Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Growing up in Wolverton - Part VIII
In this section David Marks begins his career in the Nuclear Industry. It is probably worth noting that this was a very new industry in the 1950s, as were so many. Several of my friends who went into engineering found themselves in at the ground floor of electronics, computer engineering, product packaging. Those who went into more traditional engineering occupations, such as mechanical and civil, found themselves working with revolutionary new materials - not all of which were properly understood at the time.
A Proper Job
So now the time had come to get myself a proper job. Initially I worked as a packer for some weeks at Mc Corquodales at Wolverton whilst I looked around for permanent employment that was not too far from Nottingham. I eventually secured an appointment as a design engineer with the English Electric Company at Whetstone, near Leicester. They were at that time embarking on Britain’s new Nuclear Power programme and were engaged in the design of Hinkley Point, Sizewell and Wylfa nuclear power stations. My initial post was in the control and instrumentation section of the Reactor equipment Division where I was involved in the design and specification of radiation measuring equipment.
Soon after I joined the design team a lucky and interesting break occurred which gave me the opportunity to make enough money to pay for our honeymoon which was then imminent. Yes! ! I had finally plucked up the courage to propose and to my amazement been accepted. In fact the formalization of the event which comprised the choosing , purchqasing and fitting of the ring had recently taken place in Nottingham. We purchased the `ring from Poysers the Jewellers and because we thought that platform 5 at Nottingham midland station looked a bit sad we decided to brighten it up by becoming formally engaged there. So that was where the ring was duly fitted. Back at work the helpful event was caused by the rival Nuclear Power station building consortium (AEI John Thompson) had a serious shortage of qualified staff for the commissioning of the Nuclear station at Berkeley on the Severn Estuary and had asked their rivals for the loan of some staff on the grounds that it would provide them with invaluable experience in this new technology. This was a job that in addition to being very interesting would have large quantities of overtime so I immediately volunteered.
The site was at an interesting stage. A week or so previously the number one reactor had gone critical (i.e. The nuclear chain reaction had been successfully started) and work was about to commence loading the fuel (uranium) into the second reactor.
There was (or had been) a huge work force engaged upon the construction of the station which was a couple of miles out from the village of Berkeley and situated on the mudflats.
Many of the workforce stayed on site and there was a large shanty town of wooden huts in which they lived. By the time I arrived most of the construction work was finished and the majority of the construction workers still there were the tunnelers. These were an extraordinary group who dug the tunnels out under the Severn which drew in the cooling water for the station. In order to minimise seepage they worked in compressed air so they had dangerous, dirty and unpleasant work. They were paid large sums of money for this which they did not hesitate to spend! I was told that it was quite common for them to stop work for a weekend or at the end of a shift and then go and buy themselves a suit with which to hit town after which they would be back down the tunnel in the same suit!
The whole atmosphere must have been something akin to the Klondyke during the gold rush. I do recall that shops and houses in nearby villages were shuttered up when these guys were out drinking. Whilst I was there a staff dance was advertised and I was urged by the other engineers and physicists there to go along for a while as it was quite an experience.
I did and they were not wrong! It was like a wild west saloon. All these rough looking characters sitting in groups most of which had a bottle of whisky on the table. And a selection of extremely dodgy looking women who had apparently been bussed in from Bristol and it less salubrious suburbs. Needless to say I was off PDQ although not before being dragged onto the dance floor by one of our larger tea ladies with whom I was obliged to do the twist – A spine straining activity from which I count myself lucky to have escaped uninjured.
Work on the site was interesting and it was in many ways rather like a giant technological adventure playground. Perhaps I should explain. Each reactor was a large 200 foot diameter sphere made of 4 inch thick steel there were four six foot diameter pipes which entered the sphere horizontally about three quarters of the way up (They would eventually carry the cooling gas over the uranium with which the sphere would be filled out into the heat exchangers which produced steam and back in again at the bottom of the sphere.)
