APR: your source for nuclear news and analysis since April 16, 2010

Saturday, April 21, 2012



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Sylvania Electric Corporation formed an Atomic Energy Division at the beginning of 1952 as a result of a December, 1951 contract with the Atomic Energy Commission to construct and operate what was described as a pilot or test plant for the manufacture of nuclear reactor fuel elements, including a metallurgy laboratory facility. The initial operations began at Bayside, New York, but another site was acquired in early 1952 and was located in Hicksville, New York. The facilities at Hicksville were greatly expanded with the addition of a new plant in 1957 expressly built for manufacturing of nuclear reactor fuel elements for commercial sale (and intended for use in research, test, training and power reactors.) Headquarters for the company remained at Bayside, New York.

Below, an illustration of the Hicksville N.Y. Commercial Production Plant of the Sylvania-Corning Nuclear Corporation; taken from "You and Your Company" brochure issued to welcome and familiarize new employees, circa 1957.

Sylvania Electric, as mentioned, had begun dedicated nuclear fuel research work for the AEC in early 1952. The opening up of the market (which I will cover in detail in a different post on Westinghouse Atomic Power Division) for commercial fuel fabrication led to Sylvania Electric and the Corning Glass Works combining all previous nuclear related operations of both into the Sylvania-Corning Nuclear Corporation in March, 1957. This development was, as we can see, concurrent with the acquisition of more land at Hicksville and the construction of the new Commercial Production Plant illustrated above. Syl-Cor or Sylcor, as the new firm quickly became known, was positioning itself to move into nuclear fuel production in a major way.

The text below is from the Sylcor sales brochure titled "Development and Engineering - Nuclear Fuels and Components" and which appears to date to about the time the Commercial Production Plant was placed in operation:

"The World's First Nuclear Fuel Company"

In April of 1957, Sylvania Electric Products Inc. and the Corning Glass Works combined their atomic energy activities and formed a new and separate company - the SYLVANIA-CORNING NUCLEAR CORPORATION (SYLCOR). This new, jointly owned entity is a logical and carefully planned outgrowth of the pioneering work of both companies in the nuclear field, and affords a far more effective utilization of skills and facilities.

SYLCOR has a wealth of experience in high temperature metals and in the development and production of metallurgical, ceramic and cermet types of fuel elements. SYLCOR pioneered investigations in the field of high temperature metallurgy and high purity metals. Development programs have been conducted with stainless steel, aluminum, uranium, thorium, niobium, niobium base alloys, rhenium, tantalum, tungsten, molybdenum and zirconium - resulting in a number of significant contributions to the technology of nuclear energy.

SYLCOR's prime objective is to provide a single economic source for complete out-of-pile services to designers, builders and operators of nuclear reactors. SYLCOR is a leader in new fuel and recovery developments, in the manufacture of reactor fuels and components, in providing a wide range of engineering facilities, and in making available the services of one of the largest privately-owned engineering, development and manufacturing plants devoted to this field.

SYLCOR has participated in a large number of major reactor projects both in the U.S. and abroad and has already produced more nuclear fuel elements than any other commercial facility in the free world. (Italics in original.)

As we can see, Sylcor had some fairly impressive research work behind it, had been able to produce fuel elements fairly early in the game commercially, and had been fairly early in the game in the construction of large facilities to service the just launched era of commercial nuclear generating stations (although it did certainly have competition - very stiff competition - in the field.)

We will see later that the sort of image portrayed by the above quoted advertising copy was actually fairly far from giving a complete picture. The operation at Sylcor was not nearly so commanding in the field as pictured - and the actual internal operations of the company not nearly so industry leading.

It is right after the launch of Sylcor and the large expansion at Hicksville for commercial fuel production in earnest that our featured man in this story, James O. Vadeboncoeur, enters the picture. I have acquired a large library of information from the late Mr. Vadeboncoeur (referred to often in interoffice correspondence as JOV, which seems handier given his last name) and it is around his experience with this company that we find ourselves able to build an inside story of the day to day operations, considerations, problems and competitive angles of the early commercial nuclear fuel industry.

