The words earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor startle William Magwood when his clock radio awakens him at 5 am on Friday, March 11, 2011. What will become the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl has just begun. After piecing together the situation from initial media reports, he drives from his home in suburban Washington, D.C., to his office at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, where he serves as one of five commissioners, each appointed by the President of the United States. The NRC is responsible for licensing nuclear reactors, establishing nuclear fuel safety policy, setting reactor operations standards, enforcing compliance, adjudicating violations, and coordinating the efforts of the 4,000-employee agency. As usual, Magwood is the first senior official to arrive at the 18-story, twin-tower headquarters.
On his office wall hangs a framed letter from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, which authorized him to sign a 2005 treaty among several countries, including Japan, for collaboration on advanced nuclear technologies. Magwood, respected around the world for his leadership in the field of nuclear energy, counts among his friends his Japanese colleagues who are under siege this morning. Although responses to nuclear accidents in other countries aren’t in his job description, he is certain to be involved in this unfolding disaster.
As staffers arrive, chatter about the event permeates the office. Televisions, radios, emails, Web sites, and smartphones buzz with news updates, fragmented reports, and alarmed inquiries from inside Washington and around the world. Nobody has complete information just yet, but everybody knows that the situation can’t be good. The NRC’s Emergency Operations Center was first to learn of the accident in the wee hours of the D.C. morning. Now the commission assigns EOC the task of monitoring the situation 24/7. Have U.S. reactors been affected by the earthquake? Will radiation reach the West Coast? Can the reactors be cooled? Can the U.S. be of assistance? NRC staff experts volunteer to go to their compatriots’ aid. The first contingent is in the air within hours.
Then, the next day, Magwood learns of an explosion at one of the Japanese reactors. The otherwise unflappable Magwood is alarmed. “This is serious,” he exclaims to himself.
By Monday, 11 NRC volunteers are in Japan. As the disaster escalates during the next week, the tone at commission headquarters grows somber. The NRC doesn’t promote nuclear energy; it ensures nuclear safety. Events like those in Japan are exactly what it guards against. The commissioners’ schedules are rearranged. Magwood’s planned visit to his alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University—to discuss nuclear energy policy with faculty energy experts—is postponed indefinitely. The commission authorizes a task force to review the situation. Its findings are expected to serve as a pilot for an in-depth review that may set new safety standards, much the way the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor core meltdown prompted changes 32 years ago when Magwood was a student at a suburban Pittsburgh high school.
Growing up, young Bill Magwood likes to tell stories, but his interest in science awakens after watching his dad repair the family TV. Beginning in fifth grade, he takes advanced science and math classes each summer. By the time the Three Mile Island accident happens, the youngster has a familiarity with nuclear energy from Saturday morning Westinghouse Science Honors Institute lectures he attends, along with 200 other promising high school students. Topics such as polymers, photoluminescence, nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion are presented by scientists from Westinghouse, the company that designed the first full-scale commercial nuclear power reactor. Magwood dreams of becoming a Westinghouse research scientist, though the lingering effects of the Three Mile Island accident on the nuclear industry make him skittish about a nuclear energy career.
In the summer after his high school sophomore year, he enrolls in Carnegie Mellon’s CMAP (Carnegie Mellon Action Project) pre-college program. He finds the work so challenging and enlightening that he applies for early admission at Carnegie Mellon, even though he still has two years left of high school. When the acceptance letter comes in the midst of his junior year, his high school isn’t enamored with the idea of him skipping his senior year. He’ll get his diploma they tell him, but after he completes his freshman year of college. His lack of a diploma makes him ineligible for freshman scholarships. But the university’s financial aid office devises a package that lets him go to college via grants, loans, and summer internships.
The internships are through INROADS—a leadership development program for promising students in underserved minority groups—which enable him to spend four summers working at Westinghouse Electric. Another INROADS participant is Janet Marie Roberts, an aspiring mechanical engineer from the University of Pittsburgh. The pair had met unknowingly in baby carriages 15 years ago at a picnic for employees of the U.S. Postal Service, where both of their fathers worked. Through INROADS, they become friends.
As a Westinghouse intern, Magwood conducts experiments on superconducting generators—the compact, cryogenic-temperature, electricity-generating machines now being used to power all-electric ships. He is on his way to realizing his dream of becoming a Westinghouse researcher. But as he observes day-to-day activity in the lab, he realizes that many research decisions aren’t made by PhDs in lab coats, but by executives in business suits. Just like deciding when he was ready for college, he wants to be the one making the key decisions throughout his future career. He decides research isn’t for him.
After the physics major earns his degree in 1982, he spends a fifth year at Carnegie Mellon, satisfying his storytelling urge, by earning a second degree in English. His professors are impressed with his writing talent, but he’s not ready to dismiss his science background, so he accepts an entry-level management job at Westinghouse Nuclear Waste Technologies. Meanwhile, his friend, Roberts, having already begun her career, returns to Pittsburgh between jobs. Magwood asks her out on a date. And another. And another. When she lands a job in Washington, D.C., Magwood, also ready to make a career move, decides to go, too. Good decision—as she will become his wife. He finds a position there as a manager for nuclear energy at Edison Electric Institute, an electric utility trade association. They want him as much for his skill as a writer as for his expertise in nuclear energy. He is EEI’s technical expert for nuclear fuel, emergency planning, and research and development. He finds his job at EEI engaging as he “learns the inner workings of Congress and the federal government.”