The operation of a reactor is pretty simple. When enough of the fuel (in this case Uranium 238) is assembled together (known as a critical mass) the nuclear chain reaction starts automatic and rapidly increases in power until something slow it down. In these reactors that “something” was a series of boron steel rods which were lowered into the reactor. These absorbed the neutrons which cause the chain reaction and cause it to slow down or stop. The steel cable which held these rods were fixed to the rods by electromagnets. This meant that in the event of a power failure the rods would be released and automatically drop into the reactor, shutting it down. My reasons for providing this boring technical explanation will soon become apparent.
When the fuel was first loaded into the reactor the technique was to ascend about four floors by lift and then via several trapdoors and vertical steel ladders to reach the side of one of the 6 foot steel pipes where a large access hole had been temporarily made. By clambering through this hole and walking along the inside if the pipe one entered the main pressure vessel (sphere) itself. The roof was one giant matt black dome with holes in the roof which would eventually be used for the standpipes through which fuel would be loaded when the reactor was running at full power. The “floor” which one stepped out on was the top of thhuge mass of graphite buit up from blocks and containing hundreds of vertical holes most of which were for fuel and some for the boron steel control rods.
The uranium fuel rods which were contained in magnesium alloy with lots of cooling fins were about 3inches in diameter and 3 feet long and were lowered into the vertical holes in the graphite by small battery operated winches. The crew of men who were carrying this out were casual labourers employed by one of the civil engineering contractors. This was adeadly boring job and it wasn’t long before these workers had discovered that by surreptitiously kicking one of the many pieces of measuring equipment to be seen in the reactor they could initiate an alarm which meant evacuation of the reactor whilst checks were carried out , during which they could retire to their rest hut for tea and a smoke !
The technique for commissioning involved loading an amount of fuel specified by the chief reactor physicist whilst all the control rods were fully inserted. The reactor vessel would then be evacuated and the entrance sealed. I (who would you believe was designated Assistant Shift Physicist !) would then (if it was on my shift) go up in the lift to pile cap (this was the concrete floor about 30 feet or more above the reactor vessel). Since the reactor building was pretty high this was like a vast technological cathedral full of fuelling machines and all sorts of other complex apparatus. In the middle of all this and directly above the centre of the reactor was my little patch. It consisted of several racks of instrumentation connected to radiation measuring sensors in the heart of the reactor below. This instrumentation was there purely for the commissioning period and was very much more sensitive than the permanently installed instruments which all had their dials in the turbine hall (nearly a quarter of a mile away as I recall).
There were two sets of instruments one simply measured the radiation level in the reactor whilst the other (which rejoiced in the name of a vibron electrometer measured the “doubling time” this one only became relevant when the reactor had gone critical and measured the time in which the nuclear power from the atomic reaction going on down below was doubling. I would have a headset and microphone linked to the control room back in the turbine hall. As soon as I informed them that I was ready they wouls start to wind out the control rods whilst I took reading of the radiation (whilst there was still a sub critical load of uranium the vibron electrometers of course showed no reading and would only do so when we had a critical mass loaded and the nuclear chain reaction started. Thing that worried me ‘though was the fact that those vibrons looked to me to be extremely dead. Yes I know that they should be reading zero but instrument usually twitched from time to time to show that they were alive. I had mentioned this concern to the chief together with the comment that they had been lying around in a shed since ther had been used on reactor one. I was assured however that they were OK. When I had taken my readings the chief physicist would plot them on a chart from which it could be fairly accurately calculated when we would have a critical mass loaded. The reactor would then be opened up and the whole process repeated. I went through this cycle several times and the one day I was advised that it was expected that the fuel \being loaded that evening would produce a critical mass. I would be on call and it was expected that I would need to be up on pile cap at around 2 a.m. This turned out to be pretty accurate and just before 2 I arrived on pile cap set up the equipment and called the control room. There was quite a lot of excitement as you can imagine and evidently the main control room was full of spectators his