NERVA Engine Control Rods
The Atomic Energy Commission gave Beryllium Corporation an order to produce the control rods for the NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) engine in 1960.
All reactors need a method to slow down or stop a nuclear reaction. (I am not able to understand the detail.) The AEC selected a mixture of 4% boron with beryllium to keep the weight of these rods to the absolute minimum.
Boron was poison for the product being used for the bomb components being produced at Hazleton. The Reading factory was used to mix the boron and beryllium powder. It was placed in a steel cylinder that was welded shut before it was heated for extrusion into a steel covered two-inch rod.
During the same time period the engineers at Reading came up with methods to "can" beryllium powder to produce shapes and sheets using other firms with rolling mills and presses.
I was assigned the problem to remove the iron from the exterior to expose the finished product. Nitric acid was selected from my old Chemical Engineering Handbook. Lona found details in the handbook to construct a very large acid container that he installed in the fabrication bay. We were late in this construction and more than a ton of product was already ready for processing.
I found that nylon rope and netting would not react with nitric acid so the first big load was placed in the acid in the morning. When we returned from lunch a green cloud filled the shop area and was rising from the roof. I put on my mask and with a wet towel covering my head ran into the building to place all the equipment in safe mode.
Afterwards we found that the load was too much and the acid overheated. We also found that the switch for the vent fan was not turned on and the nylon rope was acetate. After we drained the system the beryllium was nice and bright.
The specifications required heat treatment at 1800 degrees F. To avoid oxidation I packed the rods in a graphite die with beryllium chips surrounding the rods. For the first time in my work career I used a small flow of hydrogen into the vacuum furnace to bright anneal.
The rods were shipped and I assume we used to test the prototype nuclear engine that never flew.