But eventually he begins to feel like he is outgrowing the job, so he initiates a study about how commercial power utilities use the U.S.’s 17 national laboratories. The venture is not within his assigned purview, but his “boss’s boss’s boss,” then and still president of EEI, Tom Kuhn, thinks the project has merit. When the study is complete, Kuhn thinks enough of it to invite Magwood to accompany him to a meeting with Hazel O’Leary, the Energy Secretary for President Bill Clinton’s administration. At the meeting, Magwood summarizes the study for her. She is duly impressed. Afterward, Magwood tells Kuhn that he would like to work at the U.S. Department of Energy someday. Kuhn takes his request to heart, lays the groundwork, and opens doors; in 1994 Magwood is appointed associate director of technology program planning for the DOE. He interfaces with the Secretary of Energy’s office, plans and budgets the DOE programs for all energy technologies, prepares the DOE’s budget for presentation to Congress, and serves as the director’s deputy. He is the DOE’s nuclear technology policy guy. Then, in 1998, in the midst of an agency shuffle, he fulfills his college-era ambition of becoming the high-level decision-maker. He is promoted to director of nuclear energy for the DOE.
The appointment is enviable, except for the fact that two decades earlier, public concern over Three Mile Island had precipitated an abrupt halt in construction of new U.S. nuclear plants. When he assumes the helm, research reactors are being decommissioned, university nuclear engineering programs are being shuttered, and the DOE’s nuclear research budget is zero. Countries with limited energy options are investing in nuclear energy, but the U.S., flush with fossil energy, is on the sidelines. A generation of nuclear engineers is about to be lost, even though more than 100 nuclear power plants generate 20 percent of U.S. electricity. Most of their licenses will be valid for at least another 20 years. Magwood knows that, for better or worse, nuclear energy is here for the foreseeable future, and it will need a highly trained workforce to make it reliable and safe. He initiates an array of domestic and international programs designed to resuscitate nuclear energy in the U.S.
On the domestic side, he institutes a capacity development program called Nuclear Power 2010. The program, which established public-private partnerships to develop and license advanced nuclear power technologies (including Westinghouse’s AP1000), is credited by many as having saved the U.S. nuclear power industry from extinction. Additionally, an education effort takes form through high school and college outreach programs designed to interest students in nuclear engineering careers. He also establishes partnerships between small, historically Black colleges and larger, mainstream universities with nuclear engineering programs.
On the international side, he establishes the Generation IV International Forum—an affiliation of countries, all pledged to collaborate on advanced nuclear power generation technologies. Generation IV technology is focused two generations beyond today’s reactors. It’s expected to realize nuclear energy’s full potential by extracting 100?300 times more energy from nuclear fuel than at present, by reducing the radioactive life of nuclear waste from millennia to centuries, by using nuclear waste as fuel, and by vastly improving reactor safety.
As chair and chief architect of the Generation IV International Forum, Magwood quite naturally becomes the principal author, head negotiator, and tireless arbitrator of the Framework Agreement for International Collaboration on Research and Development of Generation IV Nuclear Systems. It’s the multilateral treaty referred to in Secretary of State Rice’s letter hanging on his wall. The treaty was signed by Canada, France, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States at the Embassy of France in Washington, D.C., on February 28, 2005, just before Magwood’s planned departure from the DOE. Other countries join the treaty later, including Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation, the Republic of South Africa, Switzerland, and also the European Union’s EURATOM.
After a tenure spanning more than a decade, serving under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as well as five Secretaries of Energy, Magwood is ready to move on. He resigns to start a private energy consulting practice, Advanced Energy Strategies, and collaborates in the establishment of a project development group, Secure Energy North America Corp. He also resurrects his other interest—telling stories. A screenplay makes the rounds in Hollywood and comes back for revisions. But success in his consulting practice puts the squeeze on time for a second round.
Then, in late 2009, the phone rings with an offer from Barack Obama’s White House. Would he be interested in serving as one of the nation’s five Nuclear Regulatory Commissioners? The answer is a resounding yes. Three weeks shy of his first anniversary on the job, he is awakened to the news of the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear accident.
In the aftermath of the catastrophe, he, with the other NRC Commissioners, is summoned to Capitol Hill to testify before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce about the situation in Japan. He tells the committee that though the worst is likely over, the extraordinary natural forces that caused the devastation are proof that we will never be able to accurately predict the ravages that nature may have in store. As such, he says, it’s incumbent on the NRC and the rest of the world’s nuclear community to focus as much attention on how to recover from nuclear disasters as they have previously spent on preventing them.
The screenplay must wait.
Tom Imerito is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer. He is a regular contributor to this magazine.