was after all only the second commercial reactor to go critical. I remember sitting on my stool\talking to the control room as step by step they slowly wound out the control rods each time asking if the vibron electrometers were showing a reading which would indicate that we had gone critical. Each time I had to report negative and reiterated my view that the bloody things weren’t working. The rods started moving again (they made a distinctive humming sound). Then suddenly Over my headset I couls hear a whole load of jabbering and what sounded like a cheer followed by a loud rumbling noise and a series of muffled thuds. I immediately recognized this as the control rods dropping – an emergency tip – and asked the control room what was going on. “Nothing to worry about” they said “Come back to the control room”. When I got there they rather sheepishly informed me that I had been right! The electrometers were not working. Observers in the control room had spotted the installed low power indicator slowly rising and it was realized that the chain reaction had started so they tripped the reactor just to be sure. Quite an exciting night all in all. I did cause one piece of excitement all on my own one day when after working inside the reactor core I was having a cuppa and a Mars bar when I realized with alarm that a filling had come out of a tooth and was greatly alarmed in case I was about to get a nasty toothache. The physicist with me however was alarmed in case the filling was still in the reactor since the mercury from which it would undoubtedly be made was almost as good at absorbing neutrons as was boron. Fortunately the filling was still in a piece of Mars Bar and their panic (if not mine) subsided. In fact I didn’t get a toothache anyway.
One other event I recall from my time at Berkeley was an evening when one of the temporary huts used for changing into the mandatory white suits caught fire almost certainly a cigarette end. To avoid unnecessary damage the local fire brigade were summoned and despite the fact that the emergency phone was not used sent every engine they had. National TV programmes were interrupted for a news flash to sat there was a fire at a nuclear power station ! Unfortunately this type of over the top reaction always dogged our industry and produced all sorts of quite unreasonable fears about the safety of nuclear reactors. For the record, if they didn’t look so ugly (which is why unlike wind generators` they can be placed in remote spots) I would have no problem living next door to one .
I returned to the design office at Whetsone somewhat the richer for the Berkeley experience (in more ways than one) and quite soon after that Rosi and I were married at St Mary’s at Lowdham with a splendid reception at Hoveringham. We spent our honeymoon at Saundersfoot in South Wales which we reached by train since I had not passed my test and in any event the elderly Austin 10 which I had become the proud owner of would probably not have made it that far. We stopped en route for the night at The New Inn in Gloucester.
It was a wonderful honeymoon, over all too soon and we returned to start married life together. In those days of course “cheating under starters orders” was not so acceptable so we had lived in our own homes until our return from honeymoon. I had however managed to rent a rather nice little old cottage at Church Nook in Wigston Magna on the outskirts of Leicester which I had moved into some weeks earlier. I was able to travel to Whetstone easily each day and Rosi had secured a teaching appointment at a primary school in Oadby a couple of miles away.
We had a pleasant and fairly uneventful couple of years there settling into married life. We had acquired a fairly large screen (black and white) television and I clearly remember early one evening watching in horror as a clearly shocked newsreader announced the assassination of President John F Kennedy. One other international event I clearly remember one afternoon was the nerve wracking drama of the Cuban missile crisis when, as we sat in our office listening to the constant news updates as Kruschev’s missile ships continued to approach Cuba with the promise from Kennedy that if they did not turn back they would be fired on. Fortunately for the world of course, they did !
We had managed for our first home to rent a cottage in Church Nook, Wigston near Leicester in which we lived for the first three years whilst our financial reserves built up. Rosi had obtained a teaching post at the primary school in nearby Oadby and relatively quickly by todays standards we saved enough money for the deposit on our first house.
Whilst we were at Church Nook I continued to run the old Austin 10 and used to travel the 5 or 6 miles to work in it every day. It was not without it’s problems however ! It was parked on the piece of land immediately in front of the cottage in all weathers , which, in winter, gave me problems. There appears to have been some water in the fuel pipe where it ran under the car and on cold mornings this would freeze, blocking the fuel line. As a result of this I could often be found lying underneath with a hot water bottle trying to thaw out the fuel line !
