearted and decided I didn’t know anything about this part of the country. I decided, I’ll go to graduate school someplace close and if I like it, I’ll try to go to work there. If I don’t like it, I’m headed right back to Illinois.

I went down to Utah State to graduate school. While I was there, I looked around and talked to people. Actually, because of the site here, a lot of the students in the science department at Utah State were from Idaho Falls. I got to talk to them a lot and find about it, and decided I would come up here. Probably actually, I decided that early. Utah State’s a wonderful place and with all the mountains and the exciting things going on, it was a lot better than Illinois.

I came up then after graduate school there. I got my Master’s degree in physics, and came up here to work with the intent of working three years to get it on my resume, and to satisfy my professors at Illinois, then probably going back near my family in Illinois.

Every time I’ve gotten ready to do that, starting three years after I began here, there was always some really good reason not to leave. In the early days, it was because I had just got a promotion into some interesting job, or I was working on some super interesting project. In those days, there were lots of new and exciting things going on. It didn’t make any sense to leave in the middle of some of those.

Over the years, pretty soon the roots start to grow deeper. It gets harder, and then even as recently as a few years ago, you realize, yes, you can go someplace else—particularly with the decommissioning background, because people are starting to do that all the world. It’s the lifestyle and how you live at those other places, it’s just not the same as it is here. It’s more crowded and more expensive, and I think you have less freedom in where you live and what you do and what you work on.

We’ve always been very open here, in terms of the kinds of things you could work on and the kind of projects you do, and the involvement in those projects. If you check with your friends, you’ll find out in lots of other places, you only work on a little small part of a project. You design the latch for the gadget, not the whole gadget, or you don’t see the gadget operated. We’ve always done the whole thing here, which made work very interesting.

Meservey: What I found here was lots of very, very interesting work. We, as scientists or engineers, were allowed to design experiments or apparatus or equipment. We went to the laboratory with the technicians to help build that equipment or the experiment. We tested it, and then we installed it in the reactors. We helped collect the data from the experiments in the reactors and analyzed that data. Then move on to the next phase of that project.

We actually were involved in all parts of it, not just some part like just analyzing the data or just designing it or just building it. We were allowed to participate in all phases of the projects, which made them really interesting.

Yeah. One of the first jobs that I had here that really involved a lot of physics was on the SNAPTRAN program [Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power–Transient]. 

It was transient, it was the tail end, reactors that were planned to go in satellites to produce electricity for the instrumentation onboard. The concern they had was, if those reactors—should the rocket abort and dump the reactor into the ocean, or during the transport to the launch site, if the truck would run off the road into a river or a lake or something, what happens if those reactors get suddenly dumped into water?

We built a double-wide railroad car, just like they did with the aircraft engines, and put a large tank on it, built the reactor in the center of the tank. Put a plexiglass shield around the reactor, and then used the explosives to fill the annulus with water. We used explosives to drive the plexiglass shield off, and let the water flood in on the reactor to see what happened. Of course, we got a tremendous fireball and pieces of the reactor all over the place.

My particular involvement with that reactor was to try to measure the fireball temperature when it exploded. It actually looked very much like those little triangular pig houses that they use in the Midwest. We used various kinds of shielding to shield out the neutrons and the gamma rays and the beta particles that were generated in the shielding as the neutrons hit it. And try to measure using electronics the fireball temperature at a distance of about 100 yards from the meter. We used front surfaced mirrors to reflect the fireball back behind the shielding into the electronics and measured, and then we ran those tests. Of course, after the tests were over, we all had a big job of cleaning up the area and the debris from the reactor.

They were all conducted very much like the aircraft engine tests, in that they were only run under certain weather conditions, when those weather conditions could be predicted for several hours into the future so that they knew the wind direction. It was all very well-controlled, just open-air tests that probably wouldn’t get conducted today.

Kelly: I don’t know what the TRAN is.

Meservey: The transient. It’s a little small reactor, basically a core was about the size of a basketball, and it was titled “Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power” that was intended to produce power for satellites, the instrumentation in satellites. There were transient tests designed to really determine what happened if that reactor would be unexpectedly plunged into water.

