"Thomas H. Pigford, Nuclear Engineer, Is Dead at 87"
Matthew L. Wald
March 5th, 2010
The New York Times
Matthew L. Wald
March 5th, 2010
The New York Times
Thomas H. Pigford, an independent-minded nuclear engineer who was recruited by the federal government for his advice on major nuclear accidents and nuclear waste, died Saturday at his home in Oakland, Calif.. He was 87.
His death was confirmed by the nuclear engineering department at the University of California, Berkeley, of which he was the first chairman. Dr. Pigford had been treated for Parkinson’s disease for nine years, his wife, Elizabeth Pigford, said.
In 1979 he was a member of the commission that investigated the accident at the Three Mile Island reactor, near Harrisburg, Pa. The panel found that poorly trained operators had turned off key safety systems, allowing a simple malfunction to grow into a harrowing accident that reduced the nuclear core to rubble.
Dr. Pigford, who was often pointed and even discordant in his views, was highly critical of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which he said had made technical errors and been unduly alarmist during the accident. He also maintained that his panel’s findings were limited and should not be used to form a general indictment of nuclear power plants.
“Every technology imposes a finite degree of risk upon society, both in its routine operation and in the occurrence of accidents,” he wrote. “The essential question is the trade-off between the risks and the benefits. The commission neither received any evidence nor reached any conclusions that the risks of nuclear power outweigh its benefits.”
Seven years later, when the Soviet-designed reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine, exploded and sent a cloud of radioactive material over Europe, he was appointed by the secretary of energy to a committee to evaluate the accident and the safety of a similar reactor operated by the department in Hanford, Wash. Dr. Pigford said that the American plant, which was used to make plutonium for nuclear bombs, was far more dangerous than American commercial reactors, and that one safety measure proposed by the department would be no help at all. Soon after, the department closed the reactor.
In the mid-1990s, he also served on an Environmental Protection Agency panel that advised on what the standards should be for a nuclear repository then under consideration at Yucca Mountain, Nev. (The Energy Department said last month that it would kill the project.)
The E.P.A. panel advised that standards for the waste dump should allow only very small radiation exposures to future generations. But to Dr. Pigford’s dissatisfaction, the panel also said the government should be able to make assumptions about how land in the area would be used in future millenniums, a major factor in determining radiation exposure.
The E.P.A. had assumed that water that had passed through the repository and picked up contaminants would be used by farm families to irrigate their crops and grow their own food, creating a pathway for exposure. But the panel advised that the agency should be allowed to assume that contaminated water from the site would not be used by subsistence farmers. The effect would be to permit higher levels of contamination.
Dr. Pigford complained about the advisory panel’s approach. "They end up with such a less stringent result that cannot be defended,” he said. “That’s bad for the project; it’s bad for the country."
Thomas Harrington Pigford was born on April 21, 1922, in Meridian, Miss., to Lamar and Zula Pigford. He graduated magna cum laude from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1943, served in the Navy in World War II, and was asked by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to join the faculty while still completing his doctorate there, his wife said.
Before going to Berkeley, Dr. Pigford helped establish the nuclear engineering department at M.I.T.
A chemical engineer, Dr. Pigford helped develop the process used by the government for years to harvest plutonium for bombs from irradiated reactor fuel. He was a co-author of “Nuclear Chemical Engineering,” published in 1958, revised in 1983 and considered the first text in the field.
Dr. Pigford’s first wife, the former Catherine Kennedy Cathey, died in 1992. Besides his wife, the former Elizabeth Hood Weekes, who is known as Betty and whom he married in 1994, Dr. Pigford is survived by two daughters, Cynthia Pigford Naylor, of Durham, Calif., and Julie Pigford Earnest, of Portland, Ore.; two stepdaughters, Janvrin Deler, of Dedham, Mass., and Laura Weekes, of Los Angeles; five grandchildren; and one great-grandson.
One of Dr. Pigford’s most memorable projects was perhaps the least successful: a cold war effort to develop a reactor to power an airplane.
“It had worlds of engineering problems, and they were all fun to work on,” Dr. Pigford said in an oral history published in 1999.
But he acknowledged that the project was allowed to continue for too long. “You see,” he said, “the trouble is, the Air Force was the one who made the decisions and managed the money, and it fell in love with almost anything nuclear.”