A Conversation with a Phantom

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

 Copyright©2010 by Charles Glassmire

_________________________________________________________________

Feb. 15, 2010

A Conversation with a Phantom

          The fuel irradiation program for the NERVA rocket engine was on hold, to the tune of $120,000. Temperature sensing thermocouples were clad in Tantalum to protect against melting, and no one knew of a Tantalum to Stainless Steel braze which would seal the capsules. They had to be sealed because Oxygen in the capsules at 4500 degrees F (white heat) would immediately destroy the contents. Five irradiation capsules now sat unassembled in the downstairs laboratory. Waiting.

          I never had seen a more downcast lead engineer. Dave had forseen the problem and tested it and the first test braze had worked nicely. I had seen the results myself. The test looked beautiful. Now Dave walked around with his hands in his pockets and shuffled down the halls with his eyes firmly fastened on the floor. No one said anything.

          One day I was passing through the High Bay area of the laboratory. The next test engine in the series was NRX-A5 (NERVA Reactor Experiment number A5). The engine was being loaded into its shipping cask, prior to being shipped to the Nevada Test Site. I stopped for a moment to watch the delicate operation. The engine reactor was only six feet long, but the entire engine was Hugh. It was now hanging in the air suspended via a large crane, and was slowly being moved towards the shipping cask which was sitting on a flat bed railroad car. The reactors were shipped out to Jackass Flats Nevada on a train car, and the car was parked inside the high bay on its own railroad track, waiting for it’s cargo engine. I remember musing to myself that we needed the results of our irradiation studies before this test went off a month away.

          Standing next to me, a nondescript engineer had appeared, seemingly from nowhere. I hadn’t seen him come up to stand silently beside me, almost like some apparition from the ceiling shadows of the High Bay. He was wearing a gray business suit and tie (we all wore ties in those days – I wore a suit coat, white shirt and tie every day to work. I owned a dozen and a half white shirts then – the laundry bill was enormous!).  He was rather innocuous in appearance, black horn rimmed glasses, plastic pen holder in his coat picket to protect it from ink damage, and a sheaf of papers clutched in his hand. I had seen this fellow around the lab, but later I couldn’t quite remember where.

           We watched silently, and I was surprised when he struck up a conversation about the test. We exchanged polite comments and he pointedly asked what department I worked in. I told him I was in Materials. Suddenly out of nowhere he asked “How’s the fuel irradiation program going?”  I was surprised; we didn’t broadcast the problems we were having. But for some strange reason, I began blurting out the sad nuclear tale. When I was finished, he didn’t blink an eye.

          “Let’s see,” he mused, “Tantalum to Stainless Steel… I don’t know anything that will do that. But why don’t you call Handy and Harman in New York? If anybody in the world has a braze for those two metals it would be Handy and Harman. They are the best.” From this I surmised he was a metallurgist, but I was rather skeptical about the advice. By this time we were all convinced the problem was unsolvable. He disappeared as silently as he came. I walked back to my desk and put the conversation out of my mind.

          The next morning, the suggestion kept popping up in my conscious. Finally I decided “why not?” I didn’t know it at the time but Handy and "Founders of Handy and Harman"Harman was an old firm with a stellar reputation. Parker Handy founded the firm in 1867, after a career in banking, to deal in bullion and coinage in Manhattan. Later John Harman joined the firm as a director and the name changed. At the turn of the century the firm expanded into metal fabricators, and later into precious metal refining and industrial applications. In 1905 they began to offer line-brazing alloys and high temperature fluxes for joining rare metals. Today they operate seven metal refineries around the world, offer a product line of 45,000 precious metal products, and are a Fortune 500 company.

          Acting only on a hunch, Manhattan information yielded the number, and with extreme doubt I dialed. Asking for sales, I said I needed a braze for Tantalum to 316 Stainless to operate at 4500 degrees F inside a nuclear reactor! The voice on the other end paused, and in the silence I almost hung up the phone, sensing how ridiculous was my request.

          “Oh yes, he said, “That would be Permabraze 130”.

          “What?” I choked out.

          “Permabraze 130 – it does Tantalum to Stainless nicely. It’s a gold alloy wire braze, good up to 5000 degrees F.

           Fighting hard to not drop the phone, I asked whether it contained traces of Copper. Copper was a hugh neutron absorber and poison, and wasn’t allowed anywhere near the GETR reactor.

          “No, he said, not a bit of copper – we have other customers using it for nuclear applications…”

          Finally I asked the price. It wasn’t cheap, being high gold alloy content, but a quantity of the stuff was nowhere near the value of what was at stake. It was a steal at the price.

          I practically ran over to Dave’s cubicle. Quickly I gushed out the story. He didn’t believe it. It was impossible. He raised one objection after another. For a while I thought the whole thing was scrubbed. Finally he asked about Copper. I said they offered to supply a trace element analysis free of charge. Shaking his head he grudgingly said to go ahead and order a small amount and we would “try” it.

          When the small roll of gold wire arrived, I noticed a smile on Dave’s face for the first time in a long while. He grabbed up the reel like a lost baby and ran downstairs to test the braze in the vacuum furnace. It worked like a charm. Then he made me take a sample to a scientist at Mellon Institute, to do a spectrographic analysis verifying there was no trace of Copper. The guy did the test at no charge as a favor, and the results showed no peaks for Copper. We were home free. Several days later the five capsules were sealed, leak checked, and off to GETR Vallecitos for irradiation testing.

  (to be continued…)

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3 Responses to “A Conversation with a Phantom”

  1. Lee Silverman Says:

    I can’t wait for the next installment. (Who was that masked man?)

  2. Www.Wbaumgarten.De Says:

    Hi, I do think this is a great web site. I stumbledupon it 😉 I’m going to revisit yet again since I book marked it. Money and freedom is the greatest way to change, may you be rich and continue to guide others.

    • Charles Glassmire Says:

      Thanks Violet for the kind words. Keep reading.

      Charles Glassmire Tales from the Nuclear Age

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