Kelly:  Were any such reactors plunged in the water in the real world?

Meservey: Not to my knowledge. I think the tests actually proved that, yes, it scattered fuel and stuff around a little bit, but it wasn’t all that big an incident. The cleanup wasn’t that difficult. We were able to clean it up pretty easily there.

Kelly:  Okay. So, that was the first thing you worked on?

Meservey: Well, actually, the first thing was a thing called a fuel plate resistance thermometer, and they were trying to measure in the SPERT-4 [Special Power Excursion Reactor Test] reactor, which had a plate-type core. They wanted to measure the temperature distribution in the fuel plates. So we put various voltage taps on all over the fuel plate and then we could measure the voltage drop across those taps, which is a function of the resistance in the plate. You could calibrate that and determine the temperature then. During many of the SPERT-4 tests, we were able to measure the temperature distribution in the fuel plate to see how it was performing and behaving, and if hot spots were developing and those kinds of things.

I think most of the reactor tests here indicated that safety issues are a lot less than you would predict or maybe expect or worry about, in that, as you heard last night, they mostly shut themselves down in accident conditions. They don’t develop the severe temperatures and difficulties and problems that you might expect. And, mostly, the tests that were done here over the years have shown that. They’re just not as dangerous as some people like to think maybe.

Kelly:  What do you suppose people think they’re so dangerous?

Meservey: They don’t understand them, don’t know about them. That’s probably our fault for, in the very beginning, trying to keep this a secret sort of thing and associate it somewhat with the military actions, and not tell the public and not explain to the public, and not teach youngsters in school things about nuclear processes. Things that we don’t understand, we distrust. I think that’s pretty much where it started.

Kelly:  Bill Ginkel talked about how the military, starting with the Manhattan Project run by the Army Corps of Engineers, that it really sort of carried over into the work at the site. There was a lot of engineering mentality and sort of a military orientation of sorts. He thought as the first civilian director of it, that he helped to bridge those transitions. But, how would you characterize the influence of the military and of this broader sort of international arena of the Soviets and tangent to the United States and the competition, not just for arms race, but also for the science and technology prowess to show them in Geneva at these conventions that we were ahead?

Meservey: Well, I think operations here have been pretty much patterned after military-type operations, and we have a strong military tie, because the site started as a Navy site, a Navy gunnery range to test the large guns from the battleships. And, we used the same kind of security force, so we patterned things after that. We wanted to keep things secret, because we wanted to get ahead in not only the arms race, which was a military side, but the production of electricity from nuclear energy and any spinoff from that that might give our country some advantage.

We actually did have quite a race to see who could produce commercial electricity first, and we were in direct competition with Russia in that aspect. We tried to keep things secret and to ourselves until we won that race. And, we, I believe, did. BORAX [Boiling Water Reactor Experiment] produced electricity for Arco and it was a real horserace to get there before someone else did. So, we could report at that Geneva Conference that we had done that, and produced electricity from a reactor. Not only did EBR-I produce electricity to light a lightbulb, but they then got in a race to use the BORAX to product electricity for a city or a town. It had a lot of military connections or similarities in that respect.

Kelly:  But, other than your work on the SNAPTRAN, your work was mainly focused on the commercial reactor safety?

Meservey: That’s right. I think SNAPTRAN was probably the only really military-type application that I’ve worked on here. We’ve had other people, I think, that have done things, but most of my work has been directly in support of the commercial power industry. The site is famous for building all kinds of reactors, you know, gas-cooled reactors and liquid metal-cooled reactors and pressurized water reactors and boiling water reactors, and heavy water reactors and all of those things, organic moderated reactors, to look at the various types of reactors to see which would be better suited for the commercial, production of commercial power. Most of what we’ve done here has been in the commercial sector.

And, in fact, in the early days, there were two types of budget at Idaho, a defense budget and a commercial budget. Mostly, what I worked on was the commercial budget because it supported the development of commercial power. LOFT [Loss-of-Fluid Test reactor] and PBF [Power Burst Facility reactor] and all those were directed toward that.