Prior to hiring on with Sylcor, Jim V. (as we'll call him) worked for Westinghouse Electric Corporation's Atomic Power Division from 1952 through 1957. He was employed in Nuclear Core Manufacturing, and papers from that portion of his career give great insight into the early days of reactor manufacture (again, these are the basis of a different recurring feature.) Let's look at one of Jim V.'s resumes for his own words on his Westinghouse experience, just in brief:

Westinghouse Atomic Power Division, Nuclear Core Manufacturing (1952-1957)

Manager's Staff - Direction and consultation in the development and operation of industrial facilities for the manufacture of nuclear power reactors. Emphasis placed upon capitalization, buildings and layout, personnel requirements, criticality and accountability control, and processing equipment.

Supervisor of Central Production - Production supervision of manufacturing for the Nautilus and other reactor cores. (APR note: Many other cores.) Direction of scheduling, dispatching, inventory and production control, personnel placement, and industrial engineering. Design and implementation of cost control system. Preparation and control of manufacturing budgets. Administration of multi-million dollar contracts for melting and fabrication of zirconium. Preparation of cost analyses, advanced planning, and economic studies relative to facilities, personnel, and material requirements for nuclear fuel manufacturing.

SYLCOR made a fairly grand coup, it would appear, in somehow luring Jim V. away from Westinghouse - and unfortunately Jim's papers are totally completely silent on just exactly how this occurred. Luckily for us this is the only major event in Jim's Sylcor career that the papers don't elaborate on, and there's quite a story to tell. That's because Sylcor didn't hire Jim to run its core manufacturing operation, or control its costs, or manage its metallurgical laboratory - all sorts of things that Jim was perfectly suited for and could likely have helped Sylcor with. No; Sylcor had a totally different job in mind for Jim, the professional nuclear core manufacturing supervisor; the metallurgist; the chemist (for he was all of these.)

Sylcor hired Jim to travel far from its New York operations - to travel to California to start from scratch a Western sales office and staff to broaden its competitive situation from mainly an industrialized East-coast operation to a truly national one. And it would be rocky right immediately from the start.

Next time: Jim finds himself in California without his family, without a house, and without an office. Yet.

9:00 PM Eastern Saturday April 21, 2012


  1. Both shocking and sickening that responsible and presumably intelligent persons would ever consider establishing a nuclear fuel processing / fabrication plant in what was even then, a relatively densely populated and fast growing area!!!!! Probably the same "geniuses" who thought the Indian Point plant was a good idea - in proximity to several million people!!! I guess I shouldn't be surprised, given the tens of millions of worldwide malignancies this industry has spawned over the years!

    1. Yawn. Did you read about the plant in Canada that NO ONE knew was there until recently? You'd think that there would have been all sorts of problems with health and environment which were unexplained until now. But, of course, that's YOU would think there would be; I would not think there would be. Your vague, pointless accusations are really tired old anti-nuclear hacks. I'd adivse you to stay away from Friends of the Earth, Union of Concerned Scientists, Greenpeace, and stick to people who actually know what they're talking about. Maybe you should start with the latest United Nations report: http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/RS_UN_approves_radiation_advice_1012121.html

  2. I dare you to publish that!...but then, TRUTH is something your industry has always feared!

    1. "Dare" me to publish? There's truth all over the place, published by the industry. You just can't understand it.

