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WILLIAM TUCKER: Ted Rockwell, RIP: Nuclear’s Cockeyed Optimist


By William Tucker

It is one of the more embarrassing commentaries on current American culture that when Ted Rockwell died on Monday at the age of 93 there was nary a mention of it in any American newspaper.  In any other age he would have been honored as a pioneer and technological hero.

Ted Rockwell was the last of the Los Alamos generation, the cohort of scientists who developed nuclear energy as a wartime emergency, became schooled in its fundamentals and familiar with the dangers, but most of all were smitten with its promise. 

He began his career as a young engineer barely out of Princeton in 1943 when he joined the Project at Oak Ridge.  As soon as the war ended, he was appointed head of the Radiation Shield Engineering Group, kicking off a lifelong effort to bring the benefits of nuclear energy to the general public.  He knew how to communicate as well and months after the war was over he had written a memoir for the Saturday Evening Post, “Frontier Life Among the Atom Splitters.” 

In 1949, Ted sealed his career when he joined an obscure Naval Captain named Hyman Rickover who was trying to convince the Navy to power submarines with the new nuclear energy.  By 1954 Ted had become Rickover’s technical director and functioned as his right-hand man for the rest of the Admiral’s illustrious career.  At the same time President Eisenhower appointed him to head the Atoms for Peace program, where he directed construction of the world’s first commercial nuclear power station at Shippingport, Pennsylvania.  

An aspiring playwright and novelist, Ted kept careful records on his days with Rickover and eventually wrote his biography, The Rickover Effect, published in 1995.  His stories about Rickover were endless.  At one point when one of the first nuclear submarines was about to launch, for instance, someone accidentally lost a screw in the cooling system.  The Navy brass called Rickover in a panic, certain that the screw would block the cooling pipes and overheat the reactor.  Rickover told them not to worry.  “Go down to the bottom of the ship where the cooling pipe makes its lowest loop and you’ll find a small removable plate.  Unscrew that plate and you’ll find the screw is there.”  Sure enough, it was.  The Admiral anticipated everything.

Another time the Admiral was trying to get someone to develop an onboard gyroscope that could withstand the shock when a submarine was attacked with depth charges.  One day a pair of corporate executives showed up at his door with a devise in their hands.  “Admiral Rickover, this gyroscope can withstand any possible shock a submarine can experience,” they said.  Rickover snatched the device from their hands and threw it against the wall, where it smashed it to smithereens.  Then he walked back in his office without saying a word.

One story that Ted once told me that didn’t make it into the books went like this.  “We were checking into an airport one time when the clerk behind the counter recognized the Admiral,” he related. “She said, `Oh Admiral Rickover, my fiancée works for you.  He’s (so-and-so.)’  `You’re engaged to him?’ the Admiral queried.  `He’s already married, you know.’  The clerk turned white and we left.  As we walked away, I said to him, `Is so-and-so really married?’ `No,’ said Rickover, `but don’t worry.  He’s a smart fellow.  He’ll talk his way out of it.’”

I met Ted four years ago while writing speeches for Senator Lamar Alexander.  He testified for us at a hearing and startled everyone by telling the committee that spent nuclear fuel could be stored anywhere but was too valuable to be buried underground.  He and the Senator co-authored a piece for one of the Capitol Hill newspapers and after that he became indefatigable.  Every week Ted would call with a new idea, some new outrage to confront, another round of dubious claims that had to be exposed, another attempt to fight the perception that nuclear is somehow an unmanageable technology.  It was an overwhelming job he had set himself but he was always ready to undertake it.  

Two years ago, when he was well past 90, Ted wrote a brilliant article detailing how the insistence on piling one safety mechanism atop in nuclear reactors was actually counterproductive.  Simplicity, he said, was the key to safety.  As a classic example he cited the Fermi reactor incident of 1966 – the one that inspired the book, We Almost Lost Detroit.  The part that failed was the core catcher, an extra safety device that had been added to keep the reactor core from melting to the bottom of the containment in case of a meltdown.  Part of the catcher had come loose and clogged the cooling system, itself causing the partial meltdown.  

To Ted it was incomprehensible that there was always so much bad information circulating out there.  He was livid when the New York Academy of Sciences published Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, a compendium of the most wild-eyed applications of the no-safe-dose hypothesis that included papers such as Dr. Ernest Sternglass telling how a blip in breast cancer in Connecticut in the 1990s had been caused by Chernobyl.  Three years after the publications, Ted was still campaigning to have the Academy withdraw its imprimatur, even as the mealy-mouthed directors insisted there was “no endorsement” and that the volume was simply “part of the scientific debate.” 

In recent years, however, he had had a wonderful experience.  Public TV filmmaker Michael Pack made a documentary of Rickover’s career based on Ted’s biography and Ted himself served as chief technical advisor and narrator.  Although the film is still seeking funding for the final editing, it should be out soon.

Right until the end, Ted Rockwell was endlessly creative, endlessly energetic.  He was appalled at the excesses of the Fukushima evacuation zone, pointing out that background levels were higher in dozens of places around the world with no ill health effects.  At one point we were talking about trying to organize a team of international scientists that would go over to Japan and “sit in” at the evacuation zone, illustrating there was no danger. He was ready to go.  I still have the draft of a novel he wrote about his adventures with nuclear, although I confess I haven’t yet read it.

Hours after news of his death started circulating on Monday, I found myself walking around with the tune “Only a Cockeyed Optimist” reverberating in my head.  I finally realized what was happening.  The song is from “South Pacific,” right out Ted’s era, and expresses him perfectly:

I have heard people rant and rave and bellow

That we’re done and we might as well be dead.

But I’m only a cock-eyed optimist

And I can’t get it out of my head.

Ted was a cockeyed optimist about nuclear energy.  He was the last and best of a generation that saw the potential of nuclear and fervently believed it could be achieved.  In the end, I’m sure he’ll be proved right.  Some day soon there’ll be another generation like his that will pick up where he and his compatriots left off.


2 Responses to “WILLIAM TUCKER: Ted Rockwell, RIP: Nuclear’s Cockeyed Optimist”

  1. stevek9 Says:

    Only saw a few of his recent testimonies and enjoyed them a lot. Thanks for the quick bio and the info on the film.

  2. M. Dale Reaves Says:

    William: Thank you so much for the piece on Ted Rockwell. He was indeed an optimist and the last of a breed we may never see the likes of in our milquetoast culture. I am sad to say that I am not surprised that his obit was not reported. This is yet another example of how the oil and coal industries have successfully lobbied the people in power, from the Clinton and Carter administrations to the ivied halls of academia, to spread lies, fear, and misinformation to keep the American people ignorant of the truth about nuclear energy in general and specifically the Generation IV Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) that can use all the used fuel rods in storage as fuel to generate safe, pollution free, terrorist proof electricity with reserves enough for thousands of years. ( And it’s free) fossil fuel (coal) fired power plants are the primary contributor to air pollution causing 24,000 deaths each year in the USA and 2,000,000 deaths each year globally.

    Despite the fact that the Clinton administration stopped its final development, issued gag orders to the 2000 scientists and engineers and sold the American people down the river, The IFR will, in the final analysis, be one of the greatest technological achievements in history.