Kelly:  But, the funds for the site were federal funds, not from private companies.

Meservey: Right.

Kelly:  Or, was there some mingling of funds?

Meservey: Very little. Mostly, it was federal funds and occasionally a private company would have some experiment done here, or would buy into a program a little bit, to just get some information to support commercial reactor designs. But, I think very little of that over the years.

Kelly:  People say the work done here created kind of a blueprint for the safe operation of reactors. How did that transition work from the work you did here to actual incorporation in the designs that Westinghouse and General Electric and other companies were developing?

Meservey: I think commercial companies learned from what we did here by reading the reports, attending conferences, having meetings with us and trying to incorporate the lessons that we learned from the safety tests into their reactor designs. That was particularly true once our country had sort of settled on water reactor-type designs as opposed to organic or gas-cooled reactors or liquid metal reactors. Once they sort of settled on water reactor designs, then they actually had a lot of input into the type and nature of the tests we run.

The Semiscale test and the LOFT test and the PBF tests were all kind of directed toward reactor safety issues associated with water reactors. Those safety issues were the concerns of the commercial reactor developers, and we would design the tests to try to answer those questions. It was a lot of interface back and forth and we got a lot of input from them on the design of our tests.

I spent the first part of my career basically supporting the power reactor industry in terms of running tests at the various facilities here. Then I started to worry that I was working myself out of a job, because I believed that either we would’ve run a large number of commercial reactors for a long enough period of time that people would quit worrying about the safety issues and asking those questions. Or, that we would answer all the questions, which was really a silly sort of an attitude. I started to believe that my entire career had been spent in support of doing testing of reactor concepts and the safety issues associated with them. No one would be interested in that anymore, and I’d be out of a job. And, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.

So, I started worrying that I needed to do something else in my career. So at the time, we had a lot of soft energy programs, low head hydro and geothermal and solar and so forth. I thought, “Oh, I’ll bet that’s the future.” I started talking to my boss and other people in the company about transferring into one of the soft energy programs. Sort of arbitrarily, I selected solar, thinking, oh, that’s going to be a good thing. But, I also had a lot of the site’s knowledge in instrumentation associated with these reactor tests, and my manager wasn’t anxious to let me transfer someplace else.

He finally agreed that I could transfer if I would hire a replacement and get that replacement up to speed. It took a year or so to do that. Finally, the day came when I had a replacement in place and he seemed to be up to speed, and I thought I could transfer. So we had a big meeting and everybody sort of grudgingly, I think, nodded their head that I could go transfer to this new solar energy program.

A fellow named Fred Tee managed the soft energy programs then and so when I called him and said, “Well, I’m ready to come over and join your program.” He said, “Oh, that’s great. I have a favor.” EG&G [Edgerton, Germeshausen, and Grier, Inc.] had just taken over the contract here, and he said, “We have a brand new program that’s the first new program that EG&G starts on its own, it didn’t inherit from the old contractor. We want it to look good and we need to get it staffed and up to speed. It’s a D&D program,” and so forth. I’m listening to this and saying what is the D&D program. Finally, the discussion had gone far enough that I had to say, “You know, Fred, I’m sorry, but I don’t what you mean when you say D&D.” He said, “Oh, you know, decontamination and decommissioning, you know, that’s in waste management.”

In those days, waste management was literally a dump. I’m sure you’re aware, they hauled it to a hole in the ground and dumped it in. How do you go home and explain to your wife or explain to your parents that you’ve got all this education and you’ve worked on all these high-tech things and solved all the reactor, these reactor problems, and now you’re going to work in waste management?

I was just devastated, because I’d burned my bridges. I’d hired a replacement and had him trained, and now I was going to become a waste management guy. I was just devastated and I went home and talked to Gayleen about it. She’s a lot smarter than I am, so she said, “Well, just do what he said. Get it staffed and get it going and then transfer back to what you wanted to do.” So, I went back with that attitude and said, “Okay, let’s do this.”