  3. Nice try, Will... No need to be condescending though... With your training you should be as aware as am I, that the worldwide nuclear industry has been "burying its mistakes" for decades, "overseen" by a "regulatory agency" which represents one of the most glaring examples of "regulatory capture" to be found in the U.S. Government... I should point out that I trained as a Health Phycisist in a time when it appeared this was promising to be an area of human endeavor capable of solving many of mankind's problems - yes, "energy too cheap to meter", and "an end to cancer" - or at least a treatment capable of reversing its advance, as well as a plethora of similar seemingly plausible positive benefits for "all mankind" - but even back then it was becoming evident that as an H.P. I would most likely be expected to become a "shill" for my employer in an industry which by the early 70's, was displaying an increasingly reckless attitude toward public safety - aided by a convenient shroud of secrecy provided by governments, worldwide... (Secrecy which, indeed had roots in a justified "national security" concern during WWII and the inception of the Manhattan Engineering District). I took the decision to leave the field for more benign areas of technology - a decision which I have never regretted.
    Unfortunately, I fear that a full rebuttal to your comments and construction of my arguments will take more space than is likely available to me in one installment here, but if you will permit me to expand - in installments - I would be happy to continue a dialog - provided we can remain civil, and avoid personal attacks...
    I will leave you with a question - one which your academic and practical training should qualify you to answer - and a rhetorical statement for your rebuttal...

    First the question - "What are the daughter products of the so-called harmless noble gases Xenon (most notably Xe137) and Krypton (admittedly of lesser concern) vented in the routine operation of commercial power reactors of the boiling water and pressurized water varieties? (while it is true that unstable xenon isotopes are typically retained on-site for 14 to 30 days - "routine" venting of live gases are common events to reduce iodine "core poisoning" at every operating facility, which bypass this storage system...) Note that the concern here is for those unfortunate homeowners living in relative proximity to these facilities - particularly those on the predominantly "downwind" side, since these seemingly miniscule amounts of daughter products reaching them on an ongoing basis, do indeed tend to linger and some, most notably Cs137 and some isotopes of Iodine, have sufficiently long half lives to accumulate in the body of these unwitting "guinea pigs" - Cs137 being readily incorporated into bone, and Iodine rapidly uptaken by the thyroid - and yes, it IS indeed a matter of little debate in the medical community that both CAN and DO produce malignancies in these populations - particularly in those exposed in early childhood...

    -My rhetorical /question/statement will follow as I have exceeded your character limit...


    1. You have said you were trained as a health physicist in the early 70's, correct? You come from the era clearly detailed in the following: http://atomicpowerreview.blogspot.com/p/public-attitudes-toward-nuclear-energy.html

      It's no wonder that you were persuaded by the weight of counterculture that you were being led astray. After all, that was the explosion of pro-Earth, anti-Corporate thinking. Clearly, any for-profit corporation must be grinding the helpless, innocent public under its wheels .. or, that was the thinking. Of course, decades worth of studies have proven that the risk off site is exceedingly low... why else would nuclear plant workers choose to live near the sites, and raise their families there? Further, I met hundreds of people in the Navy nuclear power program, and none of them had cancer, or had children with birth defects. No odd maladies of any sort. Again, we can talk all day about theoretical risk and the half life of this or that isotope, but what is the REAL actual risk?

      "Regulatory capture" -- do you recall when the AEC was split up into the NRC and the impotent DOE ONE? That was the end of regulatory capture, as you put it. That happened during the time you mention you got out of the industry, so you must be aware of it. Read up on some of the exchanges between NEI and the NRC if you'd like to see how the industry and the regulator go head-to-head.

    2. You might find this of interest as well - it addresses some of the post-Fukushima frenzy, and realistic high profile people who are pro-nuclear. http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/energy/photos/9-high-profile-champions-of-nuclear-power/whos-on-board

  4. -And my rhetorical /question/statement: By the nuclear industry's OWN estimate of "One major incident/accident per 10,000 reactor years" (bear in mind that the Three Mile Island event wasn't considered as major by the industry) when applied to a world now containing power generation and large research/fuel reactors approaching 1,000 in number (over 439 known operating power gen.installations known as of 2007, adding a number of as yet unreported or clandestine ), we can look forward to Chernobyl / Fukushima type incidents and catastrophies each 10 years!... Is this an acceptable risk to any sane individual???? Obviously the insurance industry knows better - that's why the nuclear industry must have a strict cap on their liabilities for death and injury caused by accidents and injuries, in the form of the "Price - Anderson Act"... If your industry is so safe, and the hazards so exagerrated, then why not propose lifting this virtually unprecedented safety blanket for the bank accounts of the corporate CEOs and shareholders? (of course, that will NEVER happen!)