Initially it had no heater so the journey we often made from Leicester to Lowdham along the A46 was a slow and, in winter , very cold journey. Rosi used to wrap herself in car rugs with a hot water bottle for the journey ! On foggy days, things got worse, with no demister or heater it was necessary to wind the front window open (it was hinged along the top and could be wound open several inches at the bottom) I then had to drive very slowly peering underneath the open window ! … Not very warm !
The brakes were of the old fashioned Bowden cable type (no such thing as hydraulics or discs when that car was built !) so stopping was quite an event. I can still remember going down a hill near Loughborough straining against the seat and pressing the brake pedal as hard as I could whilst the car gradually slowed down. I just managed to stop it at the crossroads at the bottom of the hill.
1963 was quite a busy year for us in terms of weddings. .Rosi’s life long friend from Lowdham, Dawn Pitchford married Nigel at Lowdham. CVousin Ann married David at Leeds and Rosi’s old next door neighbour Caroline Dawson was married at Lowdham. That latter was quite a “do” with the reception held at Lowdham Mill. It was very much a Rugby enthusiasts wedding the bridegroom being from oxford and playing for them at the time. By the time that even the vicar had joined in by giving the latest score in some international that was going on that day at Twickenham, I was getting a bit tired of Rugby chat (not knowing a thing about it) so when it was time for the speeches I slunk off to the room at the rear where champagne was to be had!
There was another apparent refugee from Rugby already there having a quite swig. He was a big chap with a broken nose so I should have probably avoided saying that I was a bit bored with all this rugby chit chat. However he agreed with me and we had a pleasant chat about things non rugby. The following morning we were invited around to the brides parents for coffee and during the course of the conversation the brides grandma said to me “ I see you were having a good chat with Richard yesterday.” “Richard ?” I said not realizing who she was talking about. “Yes” she said “Richard Sharpe”. “Oh” I said rather foolishly “Who’s Richard Sharpe then ? “He’s the England Rugby Captain” said about 6 voices simultaneously.
I think I was pretty much a spent force with that family after that ! Still we can’t all be sporty types can we?
Late in 1964 I learned from colleagues at work who were also looking for houses that a new estate was being built in the village of Newbold Verdon, about seven or eight mile on the other side of Whetstone. We went over to have a look and put down a deposit on what was to be our first house. The selling price was £3,850!! When studying the builders map of the proposed estate I discovered that he was proposing to name the road in which our house was to be situated Marks Way ! Wow, I thought, that’s going to look good .. Marks of Marks Way !
Unfortunately the parish council intervened and having decided that the builder had already used too many of his family’s names (His son’s name was Mark) they decided to rename it Jubilee Road after the village pub.
I did write a rather stroppy letter to the Parish council asking if they also intended to have a Coronation Street, but I’m afraid my vested interest was all too obvious and so we started the next phase of our married life at 12 Jubilee Road ! We moved in early in 1965 just before Sarah was born (Rosemary attributes hormonal effects of the pregnancy to the absolutely dire choice of curtains and other fittings which we then had to live with for quite a time before we could afford to change them !
In those days of course we didn’t have a ‘phone so the plan was when the time for the birth arrived I would dash down the road to the old red phone box in the square and notify the nursing home that we were on our way. Yes I did say nursing home! Being in a highly nervous state at the impending birth of our firstborn I had thrown caution to the winds and booked Rosi into the St Francis private nursing home in Oadby. Trouble was, the nursing home was now a good ten miles from home and my current mode of transport was a Morris Minor sidevalve a totally gutless vehicle which didn’t so much accelerates as gradually increase speed. I am unable to verify the 0 to 60 figure as it never ever reached 60. With a fair wind and running downhill it could just about exceed 40.