To make a rather long story hopefully shorter, what I found was it was very refreshing to get sort of out of the laboratory into the field after a while and decommissioning was really a project management sort of job. It was fun to take these old reactors and plan how to take them apart and dispose of the waste, and look at technologies that would make that faster and easier and cheaper. You could go outside, and it was wonderful to be out in the fresh air and see these buildings come down. We used a lot of explosives in the early days, and that was fun. It just was good, and before I knew it, I’d been there several years and had been involved internationally in decommissioning. So, professionally, it was really good for me and very, very interesting. So, that’s kind of how I got involved in it, and it’s been a wonderful ride.

Kelly:  Let’s see, was there any thought to saving some of these reactors?

Meservey: Yeah. I’m a saver, and so my belief is you really don’t want to tear these things down, because they have historic value. We can surely reuse them for something else, and in fact, once you have a reactor facility built, there’s a million other things you can do in it. And, in fact, in the early days of our decommissioning program, we probably returned the facilities to some other use more than we returned it to a natural condition.

The thought was, in those days, the government still had projects going—new kinds of work coming here. They had the money for the projects, but not to build new facilities. So, it made sense to decommission the facilities, clean them out for unrestricted use and let a new program step in and use them.

SPERT-4 is a good example of that. We cleaned that facility out for unrestricted use and it became a mixed waste storage facility. SPERT-3 became the WERF, the waste experimental reduction facility and so forth. So, in the early days, we reused lots of those facilities.

As time progressed, the facilities became older and older and it became harder and harder to bring them up to current standards and use them. We found that new projects didn’t want those old facilities, because they were hard to convert and bring up to modern standards. So as time progressed, there’s been less and less of that. Now, we have a mentality called footprint reduction, which says get rid of them so they don’t show anyplace anymore. And, so there’s very little reuse done now.

BORAX is the boiling water reactor experiment. It was designed as the country started to focus on water type reactors. It was designed to answer a lot of the early safety questions about boiling water reactors and what would happen under different kinds of operational conditions. They built a BORAX-1 to find out what happens when they drive that harder than they should and cause a steam explosion and blow up. And when they did that, scattered it sort of all around the area, the films of that thing, you can see pieces of the reactor go tumbling out across the desert.

When they finished that test, the radiation field in the general area was about—my memory’s going to fail me here—I think it was about 700 MR per hour, on the average in the desert area around the reactor. They believed that was because of the debris from the reactor and pieces of fuel that came out. So, they picked all that up and the field was still about 700 mR [milliroentgen] per hour in that area with the pieces gone, which meant it was finely dispersed material scattered around in the sagebrush.

They put a fence around it, locked the gate, bulldozed the whole land, backfilled it with soil, put the fence around it and just went away from it. Went down the hill about 100 yards or so and built a new facility, which contained four more reactors, actually two reactor vessels. But, in each vessel, they modified the piping or the core design and called it a new BORAX. So, it was BORAX-II, III, IV and V, which was all in the same building, but consisted of two different reactor vessels.

Those were the reactors that we think of that produced electricity, the light Arco and the significant safety tests associated with boiling water reactors. Those were decommissioned here a number of years ago by removing everything above ground and entombing the reactor vessels and so forth. It’s located very near, you know, within a half a mile or less, a third of a mile, the burial ground, in a massive concrete structure. It’s really better to entomb it there than to cut it in little pieces and put in plywood boxes and haul it a third of a mile and put it back in the ground. So, those reactor vessels are entombed at the old BORAX facility.

Kelly: Can you explain, and when you talk about water reactors, if you could tell them about, you know, why they call them water reactors? What’s the difference between a boiling water reactor and a pressure water reactor?

Meservey: Right. It’s, we typically talk about water reactors, which means water moderated type reactors, and cooled. So, we need to moderate or slow down the neutrons to make the chain reaction more efficient. And, we need to cool or remove heat from the reactor cores to produce steam to operate just conventional turbines, steam turbines like any electrical plant would use to produce electricity. That’s sort of separated into two types of water reactors, a boiling water reactor and a pressurized water reactor. The boiling water reactor just operates at a lower temperature and pressure. Then the pressurized water reactor and the pressurized water reactor operates at about 2300 psi and 600 degrees, so it’s at a significantly higher pressure and temperature. It’s a little bit more efficient in some respects.