    I'll address your flippant remark about the Canadian facility in a later correspondence, if I am afforded the opportunity to continue... (I do hope I'm not still making you yawn!)


    PS - Sylcor's former Hicksville plant on Cantiague Rock Road was the site of a multi-million dollar cleanup, decades after GTE had ceased operations (note that other than minor A.E.C. citations for lack of labeling of radionuclides, and failure to present documentation that leak-tests had been conducted on some sealed "sources", Sylcor appears to have met what was then the A.E.C. standards of cleanup - I'm not implying any criminality on their part here) and the decontamination bill (which included removal of a sizable amount of radioactive topsoil from the grounds IMMEDIATELY ADJACENT TO A CHILDRENS PLAYGROUND at Cantiague Park!) was footed by - guess who?... Yes, you and me! And Will, I expect that most of this is quite familiar to you, but if not, all of the cleanup details are public record which I'll be happy to supply...

    1. How many people have been killed in reactor accidents, outside of the Soviet Union? Time and again, people like you bring up the same tired lines, and yet there is no realistic body count that compares with, say, automobile accidents, airline accidents, shipping accidents. The risk just isn't there. We've had several reactor accidents over the years and NEVER got near the thousands of immediate casualties predicted by even the earliest estimates, like WASH-740. I'm sure you know that, and you're just playing the only hand you have left, right?

      I've read all the cleanup details on that site, yes.

      We can go on and on about the relative risks of various types of power generation. Since you and I both know that people won't go without electricity, how many more mine cave-ins will you tolerate before you rage against the mining industry? How many more people and how much more property will be eliminated in natural gas explosions before you rail against the natgas biz? See, here's the deal -- those industries produce numerous casualties EVERY YEAR, year in, year out. They're not safe. By comparison, nuclear energy is harmless in terms of actual personal risk. Further, how many people not employed in the field, living off site, have been injured in a US nuclear accident? ZERO. But again, you know that.

      And we can't compare Russia, or Japan. You probably know all too well how different their operative cultures are. Or, were.. in the case of Russia. So Chernobyl and Fukushima don't impact the U.S. in a couple major ways. They do impact the U.S. in some major ways, and the work to ferret that out continues daily by NRC, NEI, the industry and the utilities. I attended several days' worth of post-Fukushima response sessions at this year's ANS Winter Meeting, and I can assure you that the effort is all out to make the safest form of power generation even safer.

      That's right- safest. Again, you need to produce actual casualty counts in order to come up with this assessment. Which is how you determine risk. Not "potential risk" in case you have a worst case scenario -- who could have predicted the giant Galveston, Texas explosion all those years ago? If the anti-nuclear mentality were applied to that disaster, how many things would we have banned then? I mean REAL risk, in terms of number of killed / injured per year.

      There is another NRC study in the works to evaluate off site cancer risk near nuclear plants. Did you know that? I'm sure you did. Do you suppose the result will differ from the last review? I don't believe it will be.

  5. American Machine and Metals, which would become AMETEK, had an almost identical plant built (very quietly) in a small Pennsylvania town during the exact same time period (1957/1958). It has recently been uncovered that said facility was involved in previously-undisclosed nuclear fuel production, in addition to being built on ground that was at one time the largest uranium refinery in the world. Additionally, said plant is currently not included when local officials reference AMETEK buildings in that area. Did Sylcor have any satellite plants operating under different names? Are there any known relationships between Sylcor and American Machine and Metals/AMETEK?

    Additional info can be found here: http://www.topix.com/forum/city/quakertown-pa/TPEQLOCLMKDU9C174

    Thank you.