To make matters worse when the happy day arrived the front wheel bearing was emitting a very ominous and terminal sounding knocking noise. I further managed to disgrace myself when Rosi woke up in the early hours of one morning to proclaim that her labour pains had started. Since I appear to have gone into what must have been some sort of sympathetic labor I am alleged to have dismissed the aforementioned labour pains with lots of griping about the pain I was in. I can only, gentle reader ask you to believe that I am really not the heartless and that the whole episode has become grossly exaggerated. I do not suggest for even one minute that dear Rosi could have so exaggerated thing in normal circumstances And cam only imagine that some kind of hormonal imbalance has led to this unfortunate piece of historical inaccuracy. When the time came for the dash to the nursing home the front wheel bearing was in full song and clanking away like a steam hammer. In fact it was so bad that on the way home I stopped at a garage in Blaby who advised me that in all probability it would shortly fall of and kept it in for immediate repair.
The following morning Sarah Louise Marks made her eagerly awaited arrival in the world and life would never be the same again. Milton sterilizing kits and buckets of Napisan became the order of the day (No pampers in those days !). That year we took her on holiday to Sheringham in Norfolk with Rosi’s mum and dad. They were always an absolute delight to have with us. They really loved to help look after Sarah as indeed they always did for all of the children and we all had a great time at this somewhat windswept seaside town. So much so that we returned quite a few times. The following year however we went to Whitby for our holidays, staying in a delightful house on a hill above the main street which looked out across the estuary to the castle. We had a great time watching some rough seas and Sarah delighted toddling down to the waters edge. The following year Richard arrived in the world so it was off to Sheringham again. benefiting greatly from the kindness always shown by Rosi’s mum and dad to all the children. That year we also went to the wedding of Christopher Beard, Rosi’s cousin, to Isobel. In 1968 we went back to Saundersfoot for our holidays but this time with two children. Rosi’s mum and dad joined us again, but not without some worry at the start of the holiday. Rosi’s dad had become quite ill with angina and they had to join us later in the week.
Meanwhile at work things were developing. I had enjoyed my time in the design offices with the usual mad bunch of engineers. Our part of the design team was led by an interesting character called John Willment who was always known as John Willy. He was a Cambridge physics graduate and quite clever. Unfortunately he didn’t appear to be very interested in work and wasa frequentlky to be found after lunch, fast asleep in his office. John liked nothing better than an excuse for a beery evening with much singing of Rugbt songs which he accompanied on the piano and was occasionally supported by other low grade musicians from the department. One of the features of these occasions was to pen an additional verse to the departmental song which was sung to the tune of a then well known song called Much Binding in the Marsh (feature in a radio programme with Richard Murdock and Kenneth Horne). I can still recall one of our more outlandish verses which was written when Brian Smith left the team. Brian was responsible for all alarm systems on the nuclear station at Hinkley Point in Somerset. Many of these alarms could automatically shut down the power station, sometimes they simply advised local operators. A couple of weeks before he left Brian had got into a much publicized wrangle with the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB). One particular alarm was to warn the chap who was responsible for the turbines (aka the Turbine Driver) of a potentially dangerous problem. The CEGB were insisting that a repeat of the main alarm should be installed in the turbine driver’s toilets ! The verse which celebrated this went:
At Cambridge Road, Whetsone, Leicestershire.
Our alarm king from the group today is leaving.
At Cambridge Road , Whetstone, Leicestershire.
Some of his alarms are past believing.
He’s put one in the turbine hall that’s bound to be a hit.
It hangs above the place where turbine drivers often sit.
And it blacks out most of Somerset, every time one has a sh..
At Cambridge Road, Whetstone, Leicestershire.
Another one was written to celebrate the arrival of an engineer from South Korea who worked on the system which scanned the fuel cans for radiation leaks. At that time there was a whole series of highly politically incorrect jokes which inferred the a certain part of the anatomy of oriental ladies was at right angles to that of western ladies !... hence the verse:
At Cambridge Road, Whetstone, Leicestershire.
Burst can detection’s really quite hilarious.
At Cambridge Road, Whetstone, Leicestershire.
With neutron flux detectors multivarious.
The complex runs of pipework really make one boggle eyed.