There’s a continuing controversy about which is most economical and which is safer and so forth. And, in reality, there’s not a great deal of difference. We have both kinds scattered around throughout the world now.

Kelly:  Good.

Meservey: In talking about BORAX, you may want to contact—I put a note in this thing that I give back to you—you might want to contact a fellow named Ray Haroldsen, who I think is one of the two people, maybe three, he wasn’t sure if the other fellow was still here or not, that actually worked on those things. He has fascinating stories about those things. He was involved in them and operated them and was part of the tests that supplied electricity to Arco and so forth. He has lots of details about those reactors, and most of us are just hearsay. Or, you know, we’ve heard the stories or read the stories, so Ray actually worked on them. If you want to pursue it further, why, I have his phone number in there.

Kelly:  Good. Well, the last kinds of questions will be just to try to get some more statements about, well, either stories, funny stories, or things that were very special like, you know, things that you did that you thought was really terrific or fun to work on or great sense of accomplishment, or whatever. Talk about overall what the importance of the work done at the Idaho site has been. I mean, you said, you have several statements to that effect, but those are sort of three areas that we’re always looking for more contributions. So, if you want to, if something comes to mind.

Meservey: Okay. Sure. I think the Idaho site plays just a hugely important role in the nuclear history of the world, really, because we’ve built and tested 52 different reactors here. And, those include all kinds, all sizes, all types of tests. There’s obviously a lot of very interesting aspects of that. We’ve had tiny reactors like the little basketball sized SNAPTRAN reactor, we’ve had large reactors like ATR [Advanced Thermal Reactor], the advanced test reactor, which is the largest test reactor in the world, and has the highest flux density of any test reactor in the world. And everything kind of in-between, so there’s been just lots of very interesting work from the identification of the higher element isotopes to the definition of the safety boundaries for these various kinds of reactors.

I think that Idaho’s been a very quiet place, it’s isolated. The workforce here has not tended to travel, especially in the early days as much, and participate as much as some of the other, like Oak Ridge as an example and Richland. They just kind of quietly went about doing their work. We’ve always had a reputation, I think, of doing the stuff a little bit cheaper than other people and faster than other people. And, I think that’s sort of a trait here, and you don’t build 52 reactors and test them, and you know, you have to do that quickly and pretty efficiently to get through all of that.

I just think there’s been some world-class people come out of the Idaho site in terms of in the early days in physics and reactor safety, for sure. There’s quotes about people who are leaders in understanding the reaction of zircaloy in these, the cladding material in the new reactors under accident conditions. The development of codes and standards and so forth associated with reactors. So just a lot of work here. As a result maybe of the security involved in the early days, we just didn’t say a lot about it and it’s been quietly going on here for a lot of years. They’ve accomplished a great deal in terms of the types of work they’ve done and the importance of that work. It really has set the way for the development of nuclear power around the world.

As I indicated earlier, I had planned, when I came here, out to work for three years, add that to my resume, and then probably go to work at an industry back in Illinois, perhaps Argonne National Laboratory, which was in northern Illinois where I grew up. We had visited there as school classes and so forth.

But I also like the outdoors and I like open spaces, and I don’t like crowds. When I moved into what was then a little town of Idaho Falls, the Snake River flowed right through the middle of the town. Every place you could go, you could park your car and walk away without asking permission, because it’s public lands in almost the entire state. That was really appealing.

In those days, the mountains weren’t as steep as they are now, so I enjoyed hiking and fishing and hunting and all the things associated with Idaho and the outdoors. I really enjoyed it. When you’re young, you don’t really know about winters and things. Getting stuck is an adventure, not a disaster like it is when you’re older. I’ve liked it. It’s a great place to live. I still like the freedom of all the public lands, and the freedom to do lots of different kinds of things.

I sometimes, as I get older, catch myself saying, “Why did I spend my whole life in this gosh-forsaken place, where the wind blows all the time and it’s 20-below in the winter?” But that’s looking back on it now. Again, if I ever get to retire, I think, “The winters won’t be as bad, because when you don’t have to go someplace, snowstorms aren’t as bad.” Living here has been a great experience.

Matt: Was there any cultural shock at all, coming from a place that was dominated by one theological philosophy? Was there just a different feel about this place than where you come from?

Richard: Yes. I think there was some distinct cultural differences between where I grew up and living here. I was introduced to that a little bit during the year in graduate school down at Utah State. What I found was, I think as a result of less population density, and a lot of freedom and open spaces, people seem a lot friendlier and less inclined to interfere with what you’re doing. I really enjoy that.

I know that, at some point in time, when I was in graduate school down in Utah, I said, “I’ll never go back to Illinois.” I think at that time even, I decided that this was a really nice area. People are friendly and helpful. It’s just a lot different than where every scrap of land is owned by someone else, and you have to have their permission to even be on it.

I think it’s fine, the cultural differences and religious differences. Where I grew up there was the Catholic Church and everyone else. And here, there’s the Mormon Church and everyone else. That wasn’t a big difference to me, really. It was kind of refreshing.

Kelly:  Did you meet your wife here?

Richard: Yeah, I did.

Kelly:  That’s a good story.

Richard: Yeah.

Gayleen: I worked just down the hall from him.

Richard: I worked in a new research laboratory at Central. Gayleen worked for the SPERT program in their data reduction group just down the hall from me. She wore a spotted leopard coat that got your attention.

A fellow that I worked with—I was single and, married people can’t stand single people being around. He rode the same bus that Gayleen did, and he kept insisting he was going to get me a date with this gal. I had noticed her at the cafeteria and down the hall already. I decided, I’d better do something about that before he tries to set me up with somebody I don’t know. I asked her out, and that’s how we met. She actually worked here several years, I think, before we started a family. That also helps tie to the area, when the in-laws here and your wife’s from here. That’s a cement that keeps you here.

I’ve had so many different experiences. When they were building ATR [Advanced Test Reactor], one of my jobs was—that thing had a lot of water hammer associated with the huge amounts of flow in the large pipes, and tried to shake itself apart. I was in the instrumentation group at that time, and I spent a lot of nights crawling around in those pipes installing strain gauges and accelerometers to try to figure out why it was shaking so badly. Each project I’ve worked on has had interesting little things like that associated with it.

The loft program just had some of the most wonderful research associated with trying to measure temperatures in the core while the fuel was melting. That’s a very difficult thing to do, and that presented lots and lots of challenges. When PBF, the Power Burst Facility, came along, the challenge there was not so much in operating the reactor and running the tests, but it was in building the fueled test strains, instrumented test strains that would go into that reactor for testing. That became a day-and-night job to try to catch up on the delivery schedule for those things.

Then when decommissioning came along, it was just wonderful to convert those old buildings to something useful that a new program can go in. When we became more aware of environmental things and the old buildings were really worn out, it became wonderful to take that old building with lots of contamination and it looked like a plumber’s nightmare, and convert it to a newly-seeded, grassy area. There’s some satisfaction in walking away from a project like that.

In both the instrumentation areas and in the decommissioning area, I’ve been really fortunate to get a lot of international recognition, again, because I think Idaho has been a leader in lots of those areas. It’s fun to be involved on an international level with people who are doing the same kinds of things you are and are very interested in what you’ve learned.

I mentioned that just last fall, I spent two and a half months in Scotland at the Dounreay facility. Because they now have a sixty-year decommissioning program laid out to decommission all the facilities on their site, which is very much like our site. It’s the INEEL [Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory] of the UK. So to be able to work with them and see the problems they have and share what we’ve learned was just really fun, really a fun thing. It’s been a good career.

Copyright 2019 The Atomic Heritage Foundation. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.