And our South Korean engineer just sat right down and cried.
‘Cos all the pipes ran up and down instead of side to side.
At Cambridge Road, Whetstone, Leicestershire.
I remember that one of our number, a very quiet chap called Neil Aspinall used to attend these “dos”. Unfortunately Neil was one of those chaps who simply couldn’t take his drink and always got into a terrible state. His wife eventually and not surprisingly , banned him from coming out with us after the Christmas event at which Neil got paralytic and when he arrived home was actually sick on his mother in law who was visiting. He never lived it down.
At about this time for reasons that I don’t recall I joined the Staff Committee. This was a fairly toothless organisation which met with the Personnel Management team to discuss problems. ( Most of these were at the level of complaints about the cold sausages in the canteen. I must have made a nuisance of myself in some way because I was sent for by the Personnel Chief who asked me if I had considered a career in Personnel ( I never did figure out whether this was because they thought I might be good at that or that I was a bloody awful engineer !) At about this time for reasons that I don’t recall I joined the Staff Committee. This was a fairly toothless organisation which met with the Personnel Management team to discuss problems. ( Most of these were at the level of complaints about the cold sausages in the canteen. I must have made a nuisance of myself in some way because I was sent for by the Personnel Chief who asked me if I had considered a career in Personnel ( I never did figure out whether this was because they thought I might be good at that or that I was a bloody awful engineer !)
Anyway the idea of a people orientated job appealed to me and I accepted. My first role was that of a job analyst with a remit to prepare job descriptions for all clerical staff and then to grade them for salary purposes. This was quite successful and I went on to do the same thing for the vast army of technical staff on the site. Whetsone was quite a hi – tech site. The organizations on site included the main nuclear design organization m, The central metallurgical labs and the mechanical engineering labs for the group and last and not least the gas turbine division and the small (marine) steam turbine division. This meant that there were large numbers of engineers and scientists of all persuasions on site ( the total number of employees was over 3000). This eventually led to my appointment as Technical Staff Officer with responsibility for the recruitment of technical staff. One of the tasks I became involved in therefore was the annual “milk round” as it was known. This involved personnel from all of the big companies traveling round all the universities trying to lure the better graduates into their companies. In the case of English Electric this was carried out by headquarters personnel based in The Strand. The application papers which resulted from all of this were then initially sifted by HQ and sent out to those parts of the company most likely to be interested. We certainly had some interesting applications ! One that I recall was a bulkier than usual file which contained a letter from the young hopeful’s father to Lord Nelson of Stafford (The company chairman). It went along the lines of Dear George, You probably don’t remember me be we were subalterns together in the blankety blank regiment. It went on along these rather servile and creeping lines and ended up with the immortal words. “I had hoped that my son would be going up to Cambridge, however it would seem these days that ne has to be almost undesirably intelligent to get in and he has had to settle for a lesser institution. There then followed a plea for consideration for a job in the company for this misunderstood young genius. There then followed a number of note written by personnel managers throughout the group who had called this chap in for interviews, all of which had been unsuccessful. There were a whole range of ingenious and somewhat euphemistic excuses which, reading between the lines would seem to indicate that the poor lad was thick ! The final letter from my colleague at Stafford who was noted for calling a spade a spade (or worse) simply said “ we have interviewed this lad and found him totally lacking the sort of abilities that we require, however in view of his fathers friendship with Lord Nelson we would be happy to take him on if Lord Nelson wishes ! Across the bottom of this missive was the hand written note “No further action !” I guess it was only still going the rounds for the amusement of the rest of us. Another young hopeful had filled in the application form OK and when he got to the bit that asked “Why would you like to work for the English Electric Company ?” had written “Your turbines turn me on man ! I sent him a reply indicating that we didn’t actually employ comedians and suggested that he apply to Chiswick Empire. So there is probably some distinguished former captain of industry out there looking back on his illustrious career and telling his fellow peers in the House of Lords tea rooms of the buffoon who turned him down.